Before Tommy McLaughlin started wearing a wire for the FBI, he needed to be taught everything about being a snitch. Agent Seamus McElearney likes to say that handling an informant is "like having a newborn." McLaughlin's handler, Scott Curtis, a West Point grad who has flipped several wiseguys in his 13 years on the FBI's anti-Colombo squad, taught the ex-con how to operate his wire (sources say it was in his watch) and how to meet up so they wouldn't be seen. He schooled him on how to turn a vague confession into admissible evidence and laid out the ground rules on what kind of criminal acts he could and couldn't commit while working for Team America. He could loan-shark, for example, or run a gambling club, but he could not commit any violent acts – especially not murder.
The first stumbling block for Curtis and McLaughlin's other handler, Russ Castrogiovanni, was his living arrangement. He shared a house in Staten Island with another mobster, Peter Tagliavia, an old friend and fellow inmate who was now married to his sister. So Curtis flipped him, too. And the brothers-in-law formed an informant tag team that recorded the daily workings of the Colombo syndicate like the minutes of a shareholders' meeting.
Their wires captured crimes of loan-sharking, extortion, labor racketeering, the planned bribery of a state official, admissions of murder, planning for secret induction ceremonies, and a soundtrack of street violence compiled along the way. Working as a plant is a risky, stressful, and dangerous business, and it creates a shaky alliance. It relies on the mutual trust of cops and criminals, who had formerly been sworn enemies – all capable of elaborate misdirection, obfuscation, and shifting loyalties. The informant has to amass admissible evidence, ideally without getting too involved himself. But for a mobster who is betraying his longtime associates – in some cases lifelong friends or rivals he knows he'll never see again (except, maybe, in a courtroom) – it's a chance to return favors, settle old scores, even make a little extra in the process.
If educating McLaughlin on being an informant was like having a newborn, it didn't take long for McLaughlin to grow into a rebellious child. "He's out there creating criminal activity and enjoying himself," says a defense attorney who has listened to dozens of hours of McLaughlin's tapes. McLaughlin didn't kill anyone while he was wearing a wire, but the no-violence rule may have been harder for him to adhere to. The fact that he was being recorded by the FBI did little to curb his impulses. The Colombo family frequently relied on McLaughlin's muscle, enlisting him on collections or, for example, to bust up a rival after-hours gambling club. But even as he acted the part of the loyal mob thug, he also created opportunities to rack up charges against his colleagues. At one point, he reportedly urged Anthony Russo (a highly placed capo and the main target of his undercover work) to renege on an agreed restitution payment to a Colombo associate who had been partially paralyzed by a Gambino knife. McLaughlin's solution, according to one defense lawyer who has heard the tapes: "When the money comes down, why don't we just kill this shit kid and put the money in our pockets?"
Defense lawyer Mathew Mari says McLaughlin and his handlers were playing a dangerous, legally dubious game. "The truth is," says Mari, "you have very capable people here, and to tell them to do something like that is like telling a mad-dog killer, 'Sic 'em.'"
In one case, defense lawyers claim, McLaughlin participated in a vicious brawl, showing up at a Bensonhurst bar armed with baseball bats and beating on a patron who'd been annoying Russo. It's all captured on tape. "You can hear the aluminum bats banging" amid the shouting and yelps of pain, says the defense source. "Tommy is a dangerous kid," says one defense lawyer. "He can't stop himself, and no one can control him. Tommy is a legitimate badass – shoot you, hit you with a bat, knock you with his fists. He's like that psycho character in The Town. He's nuts." The feds contend that McLaughlin was trying to minimize the violence at the scene.
FBI protection included a few perks, including the loosening of McLaughlin's probation rules. He took FBI-sponsored out-of-state trips, which allowed him greater mobility and freedom beyond his curfew. Not that he couldn't find trouble during tamer hours. One night at a Bay Ridge nightclub, McLaughlin took on a testy parking valet he said was mouthing off to patrons. He punched the guy in the head, which was all caught on his wire. He was arrested for assault, a charge that was eventually dropped, but he didn't get off completely. Not included in the FBI's hundreds of hours of McLaughlin-generated tapes are the hours he spent in weekly anger-management classes.
By last November, Anthony Russo had started to get suspicious. The Colombos were forced to call off a secret induction ceremony when they spotted McElearney's guys clocking the house where it was to take place. Russo sensed the feds were closing in. He told McLaughlin there was a "rat real close to us," telling the informant that he wanted to find the rat and "chop his head off." A little more than a month later, satisfied they had the evidence they needed, the feds placed Tommy McLaughlin and Peter Tagliavia and their families in protective custody and arrested 127 suspected mob associates, soldiers, and capos from Florida to Rhode Island.