Alex Perez was a fugitive from Florida who rocked a ponytail and a fuck load of jewelry. Standard attire included two or three chains around his neck at least, along with several gold bracelets on each wrist. He styled himself a Southern hustler and drove the kind of high-end cars—a Mercedes 500SEL, a loaded Chrysler Imperial—you might expect.
Except all the jewelry had been seized from drug dealers. And despite its Florida plates, the car had never been south of Brooklyn. These were just props that helped the man assume a role. Perez would pull up and hop out with swagger, and before he'd even open his mouth, he was 90 percent home. Everybody thought he was exactly who he claimed to be—some hood from the Sunshine State.
Of course, Alex Perez was actually an undercover FBI agent.
It took Marc Ruskin about six months to develop a completely fictitious identity that would not only be believable, but extremely tough to unravel. You had to be thorough, especially if a Mafia capo got curious—bullets don't discriminate. Walking in the shadows of a murky netherworld, where the only rule was don't snitch, Ruskin's life depended on his ability to stay in character.
In his new book, The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI, out Tuesday, Ruskin details what went into setting up the aliases that helped him with dozens of overlapping investigations over two decades. From Wall Street to La Cosa Nostra to gun runners and scammers and heroin rings, Ruskin spent his time building up relationships with all sorts of criminals. We caught up with him by phone to find out how he developed aliases like Alex Perez—and how he stayed in character, living the lie.
Check out our doc about a former undercover cop in the UK.
VICE: During your 27-year FBI career, you were involved in a lot of undercover operations. How did you come up with your fake identities or the characters you played?
Marc Ruskin: The thing about developing a fictitious identity is that it basically has to be bulletproof. Especially nowadays when people can go online, google you, and check all kinds of records to see if you came into existence like, two weeks ago. In order to be convincing, you have to meticulously put together a verifiable history, going back as far as possible. You have to have credit cards, bank accounts, real driver's licenses and Social Security cards. Not fictitious ones. It has to be the real thing by a government agency in the fictitious name. If possible, your bank accounts should date back a long time, so it looks like you've been around for a while.
One of the first undercover cases you worked involved infiltrating a Wall Street commodities market. Talk about the extensive detail that went into making your identity convincing.
It was an investigation of fraud on the commodities exchange. It took about six months to develop the ID for that case. I had to think: What is it that these people could possibly check to verify whether or not I'm real? One idea I had was to have myself be born and raised in another country, so it'd be difficult for someone to try and verify whether or not I really was who I said I was. If I was born in Argentina, then my birth certificate and school records would be very hard for someone to find here in New York. In the commodities case, I had myself essentially living either overseas or in Puerto Rico most of my youth and early adult life.
To help backstop the identity, I had a bank in Puerto Rico—not only open an account, but backdated for ten years. They actually had a software engineer override their own program in order to create this bank account, which appeared to anyone who was checking that it'd been there for 12 years. In New York, I obtained a Social Security card and went to open a checking and savings account at a local bank. I filled out the forms with all my fictitious information. The bank officer ran my info and looked at me kind of weird. "How is it that a man at your age has a Social Security number that was issued like two months ago?" he asked.
I didn't realize that even though the Social Security number was genuine, it was just issued, and apparently they had the capability of finding that out. I wasn't expecting that, but I came up with a bogus story: I said I recently had a messy divorce, and my wife trashed my credit. My lawyer was able to get me a new Social Security number, so I could make a fresh start. The guy kind of looked at me, walked away, but when he came back, it was OK, everything was fine. He opened the account.
The contrast that comes to mind for me is with movies where some secret agent hands an undercover a packet with a new identity. You actually had to put in a lot of work to develop your own characters, right?
The packet is typical with TV and movies cutting corners. Over the years, the bureau has developed more infrastructures for providing IDs, but even with that, you still have to craft the ID for the specific case and the targets you're trying to catch. I worked an African sting case with 20 arms dealers, and in order to make the scenario believable, I was a shady financial figure based in France with ties to Africa and minimal ties to the US. Since I was based in Paris, I had to have French email addresses. I had to have French phone numbers—as well as American email addresses and cellphone numbers. Plus an actual business that was supposed to be based in Paris at a real address. You need a backstopped identity that you tailor yourself. You have to study the targets—figure out who they're going to be willing to deal with and what they're going to be able to relate to.
You also infiltrated La Cosa Nostra. How did you get accepted into the inner circle of hardened mobsters?
That was 2004 and 2005. We targeted the Genovese crime family and their associates. Since I was dealing with real Sicilians, there's no way I could use an Italian name—these guys would know in a heartbeat that I wasn't one of them. So I had to select someone that they'd want to do business with. I pushed the international angle. Another undercover told the mob guys that he had an associate based in Paris and Buenos Aires, but would come to New York from time to time and for that identity I developed a kind of sophisticated look. I didn't have a lot of bling. I had one high-end watch, a $12,000 Rolex.
I would wear, like, a nice blue suit, a gray pullover shirt, not a tie, because that wouldn't be appropriate with these guys. I looked like somebody they could relate to. If I was meeting these guys, I'd arrange for the case agents to call me like ten or 15 minutes into the meet on my cellphone. I'd answer, and these guys would hear me speaking fluent French. Then I'd get another phone call a little bit later, and I'd shout some stuff in Spanish. I'd hang up and say, "I've got a big deal going on in Buenos Aires that I have to keep track of." Since I put so much work into creating the role, I never really had to make any effort to imagine myself as that person.
Playing these kind of roles in an undercover capacity obviously entailed a lot of deception on your part. How did you differentiate between lying and living a lie? Did you stay in character all the time?
My first assignment was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had anticipated that the FBI was going to be this very regimented organization with really tight management, but my supervisor told me: You're going to have to lie to do this job effectively. But if you do that kind of lying, don't get carried away and cross the line with it, where you find yourself lying to your supervisor, lying to your family. You have to learn the appropriate forum for that kind of mistruth.
I would often run two or three IDs simultaneously. When you're in a deep cover operation, you essentially have to live that person. You're not going out and telling a story and going home and that's the end of it. You're actually living an existence that's not your own. You've assumed a different persona, a different identity, a different set of behavioral traits. Otherwise they're going to pick up on it pretty quick, and you're going to have some problems.
Learn more about Marc Ruskin's The Pretender here.
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