By Thom L. Jones
It was bloodletting out of all proportion, even for the men who ran the Mafia in Sicily.
Eight men killed for eighteen horses.
The worst day of mass killing in its history since May 1947, when 11 people were shot dead and 33 wounded by Salvatore Giuliano’s bandit gang at Portella della Ginestra, near San Giuseppe Jato; an act that many historians believe was in fact instigated by the Mafia on behalf of political patrons in Palermo and Rome.
Those people died to protect the ambitions of others and the reputations of men who never had them to start with.
The dead in Palermo’s Settecannoli district were gunned down to feed revenge and perhaps again, to satisfy Mafia politics.
Sometime during the late evening of October 17th, 1984, a group of gunmen entered a squalid, dingy, group of stables, on a narrow lane leading off the Piazza Scaffa in the working-class district known as the ‘Bronx’ of the city, lying to the south and east of the main Palermo central city area, and killed eight men.
Next morning, the police received two telephone calls, informing them of a shooting at the stables. The first ‘Flying Squad’ cars came hurtling down the Corso dei Mille, lights flashing, horns blaring everyone awake.
They arrived just after eight, turning off the Piazza Scaffa and crawling down the dirt track, north, past the piles of wreckage, rusting auto hulks and small mountains of garbage and junk.
As they pulled up in the small square, Cortile Macello, Slaughterhouse Square, outside the stables, they saw an elderly man dragging a blood soaked corpse out of the building and towards a battered old Fiat 127. They stopped him and checked the body, the mutilated head, wrapped in a wool sweater. The dead man was subsequently identified as Paolo Canale, a young man, twenty-four years old, who lived by scavenging junk and rubbish in the area.
The man told the officers that horses were running wild in the stables and that they were trampling on his son’s face. He couldn’t bear to see that, and so he was taking him home.
Moving into the feculent atmosphere of the dilapidated courtyard, the officers found two dead men lying face down in the mud and animal manure, next to a water trough, horses wandering around, stepping over the corpses.
Moving cautiously into the first of the two stable buildings, through the mass of skinny, red-skinned foals, the ram-shackled building lit only by a single, naked light bulb swinging gently in the morning breeze, they found among other horses, hooves splashed in bright red blood, two more men, sprawled loosely in death. Moving into the second building, overpowered by the stink of animal ordure and rotten straw, the policemen found inside, three more dead.
The courtyard and buildings were soon filled with a mass of police investigators. Hardened as they must have been to the violence and death which filled their lives, wading as they did, through the never-ending sewer of crimes flooding a city which had become more like Beirut than Palermo since the explosion of the second Great Mafia War in 1981, many of these men must have found it hard to keep their breakfasts where they belonged.
The medical experts and forensic specialists arrive and soon determine that all the bodies have been shot, repeatedly. Autopsies would disclose each man received wounds from shotguns and pistols.
The investigators re-constructed the massacre:
A group of gunmen, maybe ten or more (although later reports indicated it may have been as few as two) had arrived late the previous evening, probably around midnight or 1: AM.
They kill the first three victims. This group including Paola Canale, died outside the stables, near the water trough. The five survivors retreated into the stables where two are shot down in the first chamber. The three remaining men scrambled into the second stable where they were trapped-no external doors or windows. Lined up against a back wall they are cut down, collapsing in a tangled heap in this dark, smelly chamber of death. It is all over in minutes.
The killers leave. Night takes over.
The dead are all young men. The oldest thirty-eight, the youngest twenty-three. Four are linked by kinship, the others connected by friendship or job opportunity. Shot repeatedly, some are initially unrecognizable-ruptured flesh, shattered bones and brain matter sprinkled around and on the bodies, the confetti of violent death broadcast by grim reapers who come, kill and disappear without any apparent dislocation to the people who live all around in this miserable part of the city. News of the massacre was in fact circulating around the neighbourhood before the police arrived.
