"I've always been fascinated with the motives of people who decide to become police informants. After all, it's a dirty business ... anyway you look at it, it's an indecent occupation."1
- Joe Bonanno
In the 1960's, the FBI developed a high-level source within the Bonanno Crime Family. The source identified members, shared mafia gossip and provided an invaluable window into the intra-family turmoil often called the Banana War. The cooperation began in 1964 and continued periodically until 1967 at least. The source was never identified but a careful reading of FBI documents from the period is revealing.
The Banana War was a dispute within the Bonanno Family that began when some influential members resisted the increasing leadership role of Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, the youthful son of family boss, Joe Bonanno. The resistance was encouraged by the other New York families who had long sought Joe Bonanno's ouster for plotting against them earlier.2
The Bonanno Family soon split into rival factions that led to a shooting war called the Banana War. The split wasn't repaired until Joe and Bill Bonanno conceded defeat, and retired to Arizona about 1968.3
The NYPD circulated this bulletin
after learning of the alleged
kidnapping of Joseph Bonanno.
The source was a made member of the Bonanno Family.4 He began cooperating with the FBI after he experienced a "personal problem involving his father." The source was said to have the "potential to rise to the head of his family and perhaps to eventually gain a seat on the Commission," or, if he wasn't careful, to "lose his standing in the family."
The source stopped cooperating for a time after the "partial resolution of this relative's problem."5
Prime Suspect: Bill Bonanno
The description of the source most resembles Bill Bonanno. Bill was a Mafia member. And like the unnamed informant, he experienced a problem with his father: Joseph Bonanno was apparently kidnapped in October of 1964.
During his father's absence, Bill Bonanno was compelled to lead the Bonanno loyalists against a rival faction. His problem was partially resolved when his father surfaced unharmed nineteen months later and resumed control.
The inference is Bill Bonanno cooperated with the FBI during his father's absence.
Bill Bonanno mirrors the source in other ways. He too hoped one day to succeed his father as leader of the Bonanno Family and claim a seat on the Commission alongside the other family bosses. And, like the source, Bonanno risked losing his standing (or worse) in the family if his faction lost the Banana War.
Moreover, the pool of suspects who fit this profile is severely limited. Outside of Bill Bonanno, what mobster was old enough to compete to lead the family but young enough to have a father alive needing the help of the FBI?6 At this time, only Bill Bonanno and Gaspar DiGregorio had a reasonable expectation of succeeding Joe Bonanno as leader.
Interestingly, the case agent of the source was Richard Anderson, the same agent who arrested Joe Bonanno when he reappeared after his kidnapping.7
The disclosures found in other documents are so wide ranging and privileged that they tend to direct suspicion on Bill Bonanno. For example, a source provided a variety of information about Bonanno including details about his vacation.8 The source knew Bonanno traveled alone to Europe to visit his mistress. The source provided the exact length of the trip, the itinerary, the full name of the mistress, and the activities. He gathered the information and shared it with the FBI all within two weeks of Bonanno's return from Europe.
What is more likely? That Bonanno bragged in detail to an associate (who was an informant) about his vacation with his mistress during the middle of the Banana War or that Bonanno told the FBI himself?
The same source then proceeded to summarize the Banana War and the latest meeting between Bill Bonanno and the opposition.9 The source even noted that Bonanno carried a gun because "he would rather be caught by the police with one, than to be caught by "others" without one."
In another document, a source identified Bonanno Family members in Arizona.10 The Arizona-based members were a group loyal to Joe Bonanno, separate from the New York group. The source had an informant code prefix of "NY," which indicated that he was assigned to a case agent of the New York office of the FBI.
It is possible a few New York-based Bonanno members other than Bill Bonanno could have known the identities of the Arizona-based members, but it is unlikely that the New York based Bonanno member would be an informant too.11 Any Arizona-based source would have had an informant code prefix of "PX".12
Cooperation Time Line
A top informant visited Canada around the end of 1964 to consult Mafia members in the area. The name of the city visited was redacted from a report, but elsewhere in the document, a reference is made to Bonanno Family members in Montreal.
While this source could be another Bonanno Family member, it's consistent with Bill Bonanno.15 He was known to visit Montreal regularly to communicate with family members loyal to him. Documents linking Bonanno to the source could only be traced to October 1967.16
Bonanno's cooperation was fallout from the Banana War. Although it might seem incredible17 that the son of a legendary Mafioso could be the source, Bonanno did demonstrate a tendency to reveal personal information.18 Perhaps in death Bonanno will clear up the speculation about his life when his final book is released later this year.19
1 A Man of Honor: the Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno pg. 365-366
2 Bonanno was accused of plotting to kill the other family bosses in 1963. He refused to defend himself before the Commission.
3 A full account of the Banana War can be found in books by Gay Talese, Bill Bonanno and Joe Bonanno.
4 NARA Record Number 124-10290-10027
5 NARA Record Number 124-10290-10027 is an internal memo requesting the transfer back to NYC of the source's case agent to kick start the relationship again. It proved successful because it appears the same source began informing again two months later. See 124-10287-10379.
6 Gaspar DiGregorio (1905-1970) was the rival faction leader at the start of the Banana War
7 Anderson receives a mention in Honor thy Father.
8 NARA Record Number 124-10287-10379 pg1-4
9 Only one source is used for the entire report.
10 NARA Record Number 124-10293-10331 because informant identities are redacted, it's tricky to link the same source to different documents.
11 The writer is unaware of any other New York-based Bonanno Family member informant at that time.
12 Evidence suggests at least two Arizona-based Bonanno Family members were informants at that time.
13 NARA Record Number 124-10223-10344
14 NARA Record Number 124-10223-10454 indicates Bill Bonanno wasn't cooperating as of September, 1964.
15 It's the writer's belief that the FBI didn't develop another Bonanno Family member informant until about 1967.
16 NARA Record Number 124-10293-10325 Bonanno may have continued to cooperate beyond 1967 but after he and his father safely retired from active involvement in the Bonanno Crime Family, he would appear to have little motivation.
17 In his book, "Brick Agent", retired FBI agent Anthony Villano noted the identities of some FBI informants would "shock" people. Pg 85
18 Bonanno collaborated on several books and television programs.
19 "The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno: The Final Secrets of a Life in the Mafia" by Bill Bonanno and Gary B Abromovitz. Harper Paperbacks