By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
It was a trip into the countryside
Off to see some people.
Business to attend, lunch, in a township clinging high on the top of Sicani Mountain, with views to the south across the endless hills and valleys to the Strait of Sicily, and beyond, to North Africa.
Fifteen miles along the major highway, SS118, a relaxing journey on a typical August morning in 1958: hot, rising to 100 degrees, and sunny in a cloudless sky.
None of the planets in alignment this time, however. For the two doctors of Corleone, it will be a terrible day.
Giovanni Russo is driving the Fiat 1100. A young, progressive and enthusiastic medical practitioner, an assistant to the man beside him. Married, and the first baby soon due. His entire life lies ahead, except it doesn’t.
His passenger, thick-set, tending to corpulent, fifty-three, is Michele Navarra.
A creature of changeable moods and seriousness, as though everything is a bother; the burden of authority is never straightforward. He rarely smiles. His world is heavy. Nothing ever simple and easy.
A weaver of economic and political force in a place that is the crossroads. If Sicily is a wheel, Corleone is its hub.
He lives in a house with eleven rooms on a square off the Via San Martino with his wife, Tommasso Cascio, who is also his first cousin. Consanguinity is common here in the south of Italy and has been for generations.
Someone once remarked, “Sicily is not a dish for the timid.”
The largest island in the Mediterranean, it’s a smorgasbord of history and a more mysterious and isolated society than anywhere in Europe, where at the turn of the 20th Century the crime rate was the highest.
Michele Navarra knew more of transgression than the farm workers and peasants who filled the streets of a place notorious for its share of murders and killings. It’s a social wasteland of coppole e lupare (caps and shotguns,) as desolate as it is ambiguous. Like Tywin Lannister, the doctor did not concern himself with the opinions of the sheep. He was a lion.
Where the valorization of the honored society has existed for generations, no one messed with the doctor.
Padrone of the district’s Mafia, with fingers in many other pies.
The Don. Numero Uno. The Big Boss.*
District doctor, chief physician at the hospital, after his predecessor, Carmelo Nicolosi is murdered in 1946, superintendent for the health insurance schemes for nine communities, specialist to the regional railway, founder, and head of a major bus company that exists to this day. A political rouser for the Christian Democrats. Renowned across the region as a gallopino, a party hustler without peer.
Networking across the provinces with fearsome Mafia chiefs such as Calogero Vizzini, Giuseppe Genco Russo, Vanni Sacco, and many of the Palermo City clan bosses, he’d assumed control of the Corleone Mafia family in 1943, on the death of its then boss, Calogero lo Bue, from diabetes complications.
Navarra is a man for all seasons.
In the height of summer, for him, winter is coming.
He and Russo will drive to Prizzi, a town which lies to the south of Corleone, then a further twelve miles east to Lercara Friddi.
An insignificant place, although once, a one of distinction, referred to as Piccolo Palermo, Little Palermo. Renowned world-wide for its sulfur mines and even then, two of its citizens who left the township, emigrated to America, and became world notable, for singular reasons.
One a gangster of eminence. The other, a common man, fathered a child in the promised land who grew up to be a crooner, then an actor, and a celebrity bigger than Italy itself.
The criminal Salvatore Lucania, we remember best as Charlie Luciano, dean of the New York underworld. He moved to New York in 1907 at age ten. The other, ordinary man’s son, christened Francesco, today is better known as Frank, as in Sinatra.
The commune was also the birthplace of the Sicilian Mafia’s first 20th Century Excellent Cadaver, notable corpse-Judge Pietro Scaglione. The Mafia will murder him in 1971 in Palermo. The man who helps to kill him is waiting, somewhere along the way, for the two doctors.
When they finished their working part of the trip, and perhaps enjoyed lunch, with Nino Scoma, the local Mafia boss, the two men started the return drive to Corleone.
They would have talked little. Glances, eye movements, the sounds of silence which exercises power more emphatically than a thousand words in the presence of a man such as Navarra.
In the late afternoon, their empty road is suddenly crowded.
As there were no witnesses to the crime, what’s known is from police reconstruction and a reporter’s interpretation.
