Mob Mentality

Those on the right side of the law admire the series's uncanny accuracy-and wonder how the producers got "inside."

“We’ve all said it: ‘I wonder who they’re talking to,’” says Col. Frank Rodgers, deputy superintendent in charge of investigations for the state police. “I watch it pretty regularly, and they have some great sources.”
Indeed, many cops and prosecutors wonder how close the producers might have gotten to the real-life New Jersey mobsters who worked with Michael Taccetta and his faction of the Lucchese crime family.

“I always went on the assumption that in The Sopranos somebody knew about the Taccetta faction,” says Marc Agnifilo, a lawyer in private practice who until last July was a deputy U.S. attorney in Newark responsible for prosecuting some of the state’s most active mobsters. “The whole structure, the places where they tend to hang out, even the types of crimes are accurate. Sometimes it’s a business-related hit, sometimes they get carried away in a parking lot and end up killing somebody. Those things do happen.”

Any writer can sift through court records to pinch stories of mobsters infiltrating industries, hijacking trucks, even getting their claws into politicians. But the show went further, illustrating the way crime spills over into personal life. Agnifilo cites the second-season story involving Tony’s childhood friend Davey Scatino, who owns a fictional sporting-goods store in Ramsey. Tony tries to stop his friend, a compulsive gambler, from falling into debt to him. When that fails, Tony and his boys effectively take over his buddy’s business, ruthlessly running it—and him—into the ground. “A lot of people the Mob guys deal with are guys they grew up with and they know,” Agnifilo says.

Another truth is that organized crime is not what it used to be. “The power of the families has weakened over the years, and The Sopranos really shows where many Mob families are today,” says Mike Campi, coordinating supervisor of the FBI’s organized crime division. “The old-timers know that it’s broken, and the new leaders are out for themselves. When I first watched it, it reminded me of a broken-down crew.”

He adds that while some mob members like the show, “old-school heads of the families despise anything, real or on TV, that raises their profile. They hated John Gotti Sr. because he was too high-profile. They didn’t want anyone to acknowledge the life and they certainly didn’t think it was a good idea to rub it in law enforcement’s nose.”

Several experts brought up the saga of Tom Ricciardi, the onetime chief enforcer for the Taccetta faction. He is widely believed to have been, at least in part, a model for the character of Silvio. Before heading to prison in 1994 on a murder conviction, Ricciardi was a dapper dresser and a true believer in the Mob code of honor. He also had some anger issues, as evidenced in 1984, when the bosses asked him to persuade Vincent Craparotta to give the family a cut of his Jersey Shore video-poker operation. The men met on a golf course. Ricciardi was later convicted of beating Craparotta to death with a 9-iron.

Not everything in the show rings true. “The story in the first season where Mikey Palmice, on behalf of Junior, contracts with someone Junior has never met…to kill Tony, is unrealistic,” says FBI Special Agent Michael Breslin. “Dealing with people outside the family, and therefore outside the circle of trust, is too dangerous.

“Another area I find pretty unrealistic is the level of knowledge most of the women have about what’s going on,” he adds. “Many Mob wives probably have some idea that their husband is involved in criminal activity, but almost every cooperating witness I’ve ever interviewed has said that women are kept out of what’s going on.”

Breslin does give high marks for “the way the characters interact. The power struggle between Tony and Uncle Junior and the tension between Paulie and Christopher are indicative of the rivalries and tension that exist. The dialogue and terminology are pretty accurate, as is the interaction with other families, such as Johnny Sack in New York.”
But in terms of how his own organization is depicted, Breslin maintains that “offering ‘immunity’ in exchange for cooperation doesn’t happen….These witnesses are convicted and many serve substantial sentences along with forfeiting large amounts of money. There is no ‘immunity.’

“In real life,” he says, “Big Pussy would have dealt with two agents, not one, and he would not have had the option of refusing to wear a wire.”
Some who admire the show are nonetheless put off by the foul language the characters spew. Anthony Pope is a former police detective and prosecutor who now has a private law practice in Newark. He once represented Henry Hill, the Mob informant whose life is detailed in the film Goodfellas. Pope, who has been named Italian-American of the Year by more than one Italian-American organization, believes The Sopranos has consistently presented a realistic picture of life in the New Jersey Mob. But he doesn’t appreciate the depiction of these men in their home lives.

“When the episode is geared to the family and they’re in the kitchen and in the dining room eating and using language that my family and all my Italian-American friends’ families would never use, or when they’re using sexual references at the table, I get upset,” he says. Still, Pope counts himself as something of a fan. “My position is that the contribution that Italian-Americans have made to the world and to our country is so enormous, so significant, that a show that depicts, with a literary license, a group of people who actually do exist can never overshadow those contributions.”

Campi remembers sitting with one cooperating wiseguy in a hotel room and watching the show. “He knew one of the actors, who at one time wanted to be made and still be an actor. People don’t grasp the enormity of what these families are into and that you mean nothing to them.”
While some notorious Mafiosi are reputed to be fans, at least one person who occasionally works for them is not. Bruce Cutler, the New York City attorney who has spent most of his long career defending accused mobsters, including a 17-year stint as the late Gotti’s legal mouthpiece, contends that Tony and his crew are far more venal and depraved than any real mobster.

“These are the most disgusting, despicable, lowlife creatures,” Cutler says. “They kill elderly women; they shot a busboy in the back because he wanted a tip. I never saw such lowlife behavior and filthy language as I’ve seen in this show.”

Read more Best Of Jersey articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown