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The real Sopranos

Giovanni Rocco talks life inside the mafia

“Giovanni’s Ring: My Life Inside the Real Sopranos,” written by Giovanni Rocco with Douglas Schofield, covers the true story of a former FBI undercover operative and his successful infiltration of the DeCavalcante Cosa Nostra crime family.

Rocco was a New Jersey police officer assigned to an FBI task force that focused on nailing Charlie Stango, one of the DeCavalcante family’s top captains. For two and a half years, Rocco penetrated the mob using the undercover name Giovanni Gatto. His undercover life ended in 2015 with the arrest of Stango and nine other mobsters. 

I reached out to Rocco and asked him if the real New Jersey mobsters he encountered were anything like the TV gangsters “The Sopranos,” which was based reportedly on the DeCavalcante crime family.  

“Inside the real world of the mafia, there are no ‘second takes or re-dos’ like on TV,” Rocco replied. “If you do not get it right the first time, there may not be another tomorrow for you. But I think the ‘Sopranos’ TV series depicted a genuine look into the life of the Italian American mafia and had several similarities to the DeCavalcante crime family.

“The DeCavalcante crime family is one of the oldest Italian American crime families in the United States based out of North Jersey,” Rocco explained. “Because of the close proximity to New York City, they can be overshadowed by New York’s traditional five families, but that doesn’t mean they do not hold their own among the other families. They are a very close-knit organization with old school Cosa Nostra beliefs with a strong propensity for violence. Their reputation as such is the reason the other families respect and have been known to contract out work to them, such as extortions, murders, and other rackets.”

Rocco said Stango and Luigi Oliveri, two of his targets, were committed to life inside the DeCavalcante family.

“They are two generations of the crime family who both grew up in Elizabeth, N.J. They both value the old-school mafia beliefs and live by the code of Omerta. Oliveri and other defendants in the case were sentenced and served time, and Stango is currently serving his 10-year sentence in federal prison.”  

Rocco began his law enforcement career in 1990 as a patrolman. He later worked as a detective in a Vice/Gambling Unit investigating organized crime and then worked in a narcotics and major case unit. 

“I was then deputized as a special U.S. federal marshal and assigned to a DEA task force to investigate narcotics violations and trafficking organizations within the U.S. and internationally,” Rocco said. “Eventually, I joined the FBI task force and trained to be a certified FBI undercover employee.” 

I asked Rocco if his undercover work brought him in contact with the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family. 

“Because Stango was my capo and I reported directly to him and spoke on his behalf, I was exposed to individuals within all the major crime families. On occasion, I met with or was introduced to members of the Philly/South Jersey crime family,” Rocco recalled.  

Rocco said he participated in the investigation of Nicky Scarfo Jr. and Salvatore Pelullo in a financial fraud scheme that netted millions of dollars illegally. Pellullo and Scarfo, whose father, Nicky Scarfo Sr., was the former mob boss of Philadelphia, were sentenced to 30 years in prison for racketeering, securities and wire fraud, and other charges related to the 2007 illegal takeover of FirstPlus Financial Group Inc. 

“I was also part of the investigation surrounding the witness cooperation of Nicholas ‘Nicky Skins’ Stefanelli, who had wired up against significant Philly crime figures such as Joe Merlino, Joe Ligambi, Anthony Staino and others before Stefanelli ultimately murdered another witness and took his own life rather than going into the witness protection program,” Rocco said.  

I asked Rocco if there was a time he was concerned about his life while undercover.

“I was concerned for my life every single day I lived the life inside the mafia,” Rocco said. “I knew that Stango had prior convictions for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The stress of being discovered as an infiltrator, crossing the wrong person, or worst, being accused of being an informant or rat, was constant.”

I asked Rocco what he thought of Philadelphia.

“Philadelphia is a city rich with history, culture and a feeling of constant growth. Its residents are dedicated, hard-working and passionate,” Rocco said. “It is a city with many similarities to the neighborhoods I remember growing up in the Hudson County area of N.J. Their pride in the city and the close-knit feeling the residents still have in their neighborhoods may contribute to making Philadelphia stand out as the great city.”

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. You can contact him via pauldavisoncrime.com.

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  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com

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