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Fat Joe Versace and the Calabrian Mafia: A Murder in Australia

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

According to French website, “France 24,” the ‘Ndrangheta, rooted in the southern Italian region of Calabria, has surpassed Sicily’s more famous Cosa Nostra to become Italy’s most powerful mafia group, which operates across the world.

They are active not only in Italy, but across Europe, the USA, Canada, South America, Africa and Australia. According to one Italian expert, they are present in almost 20 countries (1)

THEY. ARE. EVERYWHERE.

There could be up to 100,000 members world-wide.

There savagery and brutality knows no boundaries.

In 1991, in the village of Taurianova, they killed a local butcher in broad daylight. Cut off his head and made use of it for target practice. In 2013 a feuding boss kidnapped his enemy, threw him into a sty and watched him as a drift of pigs ate him alive. They murdered a police sergeant and after his funeral, dug up the corpse and set it alight in the town’s local square.

In the 1920s, a man was murdered in Brisbane for cheating on a boss’s daughter, back in Calabria. They ripped out this heart and took it back to show her honor had been restored.

In Victoria, Australia, there are many files tucked away from public gaze under Section 9 of the Public Record Act 1973. After 75 years, the state government on January 1st opens their books and releases some of these files to the public.

One of them, A6980, S202879, was about a murder most foul. The press reported the killing but without the details now exposed through the government file. The victim is Giuseppe Versace, known around town as “Fat Joe.” Allegedly, the first Mafia hit in Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest city. In 1945.

‘Ndrangheta almost certainly fitted somewhere into the crime.

One of the four major Mafia-type criminal organizations that have plagued Italy for generations in Australia ‘Ndrangheta became known as L’Onorato Societa or La Famiglia.(2)

Originating in Calabria the “toe” of Italy, many people from this part of the country, in particular the area of Reggio Calabria and in particular the small town of Platti, emigrated to the Southern Hemisphere where they no doubt hoped to find a level of happiness and fulfillment missing in the hardship of their lives.

In 1922, 860 shipped their way south. Some of them could have arrived aboard a sailing ship, called SS Re d’Italia which is alleged to have berthed in Adelaide, South Australia that year. Among the hundreds of passengers were three men, who may have started a new form of criminal cancer that infects the country to this day. (3)

Like Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso the three mythical knights from Spain who in the 15th  century created Italy’s original three Mafias-Cosa Nostra, Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta-this may well be more fiction than fact, but it remains the basis for the ongoing confusion that existed between the law and the gangsters as they spread across the huge landscape of Australia over the next hundred years.

Moving north, into Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, the Calabrian phenomena would become confusingly known by law enforcement and the media by different names. They referred to it as the Mafia, Camorra, the Mano Nera (Black Hand) and even Mala Vita (Evil Life).

Disinformation has always been a favorite weapon of organized crime; no doubt the leaders and members of the ‘ndrini, (some sources refer to ndrine as ‘ndrina in the singular) the cells that formed the nucleus of the Honored Society were more than happy that the outside world was confusing cabbages with broccoli. ‘Ndrine control a territory. Over one sharing the same area becomes a locale.

As early as the late 1920s Criminal Investigation Bureau detectives in New South Wales and Queensland were calling Italian organized crime Camorra. It would be forty years before they started getting their ducks in a row. By then, there would be at least 200 made members operating in Melbourne alone. With their intractable name and their origins in a part of Italy which seems more like somewhere denied by God, so isolated, even within Italy, it is only really convenient to travel there by air; they had become an unstoppable force.

Federico Cafiero De Raho, the chief prosecutor of Reggio Calabria, the biggest city in the organization’s native region claims, “The ’Ndrangheta colonizes.” Like parasitical wasps, they find an area and occupy it.

On November 14, 1957, the American Mafia gathered for a meeting in upstate New York at a farmhouse near Apalachin. We still do not know why this meeting was assembled, although there has been much speculation over the years, none of it ever truly confirmed.

