Tough Guy: Paul Goldenberg

Paul Goldenberg has spent a career fighting drug lords and crime bosses. Now he’s out to nab homegrown terrorists.

Terrorism fighter Paul Goldenberg started his career as a police officer in the Irvington neighborhood where he grew up.
Terrorism fighter Paul Goldenberg started his career as a police officer in the Irvington neighborhood where he grew up.
Photo by Frank Vernonsky

Don’t mess with Paul Goldenberg. You would never guess that the laid-back, doting grandfather is a badass. The one-time Irvington cop has battled drug lords à la Miami Vice in South Florida and helped bring down New Jersey’s infamous DeCavalcante crime family—reputedly the inspiration for The Sopranos. Today, he is a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council task force on homegrown terrorism.

“My life is like a television show,” says Goldenberg, with typical understatement. In fact, Goldenberg, 60, served as an advisor to the producer of Miami Vice and to the cast of The Sopranos.

These days, as a security consultant, he can be found wherever headlines are being made. When 12 members of the satirical Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo were slain in January by terrorists, Goldenberg went to France as an advisor for a Rutgers University project on terrorism and security. When there was a shooting at a Copenhagen cafe on Valentine’s Day, Denmark’s Jewish community summoned Goldenberg to assess the aftermath.

Goldenberg never envisioned such a swashbuckling career while coming of age in Irvington. As a kid, he enjoyed boxing, football and music. After graduating from Irvington High School, he entered Kean College and studied public administration, with plans to attend law school. Instead, he reluctantly entered a career in law enforcement. “I figured that I would become a policeman to help pay for my education,” Goldenberg says.

After two years as an Irvington police officer, Goldenberg was recruited by a law-enforcement task force in South Florida. He didn’t know what his assignment would be until a group of shady-looking characters hustled him into a van outside police headquarters. “These long-haired, bearded guys flashed badges and said, ‘Come in, Goldenberg. Welcome to the world of undercover.’”

Assigned to a special investigations unit, he developed an undercover persona named Charlie Grimaldi. “I ran a car wash, but I never washed a car,” Goldenberg says. “That was my cover. My role was to connect with Jamaican posses. There was a tremendous amount of gun running and drugs going down in South Florida. I became their primary fence.”

In Florida, life on the force was “unpredictable,” to put it mildly. “I was in some wild situations,” Goldenberg says. In one sting operation, he scored a half-kilo of cocaine at a Miami McDonalds from a known drug dealer. When the scene turned sour, the pusher—a massive man—tried to pummel and rob Goldenberg. “He was this big, bad dude who outweighed me by 200 pounds.” As they fought, the bag of coke split open and covered the combatants’ faces with white powder. It was Goldenberg’s first taste of illicit drugs.

Luckily, Goldenberg had backup, and the incident did not end badly. “The agents came in and arrested him—as soon as they stopped laughing,” says Goldenberg.

Working undercover in South Florida, Goldenberg made more than 200 felony arrests, broke up a major organized crime operation, and recovered millions of dollars in stolen property. In one memorable bust, he rounded up a group of Jamaican gang members who had been dealing guns, drugs and stolen cars.  In the police van, he taught “Hava Nagila” to the perps. They sang the Israeli folk song all the way to the slammer.

Not surprisingly, Goldenberg’s high-risk lifestyle did not amuse his wife, Dianne. As he rose through the ranks, she pined for her native New Jersey.

“It was really tough on Dianne,” Goldenberg says. “She was a young mother with our second child on the way. We were so deep undercover that family and friends had no idea what I was doing. Some friends in Irvington thought I was corrupt….Dianne felt deceived. She was under the impression that I would become an attorney, but that wasn’t going to happen.”

In 1986, after five years in Florida, Goldenberg and his family moved back to New Jersey where he joined the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office. He was appointed head of a special unit battling ethnic terrorism and organized crime.

For the next year and a half, Goldenberg spearheaded the investigation into the DeCalvacante family, long suspected of money laundering, loan sharking, bank fraud and drug trafficking.

