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Five Minutes to Midnight – Part 2: The Sicilian and New York Mafias, the Catholic Church and a huge finance scandal

This is part 2 of Five Minutes to Midnight. Read part 1 here.

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

The Killer: William “Billy the Exterminator” Arico

The driver, half-in, half-out of the Alfa he had just parked near his apartment building at Number One.

Five minutes to midnight, July 11, 1979, as he hears a voice:

“You Ambrosoli?”

“Yes,” he replies.

Four gunshots and he’s down.

Three men scramble into a Red Fiat, which ricocheted off into the night.

They leave behind on the street a body. Still breathing. But not for long. The killers also missed the witness, Emilio Bollani, who saw the whole shebang as he was parking his car across the road at number 39 Via San Vittore about 30 meters away.

Via Marozzo della Rocco, ten minutes from the cathedral and the city center of Milan.

He notes the details of the car, stopped in the middle of Marozza, doors open, facing the wrong way on a one-way street, and the fact that the plate number is from Rome.

Annalori, Ambrosoli’s wife, is watching from their apartment; she had prepared a late dinner for them both. She calls the police and medics. They get him to hospital, but he dies soon after. He remembers the voice of the killer. It sounded American through its Italian.

And then he’s gone. Fatally wounded, according to forensics, by bullets fired from a .357 Magnum revolver.

The killing is a wake-up call. The media go ballistic.

If Rome exists in a haze of religious paranoia, and Palermo drowns in a sea of Mafia crime, Milan’s engine of power is money. Since the industrial revolution. People live here but are somehow secondary to the scent of money. They come and go, but money is everywhere, and always, in Lombardy. It fills the air as a room freshener squirted through freshly minted bank-notes. In a gray city overlaid with dampness and fog, it’s another banking scandal that lights up the sky, and this one is overlaid with murder!

Goodfella Henry Hill

It will be four years before evidence emerges that points the finger at the killer. It comes from a criminal called Henry Hill, a low-level mob associate connected to a crew in the Luchese Mafia Family of East Brooklyn, New York.

He will become famous in his own lunch-time when journalist Nicolas Pileggi writes his story, and then Hollywood turns him into a world star in the movie “Goodfellas.” In 1980 he was just a bum under arrest looking for yet another break.

When he flips and becomes an informant against the Mafia, he opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of unrelated links into glimpses of the other world that interests the authorities. One is the killing of Ambrosoli.

During questioning, Hill discloses his connection to William Arico and a man, called Robert Venetucci (right). They had met while serving a prison sentence between 1974 and 1977 at Lewisburg Penitentiary, a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

Venetucci is a convicted heroin-trafficker and is close to the Gambino Crime Family. Out of prison, he runs a business called Ace Pizza Corporation, cheese and, olive oil importers. Henry Hill claimed this was a front for importing heroin although FBI investigations were unable to confirm this. Hill also stated that Sindona and his son Nino, had invested money in this business.

Venetucci employs a man called Luigi Cantafio who allegedly introduces him to Sindona. Just what the connection is between the banker and this man is unknown. Venetucci and Cantafio were connected into a company called Mini Film Mart which distributed photographic equipment. Sindona advances the capital for its start-up but is never repaid his loan.

Arico is a thief, armed robber, and a gun for hire. His nickname came from his days as a door-to-door salesman, trudging around New York suburbs trying to sell cockroach powder repellent, not because of his ability as a hit man.

The three ex-cons stay in contact when they are back on the streets, and Hill sells Arico a parcel of illegal handguns, including a .357 Magnum revolver. Through his Gambino Family connections and their business interests, Venetucci introduces Sindona to Arico.

Sometime in September 1978, Arico tells Hill that he has been hired by Sindona to kill a man in Milan, Italy. A lawyer investigating his banking empire.

Sindona, Venetucci, and Arico had met in a restaurant owned by Sindona’s daughter, Maria, next to a motel called Conca D’Oro on Forrest Avenue, Staten Island, to sort out the details.