Among the detritus of the stables-old saddles, bridles, bits and other horse-tack, the investigators find a religious card pinned to a beam. It says:
Heart of Jesus bless and protect our family.
The bodies are collected in sheets and carried by undertakers wearing rubber gloves out of the buildings, and placed into wooden coffins before being shipped by vans into Palermo City and the morgue.
Slaughterhouse Square was the property of a man well-known to the law in an area often under police observation, as a place where drug-dealers, extortionists and petty criminals would gather.
The stables belonged to a man called Giovanni Ambrogio, father of eighteen children, who had himself, according to pentiti Stefano Calzetta, been shot dead in March 1981 by the men of the Corso dei Mille Mafia clan, lead by the fearsome and unpredictable Filippo Marchese, a man who it was claimed personally murdered fifty-eight of his victims and at times would masturbate as he watched them die lingering deaths.
Ambrogio was repairing a scooter in the yard when a gunmen walked up and shot him four times in the head. A junk dealer (scrap metal), Ambrogio was a man who operated on the fringes of the Palermo underworld. He had apparently fallen foul of Marchese’s clan in a dispute over stolen trucks.
Marchese himself was murdered in 1982 and his place was taken by Pietro Vernego (right), a major drug trafficker, known as ‘Bazooka Eyes’ because of his piercing stare. An equally terrifying man, it was claimed he had personally murdered 100 men, burying their bodies in liquid cement or having them dissolved in acid.
In their initial investigation of the mass killing at Slaughterhouse Square, the police were certain of only one thing. Vernego would have had to give his blessing. Nothing of this magnitude could have gone down without his okay. An act as egregious as this needed to be signed off by the Mafia potentate of Settecannoli/Brancaccio at least; maybe endorsed by others.
Two days after the massacre, the families of the dead men congregated in the mortuary on the ground floor of The Institute of Forensic Medicine in Ospedale Cirico on Via Carmelo Lazzaro in Palermo City.
Pushing the police guards aside, they performed the age-old Sicilian ceremony of dressing and preparing their dead for burial. It was a short journey from the hospital to the Cemetery of Sant’Orsola. It’s unlikely any of the two hundred people who gathered for the burial service, humble people accustomed to living with hardship and violence in their lives, would have dwelt on the significance of the graveyard and the nearby Chiesa dello Spirito Santo-church of the Holy Spirit. It was here, according to legend, that Sicilians had risen up against the tyranny of the French occupation forces in 1282, leading it was believed, to the formation of the Mafia.
If any of them had, the irony of the situation would surely have not been lost: the Mafia created according to this legend, by the workers to protect the workers gathered in this very graveyard, was now responsible for welcoming eight of those same workers to their graves in this same place.
Within days, the police had pieced together the movements of the dead on that final, and truly fateful day.
The eight men, arriving from different parts of the city, converged on the stables at Slaughterhouse Square with the inevitability of a train heading for a viaduct that was no longer there.
Cosimo and his brother Fransceso Quattrocchi were horse traders and butchers. Cosimo and his wife, Pietra Lo Verso, also ran a butcher shop in the city, in the famous market at Piazza di Ballarò.
Salvatore Schimmenti, who was known to the police, but as more of a ‘minor’ delinquent than a serious criminal, was employed by the Aquedotto Sicilliano, the national water supply agency for Sicily, and was also involved in the horse trading business, working part-time for the Quattrocchi brothers. Cosimo and Marcello Angelli were cousins of the Quattrochis, and worked for them from time to time as required.
The previous September, Francesco Quattrocchi and Schimmenti had travelled over to Molfetta in Puglia to purchase a small herd of horses, mainly foals, which arrived late on Thursday evening at the Palermo railway station. The five men had herded the horses into a large van, making two trips to deliver them to the stables in Settecaloni.
