GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, "The Brass Ring" episode. Now, there is more than one way to go for, more than one way to put everything on the line. And our next story comes from back in the day from Brooklyn before it was hip, when the streets of Williamsburg were rough and the mob ran Red Hook. This was the place that Lou Diaz called home.
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JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Lou Diaz was at the wheel of his Cadillac one day while he and two of the guys he worked with, Wally and Geronimo, patrolled their territory in Harlem. Then suddenly, the radio crackled. And through the white noise, the voice that Lou heard was not the voice of a disc jockey. It was the sound of nearby police surveillance.
LOU DIAZ: I mean, you could hear it distinctly that there was law enforcement personnel. It wasn't radio people. And when it came out, I just jumped. What the hell? And I says, what's going on here?
DEWITT: Lou, Wally and Geronimo all worked for Nicky Barnes, one of the biggest drug dealers in New York City. If the police had been watching them all day, Lou knew that they might have a big problem.
DIAZ: So I drove the car - immediately, I drove the car to the first place that I could hide it. And it was down a back alley - I came down a back alley with the car. I says, you guys better be straight here. Something's going on here. And I parked the car immediately. And I drew my nine millimeter. And I turned around and I pointed it at Wally and Geronimo, who was right next me. I says, get out of the car now. And I says, get up against the car. And now they're going crazy. Louie, what's wrong? Louie, for Christ's sake, what's wrong? He says, we heard this. He says, that happens sometimes. I mean, there's cops in the area.
Of course, you know, now Wally's going nuts. He says, Louie, no, please, you got to understand. I'm not with anybody. I'm with you. I'm with you.
So finally I allowed them to settle me down, put my nine millimeter back. And I patted them down just in case they - you know, I did the whole search and the whole body search to see if they had a wire on them. And we all got back in the car and we went about our business.
DEWITT: But it turns out that the police were on to them. Not long after, everyone Lou worked with was picked up as part of a massive takedown of Nicky Barnes's drug distribution network. Lou was in the police station when he ran across Wally right after the police interrogated him. Wally wanted to make sure Lou knew he'd never give up anything to the man.
DIAZ: I'll never forget this. Wally looked up at me, and he says, Louie, don't worry. I didn't say a thing. I didn't say a thing. And I looked at Wally - I tell you, I got glassy-eyed, I got to tell you, because sometimes you get close to these people. And Wally was not a bad guy. He really wasn't a bad guy. He was a funny - funny character. I says, Wally, I hate to tell you, I says, but I am the man.
DEWITT: Lou was an undercover cop. He worked for the NYPD, then for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and finally for the DEA in New York City during the heyday of cocaine and heroin. Playing a gangster, Lou penetrated networks easily and rose in the ranks quickly. He knew how to play this part so well because these were the guys he grew up with.
DIAZ: You know, I knew how these guys thought. I knew the moves. Growing up in the neighborhood, knowing mob guys in the neighborhood, knowing how they acted, how they reacted, how they looked, how they walked - I had all these things to work with. So I felt very comfortable in that environment. Matter of fact, I felt more comfortable in that environment than I did working with my fellow feds who I loved and adored, or with the police for that matter. Because to some degree, I'm not a big fan of cops, at least not the bad ones, you know, and there's a lot of cops - even feds - they use their shield and a gun as an extension of their own prejudice. I hate that with a passion. I hate it. I mean, it's worse than being a crook. At least a crook says he's a crook. He is a crook. A criminal has more respect from me because he stands for what he is, nothing more, nothing less than a crook.
DEWITT: Lou grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, back when it was run by the mob and everyone identified with the country their parents immigrated from.
DIAZ: These were tough men, you know, working hard for a living, blue-collar workers, truck drivers, you know, merchant marine, longshoremen, the backbone of America, you know? And my father, he was my king. He was my role model. He was my everything. When we got along well, it was beautiful for me. But he never hugged or kissed me, never told me, I love you. I get it. I don't want to sound (imitating whimpering), I'm whimpering here. But my - as much as I loved my father, he never hugged or kissed me. And everything had to be done like a man. I mean, even sweeping - you had to sweep like a man. You know, there was a certain way you sweep, you know, certain way you moved, certain way...
DEWITT: What does that mean, having you sweep like a man?
DIAZ: I'd have to show you. You sweep aggressively. He was big on me being a man and me doing the right thing because the neighborhood was pretty tough.
I remember my first beating at age 5 over nonsense. I think I woke him up, and he got up and just beat the [expletive] piss out of me, man. And you know how you get that cry when you, (gasping), you can't breathe? I'll never forget that. I couldn't catch my breath I was crying so much. And my mother would jump in his face and - you savage, stop - you know? And then after he'd stop, he'd, like, he'd go to bed. Like, he had, like, this adrenaline surge and then it just went away and just left him blank. That was the first time I - I got to say, my innocence was taken from me then.
