Gangsters and Goodfellas: the long journey from Ballyshannon to a New York jail cell

Octogenarian Peter Daly lived a colourful life in New York, from NYPD cop to years in jail on drug charges

Detective Peter Daly (centre) and his team with a large haul of narcotics in New York in 1970

Detective Peter Daly (centre) and his team with a large haul of narcotics in New York in 1970


It would be unfair to blame the Boy Scout movement for the journey which brought a Donegal man from the epicentre of one the most celebrated narcotics seizures in New York Police Department history to a half decade in prison with Jimmy “the Gent” Burke of Goodfellas fame.

Still, if there was one lesson that Peter Daly heeded growing up in Ballyshannon in the 1940s, it was drummed into him by Paul Doran, his scout master. “I remember him distinctly saying that one characteristic of being a boy scout [was] not to give up any information on your friends. All through my life I have been like that.”

And as he explains in Good Cop/Bad Cop, a radio documentary about his spectacular fall from grace, the central event in Daly’s life hinged on his decision to say nothing.

Daly is 80 years old now and although the story of his escapades with the Special Investigations Unit in early 1970s’ New York have been loosely known around Ballyshannon for decades, he had never spoken publicly about the circumstances that led to his imprisonment before now.

It helped that Marc McMenamin, a documentary maker and neighbour who had grown up knowing Daly only as an affable, elder man. When McMenamin began to learn more about Daly’s past, he realised it was one of the most fascinating stories he ever heard. Eventually, he persuaded his neighbour to sit down in front of a recorder and to revisit his old precinct and former NYPD colleagues in Manhattan

Restless youth
Daly readily concedes that unlike many young Irish men in post-war Ireland, he had options. His father was a GP who could afford to send him to boarding school and on to college if he wished. But Daly was too restless for books and when his uncle John Daly visited from New York, his head was turned.

He begged his father to allow him to go over and spend time there. He left when he was 18 and passed his first night on the deck of the ship which was waiting to dock on the Hudson river. “Lights all over the place,” was his first impression. Casual jobs led on to enlistment in the army and a fast track to the Korean war and, upon his return, a successful application to join the NYPD in 1961. Within a decade, Daly had become part of the Special Investigations Unit tasked with trying to cope with the burgeoning recreative narcotics scene in the city. SIU work was edgier, looser and more glamorous than regular beat work. “It was glorious,” says Bob Leuci, a former colleague of Daly’s. “Can you imagine what it was like in New York in the 1960s?”

Extraordinary haul
In April of 1970, Daly’s unit trailed a group to an apartment on West 19th street in Manhattan and, after obtaining a warrant, uncovered a 100kg stash of cocaine and heroin, an extraordinary haul. Initially lauded for their work, the unit came under scrutiny as district attorney Rudy Giuliani attempted to deal with the rampant corruption and under-the-counter culture of the NYPD.

“It wasn’t 100kg . . . it was a 105kg minimum,” Joseph Jaffe, an assistant to Giuliani at the time and prosecutor of the case, tells McMenamin in the documentary. “And those 5kgs, they sold them. And they divided them. They sold them. And they divided the money. And that makes them the same as any other Class A felon. It makes you an absolute drug dealer. Some of the people involved – not particularly Mr Daly – had no compunction about stealing whatever they could get their hands on. And that was as an organised group.”

Daly returned to Ireland once the gravity of the charges became clear. He was extradited after being picked up by English police while visiting relatives in Liverpool in Christmas of 1974. In May of 1975, he faced a grand jury in New York and flatly refused to offer any information about the accusation that the unit had sold on seized narcotics for vast profits.

“They assumed I was guilty and that was it,” he explains to McMenamin. “I don’t know what information I had . . . people still say to me that I must have had some knowledge. And I didn’t but I wasn’t going to share it with them anyway.”

Colleagues such as Leuci co-operated and so avoided a prison sentence. Daly was sentenced to 10 years. The case received huge media coverage. Even now, he remains enigmatic as to the extent of his own involvement. One of the 12 charges he faced – which was thrown out along with another seven – was that his bank account contained more than $150,000, exceeding the average NYPD annual salary by 30 times.

Upon arriving in Louisburgh Federal House Detention, Daly was received warmly by Tommy di Bella, the don of the Brooklyn family, and was soon befriended by Jimmy Burke, the mobster who inspired Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas.

Daly was released after five years and returned to Ballyshannon in 1980, where he has lived out a life less turbulent. In recent years, he has made occasional jaunts to Manhattan. In the documentary, he travels around the streets of his lower Manhattan precinct with John Hartigan, his friend and former colleague, the pair of them marvelling at the gentrification and wealth that characterises streets that were populated exclusively by addicts when they worked there.

“Peter’s story is amazing for what it is,” Leuci says. You have heads of Mafia families who testify and co-operate. They couldn’t get Peter to talk. So it is impressive. You Irish guys are stand-up guys. Italians are rats all over the place. But these Irish guys keep their mouths shut.”

Version of events
For Daly, returning to New York and reliving the wilder days sounds like an attempt to do what he “respectfully declined” to do in front of a grand jury: to give his version of events. More than four decades on, he doesn’t quite plead innocence but admits he made mistakes.

“I can’t say that anybody took anything because I don’t know,” he tells McMenamin. “Of course I was dishonest! I am dishonest now. We are all dishonest. You have to make your own judgments. I can honestly say that there must be thousand regrets. I was brought up to know right from wrong. My regrets are innumerable. Whether it was Ballyshannon or New York, it was all part of life and please God we will pass away quietly into the night at the end of it.”

Good Cop/Bad Cop will be broadcast today on RTE Radio One at 1pm