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Three good men and their fight to the death against the Sicilian Mafia: Giovanni Falcone (Part 2)

This is part 2 of Three good men and their fight to the death against the Sicilian Mafia: Giovanni Falcone. To read part 1 click here.

By Thom L. Jones

Salvatore Riina had tried to kill the judge many times. In 1985, his men were supposed to attack him with a rocket-launcher on Strada della Favorita, but the attacking team called it off when they discovered how many bodyguards they would have to fight off. When the Mafia murder people, especially in the open, they never operate like gun-ho killers. Their safety is as important to them as the fate of their victim.

During the Great Mafia Trial, while Falcone was holidaying in Piazza Valdese, near the waterfront in Mondello, they went after him again. The plan was to destroy their target using truck-mounted Katyusha missiles, but for some reason, the exercise was aborted. One weekend in 1986, a group broke into Villa Baucina Pottino, a Palermo historical monument building. This time they were going to machine-gun Falcone as he left his apartment on Via Notarbartolo, across the street. Heavy police patrols in the area, scared them off.

In 1989 while the judge and his wife were taking a break from work, renting a villa at Addaura, a bag full of primed dynamite was discovered on the beach, outside their bedroom.

Investigation of this incident revealed the unsettling possibility that the explosives may have been planted by agents of the Italian secret service, (SISDE) linked into the Mafia.(4)

Falcone himself believed the man behind this attack was Bruno Contrado, then, a senior investigator in the special division who went on to become head of the agency.

Into April, the killing plan for Judge Falcone slowly evolved. The main directors emerged as Raffaele Ganci, Salvatore Biondino and Salvatore Cancemi, working directly under Riina. Pietro Rampolla from the Madonie cosca, an expert in the field of explosives, was recruited into the team as was Eugenio Galea a high-ranking member of the Catania Mafia. He was Riina’s link to Nitto Santapaolo, Western Siciliy’s biggest Mafia don, and a close friend to Shorty.

At a meeting held in the home of Girolamo Guddo, boss of Altarello, near Boccadifalco airport, Giovanni Brusca was added to organize the sourcing of explosives and detonators for a massive bomb the Mafia was planning to use to destroy Judge Falcone. Brusca had contacts through blood family into quarries across the island. Once the bomb was ready, all they had to do was find the place to plant it. They were working on that.

Biondino, who ran a trucking business, knew all the roads in the area near the airport and had found the perfect place to hide the huge explosive device after checking out and rejecting three subways and a tunnel.

Following the Maxi-Trial, in March 1998, the Italian Supreme Court appointed Antonino Meli as Senior Prosecutor in Palermo. He replaced Caponnetto who himself had replaced Rocco Chinici, the first magistrate to have been killed by the Mafia using a bomb as the murder weapon. Within two weeks, Meli dismantled the Anti-Mafia pool. The first enemies of judges are, it seems, judges.

Everyone assumed this job would be Falcone’s, but he had fallen victim to courtroom and Senate politics. He resigned from his position, but then withdrew this, and carried on prosecuting criminals.**

In April 1991, after a meeting with the Justice Ministry, he accepted a transfer to Rome, to become director of Penal Affairs. To the surprise of many, Falcone's move to Rome was successful. He achieved a genuine revolution in the judiciary. The Mafia began to understand that Falcone was even more dangerous in Rome than he had been in Palermo

He is now working in the seventh government under Giulio Andreotti. His wife, Francesca, stayed in Palermo at her job with the children's court, and they would visit each other most weekends. Riina knew this. According to Salvatore Cancemi, he had spies in Rome, in Palermo and also at the airport north of the city. They reported daily to Riina. As they waited and watched, Brusca and his crew prepared an explosive device of massive proportions. They knew where it was going. Now, they would wait for the tell.

Brusca had organized for the delivery of the bomb ingredients to a deserted old, stone farm shed on the hillside, about 700 meters from the proposed bomb site. Gioacchino La Barbera had collected the plastic bins that would be used to pack the explosives, in a Jeep Patrol, from a house in Altofonte, about a 30 minutes’ drive south of the Palermo Airport and delivered them here where Brusca and his team would create the enormous device.

On May 8th., a group of men dressed as construction workers arrived with a truck and parked near a drainage culvert on the south side of the A29 motorway, on the bend, just before the Capaci turn-off.