Two months earlier, on September 21, the Victorian ‘Ndrangheta called a similar meeting. Perhaps only about a third as many gangsters turn up compared to their counterparts in New York. Police arrested thirty-two, all of whom were armed with either knives or guns. Domenico Versace hosted the meeting, at 15 Osborne Street in the north Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. And we know why.(4)

It was to settle a dispute between Rocco Tripodi and Domenico Demarte (right), who would become the alleged head of the Melbourne clan of The Honored Society in 1962. A capo bastone or chief stick, as they referred to a big boss.

Demarte was also one of the suspected killers of the late Joe Versace.

And Domenico Versace was a brother to the same man murdered twelve years earlier in Fitzroy, about five miles to the south. By the man, then identified by the police as a common laborer who was now part of a dispute to be settled by this other Versace. These things are never simple.

To paraphrase a journalist at the BBC:

“When someone is murdered, that single act, that one moment in the thousands of moments that made up their life, ends up coloring everything. It inverts their biography, so we look back at all they did through the lens of their death. And that is not always fair.” (5)

In Fat Joe’s case, it almost certainly was. From what we know, he was a stand over thug who always carried a semi-auto pistol and looked to violence rather than reason to settle disputes. He had allegedly served at least two prison terms, and once slashed a man in the face with a razor. We don’t know for sure if he was ‘Ndranghetatista. The men who were with him the day he died, maybe. One for sure: Demarte.

Versace’s vicious murder is alleged to have been triggered by a dispute about women. Then again, maybe it was more to do with fruit and vegetables.

The Queen Victoria Market is in the central business district of Melbourne and covers 37 acres. It is one of the largest fresh produce open-air markets in the world. Known locally as “The Queen Vic,” it was opened in 1878.

The state of Victoria has the biggest Italian population in Australia, and by 1945, there were many thousands living in the city. Some of them worked the markets as stall-holders. Most of them were probably the target of Calabrian gangsters unless that was their other occupation. Protection money, intimidation, coercion, all and more practiced by the men of Melbourne’s Honored Society on their fellow-countrymen, working to earn a living in a new world that was supposed to be free of the scourge that had intimidated their friends and families in Southern Italy for generations.

The market was a major source of revenue for the local ‘ndrini. And often, there was conflict. It might have been this rather than traded insults about two women that is the catalyst for what was to come.

Sunday, October 7 was sunny and mild enough a spring day for people to visit the local beaches to enjoy a break from their working week. In North Melbourne, a group of men were gathering, moving in towards their carrefour, without realizing their ultimate destination was to end in the violent death of one of them.

One worked in a fruit shop in the suburb of Bentleigh, out in the sticks, south of the city. This was Domenico Pezzimenti. On September 23, he’d got into a face-off with Versace over alleged comments he’s made about Dorothy Dunn, the sister of Joe’s girlfriend, Honneth Edwards, and been punched in the face for his troubles by the fat guy. Joe and the girls lived in the same apartment in North Melbourne. Pezzimenti and Dunn had been in a brief, sexual relationship that ended badly.

Sometime about five in the afternoon of that Sunday, Pezzimenti finishes up at the home of Antonio Cardamona, a chef who lived in an apartment at 15 King William Street (right) in Fitzroy, Melbourne’s first suburb, established in 1836.

Dom’s been drinking the vino and is wearing the wobbly boots.

By this time, another Domenico, this one called Demarte, and Michele Scriva, a day laborer and stall-holder at the Queen Victoria Market, had joined the group and things heated as the men partied in the dining room of the apartment. They were playing cards and drinking beer, smoking, fogging up the room.

Versace, who lived at 140 Peel Street, about a mile to the west, arrives and at some point, the chef said he didn’t want the group in his apartment. When Versace asked why, Tony replied. “When you guys come here, there’s always trouble.”

