Press Centre

The Mafia with Trevor McDonald

  • Episode: 

    1 of 2

  • Transmission (TX): 

    Mon 23 Mar 2015
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    9.00pm - 10.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 13 2015 : Sat 21 Mar - Fri 27 Mar
  • Channel: 

  • Status: 

The information contained herein is strictly embargoed from all press, online and social media use, non-commercial publication, or syndication until Tuesday 17 March 2015.
The Mafia with Trevor McDonald
“We’re brothers. This is the whole thing. We kiss each other on the lips, we kiss each other on both cheeks, we give each other hugs, we baptise each other’s kids.  And the next day they’re shooting you in the back of the head. As crazy as it seems, I love the life. Along with a lot of other people who accepted those rules and lost love ones.” Mikey Scars
Trevor McDonald embarks on an eye-opening journey inside the secretive world of the American Mafia, gaining unprecedented access to people who have experienced first-hand, the money, glamour and violence of the United States’ most famous organised crime network.
In this two-part documentary series, Trevor delves into the lives of people with a fascinating story to tell, some of whom have never appeared on television before. Trevor reveals a new and unique picture of a world that has often been glamorised in both film and TV drama.
After spending three months travelling across New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Southern California, Trevor hears detailed accounts of life in the Mafia as he meets major figures at home, at work and in bars, as well as on the streets where they operated which, for some of them, were the scene of shocking acts of violence. But, as Trevor learns from those closest to them, huge wealth and notoriety have come at a cost to their families.
Trevor begins his journey in Queens, New York, where he meets John Alite, widely known as “The Sheriff”. John grew up in the neighbourhood and became a killer in an area nicknamed Death Haven. 
He says: “There were constant murders here, constant rivalries between different guys in the streets, different mob families. So we would kill almost at will, as someone given a beating.”  
The mafia was built on fear and intimidation. For a man like John rising up through the ranks would depend on a willingness to carry out orders, however brutal. In the 1980s and 1990s Alite worked for John Gotti Senior, who was the Godfather of the Gambino crime family, the most powerful and feared mobsters in America.  
John’s first hit was to kill a local drug dealer and he explains to Trevor how he lured him into a car and shot him in the back of the head twice.
John says: “I don’t like to use the word pride, but at the time that’s what I was thinking. I’m going to take pride in what I do and I’m going to do it good.  We wanted the public and more so, the street guys and his brother-in-law to understand.  You do something you’re not told and you disobey our laws and our rules, there is no negotiating.  You’re going to be killed.”
The godfathers maintain their control by relying on men like John to kill on command. But their loyalty often turns into betrayal with gangsters doing deals with the FBI and testifying against their bosses to avoid long prison sentences. John’s boss John Gotti Senior appeared invincible in the 80s, until his most trusted lieutenant broke the code of silence. 
Trevor then meets Michael Di Leonardo, also known as Mikey Scars, a former high-ranking member of the Gambino crime family.  Mikey has single-handedly inflicted more damage on the mafia than anyone else in recent times, testifying against the men he worked with, to save himself from a life behind bars. His evidence consigned 80 of them to prison and he knows only too well the mob, known to its members as Cosa Nostra, will never forgive him. 
Mikey lives in permanent fear of attack and until recently was in the US Government’s witness protection programme.  However, after months of persuasion, he meets Trevor at a hotel in Miami to speak publicly for the first time. 
He says of his fears: “Death for myself, but death for my family, that would be paramount. I have a son and a wife here now and some of these people, they may not take in to consideration who is sitting in the car with me, or who is walking in the street, or in my house, if they kick my door in and kill everyone in the house. That’s my biggest fear. My biggest concern and what keeps me up at night.” 
“I don’t sleep. I sleep an hour, two hours, three/four hours tops, but I’m up every night for the last twelve years. I don’t get a good night’s sleep ever. My conscience bothers me.” 
“It’s not if. When. I accept that this is my life. I’m never out of it. It’s their job to find me and kill me. I chose this. I know the consequences and that’s it.” 
Trevor sees first-hand how betraying his past has put Mikey’s life in jeopardy to this day. As they drive through the streets of his old neighbourhood in Little Italy, New York, Mikey recognises two mafia members sitting at a table outside a bar and swiftly turns his head to avoid being recognised.  
Trevor meets up with John Alite again, this time at his former home, an hour’s drive from New York. Alite amassed considerable wealth from his life as an enforcer, owning ten properties, before the FBI caught up with him.
John says: “I had access to so much cash on a regular basis that you lose perspective of what money and cash is.  It’s like you’re almost printing it.”
