Jones recalls idolizing football hero friend
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - More than 40 years ago, New York native Rocco Turso met a skinny, blond-haired kid at the Greenbrier Military School in Lewisburg.
That kid was a young Danny Jones who went on to become Kanawha County sheriff, a state legislator and eventually three-term mayor of the largest city in the Mountain State.
Turso's journey through the years has been eventful as well.
The native of Harrison, N.Y., which is about four miles from the Bronx, became a New York City police detective who worked on many high-profile narcotics cases.
Turso, now 67, was involved in the investigation of Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer who smuggled narcotics out of Southeast Asia in the caskets of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam.
He also knew Frank Serpico, the New York City police officer who worked to expose widespread corruption on the force in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Serpico contributed to a 1970 New York Times front-page story exposing corruption in the police force.
The story led to the Knapp Commission, which resulted in numerous criminal indictments against New York City police officers.
Turso worked for the New York City Police Department for about 20 years, from 1967 until 1986.
Turso is in town visiting Jones. Before he arrived on Tuesday, the pair had not seen each other in 48 years.
Jones, a native of Charleston, spent some of his teen years at the private boys school in Lewisburg, which opened in 1875 and closed nearly a century later, in 1972.
Jones was about 14 when he lived in the same "stoop" as Turso.
Turso was 18 and engaged in postgraduate studies after high school before heading to college.
The larger, more athletic Turso befriended the smaller, younger Jones.
"He (Jones) was just a skinny little kid," Turso said with a boisterous laugh. "I thought he needed a friend."
Both waited tables at the school to reduce their tuition. However, Turso was a star football player, while Jones sold soda pop during games.
"He was my hero," Jones said.
The two hung out together a good bit, which Jones characterized as him following the more popular athlete around campus.
However, Turso spent only about a year at the school before moving on to a junior college and then to the University of Maryland, where he also played football. Turso was a linebacker for the Terrapins for about a year and a half, he said.
He left school after his mother became ill. A head coaching change also was a factor.
"And I could see that we weren't going to get along," he said.
Turso lamented that decision, saying he should have stayed in college.
However, he eventually obtained an undergraduate degree in behavioral science from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and went on to get a master's degree in business administration from Long Island University.
A street education
In May 1967, Turso got an education of another kind, on the streets of New York City.
He became a cadet with the police force and went to the academy. However, it wasn't long before he was placed on the streets because officers were sorely needed in the Big Apple, which was more than a little rotten at the time.
"It's not like it is today," Turso said. "These were volatile times."
Race riots were occurring across the country and New York City was not immune. Turso said the streets were burning and crime was skyrocketing.
One of his first assignments was to the Tactical Patrol Force, a group of plainclothes officers placed in high-crime areas.
"We would basically try to get mugged in areas," he said.
After working on the task force for several months, Turso was given a chance to begin working as a plainclothes officer making narcotics buys in the Washington Heights area of the city.
He said he had a "street face" and could easily assume a hoodlum persona. Turso had grown up on the same streets that produced Italian mobsters like Albert Anastasia, Carlo Gambino and John Gotti.
"I learned how to make buys," Turso said. "I learned how to walk the walk."
He also learned very quickly that the job was very dangerous. He was stabbed in the hand during one of his first assignments.
Turso quickly moved up the ladder and in 1969 was promoted to detective first grade, earning his "gold shield" or badge.
Turso met and knew Serpico, who was played by Al Pacino in the namesake movie. Turso described Serpico as a frustrated actor who never did any real undercover work.
"I'm not saying he was a bad guy; he's responsible for the Knapp Commission," Turso said.
Serpico was responsible for exposing widespread corruption on the force; some officers were actually hit men, he said.
"The Knapp Commission exposed detectives - cops - that killed people for hire," Turso said.
That was decades ago, and Internal Affairs keeps a close eye on officers nowadays, he said.
"Internal Affairs is on you now if you take a cup of coffee for free," he said with a laugh.
The streets of New York are also much safer these days. In 1972, there were about 2,000 homicides.
"Today I think there are roughly around 500 a year," he said.
Chasing the big fish
Turso was never involved in the Serpico case or the Knapp Commission. He continued to work the streets busting drug dealers. He said he enjoyed the job.
"I wanted to go to work," he said. "I wanted to get the biggest drug dealer I could."
Later he was part of a federal task force sent to Southeast Asia to purchase heroin from the same source supplying Frank Lucas, the notorious Harlem drug kingpin portrayed by Denzel Washington in "American Gangster."
"We made buys off his sources in Vietnam," Turso said.
He and his group also went to Cambodia to purchase potent heroin there, he said. He often dealt with warlords who were financing their private armies.
It was a lot different than the undercover work in New York City. He had essentially moved from the urban jungle to a real one.
Asked why he was willing to make such a change, Turso said, "First of all I wasn't very bright. And I think I had to be a little crazy."
Turso said he portrayed himself as a "wise guy" or gangster from America when he was purchasing drugs in Southeast Asia.
Once he returned to the United States, he turned his evidence over to other detectives who actually arrested Lucas in his home in New Jersey in 1975.
Lucas was sentenced to 70 years in prison. He turned on some fellow drug dealers and provided evidence that resulted in 100 drug-related convictions.
He was released from custody in 1981 but sent back to prison for drug-related offenses in 1984. He was again released in 1991.
Turso also worked in Beirut, Lebanon, buying drugs for another investigation.
He investigated numerous crimes during his tenure with the police department, including the case of the infamous serial killer, David Berkowitz, dubbed the Son of Sam. Berkowitz terrorized New York City in the late 1970s, killing six people and wounding seven.
Turso also associated with such well-known law enforcement personalities as Richard "Bo" Dietl, a retired New York City detective who is a Fox News contributor and a regular on the Don Imus radio show. Dietl also has appeared in Arby's commercials.
Turso met Joe Pistone, who worked undercover in New York's Bonanno Crime Family for six years. Pistone, who worked under the alias Donnie Brasco, is immortalized in the movie of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
Turso retired from the force in 1986 as a sergeant of detectives. A new police commissioner took office, and Turso no longer fit the profile of the type of officer they were looking for, he said.
Turso does not consider himself to be a hero.
"A hero's a sandwich," he said. "I just did what needed to be done."
He has worked in a number of fields since his retirement. He worked with the National Football League, discussing the dangers of drug abuse with players. He also runs his own construction company.
It took him years to adjust to civilian life.
"I never really got a good night's sleep when I was in the force," he said.
He still wonders if any of the men he helped put behind bars is out there looking for him.
"I think I stayed in narcotics too long," he said. "But it was a high that I could never get out of my system."
Turso spends time with his family, five kids and one grandchild. He is loath to say much about his personal life because he still worries about retribution.
He enjoys fly-fishing and staying in shape by working out.
Jones and Turso had not spoken since their days at Greenbrier Military School until one day about two years ago.
The mayor was listening to the statewide radio show known as TalkLine. Host Hoppy Kercheval was discussing another Greenbrier Military School alum, Pete Secret, a Clarksburg native who was a quarterback at West Virginia University in the late 1960s.
"I decided to call Rocky (Turso)," Jones said.
Jones located Turso's contact information and called his old friend. The two rekindled their friendship and now speak on a regular basis.
"He was one of the first people I called when I found out I had cancer," said Jones, who underwent successful prostate surgery last year.
Other Top Headlines