You know, then, after that, there was just a series of other beatings for many different things. But it was always over some bull [expletive] thing, you know? The biggest one was where I was walking down a hallway and there was a hat on the floor. And I missed it because it was dark, and I just stepped over it unwittingly. And my father looks down and he goes, mister, you realize what you did? I said no, what'd I do? 'Cause I used to answer him back sometimes in a - not answering back, like, you know, very aggressively, but kind of like a wisenheimer, a little bit, you know? And he hated that. First thing I know, he just gets up and just, boom, hits me with a right hand, knocks me against the wall and just commenced to beat the [expletive] out of me. And it got so where I could hear the thuds to my face - the knuckles crashing on my face. And the first time in my life, I felt my brain - my brain actually rock in my head. I said, this ain't normal, you know, when it actually rocked in my head. I would find out later that's what a fighter goes through when he gets hit good, you know? That's what made me a good fighter because I was used to it. I knew what it was. I wasn't surprised when I got hit like that. I was just about to pass out, and then my grandmother and mother jumped on him. Then my grandmother fell down. And he got worse. And then, I mean, finally it stopped. Finally it stopped. They were able to calm him down. But I was battered and beaten, and I never forgot that for the rest of my life. But, you know, I wasn't the only guy getting beat. That's just the way it was in the neighborhood, except my father happened to be stronger than most of the fathers in the neighborhood. As a result of that, I was one tough son of a [expletive] but in a good way 'cause nobody going to [expletive] with me or beat me like my father. Nobody - nobody ever was going to hit me like that. So I was the number one boy in the neighborhood.
DEWITT: That's when Joe Gallo, a local Sicilian mob boss, took notice.
DIAZ: And I was close to Gallo growing up as a kid 'cause they loved me. They used to grip me in a headlock - come here, kid - and give me noogies, you know? And, matter of fact, when I came out of the service, they wanted me to turn pro.
DEWITT: Why did you decide not to?
DIAZ: Because my father said no. (Laughter). That's a good enough reason (laughter).
DEWITT: So next best thing was become a cop?
DIAZ: Yeah. I wanted to show my peers if I was to become a cop that you didn't have to be a bully, you know, that your job was to protect the people. Your job was to serve the people.
DEWITT: So Lou signed up with all his good intentions, but his dad still was skeptical.
DIAZ: He had a suspicious feeling about law enforcement in general, kind of felt they were fascist in nature because of how they treated people and their mindset. So he was concerned about my falling into that bag with these people.
DEWITT: Lou was an obvious pick for going undercover in neighborhoods like the one he grew up in, and right away he showed that he had a knack for fitting in with a rough crowd.
DIAZ: I just had a gift of being able to be in the moment and to seize the moment and react to the moment accordingly and appropriately.
DEWITT: Lou spent all his time hustling out on the streets. He started small by selling untaxed cigarettes to sniff out the criminals, and then he'd work his way up to the big guys. Soon he'd be handing off duffel bags of cocaine in empty parking lots. He developed tricks for how to get a wire past a pat-down and made sure everyone always knew he was armed to the hilt. And at the same time, back at the office, his fellow officers respected him for taking big risks with big payoffs. It didn't take long for Lou to move up and start working with the feds.
When he wasn't undercover, Lou was a loving father and husband. He was friendly and generous and easy to be around. Undercover though, Lou wasn't just adaptive, he was fierce. He'd be the first to pull his gun if you looked at him the wrong way.
You say - you're saying that there were times when you could tell that you were, in some ways, like your father.
DIAZ: Oh, sure.
DEWITT: I guess - did that ever bother you in that - especially as far as, like, the temper goes?
DIAZ: No 'cause there was a lot of things like my father that I wanted to be like. He made me a warrior, and a good warrior, a true warrior, a noble warrior and I was very proud of that. I adored him. He was my idol. He was my idol. However, the temper, I think that's genetic. And I work to bond that temper of mind. I worked to bond it 'cause I had these buttons - these big buttons - you know, push this button and watch Louie dance. Push this button and watch Louie fight.
DEWITT: When he could control it, when he could channel it, that temper could actually be useful undercover. But sometimes it would bleed into his personal life.