But his life of guns and shoot-outs ended when John agreed to testify against other senior mafia figures. He was given a reduced sentence of 10 years and was let out in 2012. Alite gives Trevor a tour of his former vast estate, including the room where he kept his collection of weapons and recalls the brutal incidents in which he used them at the property. 
Trevor meets one of the most successful mobsters in history, Michael Franzese, who posed 
as a major Hollywood film producer so he could launder large amounts of stolen money. His brilliance for inventing sophisticated scams made the mafia over a billion dollars, until he was indicted on 65 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and grand theft. He struck a deal with the FBI and served seven years in prison. 
Today Michael is trying to build a new life with his family in California. He has denounced the mafia but his father is still a major figure in the Columbo crime family in New York. Trevor is keen to understand whether it is ever possible to be a member of the mob and have a happy, family life.
Michael says: “You know people have got to understand the mob is not a business, it’s a way of life.  It’s a whole subculture from everything else that affects our families, our friends, people we do business with. It’s part of who we are and I have never, never seen any family, of any member of that life, that hasn’t gone through tremendous challenges and struggles as a result of that personal membership in that life. It’s just not normal.  I would tell mob guys, ‘Stay single, don’t bring this in to your home. Don’t create a home with the mob life around it. It’s just not good, it’s not conducive to good family life.’”
Michael’s father is one of the most notorious mafia figures of all time. Today, he is the oldest federal prisoner in the entire US, at the age of 93. Trevor meets Michael’s wife, Cammy, who explains she didn’t know he was in the mafia until after they were married and that in the past she had fears Michael may be killed
Cammy says: “I’ve lived with this man 29 years. I sleep next to him, I see him wrestling in his sleep. You know, he says, ‘I still have remorse and I still feel pain about some of the things I’ve done in my life. And I guess when I’m asleep and I’m having these fits and these…’ Cos sometimes I’ll just be like, ‘What was going on last night?’ and he’ll be like, ‘Well, I guess that’s when it comes out.’ It’s just not sleeping peacefully; he’s dealing with all his demons from the past.”
Trevor learns more about how the mafia survives today, by travelling to Miami to meet a low level street enforcer for the Bonnano crime family in Miami, whose identity is concealed. He has been in and out of prison all his life and explains his view that the Mafia has changed, with members now more likely than in the past to break their code of silence and testify against each other.
He says: “You can trust a dead man, it’s the only person you can trust, that’s my motto. I don’t trust nobody except my mother. You can’t even trust the boss no more, because they turn around and rat on you.”
Trevor’s final encounter with Mikey Scars is at a cemetery where his elder brother is buried.  He was killed by the mafia in 1981.
Mikey says: “This is the life we choose, this is the life he chose, the path, and this is part of the end result. When you do something wrong in that life or are alleged to do something  wrong in that life, your life is not your own.  You’re property of this entity, this Cosa Nostra that goes back hundreds of years. Now when you get involved, you know what can happen. He killed people, he was involved in murders and ultimately he paid the price that he doled out to others.”
Interview with Trevor McDonald
What is your own interest in the mafia and why did you want to make this series?
"I never had an interest in the American mafia, I knew nothing about it and strangely enough, paradoxically, that's why I wanted to do it. It was something I knew nothing about but obviously a big subject and something worth exploring. If you get a chance to do things like that then you are very lucky, something about which you don't know very much, but which would be really good to get into. So you bring to it that first flush of interest. The word mafia always conjures up so many things in your mind, but what is it really? Who are these people? What do they really do? What are they like? Have they really done all these things that we have all read about? These programmes gave me a chance to do that."
How did you get such prolific mafia members to take part?
"I think it's a combination of reasons. It took months of negotiations. At some stage, people all want to be understood. They want a little bit of self-justification. People like to talk about what they do. I think, on a deeper psychological plane, a lot of these guys really - not that they don't see anything wrong in it - but they think that they were involved in something which they felt would always have been part of their lives and they don't look back on it with any great shame. Some regret maybe - I don't think any of them say they liked killing people for example, but it was a slice of life, a slice of a culture, which in a curious way they always knew they were going to be part of. It was something that was part of a way of life for them." 
They are very open and honest. How did you go about gaining they trust?