This gang, Giovan Battista Ferrante, Biondino, Antonino Troia, Rampulla, Brusca, La Barbera, Antonino Gioe and Giovanni Battaglia worked late into the night, guarded by Riina’s maniac brother-in-law, Leolucca Bagarella, standing watch, armed with a Kalashnikov machine gun.

Using skateboards, they manhandled over 400 kilos of TNT and Semtex packed in 13 white, plastic bins into the small tunnel under the highway. They set the priming device using a modified model aircraft guidance system, and it was ready to go. Before they left, they blocked the entrance to the drain with an old fridge. There was a reason for this. And it was not just to keep prying eyes away.

Ironically, the road the killers would have used to access the scruffy, little park abutting the culvert is Via Cesare Terranova, named after the judge shot dead by the Mafia in 1979 and whose place would be taken by Rocco Chinici, murdered by the Mafia in 1983, killed by a bomb remotely exploded using a similar trigger.

Raffale Ganci, who many sources believe was Riina’s right-hand man, and his sons Domenico, Stefano, and Calogero, ran a popular butcher shop on Via Fransesco Loiacono in the city. Falcone’s wife would often shop there for her lamb chops as the owner and his friends plotted the murder of her husband. Behind the Falcone’s apartment building, in a courtyard off Via Giocchino di Marzo, the state kept his official car, guarded 24/7 by the police from a nearby kiosk. It was an armor-plated, white, four-door Fiat Croma. One of the Ganci sons would track the car’s movements every day by scooter.

The commando team watching and waiting this third week in May near the airport, had been on alert on the Thursday and Friday.

On Saturday, May 23rd, Domenico watched Falcone’s driver, Giuseppe Costanza start the car and head off into Palermo’s teeming traffic. He pulled away and followed. When he realized it was heading north towards the airport, he got on the cell phone. The tell had been revealed. Falcone was incoming.

He rang Battista Ferrante. “The meat has arrived,” is all he says. Ferrante then rings Brusca who, with a small group, Gioe, Biondino and Battaglia, is waiting by the abandoned little stone house on the side of the mountain above the airport.

Falcone and his wife left the airport at Ciampino, 12 kilometers south of Rome, flying to Sicily on a chartered jet hired by SISDE. The flight was secret and unscheduled. No one was supposed to know he was coming to Palermo. They touched down at Punta Raisi Airport after 4:30 pm. Waiting near the aircraft were his seven bodyguards, including Costanza. They have three Croma’s: Falcone’s white one, a brown and a blue one. The men are heavily armed. They know what to do.

Ferrante, who along with Salvatore Biondo is in a car at the airport terminal, identifies Falcone getting off his plane and then calls La Barbera, sitting near the Carini roundabout, 11 kilometers to the east, in his Lancia Delta hatchback. He’s parked near the Johnny Walker Bar, a favorite Cosa Nostra meeting place. He will pace the judge and his bodyguards in their cars, using a road adjacent to the motorway, to make sure that the bomb is triggered at exactly the right spot.

The judge loves to drive. Maybe it’s a release valve for all the restrictions his working life imposes. And he drives fast, like most Sicilians. From the airport to his apartment in the city should take about thirty minutes or less, at least to the exit from the motorway at Via Lazio Circle. Costanza sits in the back, Francesca up front with her husband. This is what saves the bodyguard.

They set off with Falcone ratcheting up the speed to 140 kph on the autostrada. As they hit the outside lane, heading towards the Capaci exit sign, Costanza reminds the judge he needs the spare car key off the bunch sitting on the dashboard. Falcone slows momentarily as he passes them back, allowing the second car in the convoy to jump ahead. This is how the bodyguards prefer it, their leader sandwiched between them. Following them at a safe distance, La Barbera is clocking the rate of speed and talking on his cell phone to Antonio Gioe up on the hillside beneath Capaci Mountain, who is watching the road through a telescope, tracking the convoy as it hits the magic marker, the old white fridge blocking the culvert entrance fifty meters west of the Palermo/Capaci overhead road signs. Next to him is Brusca. In his hand, the detonator that will change everything, for everyone, forever.

“Vai, vai,” Gioe shouts, “Go, go.” Brusca presses the switch.

