"Violence has settled more issues in history than any other factor." - Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers.
This part of Sicily, the southern crest of the famous Conca d’Oro, the fertile plain arching north to south from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Belmonte Mezzagno Mountains, historically, has long been under the control of Mafia clans fighting and killing each other for generations.
From Via Villagrazia to Via Falsomiele takes about seven minutes by car, traffic allowing, and almost thirty years in terms of the historic link to what will happen here. It takes place just minutes away from where Stefano Bontate died in 1981.
Around ten in the morning, March 3, 2016, two vehicles stop near each other on Falsomiele, close to a house at number 117. Facing west is a Fiat. A white 500L with a driver and a passenger. A few yards behind, a gray Toyota SUV. Local CCTV has so far recorded everything. Then there is a time-gap that lasts almost two minutes.
The two men get out of the Fiat and gunshots ring out-fast and furious, like the coughing of a dying man. One victim falls in a crumpled heap between the Fiat, its back window blown out, and a high, stone wall. The other, trying to escape, is gunned down in the middle of the road. Each shot at least twice in the back, the killer executes the victims by two head shots. Tap. Tap.
The Toyota pulls back, reversing away from the body sprawled in the dust. Then makes a left turn down a private driveway.
Soon, the road is full. Policemen in plain clothes everywhere. Wearing padded jackets, blue-jeans, and brown, high-topped boots or sneakers. Pistols and handcuffs dangling from their belts. Uniforms to wear when not wearing uniforms. Forensics in white hazmat suits wandering the asphalt and grass verges with their sound-director wands searching for shell casing, finding coins. Everyone glued to a cellphone. Doing house to house the modern way.
“You hear anything unusual?”
“You notice stuff different?”
“You see someone getting killed?’
The power of the law exercising order in a place at times, more dysfunctional than an autistic chimpanzee.
Palermo. Men shot in broad daylight. It had to be a Mafia killing. The first investigators who arrive confirm this. “It is a double Mafia crime,” they claim.
“The Octopus is not dead. New Mafia war!” scream the headlines. The Chief Prosecutor, Franco Lo Voi, is adamant. “If anyone thinks that the Mafia has been defeated and it’s all over, he obviously hasn’t understood anything yet.”
Someone certainly has not.
By late evening, the Flying Squad, led by Rudolfo Ruperti, has made two arrests. They charge the suspects after questioning them until the early hours of Friday morning. One of the quickest inquiries ever leading to solving a Mafia crime.
Except it isn’t.
The circumambient presence of Cosa Nostra in Sicily seduces and betrays the normal values and judgments of even the most pragmatic and seasoned. As an American high court judge once stated about pornography, “I shall not attempt to define it, but I know it when I see it.” **
Not always, it seems, in this neighborhood.
The alleged killers are husband and wife. Neighbors of one of the slain men. It’s about a property dispute. That’s how you resolve them in Sicily. You don’t arbitrate; you eradicate. Or so it appears.
The dead are Vincenzo Bontà (left), forty-five, and Giuseppe Vela, a fifty-three-year-old agricultural laborer. Vincenzo managed various arable holdings and citrus orchards owned by companies that belonged to his wife, Angela Daniele Bontate, a schoolteacher.
There is no connection to the Mafia, except through genealogy. Vincenzo’s father, Antonino, was the killer of Giovanni and Francesca Bontate, and sentenced to life in prison for the crime, where he died.
Why their daughter married the son of her parent’s murderer is hard to absorb.
As is why the murders even came about.
To quote Kath Pound, “Anton Chekov understood that life was godless, random and cruel, and good people suffered.”
The un-knowability of being and uncertainty of death is never more demonstrated than in those fleeting moments on a dusty road in a city notorious for being, well, notorious.
At first, investigators believe it is about water rights. The arrested couple, Carlo Gregori and his wife, Adele Velardo, live on an adjoining property to the Bontà’s who believed they were stealing water, tapping into their irrigation system. She’s a housewife. He is a surveyor employed by the council. They are middle-aged and normal, just like their victims.
Then the investigation takes another turn, this one based on disputes, long-simmering, on a new boundary wall which Vincenzo and his wife are considering building, using Vela as help. Bontà and the Gregori’s homes are just a few hundred yards from the crime scene. The entire thing is a swamp when it comes to motive, but there is powerful evidence against Gregori and perhaps his wife.
CCTV tracks his car in the area close to the crime scene within the time-frame of the killings.
A woman sits beside him. DNA from a shell casing found near the bodies, matches him. The murder weapon is an Italian Tanfoglio Stock II 9mm pistol with a seventeen-round magazine. A rare model. Police find one among many weapons at the Gregori house.
It turns out that he and his wife are gun-nuts. The police find a stash of weapons. The whole family, parents and three children, would regularly visit ranges and blast off a few caps.
There is a witness, reluctant as they so often are in Sicily, who identifies the car near the parked Fiat, seconds before the attack. He sees the killer and describes him. The description fits the man arrested. There is plenty of evidence to charge them both, and the public prosecutor has them locked up in Pagliarelli, the huge, maximum security complex on the west side of the city.
At five in the afternoon of June 26, guards find Gregori dead in his cell. He’s hung himself using a bed-sheet. Suicide. Released on house arrest, monitored through an ankle bracelet, his wife eventually goes for hearing in the maxi-trial court room at Ucciardone Prison.
In the same enormous space where thirty years before Giovanni Bontate had sealed his own death warrant, she is acquitted in October 2018 on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Twenty-eight years after the double murder of the Bontates, their daughter, Angela Daniela, will go through her own private hell a second time. Perhaps, surrounded by their three daughters and memories of her husband, by every title a kind and caring man who loved animals and especially Spanish canaries, she might take comfort in the words of Jas Waters,
“Our scars do not mean we are broken. They are proof we are healed.”
The story ends as it begins. Gunshot. Death on a Palermo Street. Murder most foul and mostly, unsolved. It’s all part of a paradigm of violence resolving issues through deadly force, asserting domination by terror.
People killing people in a city drowning under the scent of citrus orchards.
Where the congruence of time and action connects the murder of a young boy, weaving through familicide in Via Villagrazia into the twin murders in Via Fasomiele. Endless years and deadly events playing out under a sun, blistering the landscape with its unending light in a place, the wrong side of darkness.
* The last major roundup of Mafiosi had occurred between 1926 and 1929 when Benito Mussolini had sent Cesare Mori to wipe them out. He almost succeeded.
** Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S.184 (1964)
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