New York Post

July 17, 2021

After the feds arrested a capo and nine other goodfellas from New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family in 2015, the undercover FBI agent who’d infiltrated their outfit looked forward to his next assignment. 

Instead, Giovanni Rocco went into hiding. 

Some of the mobsters Rocco had gone after didn’t get arrested or were sprung, and they all lived in his close-knit community of Elizabeth, NJ. The DeCavalcantes were no joke — they were said to have been the inspiration for HBO hit “The Sopranos” — and many of them were angry at Rocco for taking down his tough-talking target, Charlie “The Hat” Stango. Particularly aggrieved was Patricia, Stango’s longtime girlfriend, who after the arrests moved into a house right around the corner from Rocco’s home, where the agent lived with his wife and kids. 

Rocco had to hole up, like a mob rat, as his FBI bosses mulled how to prevent him from getting whacked. He grew a thick beard to disguise his appearance and taught his kids to be as watchful as G-men. 

“I was being treated like a gangster,” Rocco told The Post of his time laying low, which he details in his new book “Giovanni’s Ring” (Chicago Review Press), out now. “My house had to become a fortress. I was isolated. I couldn’t work any new cases because of the level of exposure. The whole thing was just a nightmare.” 

The fear of reprisal took a toll on his wife and young children, whose names he can’t disclose in order to protect them, he writes. (Giovanni Rocco is not the author’s real name.) 

“They were trained to be suspicious of everyone,” he writes. “If a Lincoln Town Car or a Cadillac turned into our street, we would be on pins and needles.” 

The case didn’t even start out as a Mafia probe. 

It began with a 2012 drug investigation of James “Jimmy Smalls” Heeney, a coke dealer from Elizabeth with ties to the Bloods street gang whom the FBI wanted Rocco to engage, he writes. 

Arranging a buy with Heeney was hardly new territory for Rocco, who presented himself as “Giovanni Gatto,” an outlaw biker-turned-wiseguy with a gaudy pinky ring — the character he’d forged years earlier in a previous narcotics sting. 

Rocco and another agent met up with Heeney in Atlantic City, buying a 200-gram “sampler” of coke at a casino steakhouse. The dealer came across as greedy, and that gave the agents an idea. Instead of using government money to buy the drugs, why not take advantage of an FBI warehouse stacked with counterfeit designer clothing the agency had seized? 

Rocco traded his swag, supplemented by contraband cigarettes, for Heeney’s cocaine, and the abundance of fancy shoes and shirts gave Rocco mob status as an earner, which ultimately led to an offer he couldn’t refuse — the chance to get “made” and become an official member of the DeCavalcante mob. 

And it came because the family’s top capos trusted Rocco more than one of their own. 

Luigi “Lui the Dog” Oliveri was Heeney’s coke supplier and a guy with big plans for himself. But Lui also irritated his seniors in the organization — he once mocked veteran hit man Joseph “Tin Ear” Sclafani by poking him in the belly, Rocco told The Post. 

“The Dog was aptly named,” Rocco writes. “He looked like a soup sandwich — overweight, droopy eyelids, and sloppily dressed in a wrinkled baby-blue shirt, faded jeans, and a scruffy cloth cap.” 

Still, Rocco did business with both Oliveri and Heeney — and found himself being romanced by each. 

Both the DeCavalcante Mafia clan and the characters of HBO’s “The Sopranos” were based in the Peterson area of New Jersey.

Once, Oliveri invited Rocco to an old-school Italian feast in the Peterson section of Elizabeth, and he accepted. Rocco returned home that night, quickly removing his bejeweled ring as if to shed his Mafia alter ego, only to turn on the TV and learn that actor James Gandolfini had died and a tribute to the “Sopranos” star was playing. 

I was being treated like a gangster,” Rocco told The Post of his time laying low, which he details in his new book “Giovanni’s Ring” (Chicago Review Press), out now. “My house had to become a fortress. I was isolated. I couldn’t work any new cases because of the level of exposure. The whole thing was just a nightmare.” 

“Unnervingly, some of the clips they showed had been filmed in the same Peterson neighborhood I had just left,” he writes. “And many of them reminded me of the true nature of the world I now inhabited: a world without honor, whose inhabitants could easily refer to me as ‘our friend’ today and, without a moment’s thought, put a bullet in my head tomorrow.” 

Living in the same town as the goodfellas he’d infiltrated led to some terrifying moments. 

In 2014, Danny “Gooms” Bertelli, a mobster the agent knew from the Gambino family, which oversaw the DeCavalcantes, spotted Rocco at his daughter’s soccer tournament, he writes. 

“Giovanni? What the f–k? Whaddya doing here?” Bertelli asked. 

Charlie “The Hat” Stango ran New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family until he was busted by FBI agent Giovanni Rocco and sent to prison for a decade.

Dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt and “looking nothing like Giovanni Gatto,” the agent made up a story of stepping in to help an ex-girlfriend with a daughter whose dad was in jail. He wasn’t sure if the Gambino soldier had seen him with his wife, kids and his parents. 

“I had been blissfully, stupidly unplugged, enjoying my family, and oblivious to my surroundings,” he writes. “I had not only endangered the entire operation, I had endangered my family.” 

Even so, Rocco earned the DeCavalcante family’s trust. He finally met Stango and the two hit it off. 

The boss took him under his wing. For nearly a year they hung out together — both in New Jersey and Henderson, Nev., where Stango had relocated with Patricia, running a legit business and a variety of criminal schemes. 

Stango trusted the agent enough to put him in charge of a street crew. But when Stango became fed up with the bombastic Lui the Dog and ordered Rocco to whack him, the FBI decided it was time to wrap up “Operation Charlie Horse.” 

Rocco admitted feeling sorry for the man he was about to send to jail. 

“I wanted so badly to tell him,” Rocco writes. “I wanted to say, ‘Charl, make a phone call. Turn yourself in now. Make a deal. Keep yourself out of jail. I am so sorry.’ How sad is that?” 

Rocco went into hiding after Stango was arrested. Now he and his family are in witness protection, living under assumed names.

Busted at his home in Henderson, Stango was charged with conspiracy to commit murder among other crimes. The recordings Rocco had made of their conversations proved devastating. 

Stango pleaded guilty to the murder count in 2016. The feds agreed to drop the other charges and sent the 77-year-old capo to prison for 10 years. All nine of Stango’s cohorts including Oliveri and Heeney also copped and took guilty pleas. (Stango is now locked up at a federal pen in Jesup, Ga., and set to get out on March 21, 2024.) 

For nine months after the takedown, Rocco lived in fear. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t leave the house, not with Stango’s girlfriend, Patricia, living so close to him in Elizabeth. 

The FBI didn’t know what to do with him. But when his handlers accepted the danger of the situation, he got a call and was told he and his family had just four hours to pack their bags and bolt. 

“We left our house with toys on the floor,” Rocco said. 

The family was whisked off to a safe house and then put into witness protection, with new identities and a new home far from Elizabeth, NJ. 

Putting agents into witness protection is rare, Rocco said. 

“I was the first task force officer that it ever happened to,” he said. “Once I left I couldn’t come back for anything, even a funeral for a guy I worked with. I felt like what a gangster feels when he goes to jail, to lose everything. That hurt.” 

Even now, he can’t reveal his whereabouts. Retired, he has limited contact with friends and family members. 

Meanwhile, the possibility of retaliation from the DeCavalcante mob, now carrying on under new boss Charles “Big Ears” Majuri, according to Rocco, never goes away. 

“The necessity for each of us to be vigilant,” he writes, “continues to this day.”

Read the Article Here: