By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
“It is no longer clear what is happening in this city. We are moving targets, and we don’t know who will kill us.” - Mimo La Monica. Officer in Italian State Police. 1989.
He hasn’t had a haircut or shaved in thirty-one years. His hair is white and long. Oh, so long. And every inch reminds him of the promise he made to his murdered son and wife and their slaughtered unborn child.
Never to cut his hair until their killers are brought to justice.
Sicily’s battle against the Mafia seems like an endless struggle that will never be resolved. It has gone on unremittingly for generations, and so often, the collateral damage is heartbreaking. The Mafia kill women and children as and when it suits them, irrespective of their published views on morality and religion.
It is a cult based on deadly force, which it mandates strictly and is why it seems indestructible. Converting and corrupting at all levels within the society in which it operates. To some, it exists as a parallel government, one that functions better than the State.
On the evening of August 5, 1989, its sciarri (killers) shot dead a husband and his pregnant wife outside the beach-side home of his parents. The Mafia not only killed their son and his family, but it also generated an odyssey that lasts to this day.
Vincenzo and Augusta Schiera lived in a small, rented house near Dolphin Beach, at 699 Via Cristoforo Colombo, in Pozillo, close to Palermo’s international airport. She had been a seamstress and, him, a bricklayer when they met and married in the 1950s.
They raised a family and lived a normal life. As any normal life can be lived in Sicily, a place bathed in the shadows of the 19th Century. In a country where tax evasion is a way of life, accurate figures are hard to come by, although a leading source claims Sicily is the third-bottom of 19 regions in Italy regarding wages and salaries in 2018. (1)
Poverty and grind go hand in hand on this island in the sun, all overlaid with the endless threat of the Mafia and the Agostino’s, like everyone in Sicily, accepted its presence as inevitable.
Their son, Antonino, was doing his best trying to fight that one. Although some experts believe the Mafia is invincible, a matter of destiny, he was doing his bit to help end it. (2)
The 1980s were coming to an end, a decade that would come to be known as “The Years of Lead,” as Mafia clans fought and killed each other across the island. They were also killing anyone else who got in their way. Especially police officers like Nino Agostino.
An officer in the Italian State Police, he was based at the San Lorenzo station on Viale Duca degli Abruzzi, in the Palermo quarter, to the north-west of the city center. He and his wife, Ida Castellucio, lived in a rented apartment in Altofonte, a small town about six miles south-west of Palermo.
Life was beautiful. And then they died.
They had been married for thirty-five days.
On that warm and balmy evening, Nino and his wife were visiting his family to celebrate his sister’s birthday, and to show them their wedding album, which they had collected that afternoon. Ida had just recently discovered she was pregnant and the day before, having spent it fishing with his father and a friend, Nino told his father their new child, if a boy, would be named, Vincenzo, after him.
Ida sat and talked with her in-laws as Nino went out to show a neighbor the wedding album.
As Vincenzo sat watching the television, there was a series of bangs from somewhere outside. He thought at first someone was letting off firecrackers, then he heard Ida screaming, and rushed to his front door.
Outside the house was a Honda motorbike, the driver revving the engine. The passenger was shooting a handgun. Nino was trying to protect his wife but was falling, as multiple bullets were striking him. Ida stood over his body, screaming at the gunman, “I know who you are!” Then he shot her once, in the heart, and she was gone.
Two or three weeks before that terrible night, sometime between July 8 and July 10 while he was doing minor repairs on the house, a man approached Vincenzo, boldly and arrogantly walking into the property and demanded to know if Vincenzo’s son was a police officer.
There was a heated discussion, and as he left, he mentioned they were both “colleagues.” Waiting for him astride a motorbike was a thickset man with blonde hair a severely deformed face.
Although disturbed by their presence, Vincenzo never mentioned the incident to his son. He later identified the man as Nino Madonia. A member of the Resuttana clan of the Palermo Mafia, he was a suspect in many significant acts of violence. He was part of a killing squad that operated throughout Sicily working for Salvatore “Toto” Riina, then, the dominant mob boss on the island.
The other man, the bike rider, he came to know later as “Monster Face,” Giovanni Aiello, one of the most mysterious and elusive figures in the dark and twisted confederacy of the Sicilian Mafia.