Arico (right) visited Milan nine times between November 1978 and July 1979 under a false passport calling himself Robert McGovern. On at least one occasion he is accompanied by Cantafio. Their airline tickets are billed through Mini Film Mart. Cantafio drops out of the picture when he is murdered in Brooklyn on December 20, 1978.

Arico almost always stayed at The Hotel Splendido, near the central railway station. From the hotel, it’s 14 minutes by car to Ambrosoli’s home. The night of the killing he is accompanied by his stepson, Charles, and a close friend, Rocco Messina,

For two days, they had trailed the lawyer using different hired cars. From a judge’s quarters where he gave evidence in the pending trial to be held involving Sindona, to a meeting with the head of the Palermo Flying Squad, Boris Guiliano, and to various offices and banks across Milan.

The previous May, Guiliano had been investigating the killing of Mafia boss Giuseppe Di Cristina, in broad daylight in Palermo City. On his body had been found checks and documents that proved Sindona had been laundering heroin money for the Mafia through his Swiss Bank.

The cop and the lawyer. Both searching for answers. Both will die seeking them.

On killing-day, July 11, at 2. 30 pm, Arico hired a red Fiat 127, registration T42711, a Rome registered vehicle, from a hire-car firm near the Milan Railway Station. He used his name and Amex Car for the transaction, thus linking him inextricably to the crime.

The next day he was in Geneva at the Bank Credit Suisse. Here, under his real name and account, number 415851-22-1, he received one hundred thousand dollars transferred from an account held by Michele Sindona in Roberto Calvi’s Banca del Gottardo, based in Lugano.

Arico was not the first mobster Sindona had approached to kill Ambrosoli.

Before him, there was Luigi Ronsisvalle (left), who was probably a lot more Mafia than Arico ever was, although, like Arico, he was never “made” into Cosa Nostra or its Sicilian version. He had, under questioning, at a government commission on organized crime held in Miami in February 1985, admitted to 13 murders in America, 11 on behalf of the mob. He also committed armed robbery, arson, and drug trafficking between Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Florida.

Born in Catania, he was twenty-six when he left Sicily and arrived in New York in March 1966 with his wife and their one child, a daughter.

His alumni in America would be the Bonannos, based in Brooklyn and Long Island. One of the five New York Italian-American Mafia families. They all had a code they lived by: take anything you want as long as you share it with the boss, kill anyone that gets in the way, and never, ever, talk to the law.

Luigi met up with a man called Pino D’Aquana in a cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and through him, was introduced to Peter Licata, who ran the neighborhood for the Bonanno family. According to Ronsisvalle, nothing, including trees, moved in Williamsburg without Licata’s permission.

In early 1979, Ronsisvalle was approached by Sindona, through an intermediary, called Mario Maimone, and offered $100,000 to kill Ambrosoli. The hit never happened, although he did receive payment from Sindona for another job involving threatening Nicola Biase, a senior executive in Sindona’s banking empire, who was giving evidence in an inquiry into Sindona by the New York attorney’s office.

William Arico a career criminal like so many of his peers, lived life as a revolving door, in and out of prisons. Although divorced, he frequently stayed with his ex-wife Joan, in Valley Stream, Long Island, almost next door to JFK Airport.

Hunted by the law, he was eventually arrested in June 1982, at his daughter’s home in New York, by US Marshals, and held at the Metropolitan Correction Center in Lower Manhattan. Henry Hill supplied the tip-of that leads the federal agents to his location,

The Italian government had requested Arico’s extradition to face charges of murdering Giorgio Ambrosoli.

On Sunday evening, February 19, 1984, Arco attempted to escape from the prison. He and another prisoner, 37-year-old Miguel Sepulveda, serving time for drug trafficking, formed a rope from bed-sheets and started to climb down from a ninth-floor window. The rope snapped, and they fell, about 40 feet onto an adjoining roof. Arco survived the impact, but not the 400 pounds Sepulveda, who dropped onto him and crushed his body.

