The Lou Peters Story

FBI's Roger Young interviews Lou Peters regarding his role in the takedown of a mobster. His testimony was a crucial part of the government's case and led to the conviction of Joseph Charles Bonnano, Sr., on conspiracy to obstruct a federal grand jury and perjury—the first felony conviction of the leader of the Bonanno organized crime family. Following Peters' death from cancer, the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI began presenting an annual Louis E. Peters Memorial Award to private citizens who selflessly dedicate their time and service to assist the FBI in uncovering wrongdoing.

Video Transcript

Narrator: Americans pride themselves on being civic-minded people. But, for most of us, it’s just that—something in our minds. Civic duty is something we think about. We know concern. We consider participation. But seldom think of risk as part of our civic duty.

Louis Peters got a chance to do more than think about being a good citizen. He received the ultimate test. And what he did for his community and his country was, in the words of patriot Nathaniel Hale, “above and beyond the call of duty.”

The story begins here in Lodi, California—a suburb of Sacramento—at Lou’s Cadillac car dealership. Lou was just a normal American businessman, doing a job—doing that job well, too. On a quiet afternoon, Lou sat down to tell the whole story to Roger Young, inspector in charge of public affairs for the FBI, an old friend of Lou and Marilyn Peters.

Lou Peters: And over the years, from 1970 to 1977, we became very successful and was quite prosperous. And it was during the first part of June of 1977 when a local contractor by the name of Elmer Birch came into my office and said, “Lou, I have some people that want to buy your agency.” And I said, “It’s not for sale.” And he said, “But name any price. They’ve got all kinds of money and they really want to buy your agency.” And after me saying no a couple of times, I finally said, “Two million dollars.” So, it was a couple days later, he came back and he said, “They said that two million dollars is okay.” He said, “Have you ever heard of Joe Bonnano, Sr.?” And I really hadn’t, so I said no. And he said, “He’s the head of the mafia for the whole United States.” Well, immediately I changed my whole train of thought from negative to positive, because right away I want to know, what the hell does he want to do—why does he want to come into Lodi?

So I said to Elmer, I said, “If I’m gonna deal with these people, I’m gonna deal with them direct.” And he said, “Okay, well, I’ll set up a meeting.” So I got into my Cadillac and drove to the chief of police in Lodi and told him what happened. And the first thing he said was, “Oh my God.” Because he could see all kinds of problems. He said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to the FBI.”

So I went down to the office and they ushered me into one of their interview rooms, I guess. And then in came, I don’t know, four to five agents. And I told them the story. Then they had photographs, and I picked out Bill Bonnano; Joe Bonnano I wasn’t too sure…there was enough shady characters there that I couldn’t pick him out, because I hadn’t spent that much time with him. His was just a brief interview, I mean a brief introduction.

So then they asked me if I would help them gather intelligence information. And I said I would have to think about it tonight and I said, “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” And so I called them and told them yes, I would do it. I didn’t understand why these people wanted to come into our county. And I just…I wanted to find out. Because I know from past experience that once they get in a town, they’re just a bunch of animals that take advantage of everyone and everything that they can.

Roger Young: Lou, did you ever have any concern for your safety, any fear in this operation?

Peters: No. Never even thought about it. I felt it was the right thing to do, and I just did it. I was asked to help, and I was more than willing to help the FBI.

So I discussed this with Bob Anderson, the FBI agent in Stockton, that the combination, they wanted me to buy property and real estate, and in order to do this, I felt that I should be single. I should also be single so that I’d have a reason to move out of the house and get an apartment in Stockton and set up an operation in Stockton. And of course they said, “That’s impossible. You can’t get a legal separation from your wife. You just can’t do that. It’s not expected, no one would ever ask you.” And I said, “No, but I’m just stating what I’m going to do.” And I came home and I told my wife I wanted a legal separation, and…

Young: It had to be tough, though, when you came home and told Marilyn, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” What kinds of things happened that night?

Peters: The hardest part was telling the girls.

Young: Did you tell the girls why? Or what…

Peters: No. I just told them I was on a project and I had to be single in order to do this.

Young: Were you having any second thoughts? Wasn’t it getting a little expensive in terms of time and effort?

Peters: It got more expensive, but I could see that there was a tremendous need for this information for the Bureau, and I was willing to sacrifice because I felt it was important and I felt it was right, and because we didn’t want these animals in this county—or in any county in the United States, but certainly not here.