"We approached these interviews in a very interesting way. We don't go to make judgements about what they have done or to be scornfully critical. We don't go to convict them again. These people have done what they have done. They have been tried in a court. They have already been judged. And to be perfectly honest, talking to them, becomes almost terribly easy. You switch the camera on and ask them about their lives. I'm not making any judgements. My job is almost terribly easy really, it's just to elicit. What did you do? Where did you do it? How did you do it? I'm not the police, I'm not the FBI, I'm making a television programme. I want you to tell me your story. I'm not Jeremy Paxman talking to David Cameron. I'm just listening to a story. Tell me what you did."
They are very intelligent and charismatic, was it hard to keep in mind the reality of the crimes they had done?
"At times, yes. Sometimes, to be honest, the most difficult thing I found was not to be laughing out loud at some of the outrageous things that they did. John Alite, who took this guy's clothes off, stripped him naked and threw him in a pond and then tied him up to a tree and left him there while he went to dinner. And then you realise this was New Jersey, in February, in the winter. You think, is this a comedy or is this real life? This guy was found on the interstate (highway) by the police and I had this image in my mind of a naked man down on the interstate in February in New Jersey, I mean, you wouldn't put that in a comic film, people would say it's too outrageous! The most difficult thing was not laughing out loud at what was obviously a criminal activity. He also said to me, 'I fired a few shots over his head. I didn't want to kill him, if I'd wanted to kill him I could have'. I wanted to say, ' Yes, I get that'. They were so honest about what they did." 
"John Alite by his own admission has been a pretty nasty guy and recognises it by the fact he's now doing anger management classes and it's difficult not to have a chuckle about that as well. When you sit down in the evening and you reflect on what they've told you. The honesty though, when I said to him in New York, 'how did you do it (a hit)?' and he said he got a gun and put him in the passenger seat of the car and put it in the back of his head and killed him. And it's the cold, calculated way in which that was done, and the simple way in which it was done. There was no dressing up of the incident."
Were you conscious of avoiding a glamourous portrayal of the Mafia?
"I think we managed to do that, in the script there are lines which say, the number of charges, extortion, drug-running, murder. I think we give a pretty good idea about what they have done. I don't think it in any way glamourises it. And they don't either. Michael Franzese has a certain disgust at what he was involved in. Also we hear the reality from the wives and families. Franzese's wife says that he still has difficulty coping with his former life. They are still worried about whether someone will one day come after him, and she lives with that. He confesses to making $10 million dollars a week. A week! He talks about his business in the film industry but he doesn't quite explain where all the money went." 
Why do movies and films about the mafia continue to be so popular?
"We've always been interested in lives of crime, haven't we? Life in the criminal underworld is so far removed from the day-to-day lives that you and I live, that we're fascinated by them. And we don't quite understand it. John Alite showing us the area where he is from, where from a young boy he was known as 'the Sheriff', and he oversaw everything and he said there were a lot of killings on that street. I asked him, 'how many of them were you involved in?' He said, 'most of them'. That's extraordinary. I've seen the films like The Goodfellas but they are cinematic experiences and you take it with a pinch of salt. This was entirely different." 
Have they really left the life behind?
"I think a lot of them regretted it had come to an end. Michael Franzese, who preaches now about his conversion from the mafia to a different life, he said, 'psychologically you can never get out if this life'. It's not a 9 to 5 job, it's a way of life. He uses those words. To pretend that you can eradicate that from your being at a snap of a finger is probably untrue. Almost once part of the mafia, you always will be. Some of these guys who have talked to the FBI will try to take a different path. One guy said, 'I've left it behind, but I miss the money. When I went into a restaurant I never had to be concerned about whether I had enough to buy a decent bottle of champagne, now I have to look around and say, can I afford this?' He feels this is a really terrible state to which his life has become. He's no longer part of this organisation. If you want to look at it in a semi-philosophical way, when you're in it, you're part of a club, part of an association. It happens to be a criminal association but you're part of something. When you leave it, you feel the loss, you're no longer part of this secret society. So, they miss it. Ron Previte has this fascinating line, 'once a criminal always a criminal, and I always will be'."
"When Mikey Scars and people talk about it, he says, 'this is the life'. It's existence, it's everything they know. I asked him, 'why would they kill your brother?' He says, 'Trevor, this is the life. These are the rules, if you break the rules, they kill you. That's it'. For us, filming that piece in the cemetery with him was one of the more powerful experiences of my life really. You talk about famines and wars and political crises and so on, but they are always kind of one step removed, you know. To actually be in the cemetery where his brother is buried, I thought that was very powerful. I don't meet these sort of people every day, in South-West London!"