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Three Good Men: Life and death in Sicily fighting the Mafia

By Thom L. Jones

Sometimes, history makes us remember and then, at times, helps us to forget.

It’s easy to recall the first iPhone that was launched in 2007 and would come to change everything we have ever known about personal communication. Mention a judge who was blown up by the Mafia in 1983, and eyes glaze and heads shake and no one knows what to say. That is because memory is never shaped in a vacuum. It is governed by forces which transcend mere impulse. It is formed by associations that seem important to us, at least at the time.

Novelist Rabih Alameddine argues for the importance of forgetting. “When we forget, we become capable of managing the complexities of the world,” he claims. However, Shakespeare believed memory was the warden of the brain. In other words, memory is so precious, it needs protection.

On balance, it’s maybe always better to remember than forget. Especially when the brave die.

This is the first story in a series of three, about men, who lived and died in Sicily fighting the Mafia. There at least, they are still remembered, by the people who matter most: their family, friends, and colleagues.

The First One: Rocco Chinnici.

He once remarked, a mere four months before his death, “The worst thing that can happen to me is to be killed. I hope that, if it happens, the men with me would not be harmed.” He was to be proved right and wrong on both counts.

An honest magistrate. Born and raised in Sicily, he and his wife had three children. Caterina, the only girl, is also a magistrate and is today, five years older than her father was when he died. The vagaries of time have no respect for the passing of the years.

Rocco Chinnici was born in Misilmeri, 18 kilometers southeast of Palermo, on January 19, 1925. After completing his studies at the Liceo Classico Umberto I, an academic high school in the city, he attended the Faculty of Law, at the University of Palermo, graduating in 1947, while working at the Office of the Register of Misilmeri, to generate an income, trying to ease the burden on his family in the austerity of the postwar years.

In Misilmeri, he met Agata Passalacqua, a science teacher at Middle School, who became his wife.

In 1952, he was transferred to the judiciary in the west of Palermo Province. After the first two years at the Court of Trapani as a legal auditor, he was assigned to the District Court of Partanna, where he remained for twelve years, during which time, he and his wife had three children. From 1966, he worked at the Court of Palermo, first as a judge, and then as adjunct instructor adviser, then, in 1979 he was promoted to instructor counselor.

He had been the investigative judge in the inquiry into the Viale Lazio Massacre when the Mafia killed each other, the murder of Boris Guiliano, head of the Palermo Flying Squad, the killing of General Alberto dalla Chiesa, the Prefect of Palermo, and other Mafia crimes. He dealt with Cosa Nostra in its many forms, coming to understand its links into international crime and above all, its dependency on Rome and the importance of its political contacts. The parliamentarians needed the Mafia to guarantee the southern votes. And in return, they expected favors to be met as and when required. The judge may have been the first Sicilian magistrate to really understand how important was the link between Palermo and Rome.

Judge Rocco Chinnici

Following the murder of Judge Cesare Terranova in September 1979, Rocco Chinnici became the new adviser instructor at the Palace of Justice on the Piazza Orlando. His predecessor had actually not even started in his new job having been shot dead by Mafia killers on his way to being elected that day.

Chinnici fundamentally changed the Palermo office's working methods on criminal investigation. The Ufficio Istruzione examined and prepared cases for trial in Sicily and as its Chief Examining Magistrate, it was Rocco Chinnici who helped establish a new way to go after Cosa Nostra.

Pulling together young and aggressive magistrates such as Paolo Borsellino, Giovanni Falcone, and Giuseppe Di Lello, he informally established them under Judge Antonino Caponnetto. They will come to be known as the “Anti-Mafia Pool". Although a somewhat elementary idea in the war against Cosa Nostra, it had never operated this way until this time: a team of lawyers coordinating to attack a common enemy.

They do things differently. They follow the money. They become international in their approach to trying to understand the heart of Cosa Nostra. They go looking for a network of conspiracy that linked the Mafia to society at every level and in every walk of life: in the professions, in agencies of the state, in politics, local and national, even among the forces of law and order.