So we found, Bob and I found an apartment in Stockton. He got the apartment upstairs, and they were putting all this electronic equipment—they had the fireplace all torn up upstairs, and they lowered a man upside-down down the chimney, and built shelves, and put audio-video cameras behind the wall, and had microphones in the walls. They had two cameras set up; one was facing the living room couch and one was facing this dining room table here—or it was my dining room table in the apartment. So it was quite an elaborate set-up that they had in the apartment in Stockton. And Bob Anderson upstairs handled all the tapes, and he was aware when the people were coming into my apartment, and he would activate the audio-video and do all the mechanical work upstairs.

Young: How was it in the apartment, Lou? You’d been a family man…it had to be a little lonely after a while.

Peters: Yeah, it was many lonely nights that I spent in the apartment. But, as I told my wife, I said, “Look at it as if I had to go into the service on a tour of duty.” Although I had been in the Marine Corps for three years, I explained that to her that it was like I was going in the service for a short period of time.

Young: At some point, Lou, you won sufficient confidence of Joe Bonnano to go over to visit his home, at his home in Tucson.

Peters: In all these meetings, I tried to portray myself as a very close friend. Like, for example, one time when he came to Lodi and he saw the agency, I was driving him back to my apartment. He was sitting in the car next to me and I said, “You know, there’s something that I would like to say but I don’t want to bother you.” And he said, “No, Lou, go ahead.” He was always very polite to me. And I said, “You know, my dad came from the old country,” and I said, “There’s a lot of mannerisms and things that you do just like my dad.” And I said, “My dad, as you know, passed away a couple years ago,” and I said, “You’re like a second dad to me.” And he was very pleased that I felt that way towards him. And it was a continuing process of using everything that I could think of to get close to him. And the resemblance of his mannerisms and my father’s was like a jackass and a human being. But, again, I used everything. It was just a continuing process, in my mind, of getting close and closer and closer to the old man, because I felt that’s where the—any intelligence information would come out from the old man.

Young: It had to, by this time, be taking you a little bit by surprise, didn’t it, that you had been really getting a lot further than the advice that the FBI tended to indicate to you...

Peters: Yes…

Young: ...the position to be in, including the stay in his home, and now going out to dinner with him. Did this have any special effect on you? Did you see this as giving you more opportunities to do something?

Peters: Well, I just felt that I was getting close enough to him now that things would probably start happening. I even volunteered, when I knew that I was going to Tucson, to have a Nagra. I said, “I won’t be able to remember everything.” I said, “Why don’t you give me a Nagra and I can change the tape and pick up anything that’s important?” They said, “No, no. It’s too dangerous.” They wouldn’t let me do it. Which I was willing to do, because I wanted to nail him. But I always tried to use everything. And probably the hardest part for me was to try to keep my mind going three steps ahead of him and yet remember everything that was said so I that could tell Bob in, I call them like a debriefing session, everything that had happened. Because I didn’t have any tape or anything, and it was all by memory.

Young: How was the case coming along at this point in time? Was the FBI satisfied with the way things were going?

Peters: Yes, the FBI was satisfied, and I was very disappointed because I felt I was failing. Although I’d turned in, I guess, 67 names of people across the country that were involved with the Bonnano family, and most of them they had never heard of before. And I think it was probably in November, or—it was in the month of November of 1978 that they wanted to close everything down and pull out the monitoring devices in the apartment. And Bob and I talked about it, and I wanted to continue because I hadn’t succeeded yet. And I felt that something was going to happen before too long. And I said, “We’ve got to keep it open. We can’t close it down.” And Bob spent hours writing the report and all the reasons why we should stay open. And so, again, we got the okay to leave it in operation for another couple of months. Then in January, they came in and said, “Okay, this is it.” This is January of ’79. They said at the end of February, it’s closing—period. No more reasons or anything, it’s closing. Because they felt they had overextended themselves to a degree, and they were right on the borderline of whether we should continue the operation, and they wanted to close it.

Young: They had not made a decision at that time as to whether they would prosecute or not, based on what they had?