Waiting there to meet the deliveries were three men:
Giovanni Catalanotti, who hawked fruit and vegetables around the neighbourhood of Corso Dei Mille, and stabled his horse here. Another minor criminal, he has been arrested for carrying an illegal weapon.
Also at the yard were Paolo Canale, a trader in scrap metal and junk, who nevertheless, according to his wife Lucia Russo, made a good living, earning up to 100,000 lira a day, and Antonino Federico, an unemployed bar-hopper, well-known in the Piazza Scaffa area. His father, Raffaele and his five brothers were all fishermen. He was the only one not to take to the sea as a livelihood.
The eight all died in a blazing crescendo of noise and light and were left scattered around the yard and stables like broken and discarded dolls.
The father of Paolo Canale, worried why his son had not returned home the previous night, had arrived at the stables to find himself in a parent’s worst nightmare and in his grief and confusion only wanted to return his dead son to the family. He was trying to do this just as the first police arrived on the scene.
The authorities puzzled over the motives for this mass murders. A killing of this magnitude seemed to indicate a powerful force in play. In Sicily, this would almost always indicate the Mafia.
Among the many hypothesis explored were:
Perhaps the Quattrocchi brothers had decided to stop paying the local Mafia family protection and had been taught a lesson as an example to others.
Had the men been involved in some sort of drug trafficking operation that had gone badly wrong? The police scoured the stables and surrounding areas using trained drug dogs and even X-Rayed some of the horses in case they had been forced to swallow bags of drugs.
Did the killings link into the lucrative world of clandestine horse racing in Palermo, or the black market in butchering and selling the meat of stolen horses? Illegal racing of horses was endemic in Sicily, with at times whole streets in cities sometimes closed off for events to take place. It was estimated that the Mafia could be making up to $500 million a year from this enterprise across the island.
Gery Palazzotto, the author of Fotofinish, a book on the subject of illegal racing in Sicily, claimed ‘it is absolutely clear that Cosa Nostra was up to its neck in these races.’
Was there a connection into the murder of a Quattrocchi cousin, another Cosimo, shot dead in a pig-sty in February, 1982, in Misilmeri, nine miles south of Palermo City?
Did the brothers Quattrocchi use their premises for illegal gambling and did this lead to the murders?
Days before the killing, pentiti, Tommasso Buscetta’s evidence had led to arrest warrants being sworn out against 366 suspected Mafiosi across Sicily. Perhaps the slaughter in Settecannoli was simply confirming that despite the police crackdown, the Mafia families of Palermo were still all-powerful and fully in control of their districts. They could kill when and how they pleased. This mafia had no intention of raising the white flag! The killings were simply affirmation of their power.
Pietra Lo Verso, the wife of Cosimo Quattrocchi was questioned by the chief of police at the Carini barracks.
‘Your husband did something, or they would not have killed him,’ he said.
‘It was Antonino Fisichella from Catania who did it,’ she said. Lo Verso knew what she knew, and it was this:
One day, her husband had brought home for lunch, five men from the province of Catania. One of them he called ‘Uncle Ninu’, a tall, distinguished looking horse-trader named Antonino Fisichella who lived and ran his business in Zafferana Etnea. Cosimo entered into an agreement with him to purchase horses for his butchering business. Fisichella guaranteed Cosimo protection from any outside interference, but only on condition that the Quattrocchi’s bought their animal stock only from him.
At some stage, the Catania horse-dealer started sending Cosimo butchered meat in contravention of Palermo’s bye-laws that meat had to be slaughtered locally. In due course, the authorities discovered the infringement, and suspended Cosimo’s license.
It seemed the problem was eventually resolved, and Fisichella sealed their arrangement with a gift-a gilded, ornamental clock, embraced by painted shepherds, topped with a fake Fabergé egg.
Cosimo however, had lost faith in the dealer from the other side of the island, and started negotiating to buy animals from a dealer on the mainland.
When he was away organizing the purchase, Fisichella phoned asking for him, and in all innocence, Pietra told him her husband was in Bari.
As Clara Hemphill said in her article Life and Death in Palermo:
‘Don’t eliminate the middleman when the middleman is a Mafioso.’
Pietra Lo Verso would wonder in the months to come whether or not she had signed off her husband’s death certificate while he was still alive.
Six weeks after the killings, the police arrested three men from Catania province.
The warrants were signed off by Palermo judiciaries Guido Lo Forte, Dino Cerami and Paolo Giudici following intensive investigations between Palermo and Catania involving the wholesale meat trade and the part played in it by the Mafia.
The three men were all connected into the Mafia clans of Catania run by Salvatore Pillera (left), or by Benedetto Santapaola (right), who himself was on the run from the law for his involvement in the killing of Vito Lipari, the mayor of Castelvetrano.
The police also indicted the two main clan heads of the areas adjacent to the killing site:
Pietro Vernengo, boss of Corso dei Mille and Carmelo Zanca, who called himself, Senor Lupo, and who headed up the Torrelunga cosca just to the south.
The three men from Catania were: Antonino Fisichella, Antonino Resina and Agatino Castorina.
Giuseppe Marchese, a nephew of Fillipo, who became a pentiti or informer for the state against the Mafia, confirmed that Salvatore Riina the Sicilian boss of bosses had wanted to embarrass ‘Pino’ Greco the head of the mandemento that controlled the area of Brancaccio/Settecaloni. This is, in the Sicilian Mafia, a district of generally three or more geographically contiguous Mafia families controlled by a senior capo or boss.
Riina was at odds with Greco, and for him (Riina) to endorse a crime of this magnitude without informing the man who controlled the whole district would send a strong message to the rest of the Mafia clans across the island. ‘Pino’ was out of favor. He was no longer in Toto Riina’s heart, so to speak.
Riina would often de-legitimize an opponent in the Sicilian Mafia by the spread of slander or by ‘sneak’ moves like this as a prelude to weakening his support within the organization.
‘Pino’s own time would come late in the following year when he was shot dead by two of his best friends in his home, in September 1985. By then he had developed, according to informants, into a hopeless cocaine user, becoming not only an embarrassment for Cosa Nostra but, also a real danger because of his addiction. Riina had the body dissolved in acid and then spread the rumor that ‘Pino’ had skipped to America to lay low for a while. A long while as it turned out.
Paolo Borsellino the famous anti-Mafia judge who was murdered in 1992, was allocated the case of the murdered horse dealers et al. He and his team of prosecutors gathered the evidence and presented it at trial.
It was generally suspected that the killers were after Cosimo Quattrocci and that the other seven victims were collateral damage. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were witnesses to the murder of the butcher, and so were eliminated.
The first trial was adjourned in favor of the defendants as was the second. All the accused were acquitted by order of the Palermo Corte di Assise d’Appello.
Attorney General Vittorio Algro said of the judgment:
‘The contested decision is the result of incomplete and biased assessment of the findings of the proceedings. It is flawed in several respects and unacceptable in the inconsistencies and illogical interpretations of what was determined.’
The crux of the appellants appeals were based on the testimony of pentiti Vincenzo Sinagra, and the disclosures of Tommaso Buscetta, a Mafioso who had returned to Sicily to help the anti-Mafia judges lay the groundwork for what became known as ‘The Maxi-Trial’ in which hundreds of Mafiosi were tried and convicted, in Palermo, in 1986.
Both of the these men had in effect confirmed that the massacre could not have taken place without the consent and approval of the local clan heads. And Fisichella would not have had the power to operate in Palermo without the approval of Benedetto Santapaola who in turn would have sought the blessing of the Mafia’s omnipotent czar in Sicily, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina.
The prosecutors in their summary, had hammered away at their belief that the crime was undoubtedly a crime of the Mafia. It was unthinkable that the murder of eight people committed in an area of strong Mafia presence, could be carried out without the permission of the Mafia boss of that area.
