The Many Saints of Newark has once again brought the crime family at the center of The Sopranos into the spotlight. But Giovanni Rocco had eyes on them for years. Under the alias of “Giovanni Gatto,” the New Jersey police officer was at the center of Operation Charlie Horse, a federal undercover task force that busted a boss and nine crewmembers of New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family, which The Sopranos’ DiMeo family is based on. Giovanni’s Ring: My Life Inside the Real Sopranos, co-written with Douglas Schofield, tells the inside story.
The DeCavalcante family is much more historically embedded in the mob than most people know, going back to the earliest days of the Black Hand and Mafia in America. Giovanni spent nearly three years undercover working his way into the hierarchy. The assignment ended when he was ordered by capo Charlie “the Hat” Stango to hit Luigi “the Dog” Oliveri, a made man, in March 2015.
Giovani turned his house into a fortress for months after the mob takedown. He still lives under the assumed name “Giovanni Rocco” for fear of reprisals against him or his family. Giovanni surfaced to speak with Den of Geek about the crimes, misdemeanors, and the latter-day saints of Newark.
Den of Geek: What years were you in Operation Charlie Horse?
Giovanni Rocco: That was 2012 to 2015.
What was the mob climate like at the time?
Active, it was as active as it’s ever been in New Jersey, and especially with the DeCavalcante, they were as active as they’ve ever been.
On The Sopranos, Carmine Lupertazzi says “Dons don’t wear shorts.” But you have capos having meetings at a pool in Vegas. What’s happening with this thing?
Charlie [Stango, a DeCavalcante family caporegime] had left me a message early on, when I first was introduced to him, and he decided he was going to start talking to me. And abruptly that ended. He had a nightmare, and that nightmare sparked him to turn around and leave me a voicemail saying, “Hey, don’t ever call me back, whatever you’re doing, if it’s illegal, if you’re doing something with my nephew, I want nothing to do with it.”
Knowing Charlie’s criminal history, he was a murderer, he was on parole for murder at the time, he was a gangster’s gangster. That was a very clear message he sent. So, maybe a month, I didn’t have any conversations with him, and I just maintained my criminal activity in the street. He kept his finger on my pulse by asking the Gambinos and people within the DeCavs to check on me, see what I was still doing.
Once he found out that I was still making money in the street, and everybody else was profiting from my actions and our actions together, he wanted back in, because a gangster’s thing is greed, right? Greed drives the underworld. So, he called me out to Vegas, and he wanted me to fly out to his house in Nevada, and he lived right outside the Strip, maybe 20 minutes. That’s why we were in the pool, because he was so suspicious of me at the time. We took off our shirts, we went swimming in the pool, and then once he saw, I guess he was comfortable thinking, “Okay, he can’t possibly be wearing a wire.”
You brought up the nightmare, is there a lot of superstition in the families?
It’s more intuition than superstition, I think. Superstition doesn’t play too many parts, but a guy has his intuition and he usually trusts his gut. And in that world, in the mafia world, that can get you killed in a minute. If I meet you, Tony, and we go out, things are great, then all of a sudden I get this bad feeling about you, now I got this gut feeling you’re not kosher, I can’t shake it. I’ve convinced myself that I don’t like you. And then that really drives the train.
Old school gangsters like Charlie, if they decide that you’re no good to them anymore, you know what I mean, “I’d rather cut my investment, I don’t feel right about this, just get rid of them.” Later on in the book, when I tell the story about the murder, originally it was two people that they wanted me to kill, Luigi at the end. I grew up in this life, I didn’t grow up in a gangster’s life but I was around gangsters enough in my neighborhood that I knew how it worked, and I knew how these guys were a hair trigger. I realized once they gave me the deed to kill Louie, if I didn’t do it fast enough, maybe they’ll look at me as weak, and maybe they’d decide not to do it.
Now, if they changed their mind and they pull the hit, well, what would you do? You’d get rid of me. The administration doesn’t want it getting out there that they’re trying to walk their guys. Because Louie was a made guy in the family at that time. And you get rid of all the evidence. And I was part of that evidence.
If you had done Louie, would that have been your button?