Peters: No, they didn’t have adequate information, they felt, to do anything. And so then they were trying to figure out, “Okay, how are we going to get Lou out of this situation?” Well, I had two heart attacks back in ’75 or ’76. So they thought they would set up a fake heart attack to get me out. And they wanted to subpoena me before the federal grand jury to, as another reason to get me out. And I said, “No, I don’t want to go before the federal grand jury,” because, I said, “then there will be 19 more people that will know what I’ve been doing.” And I said, “I don’t want to do that.”

So I thought about it, and I said, “Well, alright, send me the subpoena.” I’d changed my mind. I said, “Might as well get this thing over with. Do it, and do it right. That’ll give me a reason for calling the old man.” So on the morning of the 15th of February, 1979, I was served a subpoena to appear before the federal grand jury; everything was formal and legal. So I went to the office that morning and I called the old man’s home, and he said, “What are they looking for? The records?” Well, when he said that, I don’t know why, but it triggered in my mind the fact that I did sell a Cadillac for Bill Bonnano, and he wanted all the money in cash, because, I guess the Treasury Department had his three companies’ banking or checking accounts secured, and the car was registered to one of the corporations. And he wanted all cash, which I gave him, and he had to sign all the receipts and everything so I was protected.

Then I mentioned this. I said, “The only thing that I can think of is this car,” and I explained it to him that he wanted cash and the reason why, and I said, “That’s why I called, because I didn’t know what to do.” He said, “Well, you cannot discuss this with the grand jury, because you’ll hurt the boy.” And he said, we discussed it a little bit more and then he said, “Can you pull the records?” So when he said that, I knew I was getting on solid ground. And I said, “Yes, I can pull the records.” He said, “Pull them and burn them.” I said, “Fine, I’ll do anything you want me to do, you know that.” And just built up his confidence. And I never asked him for what or how he wanted me to do this. I let him tell me what he wanted, because I did not want to get involved in entrapment, which had been discussed with me many times. I had to be careful not to lead them into something, they had to bring it up; and once they brought it up, then it was open territory for me.

So we discussed the records and he asked me several times to pull the records, to destroy them. It wasn’t just a casual remark. And I would play—I’m a little hard of hearing anyway—but I played a little hard of hearing and had him repeat several times that he wanted me to pull the records and destroy them. So he did repeat, “Yes,” he said, “Pull the records and destroy them, because it will hurt the boy.” That ended the conversation, and I took the tape out of the recorder in my office and went to Stockton and went up to Bob Anderson’s apartment.

On the tapes, if there was anything important, he always made a duplicate. So he asked me, he said, “Should I make a duplicate?” I said, “Well,” I said, “you might as well. There might be something on there that would be important.” And so he was duplicating the tape and we were listening to it, and all of a sudden he jumped up, he said, “You’ve got him! You’ve got him!” He was excited, you know, as much as I was. And then in the next couple of months we, of course, were able to get Jack DiFilippi on perjury and obstruction of justice—I think there were seven counts against Jack DiFilippi, and I think they have him on five. I could be off one or two charges. Then on April 5th of 1979, I did go before the federal grand jury and I did testify.

Young: And when did the trial take place?

Peters: It started, probably some of the preliminaries in, towards the end of May of 1980. And I went down to testify and get ready for the trial probably the first week in June. And the prosecuting attorney was getting the dates that he was going to cover and wanted me to refresh my memory and going over the evidence that we had. Then he looked up at me and he said, “Lou Peters,” he said, “you’re my biggest problem.” And I said, “What?” He said, “You’re my biggest problem.” He said, “How in hell am I going to explain you to the judge to convince him of everything that you’ve done for the Bureau?” He said, “I could walk up and down the streets of America for 10 years and would never find another Lou Peters.”

Young: Lou, did you have any special feeling after your testimony was over? Four long days—how’d you feel when you came down off the stand?

Peters: I felt great. I felt great. And when the judge brought down the verdict on September 2nd of 1980, he did state in the report that the evidence and the testimony of Louis Peters left no doubt to the guilt of both Bonnano and Jack DiFilippi. Which kind of made me feel good.

Young: Lou, as you look back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Peters: The only thing that—one thing that I would change—when they asked me if I would work with them, I would have said yes instead of waiting till the next day. As I told one of the attorneys at the Justice Department, I couldn’t understand why they terminated it, because they could use that same evidence six months down the road. Because I felt I was very close, and with them knowing that I had this information, I pulled all the records, I did what they wanted me to do. And I kind of made a statement to the old man, that, “Well, this should really bring me into the family.” He said, “Lou, you’re already in the family.” And they didn’t mean just friends.

