After nearly two and a half years of undercover investigation, Giovanni Rocco sat in the spacious home of his mentor, Charlie Stango, eating sauteed shrimp made by one of the most powerful people in the DeCavalcante mafia family.
Rocco couldn’t shake the sensation that the capo had discovered his true identity as a federal agent and was feeding him a final meal. Instead, Stango’s partner Patty walked over, put her hand on his shoulder and told Rocco that Stango cooking his mother’s recipe for “hotsy-totsy shrimp” was an act of endearment — a touch of love for an adopted son. “He thinks the world of you. You know that, Giovanni? He’s got that idiot of a son, Anthony, and his other son, who doesn’t talk to him much, so it’s good that you guys have each other,” she informed him. “He loves you.”
It was, in a way, the emotional high point of an investigation into the New Jersey mob family that inspired The Sopranos. He was an experienced cop with an appetite for undercover bravado, but being fed by the man who had become a de-facto father figure was a different kind of feeling. “Sometimes, despite yourself, despite knowing you’re absolutely doing the right thing getting dangerous criminals off the street… sometimes doing this job can really make you feel like the scum of the earth,” Rocco (which is a pseudonym) writes in his new book, Giovanni’s Ring: My Life Inside the Real Sopranos.
Stango and his associates in the DeCavalcante family met Rocco as “Giovanni Gatto,” a young outlaw biker with little patience for bullshit and a knack for acquiring, and reselling, illegal goods. Between 2012 and 2015, he carved out a position as a capable and confident enforcer, even getting his own small crew to command. It all unfolded under the wings of Stango, who eventually hand-picked Rocco to murder a cocky and unpredictable DeCavalcante mobster named Luigi Oliveri.
Rocco was incredulous about pulling the trigger himself, but Stango already had big plans for his boy, telling him it was a chance to truly join the family. “They’ll be standing 50 fucking deep waiting to pin medals on your chest! What do you mean, you’re a nobody? You want to be a somebody, I’ll make you a somebody!” Rocco recalls Stango telling him. “You got to be the man you were born to be.”
It was that murder plot, and Rocco’s careful recording and documentation of the evidence, that ultimately got Stango and others thrown in prison. But instead of celebrating the end of a major case, Rocco went home and pondered his life, feeling empty and drinking to fill the void. The case left his brain on edge and his heart emotionally ragged. He thought about the first time Stango told him he loved him. He thought about the last time they hugged, in the driveway of the capo’s home in Henderson, Nevada.
“That was the hardest time for me. I just wanted to tell him who I was,” Rocco writes. “I still think about it, standing there with him in his garage. I wanted to say, Charl, make a phone call. Turn yourself in now. Call the U.S. attorney. Make a deal. Keep yourself out of jail. I am so sorry.”
No amount of training can really prepare you for the moment that your case becomes your life. Rocco’s story details not just the toil of infiltrating a mob, but the lack of support in the aftermath of the arrests. He and his family could no longer live in their New Jersey home, and he was effectively forced into retirement. Instead of pursuing police work, he reflects on it, traveling as a speaker to discuss his time in the mob and the toll it took.
I recently reached out to Rocco to discuss the thrill of infiltrating the family that inspired The Sopranos, the agony of risk and reward as an undercover agent and the trauma of surviving it all.
Giovanni Gatto is partly a character you made up for undercover work, but also deeply inspired by your actual life. How would you define this person?
It’s like my life when I was a kid — real anti-authority and just defiant toward my father. If I didn’t decide to go into law enforcement, I had potential to become Giovanni Gatto. It’s just that persona, that criminal element — he was the guy who just oozes the underworld stink. I could turn it up or down, because sometimes Giovanni Gatto had to eat a little more humble pie in front of certain people. But he’s a guy I wouldn’t let my kids talk to. A guy that, if I found him talking to my wife, I’d probably bend ‘em three different ways, you know?
I guess my older Italian uncles were my inspiration for Giovanni Gatto. They were outlaw bikers who never joined a club because they didn’t need a patch on their back to define who they were as men. My uncles are getting begged to be patched into some of these groups, and to be such a man to tell presidents of biker clubs, “Are you kidding me? I’m not joining you jerk-offs.” That takes a set.
But I sometimes needed to pull back as Gatto, too. Acting like I wouldn’t hurt a fly — you know, almost like a Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, whom everyone knows is a stone cold killer but always acts like he wants to give people a hug. That’s what I would turn on and off.