However, the presiding judges determined in their own strange and convoluted way that as these men, the boss of Catania and the two local clan chiefs, were not currently ‘on board’ so to speak, all three of them being fugitives from justice, then they could not have given their approval, and therefore could not have been responsible for what happened. There could be no connection. Therefore there could be no verdict of guilt.
Without this link being proved to the judge’s satisfaction, the case in their opinion, had no legs. Two minor players in the case, horse traders from the mainland, Biagio D’Amico and Rocco La Torre were acquitted on their charges of perjury
It may well have been a classic attribute substitution cognitive bias-making a complex, difficult judgement by unconsciously substituting an easier judgement
The judge’s decision was handed down on April 12th. 1988.
The wives and families of the murdered men had to gather together the broken threads of their lives and somehow carry on.
Pietra Lo Verso was the only one to come forward as a plaintiff at the trial.
In court, she came face-to-face with Antonino Fisichella, identifying him for the judge.
‘I’ve never seen this woman before in my life,’ he said.
‘You’ve had dinner in my house,’ Pietra replied. ‘I can tell you what you had to eat.’
The horse trader looked down at her and told her she was mad.
Unfortunately the judges agreed, and concluded her story was a wild exaggeration.
Following the furore generated by notorious Mafia killings prior to Piazza Scaffa- the 1971 assassination of Judge Pietro Scaglione, the murder of Carabinieri Colonel, Giuseppe Russo in 1977, and the blatant hit on the chief of the Palermo Squadro Mobile, Boris Giuliano, in a bar, in 1979, as well as the killing of Michele Reina, the Palermo head of the Democratic Party, in the same year, followed by the murders of Piersanti Mattarella, president of the Region of Sicily and Captain Emanuele Basile of the Carabinieri in 1980, and then the wholesale attack against the judicial system with the killing of Chief Prosecutor Gaetano Costa in August 1980, and the slaughter in 1983 of Judge Rocco Chinici and three others by a bomb placed in a car outside his apartment building- the massacre at Settecannoli/Branccacio aroused the interest of the Italian Parliament.
On October 23rd at a session of the IX Legislature in Rome, Vice-President Giuseppe Allaro fielded questions about the recent killings. Politicians demanded to know what measures the government intended to take for the prevention and repression of Mafia crimes. Slaughterhouse Square represented a most serious and blatant attack on society-a level of intimidation above and beyond the mere settling of score between gangs of criminals, but more an attack by the Mafia on the whole community.
The Mafia, for the previous 50 years, like Leafy Spurge, the weed that plagues the American West had been digging down and establishing roots that once established would be almost impossible to eradicate. Giuseppe Allaro and every sane man in the government knew it was not going away quickly.
The rampage and killings of the 70s and 80s, became a reign of terror generated by the ambition of Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina, the psychopathic terminator from the Corleone clan. He instigated the slaughter of hundreds of people- rivals in the Mafia, members of the judiciary, investigators and policemen, both state and carabinieri, reporters, businessmen, and the ones that would be known as excellent cadavers or ‘distinguished corpses,’ the servants of the state
And the hundreds of others- people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, including wives and children as well as husbands and brothers and fathers and boyfriends – using sawn-off shotguns, Kalashnikovs, acid vats, liquid cement, and the bombs, so many bombs, going off all over the island. And even worse if that could ever be possible, the ones who simply disappeared, recipients’ of what was known in the trade as lupara bianca, the white shotgun.
To paraphrase William Shakespeare, the politicians could protest too much, but to what avail?
Jonathon Jones a journalist with The Guardian newspaper claims the art of politics is an Italian invention - politics as a self-conscious way of acting and thinking. A modern awareness that human affairs are not transparent, but devious, complex and unpredictable, dates from the Italian Renaissance with its mixture of ruthlessness, ambition, fantasy, failure and self-knowledge given voice by the first modern political thinker, Niccolò Machiavelli. The Mafia may have been alive then, in some form or another, and if so, would have undoubtedly agreed.
