Joaquin Garcia was an appropriate witness for a mob trial on Halloween.
Over two years, the Cuban-born FBI agent donned the most convincing disguise: Jack Falcone, a Miami-bred thief and scam artist who became such a trusted associate that a Gambino crime family captain proposed Falcone's induction as a made member.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors at the trial of the alleged leaders of the Philadelphia mob cast Garcia in another role. He was the professor, the expert with real-life experience enlisted to provide jurors an inside look at La Cosa Nostra and to interpret its members' conversations at secretly recorded gatherings.
Garcia described the induction process, the hierarchy, and the way the mob makes its money.
"The source of their power is intimidation," Garcia said under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney David Fritchey. "The source of their power is their ability to conduct violence in furtherance of their objectives."
He also weighed for jurors the significance of reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi's trip to a North Jersey restaurant in 2010. There, Ligambi met with John Gambino, a captain representing the administration of the New York crime families.
"This is a very important meeting," Garcia said after jurors heard secretly recorded excerpts of the gathering. "You're dealing with two families coming together to meet. And the fact that the New York Gambino crime family came to New Jersey to meet with Philadelphia shows that New York is recognizing Philadelphia to be a vital La Cosa Nostra crime family."
Garcia, 60, testified as the racketeering trial against Ligambi and six others entered its third week before U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno. Prosecutors say the defendants ran a network that used threats to control illegal gambling, extortion, and loan-sharking rackets across the city.
Defense lawyers say the charges are flimsy, lack any substantive proof of violence, and are built on the word of discredited informants and criminals trying to save themselves. During earlier testimony Wednesday, Ligambi's attorney pressed another FBI agent to explain how gathering for a meal in a public restaurant was a crime.
"That's a big part of their lifestyle, isn't it? A nice lunch, a nice dinner, maybe a snack in between," quipped the lawyer, Edwin Jacobs.
At roughly 300 pounds, Garcia might not disagree. "Bottom line is that we ate more with the mob than you do on a cruise ship," he later testified, detailing the lifestyle.
Now retired, Garcia is no stranger to Philadelphia. He was stationed here in the late 1990s, working undercover to detect and disrupt drug cartel pipelines that supplied dealers in North Philadelphia. But his mob work came a decade later, when he was recruited to infiltrate the Gambino crime family.
His dark hair and imposing frame gave him a presence, but Garcia said he realized he was always in danger. Undercover work, particularly within the Mafia, "is kind of like being an actor, except the difference is you don't get second or third takes," he said.
After passing himself off as a low-level criminal, he befriended and became the driver and confidant for Gregory DePalma, a Gambino captain, and gathered intelligence about the crime families.
Garcia said he once proposed to DePalma that they work with an associate in Philadelphia, a man who he secretly knew was an undercover FBI agent. But DePalma cautioned him against getting entangled with counterparts in the City of Brotherly Love.
"He said, if you go with Philadelphia, you got to watch out, it's the wild, wild West down there," the ex-agent said.
Garcia also described for jurors the initiation ceremony, where bosses and other members gather in a circle as the newly made member stands before a table that holds a knife and a gun.
"That's symbolic," he told jurors. "That means you're going to live and die by the process of those two things."
In decades past, mobsters had to have committed a murder to be considered for induction, because killers usually couldn't also be FBI cooperators, Garcia said.
"The mob has morphed over the years. They realize that guys with blood on their hands have cooperated, have testified," he said. "Now, foremost you have to be an earner."
His testimony is scheduled to continue Thursday.