That would have been my button. It was explained to me later on. I even called Charlie out, a few times, I had said to Charlie, for evidentiary purposes, “Well, listen, if I do this, I kill this guy, yeah, that’s a good thing for the family, you all want this, this is what you want, but how does that leave me? I’m a nobody.” At that point in our relationship, he became offended, “What do you mean you’re a nobody? Don’t talk about yourself like that.” “Well, I don’t mean that, Charlie, where does this leave me with everybody? They’re going to come gunning for me, I’m killing a made guy in this family. I’m not a made guy.”
And he would get mad, he’d start yelling, “What the fuck are you talking about? You’re with me. You be the man you were born to be, you do what I tell you to do, and don’t worry about it. There’s going to be 50 guys waiting in line to pin medals on your chest.”
Eventually, he explained to me that the administration was changing hands, a new boss was coming in. It was most likely going to be Charlie “Big Ears” Majuri, who was a longtime member of the family, and he was going to take the seat from John Riggi, who was an elder gentleman, he was a longtime boss for the DeCavs. In November of that year, Charlie was going to get up from capo, possibly, to underboss, and that’s when he explained to me, he pointed to me in his house and said, “You’ll get up and you’ll get made as well” in November, when he was off parole.
I would have been the first to do that, wear that hat. So many came before me, Joe Pistone and Jack Garcia, we all tried to get that. But you can’t let your emotions get into it.
Getting to that point, almost being made, is there a temptation to go to the other side?
For me? No, there was never a temptation for me to go to the other side, because I knew how I lived, I lived a good life. My mother and father worked very hard to provide for us as kids, and they provided me with great morals, and that’s why I went as far as I did in my law enforcement career, that’s why I picked to be a good guy, I didn’t want to be a bad guy.
But it’s tough, when these guys are telling you that they love you, in the Italian culture, which was very familiar to me, and the bond of family is what they portray themselves to be, the gangsters. I identified with that side of it, I identified with their family, that’s why I clicked with their family so much, that’s why they found me, because I was just like one of them. But at this point in my career, I was a mature undercover. So, I was never drawn to their life or their money.
Where do you get 3,000 pills of ecstasy?
You can get them anywhere. I mean, in my career, who have I bought them from as an undercover? We’ve gotten them from Mexico, we’ve gotten them from China, we’ve gotten them from Hasidic Jews in New York. I mean, back in the day, in the 90s, they controlled a lot of the ecstasy coming in. Like any other narcotics industry, it’s out there, you just got to find it.
What are some of the scams that are working today?
Well, the scam changes, but the way they do it doesn’t change. In my neighborhood, everybody, today, it’s still the joke, “Oh, it fell off the back of a truck.” Well, those things still happen. Right? You look at it, and again, we’re talking union sites or construction sites. Now, Louie, I was giving him Timberland boots, and he might’ve been selling those Timberlands and North Face jackets, or whatever it is, materials that I’ve given him, he might be bringing them to a construction site, selling them, and he’s making his piece on it.
You look at everything. Even Bitcoin, they’ll always have a way to make money. Cell phones, technology, technology changes. Back in the day it was penny stock investments. Now it’s Bitcoin. They’ll figure out a way. They’ll massage it and they’ll figure out a way to make money on it, somehow, some way, that never dies.
When I was coming home from The Many Saints of Newark screening, there was a guy selling swag between subway cars.
That doesn’t change. And that guy gets a piece, and the next guy gets a piece, whoever he got it from. You’re dealing with the guy on the street level, where his piece is so small, but he’s just trying to survive, right? But the guys like me who brought it in by the truckload, or if we hijack something, if I brought a container of something in, or they brought a container, you make a bigger piece. If I get it right out of the container, I’m making a little bit more money on the guy that’s on a subway trying to sell it, you know?
You headed a street crew, is doing something like that easier because you had the police and bureau information coming at you?
No, I think it was a little bit harder. We never intended it to go that far into the family. Charlie put me in a specific construction company in New Jersey, because the guy needed help. Charlie put me there as protection. That’s how Charlie tested me. And then as word got back that I was doing a good job representing him, he got to the point where one day he called me up, and he was like, “Well, my son, Anthony could use a job, so get him driving a dump truck for the construction company.” And I did. And then eventually Charlie was like, “You know what? I’m going to put Anthony under you.” And I was taken aback by it. “Well, what do you mean? Number one, what do you mean by putting him under me?” You know?