As long as the balance of power within the Christian Democratic Party lay with the votes controlled by the men of the Mafia in Sicily, the truth would also be the first victim.
In the exquisite novel The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about a Sicily in perpetual transition, the author describes the instability of truth in Sicily: ‘Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily: a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, annihilated by imagination and self-interest: shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves on the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether’
Giuseppe di Lampedusa ruminated in his book:
‘This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments to the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us... All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.’
The principal character in the book, the Prince of Salina, claims that Sicily’s passion is a love affair with death; that a desire for the grave obsesses the island's culture and will seep out of Sicily to poison the new Italy.
‘Our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic vices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again.’
In Sicilian tradition, the drive for power and the accumulation of riches are considered a prelude of death. The Mafioso acts with the finality of someone running a race he knows he is destined to lose. Giovanni Falcone, in his last interview with French journalist Marcelle Padovani referred to the Mafia as the ‘culture of death,’ insisting that this qualification applied not only to the Mafia, but also to everything
Sicilian. He went on to say:
‘Solitude, pessimism, death are the themes of our literature from Pirandello to Sciascia. It is as if we were people who have lived too long and all of a sudden feel tired, drained, emptied, like Don Fabrizio in The Leopard. Affinities between Sicily and the Mafia are many. I surely am not the first to say so. If I do it is not to incriminate all Sicilians. On the contrary I do it to make clear what is the battle against Cosa Nostra. It requires not only a specialization in the subject of organized crime, but also a special interdisciplinary preparation.’
As 1984 was drawing to a close, Sicily had to be content with the anguish and sorrow generated by the slaughter at Slaughterhouse Square of the eight unfortunates who were simply trying to make a living in a city that at times seemed a hopelessly inhospitable place, as a way of satiating this desire.
It was becoming all too obvious that the state had become a sclerotic element in the presence of Mafia intimidation-a simulacra of a government lost to the trade-winds of a force beyond its control.
There were at least ten more years of agony and heartbreak ahead for an island in the sun that seemed to live most of the time in the dark shadow of death.
Pietro Vernego, Benedetto Santapaolo and Carmelo Zanca were all eventually arrested and are now serving life sentences at prisons across Italy for various acts of criminality. Antonino Fisichella and the two other men from Catania province disappeared from public view and are now merely names on documents archived and consigned to history.
Clara Hemphill, the American author and former CBS television reporter, visited the widows of the slain men in November, 1984. She found them living in vast, anonymous housing estates in the poor, working-class districts of the city.
With their husbands dead, they struggled to manage their family lives and survive in a society that seemingly had little time for people who lived on the fringes of the underworld. The deck was stacked against them, these popolini, the underclass of Sicily, and their future was uncertain. Their will to even just survive, would be a true sfrida, a challenge, but one beyond monumental.
The men who killed the butcher Quattrocchi and the other seven men that night, not only destroyed their victims, they also dislocated their families for a generation, or more. And what may have been worse, with their men gone, it was after all for really nothing, and the dead were soon like all the dead, history.
Giovanna Terranova the widow of Judge Cesare Terranove, assassinated by the Mafia five years before Slaughter House Square, remembered, ‘Being killed is terrible, but being forgotten is even worse. It’s like dying twice.’
And for why?
To satisfy greed or anger or avenge an insult?
Or did the killings take place simply to send this message to the authorities:
The Mafia was still the boss, and that the revelations of Buscetta and Contorno and all the pentiti to follow, and the Maxi-Trial and the prison sentences, would simply create a stumble, but the Mafia would never fall down, no matter what the State tried to do.
It was here to stay and everyone would have to just settle down and accept that.
Read more of Thom L. Jones' articles in his Mob Corner.
Copyright © Thom L. Jones. 2011