James Gagliano has been quite the media darling lately. And rightfully so. As the FBI agent in charge of the biggest gang busts in Newburgh history — a May 2010 raid netted 78 arrests and dismantled the leadership of both the Bloods and the Latin Kings — he was noticed by everyone from the New York Times to New York magazine, which just months ago ran a long feature on Gagliano with the provocative headline, “Welcome to Newburgh, Murder Capital of New York.”
The raids are certainly a feather in Gagliano’s professional cap. But while this 46-year-old former Army brat and West Point grad already has an illustrious career, his current assignment is intensely personal. That’s because for many years the Cornwall-on-Hudson resident has been coaching basketball to Newburgh’s inner-city kids. And while he enjoys the sport, he admits that “really it’s just the carrot that gets them in the door. Because if we don’t give these young kids an opportunity to be part of a basketball league or something structured, something with discipline, the Bloods and the Latin Kings will provide them with a different outlet.”
Gagliano should know — he has already arrested dozens of extended family members of the kids he coaches. And he admits that the explosive collision of his business and personal lives can be tough. “When someone catches a bullet on Friday night and I get a phone call from the PD, I have to hold my breath. I have to say to myself, ‘a homicide is a homicide’ — but I just don’t want it to be somebody I know.”
It’s happened before. Gagliano once coached Jeffrey Zachary, a good kid who was later killed by a couple of Latin King gunmen in 2008 in a case of mistaken identity. “That really resonated with me,” says Gagliano, who keeps Zachary’s picture on his office desk in Goshen. It’s also made him more determined than ever to press forward on these dual fronts.
Inspired to become an FBI agent “after reading Donnie Brasco,” Gagliano landed his current post overseeing Orange, Dutchess, and Sullivan counties in May 2008, right around the time when Newburgh’s long-standing gang and drug problems were coming to a head. And when the gritty city landed in the top spot for per capita murders in the state several years in a row, he got the go-ahead to do a “surge strategy like the military did in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The resulting task force, composed of many state and federal agencies, “is probably the greatest collection of investigative talent that I’ve ever seen assembled.”
But despite the historic 2010 arrests, “I don’t think we can do any celebrating yet,” says Gagliano, who orchestrated two more major busts in 2011 that took down another 50 gangbangers. “We’ve taken out a heavy percentage of [the gangs’] membership, but unfortunately there are young kids that are still eager to fill their ranks. We’ve got to keep the pressure on.”
The father of two college-aged kids, Gagliano tries to take the pressure off himself by riding his Harley, taking his beloved pit bulls for a romp in the woods, or running. “I’m strictly a treadmill guy now; my knees and ankles took a pounding jumping out of airplanes,” he says.
And in what Gagliano calls “the most delicious irony of ironies,” Newburgh’s formerly vacant National Guard Armory building, which he had used to round up and process the suspects in the May 2010 case, has since been transformed into a vibrant community center. Gagliano can be found at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center most Saturday mornings coaching basketball to 50 kids, who range in age from four to 11 years old. “They get a chance to get yelled at by me,” says Gagliano. “Some of them are so desperate for father figures, desperate for attention. They mostly don’t realize I’m the guy in the paper; I’m just the bald-headed guy with tattoos who coaches.”
He shrugs off his commitment to the kids as “the least I can do. If you are in the position where you can write a check, like Bill Gates, you do wonderful things with your largesse. If you don’t have that, the minimum you can do is donate your time, because that’s just as important.” Of course he’s speaking from hard-earned experience. “I’ve had men who — when they got out of jail — brought their kid to my practice. I’ve also had a number of guys I coached come back when they’re 21, 22, 23 to help. That’s one of the things I’m most proud about. I think they get it.”