In his testimony, years later, as a pentito, Brusca (right) recounted: “I saw a great smoke, a fiammantazione, a blaze of fire….I saw something very, very terrible.”

The National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology station at Monte Cammarata, 65 kilometers south-east of the bomb site by direct line, on the afternoon of May 23, 1992, at 4 minutes and 32 seconds before six that evening, registered a small earthquake with its epicenter between the towns of Isola delle Femmine and Capaci. The exact site of the massive detonation.

The motorway erupted as though a giant fist had punched it from beneath. The brown lead Fiat, containing agents Antonio Montinaro, Rocco Dicillo, and Vito Schifani disappears in the huge cloud of smoke and dust that erupts from the monstrous crater over 50 meters in diameter. Their smashed, crumpled, shredded car is found early the next morning over 100 meters north of the motorway lodged in an olive grove. The three men had died instantly.

Cars are thrown and overturned on the road, over twenty passing motorists injured, although none fatally. Falcone crashes into the motorway concrete retaining wall, his car engine ripped from its chassis. The trailing escort car tumbles into the hole. The three agents, injured and confused, scramble to help the judge. He and his wife are rushed to hospital. At 6:47 pm, a doctor signs Giovanni Falcone’s death certificate: Cardiac Arrest. His wife dies at 11 pm that evening, from internal injuries. Her last words are, “Giovanni, where is he. How is my husband?”

As La Barbara pulls away from the scene of the massacre, he rings Gioe one last time:

 “Vabbè ci vediamo stasera, amuninni a mangiari 'na pizza.”

 “Okay, let’s go, see you tonight for pizza.”  

According to pentiti, Riina and his close friends celebrated the death of Falcone at the home of Girolamo Guddo, downing copious glasses of very expensive French champagne, that Guddo had brought in by the crate. Santo Di Matteo, one of the group, who became an informer, turned and whispered to a close friend, “This cuckold (Riina) will be the ruin of us.” He was absolutely right on the mark.

It was an explosion that would shake not only Sicily and Italy but also the world. Falcone’s death changed the life of a nation, according to Bolzoni. “The First Republic died and Italy became a swamp.”

The killing of Giovanni Falcone was a warning to the state. It was part of the war against the Mafia. And Italy was losing. After the assassination, Pino Arlacchi, a leading academic expert on organized crime wrote: “The assassination is not a challenge to the state. It is an indisputable victory over the state and its laws. It is a defeat for everyone working for a moral and political renewal in Italy. If Cosa Nostra had eliminated a very senior politician or prime minister, it would not have had the same effect. The devastating consequences of this crime will be felt for months and years.”

Francesco Lauricella, the Caltanisetta magistrate who would lead the inquiry and prosecution of the Mafiosi who carried out the killing of Judge Falcone, highlighted a fundamental difference between Mafia terrorism and political terrorism. “For political terrorists, the ultimate end is a state that has been defeated, whereas for the Mafia it is a state that is complicit. Paradoxically, the Mafia needs and efficient, but biddable, state apparatus. The Mafia thrives on efficient institutions and organizations, provided it can influence them.”

Riina would kill Giovanni Falcone in Palermo rather than Rome, to show Italy who was in control of Sicily. Killing off their enemies, the Corleonesi called it la puliziata di pedi, the washing of the feet.

When asked to comment on the “Capaci Massacre,” as the slaughter would become known, Norberto Bobbio, the country’s leading legal and political philosopher, claimed: “I am ashamed of being Italian.”

Less than two months later, Judge Paolo Borsellino, who had taken over the fight against the Mafia after his close friend Falcone had moved to Rome, was killed, along with 5 bodyguards in another massive explosion by a car bomb as he visited his mother’s apartment in Palermo. In September that year, Cosa Nostra completed Riina’s quadruple hit on the men he hated and blamed for the Maxi-Trial and its outcome. They shot dead Ignazio Salvo as he was entering his sumptuous seaside villa at Santa Flavia. His brother, Nino, had died of cancer in 1986.

The state’s reaction to the attack on the state was predictable. Hysterical, confused, bewildered, politicians, as they always do, blamed everyone but themselves. In the world that Falcone inhabited, there was only one thing that had to be done. Track down and arrest Riina. He had been an evasive shadow, on the run for 23 years.

