MOUNTAINSIDE, N.J. (AP) — The gun is a triumph of American craftsmanship from the early 20th century, its sleek barrel familiar to anyone raised on the movies of Bogart and Cagney, "Scarface" and "Little Caesar."
Except this Smith & Wesson .38 special has real-life stories to tell, stories of America's most legendary mobster and the undercover agent who was instrumental in toppling him when so many others had failed.
Stored for decades in attics, closets and a bank safe-deposit box in New Jersey, the gun belonging to former IRS agent Michael Malone — and possibly used by members of Al Capone's gang — is headed to Las Vegas, where it will be part of an the exhibit at The Mob Museum beginning in mid-April.
More than a lifeless artifact, the gun also represents a young man's quest to learn more about a mysterious relative, and an effort by an often-forgotten arm of the government to shed more light on the men behind the arrest and prosecution of Capone.
"Michael Malone was, I believe, the greatest undercover agent in the history of law enforcement," said Paul Camacho, a former head of IRS criminal investigations in Las Vegas and an unofficial agency historian. "This was the riskiest assignment you could ever think of. People were dying left and right, witnesses were dying left and right. Nobody wanted to be with these guys."
Malone infiltrated Capone's gang and worked undercover for nearly three years, Camacho said, passing himself off as a wiseguy from Philadelphia who had migrated to Chicago. He gained the mobster's trust to the point that he was invited to a going away party when it appeared Capone was going to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Capone eventually was convicted on tax charges and sentenced to prison, a fact well-known to mob historians and the general public. IRS investigators, known then as "T-Men" for their affiliation with the U.S. Treasury Department, feel their contributions have been given short shrift over the years.
Part of that may be due to the 1987 movie "The Untouchables," which credited Prohibition agent Eliot Ness with orchestrating Capone's downfall. Sean Connery's character, Jimmy Malone, was loosely based on Michael Malone but was a Chicago police officer in the film.
"The real story of Mike Malone hasn't been told," said Jonathan Larsen, head of IRS criminal investigations in New Jersey, whose office is overseeing the examination of the gun and its transport to Nevada.
Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1950s, Marty Dolan often wondered about the great-uncle who would always come to visit dressed in a fedora and overcoat and who never shared much about his past or present. After Malone's death in Minnesota in 1960, Dolan, now a doctor in California, slowly began to fill in the gaps.
The gun — found under Malone's pillow after he died, according to Dolan's mother — was among Malone's effects stored in various family residences in New Jersey before. They ended up on a shelf in a closet at Dolan's sister's house on Long Beach Island.
A few years ago, after researching Malone on the Internet, Dolan realized the gun was a key piece of history.
That view was shared by Geoff Schumacher, the Mob Museum's director of content, who will include the gun in an exhibit called "Follow The Money" dedicated to the T-Men and their conquests.
"When we learned there was something tangible like a gun, rather than paperwork, that we could put on display, we were excited," he said.
IRS officials say the gun wasn't Malone's service weapon, and Schumacher said he's assuming it was used by Malone while undercover. Whether it came from Capone's organization could be answered if ATF agents can raise the gun's filed-off serial number, Larsen said.
That would provide another clue to a man a colleague once referred to as "the mysterious Mike Malone."
"That's how I knew him," Dolan said. "He didn't say much, but his presence was felt. After 'The Untouchables' became a TV show, we would watch it in a little cramped apartment in Jersey City and he wouldn't say a word — and here was the guy who actually caught this guy! I guess mum was the word."