You found yourself in a lot of intense environments, surrounded by volatile men who could potentially turn on you. In fact, the book starts with a story about Luigi Oliveri basically telling you he was going to beat you in a basement. What did you learn about managing a situation like that?
Before I went into law enforcement, I already learned how to gauge people and read them. I observed it as a young kid, growing up in a violent environment. I mean, it was nothing on a Friday night or a family gathering for somebody to get the hell beat out of them. I’ve seen my uncles, maybe a couple years older than me, mouth off to their father during Thanksgiving dinner and their father kicks them in the face. One time, my father got so drunk he tried choking my uncle and throwing him out of a second-story window. So there was no moment that I gasped and said, ‘Oh my goodness, that was terrifying.’ It was more about reliving the trauma I had lived as a child during the case.
But when those feelings bubbled up, I remembered how to de-escalate something quickly. I was able to apply the skills for de-escalation more easily than your average undercover because I’d lived such a traumatic life.
But it has to be a real panic when you’re about to get caught with a wire or get snagged in a lie, right?
It’s horrifying internally. It’s like every nuclear alarm is going off. You watch when somebody breaks down mentally, when stress hits them. They start blinking. They get cotton-mouth. They start swallowing a lot. And you have to be able to control all of that and become a neutral environment. There was one time in the case, when an associate of mine set up a meeting with Lui and then accidentally sent him the wrong text about a business deal — a text that could get us killed. I knew what Lui was capable of. I knew he wanted to prove himself. And he told me, if I screw him, “I will chop you into pieces.” And he meant it. If I was Luigi Oliveri, I would’ve clipped Giovanni Gatto, too.
Living in this tension all the time… if you’ve ever been in a bad car accident, it’s like that. It doesn’t hit you until you go home afterward and realize how close you were to getting injured or worse. That’s how I felt every day. I couldn’t forget I was living a double life.
I know it got especially tough near the end when Charlie was breathing down your neck about getting rid of Luigi. Your mentor is expecting you to step up, not make excuses. How did you navigate that?
He always used to say to me, “Be a piece of sand on the beach.” Charl used to come up with the greatest quotes: “My boy, all you gotta do is just be a little piece of sand on a beach. Don’t let anyone know you’re out here.”
So I’d remind him of that quote, and tell him I’m just trying to do it right. And he’d say, “Right, my boy. Be a good boy.”
He’d gotten caught for a murder case in the past, and I told him I didn’t want him to get caught, because he’s my skipper — “Me, I’ll go to jail forever, but I gotta protect you.” That’s how I showed my loyalty, and he truly believed that I was loyal to the core.
What was it about your relationship that felt so real to the both of you?
I don’t have any murderers in my family, but Charlie reminded me of my family and the culture I grew up in — the way he looked at me. The way he looked up to me. I didn’t have a great relationship with my father when I was young. And with Charl, it was a bit of a mind game because of what he’d say to me: “Carry on, my boy. I’m proud of you. You’re doing great, my boy.” You know, eventually, as with his own son Anthony, I’d refer to Charl as “daddy.”
It’s tragic to read your thoughts on saying goodbye to him, wishing he’d given himself up. It feels like a loss to you, somehow.
Charlie is a vicious, vicious man. A murdering machine. But he reminded me so much of an uncle who was an older brother to me, who passed away. I mention it in the book, but Charl reminded me of him — a short-tempered beast of a guy, but one that stood up to people. Because of that, I identify with Charlie. A part of me understood that, Look, this man is just caught in the life. He went down a rabbit hole to become as vicious as he became. I still saw him being a good human. Charl could’ve been a good man. He could’ve been a brilliant businessman. If he had just applied himself to a trucking company, he would’ve been brilliant. But the life got him, you know?
I sat across from a lot of killers when I worked homicide. Charl wasn’t a sociopath going around killing people outside of La Cosa Nostra. And people talk about omertá, the code of honor, not talking to police, staying loyal — that’s what he lived, and how he’ll die. For that reason, I guess, I saw a side of him that… You know, I almost told him, “Listen, you’re going to go away for a long time. Do what’s best for you. Get out of the life, forget omertá. It’s all bullshit. These mob guys aren’t going to stand up for you. Work a deal with the government like everyone else and have a good life for yourself and Patty in Nevada.”