L’Ora, (The Hour,) a Palermo daily newspaper, received a tip from a known and trusted source in Corleone, and dispatched a reporter and photographer on a two-hour automobile trip from the city into some of western Sicily’s most beautiful landscape.
When they arrived at the murder scene, near six in the evening, for the cameraman, Nicola Scafidi, there is one moment to take an image: The Fiat pushed off the highway and over a slight embankment.
Riddled with bullet holes, most of them located across the door on the passenger side, windows blown out, front end mashed, bonnet twisted. Doctor Russo slumped in the driver’s seat, sightless eyes staring forever at the horror just experienced. Navarra is not visible. Crumpled over from the impact of the barrage, his head lies in Russo’s lap.
One of the most famous and iconic images in the history of the Sicilian Mafia, taken by one of Sicily’s greatest photo-journalists.
Shell casings litter the ground, over a hundred, although the autopsies on the bodies show the killers hit each man less than ten times. In the ambush, investigators decide the killers had used at least two sub-machine guns and many semi-automatic pistols.
The murders occurred on the highway in the district of Portella Imbriaca deep in the Sosio Valley. This is the “long” way back to Corleone, west then north through Bisaquino. Maybe Navarra is visiting other people before returning home. We’ll never know. The small, rural town in Palermo, like many in this part of Sicily, was Mafia and had been for a hundred years, or more.
Another mystery is how the gunmen figured out the route of the Fiat on that day. There were two vehicles used by the killers. They had to come from somewhere. Filled with gunmen, locked and loaded. At least seven of them. Perhaps ten.
In a place where nothing is what it seems, two vehicles arriving seemingly from nowhere, packed with killers, to bushwhack a third car might appear to be almost a normal event.
About five miles west of Palazzo Adriano, Doctor Russo finds he is trailing an Alfa Romeo 1900 Super, plate number PA 31500. Coming up in his rear mirror is a commercial van.
As the convoy round a tight bend, the Alfa suddenly breaks, and Russo smashes into its back, damaging the cars and scattering rear light glass fragments across the road. The police traced them to a vehicle belonging to Giuseppe Leggio. He tells the police he’d bought it in July, but the car had been stolen seven days before the shooting.
Unfortunately for him, while driving the car in Palermo City on August 1, the day before the attack on the doctors, Leggio had been issued a traffic summons. That put him on the spot. His alibi for the killing day was a visit to the National Cinema in Palermo. It was closed for renovations.
The commercial vehicle following Navarra, crashes into the rear of the Fiat. A week after the killings, police discover a red Leoncini truck hidden in a building on the Piano della Scala estate near Corleone. Its bumper was crushed and a headlight smashed.
Twenty-four-year-old Giuseppe was related to another Leggio, called Luciano, who ran a gang within the Mafia of Corleone. The farmstead was Luciano Leggio’s (right) operational base for his criminal activities in the region.
He and Navarra had butted heads for months.
Originally, a mentor and tyro relationship, their rapport dissolved to where no doubt the doctor ruminated on a saying attributed to Salvatore Giuliano, possibly the most notorious bandit, ever, in Sicily, until his mysterious death in 1950, “God protect me from my friends, I can take care of my enemies.”
The greatest philosopher the East has ever known, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, saw desire as the cause of all suffering. Leggio, born and raised in abject poverty, searched, obsessively, for wealth. It was his driving force. Growing up with nothing, he wanted everything.
Navarra lusted only after power. It was an uneven battle. If rock always beats scissors, power is helpless in the face of Mammon.
Their struggle for dominance came to a head when the government proposed a dam on the Belici River to the north-west of Corleone.
Leggio saw the numbers-trucks, haulage contracts, construction, labor provision- an endless revenue stream to line his pockets.
Navarra, along with his cronies, controlled the artesian wells in the district and their supply. Their tightfisted policy maintained price and distribution. Just as OPEC has done for the last sixty years. If oil lubricates the engine of the world, the ultimate power in an agrarian province is those who hold the water.
Giuseppe Leggio spends time in and out of prisons until he disappeared in 1988, a white-shotgun death as the Mafia called it; gone without trace, during another internal war, involving Gaetano Grado.
