Sept. 28, 1977, should have been one of the best days of Bob Delaney’s life.
For almost three years, Delaney, then a New Jersey state trooper, had survived an undercover assignment infiltrating the mob. Dubbed Project Alpha, the operation was the product of a partnership between the New Jersey State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In it, Delaney, aka Bobby Covert, assumed the role of president of Alamo Transportation Co. in Jersey City. There, he immersed himself in the inner workings of key mob families, including the DiNorscios, the Brunos and the Gambinos. He became their business partner, their confidant, their friend.
And it all came crashing down before daybreak on Sept. 28, 1977.
In what Delaney calls The Raid, 200 state troopers and FBI agents nabbed 35 organized-crime members and tagged them with charges supported by intel Delaney gathered while undercover.
It should have been one of the best days of his life.
Standing at parade rest with his hands behind his back, Delaney observed while two troopers booked Ronnie Sardella, a known associate of the DiNorscios — and one of Covert’s closer friends.
Sardella, seeing Covert’s hands behind his back, connected with his friend.
“Bobby, what’d they pinch ya for?” he asked.
Before he could answer, another trooper in the room, Det. Barry Ladiere, said: “He’s with us. He’s a Jersey trooper.”
Astonished — and genuinely hurt — Sardella’s eyes widened, and his mouth uttered words now seared into Delaney’s memory.
“Bobby, you’re a friend of mine. How could you do this to me?”
Delaney lowered his head, riddled with guilt. It was one of the worst days of his life.
Now a veteran referee for the National Basketball Association, Delaney chronicles his three-year undercover exploits in his autobiography, “Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob.” Released Feb. 5, 2008, by Union Square Press and co-written by “St. Petersburg Times” sports writer Dave Scheiber, the book whisks readers into the mind and unbelievable past of one of Lakewood Ranch’s most celebrated residents. It’s a story as only Delaney could tell it — evident in the book’s oddly perfect shelf space suggestion — True Crime/Sports.
But it also could carry one more category: Self-Help. In “Covert,” Delaney shares his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder following Project Alpha. In unabashed detail, he reveals the anger, the grief and the apathy he battled while he returned to life after Bobby Covert.
Delaney has launched a book tour that began in Washington, D.C., this week and will continue to New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Boston and Toronto. He will end the tour back home in Lakewood Ranch with an afternoon book signing Feb. 17 at Little Bookworms on Main Street and special event, An Evening with Bob Delaney, later that day at Polo Grill and Bar.
Like father, like son
Delaney stands tall as he offers a firm handshake to his father, Robert D. Delaney. It’s 1973, and Delaney has just received his New Jersey State Police badge from his father, a lieutenant.
It’s the proudest moment of his life.
Born Nov. 1, 1951, Delaney spent his childhood in Paterson, N.J., and eventually attended Blessed John Neumann Prep, a new high school in nearby Wayne, where he was a standout on the basketball court. Later, Delaney took his game to Jersey City State College, where he stayed until his junior year.
That’s when he learned the New Jersey State Police was recruiting.
“A lot of kids don’t want to do what Dad did,” Delaney says. “But I had that urge. I wanted to be part of the solution.”
The first 18 months of Delaney’s trooper career went as planned. He wore the uniform proudly and considered his Flemington barracks home. While on shift, Delaney patrolled six townships and handled a myriad of calls. At night, he polished his boots, badge and holster, cleaned his gun. Later, he moved to Newton and then to Somerville.
But that’s where, beginning with a note in his mailbox from Sgt. First Class Jack Liddy at Division Headquarters, Delaney’s life would change forever.
After a preliminary meet-and-greet, Liddy contacted Delaney for dinner at the Golden Star diner in Little Falls. There, Liddy shared details about Project Alpha. The next day, Delaney met with Maj. Bill Baum of the Criminal Investigation Section in Trenton.
And at around 10 p.m., April 9, 1975, in the Somerville station, Delaney changed out of his uniform and into civilian clothes and walked out the door.
The dark side
It’s more than two years into Project Alpha, and the phone rings is Covert’s apartment. The voice on the other end is that of Michael Coppola, right-hand man to Project Alpha target Tino Fiumara. The two already expressed interest in staking more of a claim in Alamo, and Coppola tells Covert and Pat Kelly — Covert’s roommate, Alamo’s No. 2 man and a mobster-turned-informant for Project Alpha — that Fiumara wants to meet them at a diner two miles from Alamo.
Covert and Kelly climb into the back seat of a plain black sedan. Covert places his briefcase on his lap. Fiumara begins explaining his plan to convert Alamo into a business for himself, posing questions about the business and its potential.
At one point, Covert pops the latch on his briefcase. In an instant, Fiumara swings his arm over the seat and lunges toward Covert — a gut reaction to what he thinks is a gun’s hammer being cocked.
Tension hangs heavy in the seconds that follow. And finally, Fiumara breaks the silence: “It’s OK, Bobby. You’re OK.”
“It was supposed to be a six-month job,” Delaney says of Project Alpha, easing back into a comfortable buster chair inside Little Bookworms on Lakewood Ranch Main Street. “I thought it would be an interesting thing — do it for six months and then go back to normal.
“But then six months turned into another six months and then another,” he says. “Before I knew it, I was in and couldn’t get out.”
The FBI and state police had outfitted Alamo with a plethora of recording devices hidden throughout the building behind walls, speakers and more. As a trucking company, Alamo was attractive to mob families — giving them an effective and profitable way to move stolen property. That business, combined with Kelly’s street cred, made it the perfect undercover operation.
Outside Alamo, Covert and Kelly wore wiretaps to nearly every meeting, including the key discussion at and about the Bella Vita, an upscale Italian restaurant owned by Louie Crescenzi. Unknowingly, Crescenzi had dealt himself into the middle of the mob; Fiumara was taking 25% of his business for “protection.” And although Delaney, a law enforcement officer, knew about the extortion, as Bobby Covert, he could do nothing to help.
“There were many times when I would drive away, get about two miles down the road and have to pull off and throw up,” Delaney says.
When it was all over, Delaney had spent nearly three years as Covert. After The Raid, Delaney served as a key witness in a plethora of grand jury sessions and criminal cases through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 1981, he delivered key testimony before Congress regarding waterfront corruption. During the hearing, one senator asked Delaney about the effects of Project Alpha on his mental state.
“It is a difficult position to be in because you take on a lifestyle that is not one that you have been brought up in,” Delaney said to him. “It is not a lifestyle that is your own. In fact, it’s the opposite. A person who is in law enforcement has a set of ideals, or morality, and in many ways you had to learn a whole new way of thinking.”
Return to form
It’s nearly 2 a.m., and Bob Delaney is in his hotel room. The night’s NBA game has taken much out of him, but here he sits, on the phone with co-writer Dave Scheiber.
Scheiber, a celebrated journalist, questions his source about the most minute of details, which Delaney rattles off with photographic accuracy. It’s a tale that’s been told before — through award-winning articles and by Delaney’s own voice in his role as a law enforcement educator.
“I’m happy I waited until now (to write the book),” Delaney says. “Because of my maturity level, it’s more introspective.”
Following Bobby Covert’s story, Delaney’s book continues, detailing his bout with post-traumatic stress disorder and the counseling he experienced to bring him back to life after the mob.
In addition to providing an entertaining read, Delaney will utilize “Covert” as a teaching tool to help undercover agents and soldiers returning from Iraq to understand the psychological and emotional effects of their work. He also hopes to provide copies to every soldier overseas.
“I want them to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “I want them to know that they’re not going crazy, that what they’re feeling is not unique to them, and I hope they get solace in that.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].