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Michael Pizzi, Jr., born November 6, 1962, grew up in the predominantly Italian-American Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, last redoubt of the Mob, and where every other block had a Catholic church, a pizzeria, and a Cosa Nostra social club. But the Pizzis were far from being the prototypical Mob family. In fact his father, Michael Pizzi Sr., made a name for himself as a renowned fugitive hunter (who brought down some of the illest mobsters in the country) during an illustrious 30-year career as a U.S. Marshal.
His prize catch was Alphonse "Junior" Persico, a former underboss of New York's Colombo organized-crime family. Junior, also called "Allie Boy," went on the lam in 1980, making the FBI's and Marshals' most-wanted list. Seven years later, a Pizzi, Sr.-led task force hunted Persico down in Connecticut. In Robert Sabbag's Too Tough to Die: Down and Dangerous with the U.S. Marshals, the author describes Pizzi, Sr. as a man "who should have been a wiseguy but chose to be a cop. At the root of his success was an enthusiasm for his work and for everyday life that was almost childlike. Feeding the undercurrent of his personality was a wellspring of potential mischief, and he seemed unwilling to suppress it." The same could be said of Mike, who idolized and forged a close bond with his father. The bond instilled Pizzi with a dogged determination that stuck with him through college, his law enforcement career, and his life today. The most important life rule he picked up: Don't let anyone intimidate you.
In 1980, Pizzi, Jr. graduated from Bensonhurst's New Utrecht High School. "People used to call it the 'knock, knock school' because if you knocked on the students' heads, no one was home," Pizzi cracks. He was sharing his personal history over a couple of Coronas and conch fritters at a Flanigan's in northwest Hialeah. He attended John Jay College in Manhattan, obtaining both his undergraduate and master's degrees in criminal justice in 1984 through an accelerated program.
Even as a student at John Jay, a school with a liberal political bent, Pizzi went against conventional wisdom. He was an ardent Ronald Reagan supporter at a time when the president proposed slashing student loans and government grants. "I wasn't exactly the most popular guy on campus," Pizzi says nonchalantly. "I formed the first conservative student group on campus, the James Madison Society. And I started inviting people like Walter Williams, the black economist who was involved in developing Reaganomics. The students and the faculty were pretty rough on me."
After graduation, Pizzi was hired by the U.S. Eastern District of New York's probation office. At age 21, he was the youngest probie on the payroll, and was assigned to South Jamaica, where lawlessness reigned. People were known to throw garbage cans at cops from the tops of buildings. Other assignments had Pizzi keeping tabs on Colombian drug smugglers and former members of John Gotti's crew.
On Pizzi's first day on the job, a hand-numbing, teeth-chattering snowy December afternoon in 1984, a group of drug cowboys blew off the head of New York parole officer Brian Rooney. They used a shotgun. Reportedly, Rooney was being too tough on the ex-cons he was supervising.
Pizzi wasn't intimidated. And he wasn't the social worker type. More like Wyatt Earp. One day Pizzi paid a visit to ex-con John Gilbert, a neighborhood dope dealer supposedly involved with the crew that killed Rooney. "You're asking a lot of questions, Mr. Pizzi," Gilbert allegedly told him, glaring at Mike from the stoop of his brownstone apartment building. "There are a lot of shootings in this neighborhood. A lot of stray bullets fly around. If you keep coming here, one of those bullets might hit you between the eyes by accident."
Pizzi responded by harassing Gilbert three days later. Taking advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed federal probation officers to search ex-cons' homes without a warrant, Mike went in with some New York cops and tossed Gilbert's home at 3:00 a.m. The next day, then-U.S. Judge Edward Korman removed Pizzi from the case after Gilbert's public defender complained. But two weeks later, the NYPD took Gilbert down for conspiracy to commit murder of a local police officer. "I told Mike, 'It looks like you've been vindicated,'" Korman remembers. "He tells me, 'Judge, I don't need any vindication.'"
In 1987 Pizzi's New York superiors sent him to Miami, where he would testify against former Gambino crime family associate and smut boss Andrew D'Apice. Pizzi's testimony helped convict D'Apice on child pornography charges. "Mike had done a thoroughly detailed investigation," comments Marcella Cohen, the former assistant U.S. prosecutor. "With his information, we built a solid case." Pizzi's work also caught the attention of Carlos Jeunke, chief probation officer for the Southern District of Florida from 1983 to 1994, who eventually offered Pizzi a job. In 1989, Pizzi packed his belongings into a Chevrolet Cavalier and moved to Miami.
"I thought I was going to conduct cases from the beach, get a suntan, and look at pretty girls all day," Pizzi jokes. "When I got here, I was assigned to Opa-locka and Liberty City. I didn't see a beach for six months."