In the end, they caught Shorty where he had always been. Hiding in plain sight. His children were born in a private hospital in the heart of Palermo. They went to public schools. The family had doctors and dentists who they visited as any normal family would. The children were vaccinated at local health authority 58 on Via Giacomo Cusmano. He would visit places like Trapani, using the train service, or sometimes catch a bus or taxi if his driver was not available. At times, he would take his wife and children out in his white Mercedes to visit friends or shop. Everywhere he went there were policemen, but no one recognized him.

It’s alleged he owned property in Quala on the island of Gozo, Malta, and would frequently visit, at least once in a gray Maserati, the first ever seen on the island. He would breakfast in St Francis Square with his lawyer. He came here on his honeymoon. It seems everyone, including the cops knew who he was, but, nobody seems to have noticed him.

Attilio Bolzoni called them “The Ghost Family” of Palermo.(1)

The Mafia boss would leave home each morning after breakfast with the family: Mr. Bellomo, the surveyor, off to work, where he would meet his associates in bars and restaurants at the seaside of Mondello, or the rustic atmosphere of Monreale, or in the teeming streets of Palermo. One of his favorite destinations was Francu ú Piscaturi, a seafood restaurant near the beach in Santa Flavia, where he would enjoy long and no doubt enjoyable lunches with his inner circle of liquidators and psychopaths. He probably broke bread here with Ignazio Salvo, the man he would have terminated on September 17th. during that year of the dead.

According to Riina’s son, Salvo, he always returned home to have dinner with his wife and children, each night, after a day in the killing fields.

Giovanni Falcone was born in May and died in May.

Salvatore Riina was born in November and died on November 17th, 2017.

Many months earlier, he had been admitted into a special penitentiary wing at the University Clinic in Parma, which lies 128 kilometers south of Milan, for medical care. He was suffering from cancer of the kidneys, heart failure, and advanced Parkinson’s disease. He died at 3:37 in the morning following an induced coma as his health deteriorated after surgery. It was reported his wife was by his bedside at the end, although there is some dispute about this. At the time of his death, he was under indictment for threatening the life of the Opera (Milan) Prison chief, Giacinto Siciliano. Riina had been incarcerated there for many years.

At 87, he was not the oldest Mafioso to have been in prison hospital care that year. That honor belonged to 95-year-old Giuseppe Farinello, the former head of the Madonie area, in eastern Sicily. Don Peppino had been a close friend and supporter of Riina during the great mafia war. The old boss died on September 5th two months before Riina.

There has been a proposal that Riina be allowed to return to his home in Corleone and die in peace, surrounded by his family. Just like his victims. The people he had shot and strangled and dissolved in sulfuric acid and blown up. Maybe 150. Maybe more. One a child. It’s hard to believe that men of the law, judges of the high court could even contemplate such a decision, but it had been suggested, although eventually rejected by magistrates in Bologna.(5)

He did come home, in the end, to be buried, on Wednesday, 22 November, in the crowded, salmagundi cemetery, filled with the bones of his peers and all those standard bearers of the great Mafia culture that had filled the town for generations. If a cemetery is the dead center of a town, the one in Corleone more than fulfills its obligation to the criminal organization that had made Sicily so notorious, for so long.

It was a small, private, family funeral, apart from the dozens of police and scores of media desperate for that one last image of the coffin covered in white flowers as it passed through the creaking gate on Via Guardia.

Close to the Riina family tomb lies the remains of Bernardo Provenzano, his successor, and Luciano Leggio, their mentor, who had taken over the Corleone Mafia family in 1958 following a protracted and bloody lethiferous war to gain control of the town, from Michele Navarra who is also buried here, along with Angelo Di Carlo and Giuseppe Ruffino, Angelo Gagliano, Calogero Lo Bue, the Marino brother, Pietro Maiuri and many more so-called men of honor. A coterie of evil unlike anything seen before from such a sleepy bucolic town so small and seemingly insignificant.

The cemetery is also filled with their victims. Somehow, they never seem to get this kind of attention.