So Fat Joe then obliged, acknowledging the accusation by punching his host in the face. Cardamona had been a victim of Fat Joe’s bullying off and on for some years, claiming that the thug often threatened people with either a gun or a knife.

Versace presumably never read the poems of William Blake, otherwise he would have remembered “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

Cardamona left the room to clean up the mess the punch had caused him. And it seems, that’s when the fan and stuff starting hitting each other.

In later testimony, Pezzimenti told police at that stage, Versace attacked him, slapping him a backhander. Joe then pulled a long, sharp knife out of his trouser pocket, saying, “I am going to stab you and kill you.”

Presumably this was a continuation of the September dispute when Pezzimenti allegedly claimed the sisters “stunk.” Demarte grabbed Joe’s blade arm and Domenico pulled out his pocketknife repeatedly stabbing Joe.

“A lot of times,” he told police, “I don’t know how many.”

The files reveal his autopsy shows 91 times. Carried out by government pathologist, Dr. R. J. Wright-Smith, it found 46 of those wounds were in the chest area, alone. Assume about three second a stab-in, squiggle, out-that’s almost five minutes of continuous skewering on a human body. In his courtroom testimony, Pezzimenti admitted using the knife eight or nine times.

No one could explain how the other eighty plus wounds on the chest, abdomen, head, neck and back transpired. The body is a total shipwreck of guts and gore, disemboweled and the intestinal tract spilling out, oozing all over the place. Significant numbers of wounds are inflicted postmortem.

The photos taken at the crime scene are so disturbing the files do not include them.

If a book is a dream you hold in your hands, a murder such as this is a nightmare triggered by something shaded by malevolent violence. Joe’s one true accomplishment in an otherwise remarkably undistinguished existence was dying this way and creating his own moment in history.

When Cardamona gets back to the dining room, he finds his guests have departed, leaving the gruesome scene, and goes to the police station, at Alfred Crescent, to report the crime.

Photo: Crime scene.

When the cops visit Michele Scriva at his residence in Peel Street, (he and the murder victim lived in the same area,) they discover a bloodstained shirt, pants washed and drying in the backyard, and knives. He claimed he had not been in the apartment in Fitzroy at first, then changed his story, claiming he had run out and hidden in the hallway while the other men were fighting.

What happened that late afternoon in October is from testimony from the accused. We have only their words that the events unfolded as they claimed. There were three men in that room with Versace and at least two knives we know of. Apart from Pizzimenti, it’s almost a given that the other two were armed up. These men lived with knives in their pockets. They carried them like most people hold loose change.

Pezzimente and Demarte hand themselves into police headquarters at Russell Street in Melbourne’s city center. And then, when the body of Versace is formally identified by Antonio Barbaro, these signals were to one expert on the ‘Ndrangheta, like “a canary in a coalmine.” (6)

Photo: Antonio Barbaro.

A warning loud and clear that this was no ordinary domestic incident accelerating into homicide.

Barbaro has long been suspected as being one of those three men who arrived in South Australia in 1922. One of the founding members of The Honored Society. If he was and he did, his standing in Australia’s arm of Calabria’s organized crime would have been pretty significant. If he is part of the picture, this killing takes on a whole new perspective.

Not so much loose lips and insults, more about the essence of the ‘Ndrangheta and its response to threat or danger. Especially from within.

From a region of Italy where violence is a way of life, these men lived by a coda:

i rancori qui si levano col sangue, e il sangue poi si vendica col sangue.

“Here grudges are washed away in blood, and blood then is avenged with blood.”

A leading authority on the organization, Dr. Anna Sergi offered her take on what happened.

She claims Versace died for challenging those in power, referring to it as a “mafia twist” pushing things to the extreme in their culture. The brutality and savagery of the killing was a signal to those that needed to understand the meaning of honor within the society.

Had this simply been about avenging the dignity of a woman, they would have castrated Versace and his genitals stuffed in his mouth.

