Friday, June 28, 2002 | 4:41 a.m.
WEEKEND EDITION:June 30, 2002
Charles Maurer and John Branco made a formidable undercover team for the FBI as they penetrated the Los Angeles mob's hierarchy.
Maurer was a seasoned, smooth-talking FBI agent who had just come off an undercover stint in the Pittsburgh area impersonating a mobster.
Branco, an FBI informant, was an ex-felon and a tough guy who had stood up to the most feared mobsters in the West during a career of crime that spanned more than four decades.
"They were both very much task-oriented," said John Plunkett, former supervisor of the FBI's Organized Crime Squad in Las Vegas. "They did what they had to do, and they understood each other's role.
The 46-year-old Maurer, at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, was an imposing figure on the street. He once tried out as a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns. Branco, who was just under 6 feet and weighed 200 pounds, carried the physique of a boxer, even at the age of 60. He routinely trained with a punching bag.
"Johnny had a reputation for being a solid guy within the underworld," Plunkett said. "And Charlie was a big guy, but very unassuming. He kept his mouth shut. He was there to watch Johnny's back."
The two men, who stuck together for 10 months during the most critical phase of Operation Thin Crust, had contrasting personalities. Maurer was quiet and soft-spoken, while Branco was loud and hot-tempered.
But both were street smart and cool under pressure. They played off of each other's strengths, as their dangerous odyssey took them to within a heartbeat of Peter Milano, the reputed boss of the Los Angeles mob.
Before Maurer came to Las Vegas in June 1996, the FBI gave him a false identity, complete with a phony rap sheet that included past arrests for fraud and burglary in Pittsburgh.
Once here Maurer rented an apartment and played the role of Charles Marone, an enterprising con man looking for ways to make easy money.
The FBI allowed Maurer to drive around town in two luxury vehicles -- a black Mercedes sedan and a white Corvette that had been seized in other criminal cases -- to bolster his undercover identity.
In all, Maurer said, the FBI shelled out $150,000 in expenses for him during his undercover stint. Some of the money, portrayed as illicit gains, was given to ranking members of the Los Angeles mob to keep the undercover investigation in business.
Branco ended up being paid more than $145,000 in salary and expenses for his services.
From the beginning, Maurer and Branco, who rarely went a day without wearing a hidden body recorder, had good chemistry together. They genuinely liked each other.
"Branco was respected, and he was feared because of his reputation years ago of being an enforcer, a strong-arm," Maurer said. "When I was introduced to somebody with him, no one questioned it."
And Branco admired Maurer's quick thinking and cool demeanor.
"He's got a helluva brain," Branco said. "He should have been a crook."
Branco said he was worried at first about whether Maurer had a good enough understanding of how to conduct business with members of the mob. But when he saw how calm Maurer acted under pressure, he felt relieved.
Being relaxed came naturally to Maurer, who had worked undercover for the FBI for 10 years before coming to Las Vegas.
"You have to have faith that they're not going to find out who you are," he said. "You can't have any doubts about that. You can't be nervous."
One of the first street deals Branco and Maurer put together involved a travelers check scam with Rocky Zangari, who was serving as an acting "capo" in the Los Angeles mob.
In late October 1996, Maurer and Branco drove to Southern California to arrange the deal.
"I met Zangari in Ontario and bought counterfeit travelers checks from him, and he never asked me one thing about myself," Maurer recalled. "Everything we talked about was business. I asked Branco about it later, and he said that (Zangari) knew that if he disrespected me by asking questions, Branco would have had to hurt him."
On the drive back to Las Vegas, Branco had a tough time dealing with his new life on the side of the law, Maurer said.
"He was visibly upset," Maurer said. "He had introduced me to the mob knowing that I was an FBI agent. There was no turning back for him."
Branco's life of crime began in Cleveland at the age of 15, when he was arrested on auto theft charges and ordered to attend an all-boys disciplinary school. Prior to that he served as a lookout for his father's illegal gambling house and formed his own neighborhood youth gang.
When he was 21, Branco moved to Southern California, where he spent the next 40 years working off and on for the likes of such notorious mobsters as Joseph Sica, Mike Rizzitello and Guido Penosi.
Branco made a living pulling off armed robberies, collecting loan-shark debts and, as he put it, "busting heads." He landed in trouble later in life when he was arrested twice on counterfeiting charges and sent to prison.
As he worked undercover in Las Vegas, Branco said he often had second thoughts about joining forces with the FBI.
"Sometimes I felt, 'You know this isn't me,' " he said. "I would sit back and ask, 'Am I doing the right thing? I'm going to have a lot of enemies when I get done with this thing.' "
Maurer said Branco got more and more comfortable as the weeks passed and really proved himself in his meetings with Zangari.
"Setting up Rocky Zangari, a Los Angeles capo, in a deal that was going to send him to jail, that's commitment," Maurer said.
As 1996 came to a close, it was clear that Branco still was widely accepted within the ranks of the Los Angeles mob.
At a meeting in a Southern California deli, Louis Caruso, another reputed Los Angeles capo, told Branco that he wanted to give him his "button" and make him a member of the family. Caruso was not related to Peter Caruso, a Branco associate in Las Vegas.
"He says, 'You know we've got our eye on you,' " Branco recalled Louis Caruso saying. "We've heard a lot of good things about you. Would you like to hang with us? We're going to have you made.' "
Branco said he agreed to become a member of the family knowing the FBI was anxious for him to get closer to Milano.
"The old man (Milano) saw what was going on," Branco said. "He said, 'This guy Branco -- we've got to have him with us.' From there I figured we'd just go bust everybody.
"I figured the more guys I put away and get out of my hair, the longer I have a chance of living."