It was…I was looking for something bigger than just obstruction of justice. And I felt if I’d have had more time, I could have gotten something more concrete, heavier. That maybe they’d have dragged him from his home instead of calling him on the phone and asking him to come down, which surprised me. He is 74, 75 years old, but he’s also a killer. A murderer. And the hurt that he’s created for people across the country…he doesn’t deserve any sympathy, he doesn’t deserve anything…but the punishment that the law requires based on the conviction that he has received.

Young: Lou, let’s talk just a little bit about the nature of the beast—the organized crime family.

Peters: I feel that, well, during the case, I said to Bob Anderson, I said, “Who came up with this organized crime?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Who came up with the name ‘organized crime?’ “ And he was puzzled by my question because it’s a term that the Bureau and the Justice Department use for any white-collar worker that’s involved in illegal activity—or group of white-collar workers. And he said, “Well, why do you ask that?” And I said, “Because I think they’re the most disorganized group of people that I’ve ever met in my life.” I said, “No wonder they go broke, because by the time they make their decision, you could lose your business.” I said, “I make my decisions quick and fast and today, not sometime down the road.” I was, that was the biggest thing that—I was totally amazed with their total disorganization that they had. Maybe it’s their way of being very cautious and very protective, but that’s the thing that almost made me a nervous wreck, is to get them off dead center and get them moving.

Young: You talked about your contacts with FBI agents, in particular Agent Bob Anderson and the rapport that you two developed over the years. What kinds of things did Bob and other FBI people indicate to you which helped develop your confidence in them?

Peters: They are very sincere, caring about me as an individual. I would come up with some really wild ideas about—because I wanted to nail him. And they were always very protective of me, making sure that my safety was always number one on their list. And when I would meet agents, they had a very sincere feeling about me, caring, or pleased to work with me because I was really trying to do something that they’d been trying to get businessmen to do all over the United States. There’s a time, I believe, when you have to stand up and be counted for—and I agree that I probably went the extreme, but that’s my way of life. When I tackle something, I believe in going at it 100 percent.

Young: Lou, when decisions were made during the course of the investigation, were they joint decisions?

Peters: Yes.

Young: You would participate in them?

Peters: Yes.

Young: And sometimes, what, you would…

Peters: It was more of like a round-table discussion. Not all of them, but most of them. Anything that was, you know, really important or would have some effect on me personally, it was always discussed ahead of time, and the general path that I was to take was laid out. But I always was made felt—made to feel that I wasn’t just another citizen. That they really cared about me. And if the same thing happened again and I knew the results, or I knew of someone else having the same problem, I would still go to the FBI.

Young: Suppose a businessman were to come to you and ask for advice—what kind of advice would you give him, Lou?

Peters: Well, I believe that 90 percent of it would be covered in his own mind, because if he felt that it was the right thing to do, he would know what to do. He would have the feeling inside that, “I have a responsibility.” Depending on how deep he wanted to get involved, I suppose.

Young: Well, even if he got involved just on the periphery, at some point he may have to go public with that cooperation. Does that change things in terms of concern for one’s family, safety?

Peters: Well, I suppose it would. I wanted to go public for one reason, which I’ve already mentioned, and that is that I would hope that businessmen across the country would stand up and be accounted for. And if these animals came into their town, that they would at least call the FBI to let them know they’re here. They may be nervous and they may be scared, but not half as nervous or half as scared as if these people actually did get in their community and took control of city hall and took control of the police department. They’d have more problems than they would ever dream could exist if they didn’t stand up to do what’s right.

When I heard the news of the conviction, that they were both found guilty, I felt that all the time and all waiting and all the effort was certainly worth the effort because of the conviction, and I was very proud of what I did for my country.

Narrator: On September 2, 1980, Joseph Bonnano and Jack DiFilippi were convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Bonnano was sentenced to five years in prison. DiFilippi, also convicted of perjury, was sentenced to two years in prison.

On June 12, 1981, in Sacramento, Louis Peters received the Attorney General’s Award for Meritorious Service. Assistant Director Roger Young presented this high commendation as Lou’s family looked on.

Peters: I was very proud of everything that I did for the FBI. And I’d be very proud to do it again.

Text: On July 20th, 1981, Louis Peters died of cancer. He was a great American and his contribution to his country will inspire countless others in the future.

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