“They used a bank, which is no longer in existence, for illicit loans,” says Goldenberg. “They skimmed off of legitimate businesses. I spent countless hours up and down the New Jersey Turnpike and the Parkway and in Brooklyn in surveillance vans. It was a lot like how it was portrayed in The Sopranos.”

During the investigation, Goldenberg on occasion interviewed family members, who were usually “charming and respectful” even though they knew they were under surveillance. “I was never worried that they were going to kill me,” he says. “They knew I had a job to do.”

The interviews often took place in Jersey diners. “The mobsters conducted their business over good, hot food,” Goldenberg says. “The good men and woman of New Jersey law enforcement were in surveillance vans drinking cold coffee and eating day-old sandwiches.”

The investigation—and testimony from Goldenberg’s informants—resulted in the conviction of key members of the family.  “Some of those guys are still serving long sentences,” says Goldenberg, “and some are back out there now.”

In 1991, Goldenberg was appointed New Jersey’s first chief of the Office of Bias Crimes and Community Relations. Much of the work brought him back to the ethnic melting pot of Middlesex County.

“I had to be there,” says Goldenberg. “Middlesex County had the largest Asian-Indian community in the country and they were under siege. There were murders, aggravated assaults. It was incredibly bad.”

Alarmed by the escalating violence, then governor Jim Florio and attorney general Robert Del Tufo turned to Goldenberg to create what would become the country’s first statewide ethnic terrorism and hate crime office. “There were terrible attacks on the Indian community,” recalls Del Tufo. “There were crosses burning on the lawns of Jewish people and swastikas were painted on synagogues. It was in your face. We needed someone to help, and we turned to Paul.”

Del Tufo credits Goldenberg with developing relationships that helped bring the situation under control. “Paul executed that initiative with great skill,” Del Tufo says. “He got very close with all of the ethnic groups in the state. It’s not easy to pull that off, but he did it very well…. People took notice.”

Goldenberg left the public sector in 1999 to work as director of administration for Prudential. Two years later, he formed Cardinal Point Strategies, a national security and public-policy consulting firm. That didn’t keep him away from government work. In 2004, he became a special law-enforcement advisor to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a multinational partnership to combat hate crimes, terror and other threats. Goldenberg visited 12 countries as a crisis troubleshooter for OSCE and helped set policy for investigation of ethnic terrorism and hate crimes.  “What shocked me the most was decades after the Holocaust, concentration camps were being built in Kosovo and Bosnia,” Goldenberg says. “It was sickening. We can’t let that happen.”

Goldenberg’s latest appointment—as cochair of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Foreign Fighters Task Force—puts him in a position to advise on homegrown terrorism and community engagement.

“What keeps me up at night is the unknown,” he says. “There are the lone wolves who are not under the watchful eye of any law enforcement agency. These people want to do harm in the name of Nazism or a jihad. It really is frightening.”

Goldenberg has a special concern for New Jersey, which, he points out, is packed with critical infrastructure: roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, chemical plants. That makes the Garden State an obvious target for homegrown and international terror.

But Goldenberg has faith in the anti-terrorism measures in place. Countering the bad guys, he says, requires up-to-date investigatory techniques, as well as vigilance on the part of the public: “It might sound basic, but it’s true. If you see something, say something.”

Above all, he says, local crime fighters must focus on “building bridges” with various ethnic communities. “Vulnerable communities will not speak up,” Goldenberg says, “unless they have a trusting relationship with the local law enforcement.”

Sitting in the study of his spacious Monmouth County home, the father of three ponders the future.

“There will be another attack in the United States,” he says. “It could very well happen in New Jersey. I’m often asked what we can do. What we can do is keep on living. We have to continue crossing those bridges. We have to continue going to games at the Meadowlands. We have to continue going to Atlantic City and the rest of the Jersey Shore. We have to be vigilant and live our lives to the fullest, or they’ve won—and we’re not going to let that happen. We can’t allow terrorists to take away our way of life.”

Ed Condran is a freelance writer based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

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