Luciano Leggio and his mob had patented this method of removal, at least on the scale they used during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The police investigation of the murders leads them to Mafiosi and their associates in Corleone, connecting them to the killing scene.
These, besides Giuseppe Leggio, include Luciano Leggio, who had masterminded it, Giuseppe “Peppino” Ruffino, (his number two,) Innocenze Ferrara, Pietro Ferrara, Calogero Bagarella, Bernardo Provenzano (left), Salvatore Riina and his cousin Giacomo, and another Leggio, this one, Francesco. Men from multi-generalization Mafia families in and around the town.
Most were in the gang that ambushed and slaughtered the two doctors of Corleone. Several will be dead before others go to prison for their part in the killings. Ruffino, perhaps as vicious as Leggio, dies in the yard of a house near Monreale, in 1967. For a man of his pedigree, ironically, it was natural causes.
Found guilty of the murders, a trial in Bari, Puglia, in 1970, sentences Luciano Leggio to life imprisonment although he will not begin serving this until 1974 when captured after many years evading justice.
A man of homicidal ferocity, earning a reputation in Corleone, and across Palermo province, as someone sanguinoso, or bloodthirsty. It’s been claimed he killed over forty. One of his victims may have been Doctor Nicolosi, whose sudden death so precipitously advanced the career of the man called Michele Navarra.
His family held the funeral in San Marino, the mother church of Corleone, on August 4. The media reported its nave packed, as is the adjoining town square. No one figured out how many were mourning his death and how many celebrating it. In a town where misery and grief leaked into the streets like rain from house gutters, it was difficult to tell.
A brass plaque mounted on a pew near the front of the church, commemorated him as an outstanding citizen of Corleone. For fifty-nine years it sat there, until its removal in August 2017, by order of the Prefect of Palermo, Antonella De Miro and Michele Pennisi, Archbishop of Monreale. It was a long time in coming, but finally someone figured out celebrating a Mafia killer in a church might be, at the least, inappropriate.
Nowhere in the town is there a memorial to Giovanni Russo.
Sixty-two-years after the guns echoed across an empty land, and the world became apocalypse for the two doctors, Michele Navarra lies buried in the Corleone cemetery, along with his killers, or most of them.
Calogero Bagarella died in a Mafia shoot-out in Palermo, in 1969, and is rumored illegally interned in someone's grave. Luciano Leggio is gone in 1993, Provenzano in 2016, and the last one, Riina, three years ago. The town found room for them all in its crowded resting place, filled with Mafia gunmen and Mafia victims.
Everyone dies. Some become history, the rest, memories.
Giovanni Russo the other doctor of Corleone is one of these. There is nothing in the public domain that suggests he even existed. Nothing is on record of his funeral and where he lies buried. What happened to his wife and unborn child?
He may have been from Palermo. It’s possible he worked at an outpatient clinic in Lercara Friddi, sponsored by Michele Navarra, and the Corleone hospital. He is a maze that leads us nowhere.
Searching for Doctor Russo is staring at the moon through black glasses. Shapes and outline. No detail.
Akin to collateral damage everywhere, he’s a victim of fate. A thread of human destiny broken and unraveled from the fabric of life.
A journey into the countryside one day in August ended it.
It happens like that.
*Francesco Di Carlo, once the Mafia capo of Palermo’s Altafone district, became a pentiti (informant) in the 1990s.
In his testimony, he claimed that Michele Navarra was never the boss of Corleone. That position was held by Nino Governale, until he mysteriously disappeared in April 1957. At some time-frame before Navarra’s murder, the Mafia Cuppola (Commission) had transferred the mandate for the region from Corleone to Prizzi and made its boss, Nino Scoma, the local head of Cosa Nostra.
It’s tantalizing to contemplate that he was linked to the killing of the two doctors. I could image him making a telephone call that afternoon to a group of men waiting in Palazzo Adriano, less than thirty minutes away by car. Ready to hit the road. They were there, waiting, because Scoma had been their go-to since day one of the murder plot. Maybe.
Di Carlo died in Paris, in April of this year from corona-virus. He was seventy-nine.
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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.