Bob Delaney was a young New Jersey State Police officer in the 1970s when he accepted an assignment to take a new identity as Bobby Covert, president of a trucking company. As an undercover agent, Delaney would conduct business with members of an organized crime outfit loosely called the Mafia, including members of the Genovese and Bruno families.
Although in danger every day year after year, Delaney lived through the undercover assignment, eventually testifying to grand juries and in courtrooms to help convict dozens of extortionists who sometimes escalated to murder.
Where do you go after an experience like that? Burned out by his law enforcement career, Delaney struggled for some time with symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. As a high school and college student, Delaney had excelled in basketball, so he decided to return to the sport he loved - not as a player but as a referee.
Just as most individuals who want to become state troopers fail to make the cut, most people who want to work as referees for the National Basketball Association fail to realize their dream. Delaney succeeded at both endeavors.
A couple of years ago, Delaney met Dave Scheiber, a sports journalist at the St. Petersburg Times. Fascinated by Delaney's dramatic life, Scheiber wrote a two-part series for the newspaper. When Delaney decided to tell his own story at book length, he chose Scheiber as his collaborator.
Most of the book is presented in first person; occasional passages refer to Delaney in the third person. In both types of passages, Scheiber's mission is to give Delaney's story coherence.
Other undercover police officers who infiltrated crime organizations have told their stories in book form. Perhaps the best known is Joe Pistone, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent known as Donnie Brasco. Pistone's undercover assignment to bring New York's Bonanno crime family to justice yielded a bestselling book and a Hollywood movie.
In Delaney's book, he describes meeting and bonding with Pistone.
As a work of nonfiction narrative, Covert isn't perfect. Delaney's accounts of his undercover work are not easily verifiable, as is usually the case with memoirs of this sort. Furthermore, although Delaney emerges as mostly brave and humble, Scheiber has not prevented a dollop of hero worship from creeping into the text.
Quite likely, however, potential readers of Covert will not expect either underlying objective journalism or a skeptical tone. They will pick the book up to feed their passion for accounts of organized crime and/or professional basketball. At that, the book is a success.
Steve Weinberg is an investigative journalist and the author of eight nonfiction books.
Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob
By Bob Delaney with Dave Scheiber
Union Square Press, 276 pages, $19.95
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To see a video about Covert, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9AW7KHfo90
An excerpt - Covert
We wanted to understand how organized crime operated, how it infiltrated waterfront unions and strong-armed legitimate businesses. Still, there were some deals involving swag that we just couldn't walk away from. There were three street guys we got to know who said they could score "loads" from the Port - and that was of interest to us.
One day, they told us they could put together a tractor-trailer load of television sets. This sounded promising indeed. They let us know they'd bring the sets to the loading dock at about 2:00 a.m. We got there on time, and waited in the darkness. No sign of the load. At 3:00 a.m., still no sign. At 4:00 a.m., just as it seemed that a huge deal had gone south, the dead quiet of early morning was shattered by a God-awful screeching sound. We looked down the street, and here was a tractor-trailer crawling toward us. "You gotta be f---in' kiddin'," I said to no one in particular.
The idiots had no idea how to drive, and they had locked up the brakes on the trailer. They were literally dragging it to us from the port. The air was filled with the strong odor of burning rubber. I was thinking, "Great, we're all going to get arrested three months into the investigation, on our first major buy." Any rookie cop could easily have followed the trailer from the port to our building.
"What the hell are you doing?!!" I yelled to the driver.
We made them drag the trailer to the back of our building as quickly as they could, and prepared to offload the TVs to our smaller trucks. Naturally, the three stooges had no idea that everything would wind up at division headquarters and be used as evidence against them. But it turned out that the joke was on us.
We opened up the back of the trailer and instead of TVs, they had these small four-foot refrigerators. "We can't do anything with these," I told the ringleader. "We got no outlet for little refrigerators. Are you f---in' crazy?" Then they started arguing among themselves, with one of the guys screaming, "I told you we were supposed to take the other trailer!"