Inside the feared DeCavalcante crime family – the real-life Sopranos

The Sopranos is often hailed as the greatest TV show of all time.

Critics have praised the hit series, about a mob boss and his family, for its writing, cast, style and themes.

Violence, sex, drugs and money all feature heavily in the six-season American crime drama, which ran from 1999 to 2007.

But creator David Chase is said to have drawn inspiration from real-life figures.

He is said to have based characters on the DeCavalcante family, also based in New Jersey like the Sopranos.

The show’s lead character Tony Soprano – played by the late James Gandolfini – is said to have been based on the family’s boss, John ‘The Eagle’ Riggi.

Members of the family were even heard on FBI wiretaps discussing the show and whether it “was supposed to be us”, according to US reports.

The DeCavalcante family made its money by racketeering.

It helped funnel millions into mob coffers through its control of a powerful division of the Laborers International Union of North America in the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

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Authorities said the mobsters’ tight grip on division helped them to shake down contractors, dispense jobs and force firms to deal with Mafia-connected suppliers and businesses.

Despite not being one of the notorious Mafia ‘Five Families’ of New York, the group worked closely with their counterparts – as mirrored in the HBO TV show.

Riggi was jailed in 1990 for racketeering, but still managed to organise the family’s operations from his prison cell by sending messages to the outside.

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In 2003, just as he was about to be freed, he was handed an extra 10 years in court for ordering a ‘hit’ on journalist Fred Weiss.

His chilling words at the plea hearing showed how he viewed his business.

He said: "We agreed that he should be murdered.

"Pursuant to the agreement, Fred Weiss was murdered. That's it."

He was released in 2012 and died in 2015, aged 90.

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Lee Seglem, assistant director of the State Commission of Investigation, said: “This guy may be the last of the old time mob bosses for this region. He outlived all the big names.

“Under Riggi, the DeCavalcante family raised labor racketeering to something of an art form.”

And as in Sopranos storylines, the FBI also sought to bring down members of the crime family.

In 1998, agents employed an associate of the group – Ralph Guarino – to work undercover as an informant.

The next year, the FBI had gathered enough evidence to arrest 40 members of the family.

This included for five charges of murder, eight of conspiracy to murder, gambling, loansharking and extortion.

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