On the day his son was murdered, Vincenzo Agostino vowed he would never shave or cut his hair until his killers were brought to justice. It grows long and white, and they still remain free.
One of the three great mysteries in the Agostino affair is why the killers remain at large? The other is why was Nino killed in the first place? The last and most disturbing one is if the Mafia killed him, was it their decision or, was there a higher, more sinister force at work? One that belonged to the State?
Following the murders, investigators moved initially, in a completely wrong direction, one that would hamper and delay the search for the truth. If the first twenty-four hours in a murder investigation is critical to its solution, the Palermo police wasted weeks following a wrong lead.
Arnaldo La Barbera, head of the Palermo Flying Squad leads the investigation on a “fausse piste,” a wild goose chase, a futile and hopeless search based on a premise involving Nino and another woman whose relatives may have been angered and upset when he left their daughter and married Ida. It’s a futile search that lasts four years for a lost horizon that will never be discovered.
While going through his son’s possessions following the murder, Vincenzo discovers a note that refers to documents his son had hidden in a cupboard in his home. When it was checked out, the papers were missing. These documents it has been alleged referred to investigations Nino was carrying out as part of a secret police squad charged with tracking down and arresting mob bosses. At some point following the killings, someone had entered Nino’s home and removed these papers. They have never been recovered.
It was the first of many mysteries that would come to haunt the parents of Antonino Agostino in the years ahead. Their son, the cop on the beat, was working high-level, undercover operations involving security of the State at the highest level.
The Mafia had murdered twenty-two police officers since 1945. Still, what was so special about him that lead to his death in the township of Villagrazia di Carini? What had he found out that was so important that the most significant criminal organization in Sicily had to silence him?
His brutal murder is linked to the attempted killing of Judge Giovanni Falcone on June 21 that year while he and his wife were on holiday at the beach near Addaura, a holiday area in Palermo’s northern district. Falcone was one of the magistrates the Mafia feared and hated with a vengeance. They tried to kill him many times without success.
Until they did.
The judge and his wife were renting a villa near the beach. A sack of explosives was discovered nearby and safely defused. It has been alleged that one of the policemen who made this discovery was Nino Agostino, who had also recorded incriminating evidence regarding various people he believed may have been involved in the assassination plot.
The bomb was found on the beach early on the morning of June 21. Falcone had invited a group of friends, fellow magistrates, to the beach house the previous afternoon for a swim and picnic. Because he had worked late, the afternoon socialize was canceled.
The bomb, consisting of 58 sticks of plastic explosives, was concealed in an Adidas sports bag. It had a highly sophisticated double-detonation device that could be activated by remote control or set off manually when the bag was moved.
What was revealed when the bomb was deactivated was that the remote control had been switched off, but the manual one left in place. Which meant the killers knew the magistrate had canceled his afternoon party, but they still hoped someone would move the bag when Falcone went for a morning swim.
Everyone then knew that the bomb was an inside job. Falcone had stayed at the beach house only twice in 1989, so there was no way the killers could have guessed he would be there that day. The only people who knew of the judge’s travel plans were law enforcement. Falcone’s wife, Francesca, also a magistrate, was so disturbed by this assassination attempt, she lost her voice for two days.
At the funeral of Nino and Ida, Giovani Falcone said, “I owe my life to that boy.”
If the judiciary were the only ones who knew about Falcone’s itinerary, what happened later, just down the road from Addaura might help to throw light on a mystery that is one of many involving the State and the Mafia and the murder of Nino Agostino.
Less than four kilometers to the south is the village of Vergine Maria. Here in a bar, near the beach, Vito Lo Forte, a Palermo Mafioso, who one day in the future would become a state witness, noticed as he sat drinking with a friend one afternoon about two years after Nino’s murder, two well-dressed men talking with Gaetano Scotto a Mafioso in the Aquasanta Mafia clan. Later, Scotto confirmed the men were senior officials in the Anti-Mafia Commission, a government body set up initially in 1963 to investigate “the Mafia phenomena.”
So what was a well-known Mafioso doing meeting with senior state servants? Discussing the weather or the best places to go fishing?
Throughout the rest of 1989 into 1990, the investigation into the murders dribbled away into a pool of uncertainty. If rumors and innuendo are the bedfellows of deceit, the search for truth in the Agostino affair will become not just an impossible dream but a journey without end for the friends and family of the victims.