DIAZ: My brother was an epileptic since birth. And my kid brother, Alfonso, he was a gifted athlete. The kid was strong as a bull. The only thing, yeah, he would get these seizures. I mean, he would get up to 70 attacks a day, this kid. So on this particular day, now that we're older, he's staying home. He's being protected and taken care of by my mother and father. And he had a lot of attacks that day. My brother was coming in - my brother, Rio, was coming in from London with his family. So I was going to go and pick him up at the airport. I took Alfonso with me. So I put the, you know, seatbelt on him and we took off. We went down a thruway. And it was coming down. It was raining cats and dogs. I mean, it was - I couldn't even see through the windshield, OK? And he starts to catch a fit - epileptic fit. And he starts tearing at me. You know, and I'm trying to get him away from me. But he had enough reach to get at the wheel - the steering wheel. So he's grabbing at the wheel. And here I am, you know, driving on the freeway, at least 70 miles an hour. So I wanted to get out of that lane and go over and I couldn't. I had to stick - I couldn't see. He kept grabbing at the wheel, and I kept smacking him back. I had my left hand on the wheel. I reached for my gun. I took it out, and I was about to put it to his head. And I was just visualizing me pulling the trigger and just saying, you know what? It's over. My family don't have to worry about him anymore. They can live their lives and he's out of his misery. And at that instant, he stopped. He says, Lou, where am I? What's going on? Boy, I'm telling you, I cried like a baby. I cried like a baby. He says, why you crying, Lou? I says, 'cause I'm just so happy all the brothers are going to get together now. And that was that.
DEWITT: But Lou had an uncanny ability to draw from even the most painful experiences from his life to help him do better police work.
DIAZ: I carry around a vial of vitamins - white vitamins - so that I don't have to use drugs with people. 'Cause when they offer me drugs, I say, no, no, no, no, no, I got enough drugs that I use. What are you using that for? What is that? I say, it's phenobarbital 'cause I'm an epileptic. I get seizures so I can't be dealing with that [expletive].
DEWITT: Lou's fake epilepsy turned out to be particularly handy when Lou had to ID a local mobster to start a case file on him. At the time, everyone just knew him as Little Man.
DIAZ: So Little Man knew I was an epileptic because I had showed him that and I told them that. I have to ID him, right? So one of the ways I IDed him was I - I'm driving, I purposely lose control of the car, I go over a couple of garbage pails, I go toward a fence, I stop, screech. And he's all over the place - God [expletive] what's going on? Holy [expletive] let me drive. God, what's the matter, you got another seizure? Take your pill. And I says no, no, no, no, no, I'll be OK. Let me just sit down and relax here a little bit. I says, let you drive? I don't even know if you got a license. He says, I got a license, here. And he shows it to me. And I had a photographic memory at that time, so I just go (imitating camera shutter click), and I had that license right in my head.
DEWITT: By the time the Nicky Barnes case came up, the one where they caught Wally, Lou had been working undercover for almost 20 years. And when they took Nicky down, some people say that the heroin deaths in New York City were cut down to a quarter of what they were before. It was a crowning achievement of Lou's career.
DIAZ: It was fulfilling in that I got over. Getting these bad guys, besides taking down these organizations, one of the things for me, was the fact that I could get over on these guys. And that was a - that was a great reward that I was able to win, if you will. But beyond that it was - it was the - I guess the attention that I got from my fellow agents, if you will, the applause that I received from, you know, friends and people who knew me - who knew about the case. Reader's Digest did an interview on me, and it came out in the Reader's Digest.
DEWITT: Did your dad read that article?
DIAZ: Yes, he did. But I didn't know about it until maybe a year or so later. He was, for some reason, short on giving me my proper accolades, if you will. So I sought it elsewhere. And the job gave me an important and significant platform for me to get that recognition.
DEWITT: After more than 30 years undercover, Lou finally stepped down. His walls were covered in awards and articles written about his work. But without the job, Lou felt unmoored. Then in 2005, Lou got a call. His father's heart was failing. Now living in California, he flew home to join his brothers at his father's bedside. When he got there, his father lay only half conscious.
DIAZ: And near the end there, I saw my father passing away. I saw my whole world crashing. And I still wasn't sure of how he really felt about me.
DEWITT: Lou asked his brothers if he could have a moment alone. And once they were gone, Lou just stood there looking at his father's quiet face. He didn't think he'd ever hear his father's voice again, when Lou heard his father murmur something.
DIAZ: On his deathbed, my father mentioned two names. He mentioned mine and my mother's. My father never really said, I love you, son. And I - I guess I, like anybody else, I missed hearing that. But when he mentioned my name in his dying moments, I just lost it. And I laid down with him in bed and I thanked him. And I told him how much I loved him. And not long after that, he passed away. I knew for sure - I knew for sure he loved me, you know? Yeah, [expletive]. And that's that.
WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to Lou Diaz for sharing that story. Louis had a long and illustrious career as an undercover cop and federal agent, we just couldn't fit it all in this one story. But if you want to hear more of his tales, check out his book, "Dancing With The Devil: Confessions Of An Undercover Agent." You'll find a link on our website, snapjudgment.org.
The original score for that piece was composed by Renzo Gorrio, and the story was produced by Julia DeWitt.
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WASHINGTON: Now, when SNAP returns, some snot-nosed little kid messes with the wrong woman, and it is not pretty. The SNAP JUDGMENT, "The Brass Ring" episode, continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.