Somewhere, that night, in the same complex, Michele Sindona was spending his waking hours no doubt wondering what his future would be.  

The End-Game: All Things must Pass

According to Judge Thomas P. Griesa who presided over the trial of Michele Sindona in New York, which lasted nine weeks, “The financial machinations of Sindona were indeed massive, complicated and unscrupulous, wreaking financial disaster upon banking and financial institutions as well as economic and personal tragedy upon the persons involved.”

Sindona indicted in connection with the collapse of the Franklin National Bank in March 1979, had been scheduled to go to trial Sept. 10 but disappeared August 2. He reappeared in New York on October 16.

That day, early in August, he walked out of the Pierre Hotel, in upper Manhattan, where he and his wife were living in a palatial condominium which they owned, and disappeared. An anonymous telephone call to his secretary informed her that an extreme left-wing radical Italian group had abducted him. They called themselves The Proletarian Committee for Eversion.

Sindona later insisted he had been kidnapped.

Which he had been. By himself. In skipping his bail, he forfeited $3 million.

Been around the world

Using a false passport under the name of Joseph Bonamico which was, allegedly supplied by Giovanni Gambino, he flies out of Kennedy Airport on a TWA flight for Vienna. He was accompanied by Joe Macaluso, a New York-based building contractor, originally from Agrigento Province in Sicily. He owned the Conca D’Oro motel on Staten Island, which had lodged visiting mafiosi from Sicily and had been used in 1978 to host a fund-raising dinner on behalf of Sindona.

They flew on to Athens and were joined there by Dr. Giuseppe Miceli Crimi, a plastic surgeon, who spent part of each year in New York. He was also the chief medical doctor attached to Palermo’s police headquarters. And a significant force in P-2.

In a narrative so crammed full of mysterious players it’s listing to starboard, Crimi simply adds more ballast.  

Also along for the ride was Giacomo Vitale, the man who made threatening phone calls. From Greece, the four men then made their way to Sicily, arriving on August 15.

They go to Catania, Caltanissetta and finally, Palermo. The planning and leg-work are allegedly organized by the Cherry Hill Gambinos of New Jersey. Sindona stayed on the island for seventy days, initially living in a modern apartment on Piazza Diodoro in the center of Palermo. Giovanni Gambino later flew to Sicily and acted as his watch-dog and chauffeur.

Sindona would travel around in a black Mercedes meeting with mob bosses in the best eating houses such as The Charleston in Piazzale Ungheria. His time in Sicily, the purpose of his visit, and its ramifications are as complicated as his years of banking manipulations.

The short version goes like this:

Sindona would claim he was held prisoner by communist terrorists. To confirm this, he had himself shot to make it more believable.

He was in Sicily to organize a political coup that would separate Sicily from Italy. This endeavor had the blessing of the American CIA, who saw the island as a strategic military base.

According to Giacomo Vitale, via the testimony of Angelo Siino, a high-level Mafia associate, in the Palermo Court in 1997, Sindona was back in Italy to blackmail Guilio Andreotti, who was then serving his second term as prime minister.

On September 6, Sindona moved from the city center to a different location. Sometime towards the end of the month, he was living in a house in Toretta, a small commune in the west of metro Palermo. The villa belonged to a relative of Rosario Spatola, who was one of the biggest taxpayers in Sicily, a multi-millionaire building contractor, (he ran the biggest building company in Palermo, employing over 600,) and a man of impeccable character.

A nephew of Giovanni and a relative of Carlo Gambino, he was basically, a crook. A really significant one. It was rumored he had attended a Mafia meeting at a hotel in New Jersey where Sindona’s “kidnapping” was discussed by the various parties involved, some weeks before the banker disappeared from New York.