And I made him explain those things. Because I never came into this saying that I was an expert on organized crime or I knew that life. I might’ve been familiar with some things from watching TV and what I heard as a kid, but I always made it known, I grew up in an outlaw biker culture. I didn’t grow up in an Italian culture like these guys did. So, there were a lot of questions I had from Charlie along the way. What do you mean you’re putting him under me? “Well, what do you think I’m doing here, Giovanni, I’m building a crew with you. I’m building a crew for you. You’re going to lead these guys. You’re driving this ship. You’re steering the ship.”
When I was young, I was a laborer and some jobs were mobbed up. Do you think those jobs were on the radar, could there be one of you sitting outside the carpenters’ shanty?
Could there have been somebody in my family?
No, a cop.
Sure. I mean, yeah. I worked construction on the side as a young cop when I was working narcotics in the beginning of my career. I would work job sites, if I wanted to infiltrate as an undercover, if anybody thought to infiltrate a union. But I don’t think they want to infiltrate the union. They want to infiltrate the crimes that are being committed in the unions. Yeah, that could have been easily done. If we had the cooperation of, let’s say your job site, if I knew there was a guy, we were looking for him, he might ask your job site, “Hey, can I put an undercover in there to look for this guy who’s wanted?” Not in your crew, but in the general area. You could easily infiltrate them. What goes on in the unions still goes on today. The docks in New Jersey and New York, and the ports, anywhere there’s a port job, there’s so much money involved there that the Mafia still has a stronghold on those places.
The Colombo family just got taken down on unions, two weeks ago, I think.
Yeah. And it’s funny, right? They say that the mob has died. The mob’s a dying breed, the mob is this, the mob is that. The mob has never gone away. The mob will never go away, because where there’s moments of social discord like there is today, that’s what the Mafia and the underworld in general feed on. That’s when they become their strongest.
Do you still look over your shoulder, and what precautions do you have to take?
I always look over my shoulder. I’ve always been hypervigilant from the minute I came on the job anyway. I was taught to do that. I take every precaution, even calling you and contacting you, all we had to go through to do that. Yeah. I’m always hypervigilant. My head is always on a swivel. I’m always aware of my surroundings. Things that I did operationally, situational awareness. I try to stay three steps ahead. Because you never know.
What did The Sopranos get right, and what does Donnie Brasco get wrong?
What I wish people would see is, now that I’m in the field of helping first responders and mental health, the message behind The Sopranos was: if you really look at what Tony does every episode, he went and saw his therapist, right? It was so about mental health and him growing up in organized crime. But at the same time, what did organized crime mean to him? How was he dealing with it? His background and how he was forced to grow up. And if you look at it from the mental health point, the two mirror each other, really.
You’re looking at law enforcement, you look at the underworld, all these guys have that persona of a man’s man. “I don’t ask for help, only weak people ask for help,” which is not the case. The Sopranos got that right. I think more people, after watching The Sopranos, if they were struggling with mental health, Tony brought that to the surface, with the Dr. Melfi episodes, the battles of delusion he had and all those things.
I know David Chase says that, and I’ll speak to what he says, The Sopranos is not based on the DeCavalcante family, but there’s so many similarities. Even the day I went on record, as I’m meeting the underboss in the meat market that we were in, it was just like Satriale’s in The Sopranos. And I couldn’t help but think, “I feel like I’m in a Sopranos episode, I feel like I’m going to get dragged into the basement.” I didn’t like the way The Sopranos portrayed Italian culture. They’re not that aggressive.
Joe Pistone, I can’t say there’s much he got wrong. I think in the end, Joe and I, and all of us undercovers, the one thing they got wrong was we didn’t get the thanks and the praise that we needed to get from our FBI counterparts. Joe got a check. I don’t know what Jack Garcia got. And then I got relocated. I’m grateful for the protection that they give me and provide to me.
But in the end, it’s almost as if you feel you did something wrong, because you got unplugged and you had to retire. A lot of people think there’s a lot of glory in it, but there’s not.