According to the testimony of another Mafioso informant Giovanbattista Ferrante (considered by law enforcement sources as one of the most reliable of all the Cosa Nostra pentiti,) Salvatore Riina, had ordered an investigation within the Mafia to identify those responsible for the Agostino killings but was unable to find out anything that connected it to any clan across the island.
And then, in September 2014, Vito Lo Forte turned government informant. Among his disclosures, he made a statement to the court of Palermo:
“Nino Madonia, Gaetano Scotto, and Giovanni Aiello participated in the murder of Agent Agostino and his wife. Aiello's role was to pick up Madonia and Scotto, who had carried out the murder, with a clean car and to help them burn the motorcycle used in the attack.”
Later, sources claimed the murder of Nino was a favor for “important police officers.”
Scotto, another boss of a Palermo Mafia family, was alleged to have close contacts with senior police officers in Sicily, and members of the Sisde, the Italian Secret Service. It was men from this section along with the Palermo Flying Squad officers who searched Nino’s home after his murder. They presumably removed the documents that were alleged to contain damning and sensitive information. Six pages Nino had detailed as a form of self-protection, perhaps?
Who are these three men, the alleged killers of Nino and Ida?
Thirty-seven at the time of the Agostino killings, Antonino Madonia is the son of Francesco, the former boss of the Resuttana district in the central-northern area of Palermo. The family was a significant ally of Salvatore Riina and the Coreleonesi.
What follows is a brief resume of his murderous career and the two other principal suspects in the Dolphin Beach killings:
In November 1981, Madonia and his brother, Giuseppe, shoot dead Sebastiano Bosio, head of vascular surgery at Palermo’s Civic Hospital.
He was a suspect in the killings of Parliamentarian Pio Lo Torre and his assistant, Rosario Di Salvo, in April 1982.
In the ambush and assassination of Palermo Prefect, Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, his wife and bodyguard in September 1982.
A participant in the murder of Judge Rocco Chinnici and three others by a car bomb in July 1983.
On September 23, 1983, he shot dead Rosalia Pipitone, the daughter of the Mafia boss, Don Nino Pipitone, who ran the Aquasanta clan in Palermo, near the waterfront. Her father had ordered the killing when he discovered his married daughter was having an affair, which he believed discredited him and his fellow Mafia members.
The killings of Palermo Flying Squad members Ninni Cassarà and Roberto Antiochia in August 1985.
In 1987 Madonia was promoted to be head of the Ressuttana clan, replacing his father, imprisoned in Naples, where he would die in 2007. In and out of prison most of his working life, he is currently serving life sentences for numerous murders.
Allegedly, he was inducted into the Mafia while serving a prison sentence at the notorious Ucciardone Prison.
In August 2001, police arrested Gaetano Scotto (right) in Chiavari, near Genoa, in Northern Italy. He had been on the run for nine years following his alleged part in the car-bombing murder of magistrate Paolo Borsellino and five of his bodyguards in Palermo in July 1992. Tried and convicted in his absence, he was subsequently acquitted on appeal. He was also sentenced to sixteen years on drug trafficking charges.
Oreste Pagano, a member of the Camorra, (the Naples version of the Mafia,) was based in Canada, heavily involved in the drug trade. In 1995, he attended an international gathering of crooks who came together in Montreal to celebrate the wedding of Nicolo Rizzuto Junior, the son of the local Mafia don. One of those attending was Scotto, and during a conversation at the gathering, he happened to mention killing a policeman in Palermo a few years earlier because the cop was about to expose details of the Mafia’s close relationship to members of law enforcement.
Released in 2016, Scott was arrested again in February of this year following an Anti-Mafia operation code-named “Operation White Shark.”
Sixty-eight-year old Scotto, who authorities maintain is the family boss of the Arenella-Vergine area, admitted in court proceedings that he claimed the Italian retirement pension and was simply a small-time building contractor.
Anti-Mafia experts, and federal and local law enforcement agencies, believe his strength within Cosa Nostra was based on his connections and control of senior law enforcement personnel in Sicily, and more importantly, in Rome.