But he’s a gangster’s gangster. He wasn’t going to do it.
How did all this proximity to violence, masculine egos and toxic emotions impact you and the work you were doing?
I talk about it a lot as a hyper-masculine culture, and it’s shared in law enforcement and the criminal underworld. So I was getting it from both sides, and trying to find that balance. You think you’re fighting bad guys with the good guys, but eventually the good guys backing you up start to get annoyed. I’m undercover, staying in hotels and eating at five-star restaurants, while other cops are sitting in their car for hours on end. Then you start hearing it: ‘Hey buddy, you gonna see your friends all night? Don’t hang out for too long.”
It makes you think, Hey, what are you saying? You lookin’ at me sideways? All of a sudden you’re looked at like a diva. And you get caught in the middle of masculine egos.
It still causes trouble at home. When I’m doing presentations and sharing my story, I’m relieving it — and the trauma. As I say to guys and girls who attend my speaking engagements, you’ll meet Giovanni Gatto. He’ll be here soon because instinctively, unprovoked, when I tell my story, Gatto shows up as my defense mechanism and my whole persona changes.
I start to move differently, and I always get comments on it — “You’re not the guy who started the presentation. You turned into a scumbag!” Dropping F-bombs more, getting real defensive about how it affected my family and the like. I get very Tony Soprano in the moment, and I usually stay away from home for an extra day after my presentations. Because if I come home that day, it causes problems.
How did you tackle your mental health, given all these pressures?
I didn’t have the training early in my career that I should’ve had. I was able to do a good job later in my career when I did undercover work because I used to get a “checkup from the neck-up” every six months to be an operative for the FBI. I didn’t have to do that when I was a young cop. I just swallowed the trauma — things like a young child dying in my arms — and went out and drank and got into fights.
But there’s all these things you can — and have to — do to de-escalate yourself. Whether that’s controlling your heart rate, breathing exercises, mindfulness. It’s now what I bring to the table in teaching young people in law enforcement because when you get into a bad situation and it escalates, you have to control the moment and regulate yourself. That’s how I deal with it, and I won’t wait until I come home or have my wife tell me I’m being short-tempered with the kids. I’ll do something beforehand.
Therapy is huge. I do speak to a police psychologist who’s a good friend of mine. And occasionally, he mentions that I should really see somebody. I feel like, “Hey, I’m seeing you,” but he asks whether I’ve thought of going to see somebody more regularly, and has recommended people for me.
Is there something that’s stopping you from taking that step? Did you have negative experiences in the past?
When I used to go for my psychological checkups, they really wouldn’t want to deal with any issues that I had because they might end up labeling me “DNR” — what we call “Do Not Recommend.” Basically, I would no longer be able to operate, but given I was working on a handful of cases, you can imagine the work it would affect. And if my doctor says, “Hey, this guy Giovanni needs a six- or nine-month hiatus on a beach,” chances are, I probably won’t be operational again after that.
There were other things, too. I would go for my checkups and the psychologist would say to me, “Wow, you’ve had an incredible career. You should write a book! Or make a movie.” And I’d have to say, “Listen, well, I’m here to see you, so…”
Even at the end of my job, it was crazy. I knew I was messed up, and I called up the psych unit and asked to see someone. They put me on a four-month waiting list, telling me they didn’t have anyone to see me. But someone called in a favor, I got down there more quickly. And the psychologist I saw, I ended up talking her off the ledge, because she was pregnant with her first baby and I was [reassuring] her. I didn’t get to talk about my own anxiety.
Did you ever think about returning to police work after the DeCavalcante case ended?
My bosses shot it down. That’s when I realized they just wanted to cut the liability and cut the cord. They used me for a while afterward because it’s cool and sexy to show off a new Donnie Brasco. But the aftermath took its toll because you’re thinking, “Wait a minute? Six months ago you told me I’m the best of the best. And now you just put me out to pasture. Do you really have my back?”
It’s like the end of Goodfellas, when you get stuck in the middle of nowhere. You feel like, “Man, did I do something wrong?” Nope. You just did your job.
But there were a lot of reflective moments I had during the case, and everything I wrote down after, I know it was healing because I can see how hurt I was. I saw what I was going through years after I was out of the case. So that’s why I really wanted people to read my story, and why I wanted to write a book. I wanted it to have a message about mental health. In case people who are going through something can maybe realize, “Yeah, I’m not broken.”