She believes Pezzimenti bought the bullet that day. The two men who handed themselves into the law did so because they were told to. By someone. Probably Barbaro, the man with the mythical stature as a co- founder of Australia’s ‘Ndrangheta. He and Scriva were, according to Sergi, “the core of Melbourne’s ‘ndrini,” with Barbaro, aged 43 at the time of Versace’s death, the senior man in age and experience.

All five feet three inches of him.

The three men were tried at Melbourne’s Supreme Court in November 1945 and all were acquitted. Hard to believe, but the jury believed their story of self-defense. In all its 91 acts.

Scriva (left), who may have been an enforcer for the mob, kills another man in the ubiquitous Peel Street, in September 1950. Stabbing him multiple times. He is sentenced to death and then reprieved and given life in prison for which he only served ten years. He died from natural causes in 1989.

A man who seemed quick to use violence as a mediator, and apparently never without a knife.

No doubt his obituary was filled with words like, kind and caring, and above all, honorable.

Some sources claim the very word, ‘Ndrangheta translates as man of honor, or brave man, although its etymology is speculative at best.

They buried Fat Joe Versace at the Fawkner Memorial Park in Moreland, about ten miles north of where he died and thousands from where he was born. His grave, at Lot 3307, is a tablecloth of weeds and yellow daisies. No one seems to have written his obituary.

The man who allegedly stabbed him to death, Domenico Pezzimente, died in 1980, aged 69, and is buried in Melbourne General Cemetery. Ten miles south of his victim.

There are no images of Versace in public domain at least, so we don’t know just how stout he was, relative to his height, what color his hair was, how deep were his eyes. Giuseppe from the wilderness of Calabria came and went, like thousands before him and after. Searching for something. Whatever it was, it could not have prepared him for those last, fleeting moments of panic and agony in a room above a street in a city, far, far away.

The mind of every assassin runs on a narrow-gauge track. But there are no loners. No man lives in a void. His every act is conditioned by his time and society. - William Manchester

Acknowledgment:

Kudos to Steve Ralph’s detailed website: Mafia of Australia. Mafiainaustraliawordpress.com from which I have drawn some background for this story.

1) How Mafias Migrate. Federico Varese. Law & Society Review

Vol. 40, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 411-444 (34 pages)

2) The four major groups are: Cosa Nostra in Sicily, Camorra in Catania, Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia and ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, which is the only one that has replicated itself, world-wide..

3) According to existing State Records, Government of South Australia, this ship never docked in Adelaide. It did berth on Monday 16 December 1922 in Freemantle, nearly 3000 miles away in Western Australia, then sailed to the Far East, according to shipping news in The West Australian, on December 18, 1922. However, Federal records confirm the ship had sailed from Perth to Adelaide, then onto Melbourne and Sydney. History is sometimes a monument to confusion. Which pen was telling the truth?

Barbaro allegedly disembarked in Victoria. One other man, identified as Domenico Strano, may have left the ship in Sydney and lived in New South Wales for the rest of his life. The third man, never identified by name, allegedly ended up in Perth, where he formed the third locale of Australia’s ‘Ndrangheta.

Colin Humphreys Brown, a senior agent in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization produced a 145 Page report in 1965 on the history and current situation on Australia’s ‘Ndrangheta, and confirmed these three. Although the third man is obviously long dead, the name remains a mystery.

4) Melbourne Herald Sun. July 13, 2013.

5) BBC News. Chloe Hadjimantheou. 27 February 2021.

6) ABC News. January 1, 2021.

With thanks to Dr Anna Sergi, senior lecturer in criminology, department of sociology, at the University of Essex. These are two of her works referenced for this story: 

The European Review of Organized Crime 5(1)2019, pp. 60-84.

The Evolution of the Australian ‘ndrangheta. An historical perspective. Australian and New Zealand.

Journal of Criminology. October 2014.

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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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