In 1989, there were over 150 separate judicial districts across Italy. Each supporting its police investigators and prosecutors. There was no centralized database to connect their inquiries. Computer and data resources were often primary and out of date.
The Mafia, on the other hand, was fast and agile and moving increasingly on a national and international front. Italian law enforcement was like the old US. 7th Cavalry, lumbering along, overloaded on big, slow horses, while the Sioux Indians, riding bareback, literally ran rings around them.
And then there was “Monster Face.”
Giovanni Aiello (left) was born in Calabria in 1946, and that is where he died.
Numerous Mafia informants have identified him as a professional killer at the center of a maze of murders, mysteries, and dead-end investigations.
A former Palermo police officer, he worked at one time in the 1970s under Bruno Contrado, head of the Palermo Flying Squad, and later a high-placed manager in Italy’s secret service. He will be arrested in 1992, and subsequently tried and convicted of Mafia Association. Another of his agents is Guido Paolilli, the man who allegedly, finds and then loses, the pages of secrets left by Nino Agostino.
Paolilli is one of two major loose ends int his story of Mafia murder and possible government intrigue. The other is Emanuele Piazza. (3)
Aiello, after leaving the police in 1977, is injured during a para-military exercise in Gladio, Sardinia, which leaves his face badly scarred.
Giuseppe Di Giacomo, another of the endless Mafia informants, claimed Aiello was part of a fire team the Mafia used for “dirty work.” He is seen regularly, wining and dining with known Mafiosi in the Aquasanta district.
In February 2016, Vincenzo Agostino, while visiting the infamous Ucciardone Prison in Palermo, sees Aiello in the court rooms built underground for the Great Maxi Trial of the 1980s and recognizes him from all those years before when he was riding the motorbike that had brought Nino Maddonia to his home that summer afternoon, twenty-seven years earlier.
Some sources claim Aiello was used by the Mafia to ship explosives from Calabria into Palermo. These would be made into the car bomb that killed Paolo Borsellino in 1992.
In August 2017, while pulling his fishing boat ashore onto Calalunga Beach in Calabria, Aiello suddenly collapsed and died. He was seventy. Apparently, he suffered a heart attack.
In his own geography of hope, Vincenzo Agostino has been searching for a trail that will lead him to the facts. A journey seemingly, without end.
As recently as March of this year, the Palermo general prosecutor was seeking indictments against Madonia and Scotto for the murders of Nino and Ida Agostino.
Thirty-one years after the murders, there could be light at the end of the tunnel for the man with the long beard. It has come too late for his wife, Augusta Schiera. She died in March 2019.
She had told her husband, “When I die, I want you to write on my headstone, Here lies a mother waiting for justice.
President Harry Truman once said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
If Vincenzo lives long enough, perhaps the so far, undisclosed explanation for the murder of his family will be revealed, and the truth finally exposed.
Maybe as he sits at night and watches the sunset across an island, a prisoner of its destiny, he wonders as did Dominican poet, Pedro Nir,
“Afterwards, I want nothing more than peace.”
(2) If you read only one book on the Sicilian Mafia, in English, that is, I would recommend:
Reversible Destiny by Jane C. and Peter T. Schneider published 2003 by University California Press, Berkeley, and Los Angeles.
(3) Piazza’s part in this maddeningly unfinished jigsaw puzzle is complex. In brief:
A member of the State police, he is transferred to Rome for specialist work, before returning to Sicily to work as an operative in the secret service. From November 1989 until February 1990, he was employed within this unit tracking down Mafia bosses, including Riina, across the Palermo province.
On March 16, he disappeared from his home in Sferracavallo, a seaside town on Palermo’s north-west coastline, and was never seen again.
According to the Mafioso who murdered him, Francesco Onorato, Piazza was lured to a furniture store in Capaci, and there, in the building’s basement, was strangled to death, and his body dissolved in acid.
Onorato later admitted when turning and becoming an informant, that he had killed at least fifty people during his Mafia career.
Vito Lo Forte had claimed Piazza along with Agostino had actually discovered the bomb at Addaura, and dismantled the remote connection, leaving the manual one in place, the evening before it was discovered. Which opens up all kinds of questions and endless theories about just what was going on and why.
His murder may have been connected to this incident or he was killed by the Mafia because he was getting too close to the people who mattered in Cosa Nostra.
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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.