On June 3, 2015, the remains of Giovanni Falcone were transferred from his grave in Sant’Orsola and interned in a special, dedicated crypt in Chiesa San Domenico, a centuries-old church in the heart of Palermo. Because it holds the remains of so many famous Sicilians, it is known as "Pantheon of illustrious Sicilians". This was where Sicily and Italy and the world itself, came to pay their respects, at his funeral, three days after his murder. His sister, Maria, stated the move had been effected in order that it would become easier for people to visit and pay their respects for a man she said who was not just the anti-Mafia judge, but a man who believed in the meaning of justice and the rights of the people.

In the Bible, Second Timothy, it says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

It’s a tribute that so perfectly describes Giovanni Falcone.

At times, it seems that Italy in terms of its justice system, in not only beyond belief, but also redemption. In less than ten years, three good men of the law died violently because Italy refused to protect them. They were servants of a state which abandoned them in order to safeguard its corrupted, self-serving agenda. One of survival, at any cost.

On June 1st, 1946, Italy voted to become a republic rather than a monarchy and was governed for most of its duration by the Christian Democratic Party, the most conservative mainstream political party in Italy, which in turn needed the votes of Sicily to maintain its majority in the Senate. Throughout its parliamentary history, there were suspicions about its ties to the Mafia who allegedly guaranteed the Sicilian voting block in return for favors to be granted.

Paradoxically, less than a year after the “Capaci Massacre,” the party was itself a victim of a massacre. But this one was political, resulting in the dissolution and the ending of the First Republic.

William Shakespeare claimed in Hamlet, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” If he was writing today, he might easily be thinking of the Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Italian Senate in Rome, where daily, the members gather like vultures to feed on the dreams and frustrations of their electorates.

                                Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.  - Scott Fitzgerald

(1) Attilio Bolzoni and Giuseppe D’ Avanzo. Il Capo Dei Capi. Bureau Biblioteca Univ. Rizzoli, 2007

Along with official state documents, trial transcripts and newspaper reports, this book was a major source of reference for the story.

(2) The Italian legal system is quite different from that of America or Britain. Magistrato, which would translate as a magistrate in English, in Italy means a judicial officer, either a judge (giudici) or prosecutor (pubblici ministeri.)

(3) Marcello Padovani. Cose di Cosa Nostra. Biblioteca universale Rizzoli. 1997.

(4) Alexander Stille. Excellent Cadavers. Jonathan Cape Ltd. London. 1995

(5) On June 5th, 2017, Italy’s highest court, The Supreme Court of Cassation, ruled he had a right to “die with dignity” under house arrest like any other terminally ill prisoner. The final decision, however, rested with the parole board in Bologna, near Parma, which rejected the petition from Riina’s lawyers.

** The period between the end of the Maxi-Trial and Falcone’s appointment to the Italian Penal Service was a turbulent time for the judge. He became a victim of back-stabbing, character assassination and intrigue at the Palace of Justice in Palermo, often referred to as “The Palace of Poisons,” criticized by Leoluca Orlando, the Mayor of Palermo, who asserted that Falcone had hidden evidence, (although interestingly, Orlando presided over Falcone’s second marriage in a private ceremony,) had been vigorously condemned by the Giornale di Sicilia, the island’s major daily newspaper, which was fiercely anti-Falcone, as well as being attacked by a myriad of Rome-based politicians jealous of his success and popularity with the masses.

A series of five anonymous letters circulated within the Palace of Justice charging Falcone with manipulating the return of pentiti Salvatore Contorno to help further the judge's career moves and popularity in his fight against the Mafia.

There is no doubt that all of this encouraged him to vacate his magisterial duties and move to Rome.

The transfer was initially seen as a capitulation by Falcone, but he himself thought of it as a tactical move to better fight the Mafia. At the time of his death, he was in line to be promoted to the position of Ant-Mafia prosecutor for Italy. This was a closely guarded secret, but evidence from pentiti indicates Riina was aware and decided to kill the judge before this promotion could take place. 

This is part 2 of Three good men and their fight to the death against the Sicilian Mafia: Giovanni Falcone. To read part 1 click here.

For more of Thom L. Jones' stories go to his Mob Corner on Gangsters Inc.

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Comment by John Ramsey on February 20, 2019 at 10:57am

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino as well as Falcone's wife and countless police,bodyguards and other innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were not carried out by so called 'Men of Honour',they were killed by criminal thugs of the worst order.Barring a few exceptions,the American Cosa Nostra would never dream of committing such evil crimes.

Men of Honour they are not.

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