Chinnici and Falcone go to the United States and are guests of the FBI at Quantico, Virginia in October 1982, the first ever official meeting between the law enforcement agencies of Italy and America. With his new team, the judge starts to carry out what was to be the then, biggest Mafia investigations of the eighties, “Michele Greco +161,” which will become the embryo of the great Mafia maxi-trial that will start on a rainy, wind-swept day in February 1986. Using information supplied by informants Tommaso Buscetta and Salvatore Contorno, the judges untangle a huge heroin ring with connections into America, and connecting links to Michele Greco, a man who was considered to be simply a wealthy landowner and businessman but was in fact, affiliated into Cosa Nostra through generations of his family of men of honor. It is the first judicial investigative osmosis generated in Sicily with the Mafia as a target.

The Greco case was instigated by Nini Cassarà who had taken over the Palermo Flying Squad (Squadro Mobile) after the murder in 1979 of Boris Guiliano by the Corleone killer, Leoluca Bagarella, and he released his report in July 1982. He is close to the judges. And getting too close to the Mafia. For this, like Rocco Chinnici, and Giovanni Falcone, he will pay the ultimate price.

End of July it’s scorching in Sicily; more North Africa than Italy. The heat presses down like a hot iron, oppressive and unyielding. This Thursday is no exception. It’s coming up to eight in the morning, and the concierge is sweeping away last night’s dust and refuse from the pavement in front of the apartment building he manages at number 59 Via Giuseppe Federico Pipitone, in the Liberta District of Palermo City.

Rocco, who lives here with his family on the third floor, has been awake early, working since five, pouring over documents, looking for links, chasing the moonbeams of money laundering Mafia sharks and the way the tentacles stretch from Rome to Palermo and New York. On the way out, he stops at their bedrooms to bring them morning coffee and kisses his two boys goodbye. Elvira is twenty-four and Giovanni nineteen.

Their mother and sister are away, starting the summer holiday early, at their vacation home in Salemi, a small town in the Belice Valley in the province of Trapani. They have already said goodbye forever, without knowing it. Their husband and father is about to join the list of cadaveri eccellenti, and become a high-profile victim of the Mafia. He will be number nineteen since the killing of Judge Pietro Scaglione and his bodyguard in May 1971. Luciano Leggio of Corleone started it and Salvatore Riina of Corleone will maintain the momentum until the law finally catches up with him in January 1993.

The judge leaves the front entrance of his apartment building with his two bodyguards, perhaps nodding a greeting to Stefano Li Sacchi, the concierge, a small, slim, balding man.  Maybe Rocco in his peripheral vision notices the dusty, olive-green Fiat 126, parked a few meters down the street.

It is waiting there to kill everyone. This will be a morning of thunder and red rain.

The judge’s armored car is double-parked in a narrow road already bustling with traffic and people. The driver, Giovanni Paparcuri, had picked up the vehicle that morning at the special government garage attached to Ucciardone Prison and arrived at the apartment five minutes earlier. Two other cars, one to carry extra protection and one to block traffic as the convoy left, wait nearby with their police drivers and extra bodyguards, who are standing on the roadside, near to the judge’s vehicle, talking and smoking. Where they are means the difference between life and death.

Paparcuri remembers seeing Judge Chinnici walking out of the front door, and then, only a tremendous roaring sound, a howl, like a ferocious wind, along with intense heat and vivid colors. A great, white blinding light then red so intense, it felt hot and sulfuric. Thrown out of the car by a massive explosion, he finds himself face down on the road, his fingers digging into the asphalt which is covered with broken glass. Now the sounds that wash over him are muted, as though coming through a thick, impenetrable blanket. For the rest of his life, he will suffer from partial deafness.

Around him, as white dust rises and debris falls, people are screaming and shouting, staggering into each other as though intoxicated by the hell their world has become. There are injured everywhere within a radius of 200 meters. Eighteen men and women, including the police officers who were standing near the judge’s car which shielded them from the direct blast, and his driver, are scattered among the wreckage of cars and ruptured road and inside their blasted apartments. All will survive a morning they will never forget. Iron shutters not yet opened on shop fronts are bent and buckled and the wall of the apartment building, ripped and pitted with holes as though blasted by some gigantic shotgun, is painted in blood and body tissue.

A plant-boxed sapling on the footpath has somehow, miraculously survived. Nearby, sprawled on his back, his legs bent at the knees, his trousers and jacket shredded, Rocco Chinni is dead. His left side has taken the force of the blast, shrapnel ripping into his abdomen and upper thigh. His face and head, mutilated by a deep gash. Salvatore Bartolotta, a corporal in the Carabinieri, one of his escorts, his body scorched and torn, lies on the road, a few meters away. Next to him is a small sedan, its side dented as though struck by a giant fist. Inside the apartment lobby, the second bodyguard, Sergeant Mario Trapassi, has been hurled back into the building. One leg is almost severed and the rest of his body, burnt and mutilated.