At the house in Toretta, Sindona was anesthetized, and while lying on a bed, shot in the left thigh by the doctor, using a .32 handgun. Dr. Crimi and his girlfriend managed his recovery. The details of this were revealed by Crimi during the Sindona Commission held in Palermo during 1981. The injury, he explained, was created to give more credence to the kidnapping hypothesis.

The Great Blackmail

From Sindona’s arrival until his departure, he and the Mafia were engaged in a massive scheme to blackmail Italy’s political, industrial, and financial leaders. In due course, it became known as Il Grande Ricalto, the Great Blackmail. It wasn’t fifteen monkeys in a room with typewriters. This was the real McCoy.

This mysterious group in Sicily, The Committee for Eversion, claimed to hold documents that would destroy the reputation of hundreds, and topple the Christian Democratic Party, unless these people used their influence to have all criminal charges against Sindona dropped, and that they also contribute to Sindona’s defense fund.

In essence, those threatened were being instructed to re-finance Sindona back into his business. And in the process, repatriate the funds the Mafia had lost through the mismanagement of their drug-money. The blackmail would be collected by the Mafia and selected members of P-2.

This mishmash of complicating wheeling and dealing helped trigger Giovanni Falcone’s first Mafia investigation in 1979, revealing an astonishing glimpse into the links connecting drugs, finance, off-shore account in The Bahamas, real estate in Aruba, and Florida, shonky banks, and how the Mafia of Sicily and New York were deeply embedded in the scheme.

Falcone introduced an innovative investigative technique into a Mafia investigation, seizing bank records to follow "the money trail" created by heroin deals to build his case, applying the skills he had learned unraveling bankruptcies in his early legal career.

As all this was falling into place, Sindona was on his way back to America, arriving in New York on October 16.

Admitted to Doctors Hospital on the Upper East Side that catered to affluent private patients, he was checked over by a team of physicians who discovered his injury. It was a convincing wound, but it didn’t convince anyone that mattered that he had been kidnapped. His and the Mafia’s attempts to blackmail Italy’s high society into submission failed. The tenebrous world of one of Italy’s most creative fabulists was about to unravel.

Licio Gelli (right), the grand-master of P-2 who appeared to slide in and out of the drama like a mercury ball on ice, seemed to be inexorably connected to the conspiracy, and fled Italy in March 1981. He remained a fugitive for the next eight years.

From his palatial suite in The Excelsior Hotel on Via Veneto in Rome or his lavish, thirty-room villa in Arezzo, eastern Tuscanny, Gelli, a self-confessed fascist, controlled a mysterious second government that allegedly influenced everything in the Italian state: Communism and anti-communism, corrupt politicians, military leaders, senior civil servants, high-end bankruptcies and the stealing of public money and is alleged to have manipulated not only the state’s secret-service agencies, but also the Mafia.

He epitomized what Italians call “dietrologia,” a suspicion that behind a recognized government of the state lies something else, dark and sinister, pulling the strings.

After his disappearance in 1981, investigators discovered in his factory in Arezzo, documents listing over 900 power brokers from Italy, including Sindona, Calvi, heads of police and security services, and ministers in Prime Minister Foriani’s cabinet.

In May, the government collapsed because of the scandal.

On June 17, 1980, Michele Sindona was convicted in New York on 65 counts of fraud and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Six months after the death of William Arico, the banker-in-disgrace, was extradited to Italy along with Robert Venetucci.

In March 1986, both men were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for contracting the assassination of Giorgio Ambrosoli. In addition, Sindona was given a further fifteen years for his banking infidelities.

In his trials, he made himself out to be the injured party-falsely accused-wrongly convicted. Scarred and damaged by the witch-hunt mounted against him. Hurt however, is often trumped by hypocrisy in the circus of public relations.

Someone at the Milan courthouse remarked he looked like a plucked chicken.

Photo: Michele Sindona in court

Murder by suicide?

