Back in the 1980s, the wife of a South Philadelphia mobster had firsthand knowledge of her husband’s involvement in two gangland murders. This did not make for a happy marital abode.

She came to believe that her life was in jeopardy, so she filed for divorce and eventually became a government witness against her former spouse. While living in protective custody, she took up with one of the FBI agents assigned to guard her and married him.

Looking for some personal insights, I asked her what the difference was between the cops and the wiseguys.

Without missing a beat, she replied, “The cops have badges.”

I thought about that while reading Bob Buccino’s self-published book New Jersey Mob, Memoirs of a Top Cop. Buccino’s highly acclaimed law enforcement career was built around his crusade to take down the mob in his native New Jersey. But he frankly admits that as a teenager, he was on a different path and could have easily ended up as a made member of one of the seven organized crime families that operate in the Garden State.

Fate, happenstance and a young wife who made it clear she’d have nothing to do with him if he didn’t change his ways led him to take the New Jersey State Police exam two years after he graduated from high school in Orange, the town where he grew up and where he cut his teeth running with a teenage gang, collecting numbers bets for mobsters and bouncing in and out of trouble.

“I saw wiseguys and recognized the Mafia long before the FBI even acknowledged their existence,” Buccino says of his childhood and teenage years in 1950s North Jersey. “You could place a horse bet or a wager on almost any sport contest in almost every candy store and luncheonette.”

As a teenager, he was fascinated with the life and wanted to be a part of it.

“I started running numbers, selling football pools, and ran small nickel and dime card games,” he writes. “I always had money in my pocket. I idolized wiseguys like Little Pussy Russo in his pink Cadillac convertible. I admired that way of life. No one messed with made guys in the neighborhood.”

Street smart and never afraid to mix it up, Buccino had all the attributes that the organization valued. But instead of turning to a life of crime, he used those same character traits to build a career in law enforcement. In many ways he epitomized what the woman in South Philadelphia recognized intuitively. The attitude, the swagger, the willingness to take risks and live life on the edge were part of the wiseguy ethos. But they could also be part of what made someone a good cop.

In a career that began in 1962 and spanned four decades, Buccino worked organized crime first as a detective with the New Jersey State Police, then as the chief investigator with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, and finally as head of detectives in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.

Long before The Sopranos provided an entertaining and surprisingly accurate depiction of the mob in New Jersey, Bob Buccino was recording it all in investigative files and case logs that would have provided the writers of that popular HBO series with enough story arcs for several more seasons. Now he’s put it in a book. And while his writing is somewhat disjointed and at times repetitive, his knowledge and experience paint a fascinating picture.

There’s Anthony “Tumac” Accetturo, the younger brother of one of Buccino’s boyhood friends. Accetturo, whose nickname comes from a cartoon caveman, was a leader and major money-maker for the Lucchese crime family. He based his operations in North Jersey and Florida.

Buccino played a key role in bringing him down and helped turn him into a government informant. Like several other gangsters at the time, Accetturo tried to feign mental illness to avoid prosecution. He claimed to be the victim of Alzheimer’s disease, although in a discussion with Buccino he said he suffered from “oldtimers disease.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Other major players with whom Buccino crossed paths included Louis “Bobby” Manna, a Genovese crime family leader who was jailed for, among other things, plotting the murder of John Gotti; Robert “Bobby Cabert” Bisaccia, a ruthless North Jersey Gambino crime family capo on whom, it is said, Joe Pesci based his Goodfellas character; and Giacomo “Jackie Adams” DiNorscio, a wiseguy who could have made it as a standup comic and whose comedy routine won him an acquittal when he represented himself in a high profile federal racketeering case in Newark.

That trial was the focus of Star-Ledger Reporter Bob Rudolph’s excellent book The Boys from New Jersey and was the basis for the movie Find Me Guilty in which Vin Diesel played the DiNorscio character.

Angelo Bruno, Tino Fiumara, Michael Coppolla, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, John DiGilio, Antonio “Tony Bananas” Caponigro and the brothers Michael and Martin Taccetta were also part of Buccino’s 40-year battle with the underworld.

The Taccetta brothers, like Accetturo, came from his neighborhood.  Michael, in fact, had been a grammar school classmate of his sister’s at Our Lady of the Valley. Buccino was instrumental in making cases that sent both brothers to prison, but he said he and Michael had an understanding.

“I like not what he stood for, but…that he always seemed to readily accept the fact that I would arrest him without hesitation and that he would have no problems with me,” Buccino explained. “It was like a game. He was the bad guy and I was the good guy and it was my job to catch him…he expected it to happen and that was the price of the business he had chosen.”

Buccino could have chosen that same business. Instead, he went in the opposite direction. That’s the recurring theme in his memoir, which also touches on the strong family ties and sense of identity that was part of growing up Italian in a North Jersey community populated by aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors whose names ended vowels.

Once he chose his career path, he saw Cosa Nostra as a stain on his Italian-American heritage and took pride in working to bring the organization down. He did this even as he encountered prejudice while moving up the law enforcement ladder. He writes that he never let that get in his way, but that he always knew it was there.

“Italian immigrants built this country of ours,” Bob Buccino says early on in his memoir, “first with their hands, then with their brains and determination.”

But there were always obstacles, he said, pointing to an ironic and philosophical piece of street corner wisdom from his youth that captured the point perfectly: “When an Italian immigrant only has a wheelbarrow and shovel to make a living, he is called a guinea or a wop. After he works hard and saves his money and begins to prosper and buys a dump truck, he is called the Mafia.”

Bob Buccino never had a wheelbarrow or a dump truck.

He had a badge.

And for forty years he used it to bury the mob in New Jersey.