Li Sacchi is one month into his 50th birthday. He has often expressed his fear that an attack on the judge might involve everyone, including himself. This morning his fears are expressed in the worst possible way. His torn and bloody body is carried from the scene, across the street to the junction with Via Villa Sperlinga, and laid on the footpath outside number 22, a few meters away. He will be found there by the police and forensic experts who quickly descend on the scene. Why the body was moved has never been explained. Perhaps his neighborhood friends moved him fearing a second explosion. Maybe they just wanted him to not be part of the mayhem that had descended on this street in Palermo.

National Heroes: Salvatore Bartolotta, Stefano Li Sachi, Mario Trapassi

When the dust cleared, the carnage and destruction are like a nightmare painted by Goya. Where the Fiat had been parked was a crater at least a meter deep, and the remains of the car, the twisted rear wheels attached to scraps of twisted, stunned metal. This is all that is left. Other cars, Fiats, Lancias, a Jaguar, a Mini among many, pulled out from their parking spots by the force of the explosion, are scattered around in various stages of destruction. Windows in buildings surrounding the death site are smashed, their blinds, torn, ripped away and hanging loosely over the street. People are pouring into the area, attracted by the noise and smoke. It’s a carnival of chaos. A sight seen far too often in Palermo after the Mafia have been at work. But this is the first time they bombed their prey to death. (1)

It would take seventeen years to nail the killers, send them to prison and find out what really happened that day.

It went something like this:

The great Mafia war was over. Salvatore Riina and his Corleonesi had battered the Palermitani into submission, “with plots, tragediamenti, lies and silence,” (2) and the little, dumpy farm laborer with a face like a pickled walnut, had joined forces with Michele Greco, the boss known as “The Pope,” and the clans that backed him, to take over the Legoland of Cosa Nostra where bits kept falling off and being added almost by the month as Riina’s killers moved through the countryside and suburbs, eliminating their opposition in a Sicilian jihad of mammoth proportions. Having killed each other in order to re-invent itself, Cosa Nostra was now trying to wipe out its enemies in the state and public sector. Judges made things happen, in a bad way for the Mafia, so they were a favorite target.

Riina (right) had wanted Rocco Chinnici dead the previous summer, in 1982, when he was on holiday at his place in Salemi. Gaspare Mutolo, a pentito (informant,) was told by Saro Riccobono, the boss of the Mondello cosca that the judge was supposed to go in July or August, and then be followed by the killing of General Alberto dalla Chiesa, the new Palermo Prefect who Rome had sent to Sicily to sort Cosa Nostra once and for all. The general would be dead by the first week of September.

Giovanni Brusca, the godson of Riina, disclosed when he became an informant, that Chinnici had been in the cross-hairs of the Mafia because of his tenacity in pursuing criminal acts linked to the Sicilian mob and he was supposed to be killed that summer of ‘82 but the hit was canceled because of logistic problems. The Corleonesi were, however, determined to get him.

Riina organized with Bernardo, father of Giovanni, and Raffaele Ganci, his number two in the field, the boss of the Noce Mafia clan, to plan and prepare the killing of the judge. They needed a car and a bomb and a place to put them both.

At about 11:30 on the morning of July 27th, Andrea Ribaudo was in a hurry. He parked his Fiat, which belonged to the driving school at which he worked as an instructor, outside the Oscar Pasticceria on Via Maraino Migliaccio and rushed into the shop, leaving the keys in the ignition. It was gone in sixty seconds, stolen by Calogero Ganci, one of Raffaele’s three sons. Plates from another car owned by Salvatore Santonocito, parked on Via Faxa, were stolen that night and transferred to the Fiat which had been driven to a garage at Via Poretti 5 in the suburb of Arenella. The garage belonged to Vincenzo Galatolo and would be a major staging post for weapons during the second Mafia war and one of the bases for the killers used in the attacks on the state during the 1980s.

The spot where the car would stand had already been designated days before. When a slot in front of the apartment building became vacant, it was filled by a vehicle supplied by Raffaele Ganci’s men. To avoid suspicion, this was rotated on a daily basis by a team under the control of Francesco Anzelmo, a soldier in the Noce Mafia Family.