Held at Voghera Maximum Security Prison, the first fully-electronic detention facility in Europe, 67 kilometers south of Milan, he was contained as the only prisoner in the women’s wing, Casa Circondariale Femminile, guarded 24/7 by fifteen guards, and at least three CCTV units. His food and beverages were prepared in the prison kitchen under strict supervision. His morning coffee was delivered in a sealed thermos at the same time each morning.

Thursday, March 20, was no different. He had been back in prison two days following his trial decision.

The guards delivered the sealed thermos, Sindona drank deeply from it, and seconds later, collapsed onto the bed in his cell. As the guards rushed in, they heard him moaning, Mi hanno avvelenato… “They have poisoned me.”

Rushed to Ospedale Civile, about five minutes away, doctors established he has indeed been poisoned, by cyanide. Depending on body-weight, as little as half a gram could kill a person. Sindona lived fifty-six hours and then, with his wife and son by his side, was gone. The most prominent private banker in the world was dead at the age of sixty-six.

The magistrates who analyzed the case declared Sindona’s death: Un suicidio attraverso la simulazione di un omicidio. A suicide through the simulation of a murder.

Whatever that means.

It has never been established if he killed himself or was murdered. Nothing in his life had a simple explanation, so why should his death have been any different?

The day after he died, a cartoon appeared in Italy’s leading newspaper, La Repubblica. It showed Sindona being offered a small cup of coffee, by a tiny, hunchback figure, who looked just like Mr. Burns from the television series The Simpsons.

“One lump of sugar or two?” the figure is asking.

Everyone knew it was an image of Guilio Andreotti (right). The most famous politician in modern Italian history until he died a natural death in 2013, aged ninety-four. Hardly anyone knew what he had been really up to all those years he was in power. Sometimes known as Beelzebub, one of the seven princes of hell, he was also referred to as the biggest mystery in Italy’s first republic.

Postscript

In the strange, convoluted story of Michele Sindona, there is one final character, whose curtain call is hard to ignore. His name is Francesco Pazienza. A doctor of medicine, he’s never worn a white coat.

Known as a faccendiere, a fixer, he speaks five languages and had connections with secret service agencies across the world. He was an aide to General Giuseppe Santovito, head of Italy’s military intelligence, SISMI, and a member of P-2, like almost everyone in this story.

Santovito, also in Gelli’s secret society was arrested in December 1983 for crimes including Mafia conspiracy, and died mysteriously in his prison cell while awaiting trial.

Pazienza was an early person of interest in Roberto Calvi’s mysterious death. Linked into the Bulgarian who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II; a suspect in the 1980 Bologna rail bombing that killed and injured over 200 people; tried and convicted for charges relating to President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, and a scandal involving the 1980 US Presidential election.

Pazienza (right) is one of the few original players still around. He’s spent twelve years in three different prisons. A hinge on one of the doors leading to the corridors of power in Italy that holds so many secrets.

Eighteen months before Sindona’s death, he made a declaration on September 27, 1984, witnessed in New York, by Sindona’s lawyer. In this, he claimed if the banker was incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Italy, he would be poisoned through a cup of coffee laced with either arsenic or cyanide.

Hold that thought.

Trying to decipher the timeline of Michele Sindona is like prescribing migraine for a headache, it’s non-productive. The night before he died, perhaps as he sat in his prison cell, his dreams descended into madness, he came to wonder as Nietzsche did in his concept of ubermensch, or superman, “One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

References:

These four books were my main source for research into the life and times of Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi:

  1. Cornwell, Rupert. God’s Banker. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1983.
  2. DiFonzo, Luigi. St. Peter’s Banker. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983.
  3. Gurwin, Larry. The Calvi Affair. London: Pan Books, 1984.
  4. Tosche, Nick. Power on Earth. New York: Arbor House, 1986.

In addition to many other books I used that mention Sindona, there are hundred’s of links on-line, including newspapers and magazine articles, as well as government and legal documents, trial transcripts, etc., in both English and Italian.

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