Tony Soprano swung back into action on TV last night.

But HBO's long-running story of the fictitious New Jersey mob boss and his dysfunctional crime family would be hard pressed to top the life and times of reputed Garden State wiseguy Michael "Trigger Mike" Coppola.

The latest chapter in that real-life gangland saga will play out today in a Somerset County courtroom, where lawyers will argue the fate of the reputed two-gun hit man who spent more than a decade on the run before his arrest in New York City last month.

Coppola, 60, is now back in New Jersey, where he faces a first-degree murder charge in connection with the 1977 shooting of John "Johnny Coca Cola" Lardiere.

But for nearly 11 years it appears he was hiding in plain sight, living the life of a well-heeled gangster, maintaining apartments in New York and San Francisco and generating income through gambling, extortion, loansharking and, possibly, murder.

The fact that federal and state law enforcement agencies were looking for him did not appear to slow him down.

"It was business as usual," said one law enforcement official familiar with Coppola's background.

And the business was sometimes deadly.

Authorities allege that Coppola, then a young up-and-comer in the Genovese crime family, was the triggerman who blew away Lardiere in the parking lot of the Red Bull Inn in Somerset County on Easter Sunday morning 30 years ago.

The hit did not go down smoothly.

According to an organized-crime informant, Coppola's gun jammed as he took aim, prompting Lardiere, a wiseguy in his own right, to ask: "What are you gonna do now, tough guy?"

With that, Coppola allegedly reached for another gun he had in an ankle holster and pumped five bullets into Lardiere.

In 1996, after the informant fingered Coppola in what was then a 19-year-old unsolved murder, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office sought a court order requiring Coppola to supply samples of his DNA.

Investigators had recovered a baseball cap and the ankle holster not far from the shooting scene. Microscopic hair samples were taken from both.

Rather than show up for the court hearing in which the DNA issue was to be argued, Coppola took off.

Over the next 11 years he became something of an underworld legend, with speculation that he was living in various exotic locales.

"He's in the wind," said the late George Fresolone, a North Jersey mobster who was a Coppola contemporary.

Fresolone said the best way to find Trigger Mike was to stake out the Super Bowl each year. He said he never missed a game.

Investigators at one point tracked another mobster to an airport and found a set of what they believed were Coppola's golf clubs in the trunk of the gangster's car, but the trail went cold there.

Coppola also was featured on a segment of America's Most Wanted. Coppola watched the report while living in hiding and apparently was not pleased with a scene depicting New Jersey investigators serving him with a warrant requiring his appearance in court for the DNA argument back in 1996. In the reenactment, the actor portraying Coppola spits at the investigators.

According to court documents filed after his arrest, however, living on the lam did not have a negative impact on either Coppola's lifestyle or his criminal career.

He and his wife, Linda, had a comfortable, bicoastal living arrangement with apartments in San Francisco and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

At the time of their arrests - his wife was charged with attempting to obstruct the investigation - detectives discovered plane tickets in their Manhattan apartment, indicating they were planning to fly back to the West Coast shortly.

Authorities also recovered documents that indicated that the couple used three or four aliases and that Coppola remained involved in the workings of the Genovese crime family, where he had reached the rank of capo, or captain, before disappearing.

He generated cash from bookmaking, extortion and loansharking operations, authorities now believe. They also allege that he and his son were involved in another notorious mob hit, the murder of North Jersey union official Lawrence Ricci in 2005.

Ricci's body, shot in the back of the head, was found in the trunk of his car parked behind the Huck Finn Diner in Union - not far from the fictional haunts of Tony Soprano and his associates.

Two issues will be argued in New Jersey Superior Court today.

The state Attorney General's Office has asked that Coppola's bail, set at $1 million after he was arrested last month, be increased to $20 million.

Not surprisingly, the state contends that Coppola is a serious risk of flight.

The Attorney General's Office has also argued that the 1996 court order requiring Coppola to supply saliva and blood samples for a DNA test should be enforced.

Coppola's attorney, Thomas Cammarata, contends the order - issued in absentia after Coppola failed to appear for the 1996 hearing - is unenforceable because Coppola was never formally served.

The Attorney General's Office, in a written argument filed last week with Superior Court Judge Paul W. Armstrong, said that Coppola should not be "rewarded for intentionally absconding."

If Coppola goes on trial for the Lardiere hit, mob informant Thomas Ricciardi is expected to be the key witness against him.

Ricciardi, who began cooperating after being convicted in a 1993 Toms River murder case, told authorities of a conversation he had in which Coppola recounted the details of the Lardiere murder, including the story of the gun's jamming and Lardiere's mocking his would-be assassin, not realizing he had a second gun.

"He was a tough guy," Coppola allegedly said of his victim. "He died like a man."

Coppola was arrested on March 9 after exiting a shoe store on Broadway, where he had purchased a pair of socks, according to an account of the arrest included in the document filed by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.

When asked for identification, he produced a New York driver's license in the name of "Jose Quinones." But when one of the detectives making the arrest called him "Mike," Coppola asked the detective where he was from.

The detective identified himself and said he was with the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.

"C'mon, you're Mike Coppola and we gotcha," the detective said. "It's over."

Coppola then conceded.

"OK, you got me," he said.

But Coppola wanted to set the record straight, according to court papers filed in his case.

A few hours later as he was being fingerprinted in the presence of two New Jersey detectives, Coppola told them America's Most Wanted had gotten it wrong.

He had never spit at any investigator, he said.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or