At the garage, Brusca, along with Galogero Ganci, Antonino Madonia, Galatolo and Francesco Anzelmo prepared the bomb made of between 25 and 50 kilos of TNT which had been stolen from a quarry by a relative of Giovanni Brusca. The explosive was made deadlier by the addition of ammonia nitrate. It was packed into a gas cylinder and a metal box and stored in the stolen Fiat. The detonator that would trigger the blast was based on a receiver and transmitter used to fly model aircraft. Once Salvatore Riina gave his imprimatur, they are ready to go.

On the morning of the killings, Giovambattista Ferrante drove to a parking lot near the Agip Motel in Uditore and found a truck waiting for him. It was piled with builder’s supplies: bags of lime, scaffolding, wood planks. He had been instructed to dress like a builder, in shorts, tee-shirt, and boots. He made his way to a house near Villa Sperlinga where he picked up Madonia, who was also dressed in work clothes and they proceeded into Via Pipitone, parking about one hundred meters away from the apartment building of Judge Chinnici, near Palermo’s famous Pasticceria Svizzerro Siciliana, another of the city’s favorite pastry shops.

A little after 7:00 am, Giovanni Brusca drives the Fiat into Via Pipitone, sliding into the spot vacated by the decoy driver. He connects the detonator, makes sure all is ready, wipes down the steering wheel and as he exits the car and locks it, cleans the door handle. He then walks away up the street, disappearing down a side-road.  The autobomba was in place. An hour later, Madonia, climbs out of the truck and settles himself in among the junk stored in the rear of the vehicle, and prepares the remote.

Just after 8:00am, he triggers the device.

The magistrates at Caltanissetta, the headquarters of Sicily's criminal justice courts, believed from their investigations, Rocco Chinnici was getting too close to unraveling secrets and links between Salvatore Riina, the Mafia, the Salvo cousins (the richest men in Sicily, who were born in the same small country town the Chinnici family used as a holiday home,) and the Italian Senate. It was a potpourri of venal, corrupt and criminal malfeasance that was too much to bear.  Especially in Rome, where it was all about political gain. He was also about to hand down indictments against those believed to have murdered General Dalla Chiesa. Cosa Nostra simply removed the threat. It was not the first time, and would certainly not be the last, in the years of lead.

However, for the first time in Sicily, the Mafia had decided if it could not get a good, safe shot at its victim, it would simply blow him and the neighborhood to pieces. An explosion would not only destroy their victim, it would demonstrate beyond doubt an act of power confirming the hegemony of Riina and his Corleonesi.

For many years, the investigation into the outrage on Via Pipitone stalled, as other ineffable Mafia atrocities came to take precedence in what seemed a never-ending series of terrorist activities aimed at the state. In the end, it all came down, as usual, to the pentiti. Five of them. Four inside the plot and one outlier. These are the kind of men the Mafia fear the most. They shake Cosa Nostra like an orange tree, and the fruit that falls fills the baskets of law enforcement to overflowing.

Baldassare Di Maggio was the original, in 1993, to confirm under questioning, that Bernardo Brusca had confided to him that his son Giovanni and Nino Madonia had played major roles in the killing of the judge. Between June and August 1996, four of the bomb squad, Giovanni Brusca, Francesco Anzelmo, Calogero Ganci and Giovambattista Ferrante rolled and became state informants.

On April 14th, 2000, The Court of Caltanissetta sentenced 12 men to various terms of imprisonment, a decision which was subsequently confirmed by The Court of Appeals in 2002. As part of their plea bargaining, none of the four informants were prosecuted, for this crime at least. One of the accusatory arguments of the prosecution, which was confirmed by the court, was that the Salvo cousins had approached Riina and requested he organize the removal of Judge Chinnici.  

After the Via Pipitone massacre, Nino Madonia, the detonator of the bomb, was ready and eager for his next excellent cadaver victim. It would come all too soon for the forces of law and order in the criminal wasteland of 1980s Sicily. 

  • (1) The Ciaculli Massacre when seven police officers and soldiers were killed by a massive car-bomb explosion in June 1963, near Palermo City, was the first time Cosa Nostra had used a bomb on this scale, in this way, but it was a Mafia criminal act aimed at other Mafiosi, not deliberately against the state.
  • (2) White Shotgun. Attilio Bolzoni. MacMillan. 2013.
  • tragediamenti: The fueling of suspicion by creating deception.

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