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The Wrong Side of Darkness: An Anger of Kings

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

"Man turns his back on his family, we’ll he ain’t just no good." - Bruce Springfield

This is part 2 of The Wrong Side of Darkness: A Mafia Trilogy. Read part 1 here.

The maxiprocesso,  or maxi-trial, is bigger than Ben Hur.

No one in their wildest dreams imaged this would take place.

Especially the hundreds of Mafiosi rounded up and dumped into prison by the end of 1985. It seemed for the first time in living memory, law and order might prevail in a part of Italy notorious for its lawlessness. Which it did, after a fashion.*

Salvatore Riina, avoiding the great round-up and still on the loose, would come to haunt many people over the next six years. One sat and waited for his time in court.

The trial began on February 10, 1986, and following the last appeal judgment, ended January 30, 1992. 460 defendants. 200 lawyers. 600 journalists from around the world. 16 judges. 750,000 pages of documents.

The prosecutorial records alone come to 12607 pages and read like a Greek tragedy. A searing indictment of a diseased society. It numbs the mind.

This story involves only a single statistic. One defendant. 

The day after they murdered Claudio, one of the accused, in cage 15, asked the presiding judge for permission to make a statement.

Giovanni Bontate, a lawyer, rich beyond the dreams of most Sicilians, is also an inducted Mafioso. He is part of what had been the biggest cosca on the island, Santa Maria di Gesu, with over 200 made men until the Mafia War of 1981-1982 changed things forever.

Riina, the peasant from the hills, came down like the Grim Reaper into Palermo’s Mafia families, and squeezed them dry as though he was sucking on an orange. The Bontate clan was the first one he spat out.

His target was Stefano, the family boss. Handsome, educated, politically well-connected, rich through his drug-trafficking into America, he was a man for all seasons. Someone once said of him, “He was so powerful, if he even wanted it, donkeys flew.”  

Like a sulfurous fog, the Corleonesi drifted into Palermo and settled in the alleys and yards and lemon groves. And waited.

Bontate was Kalshinikov’d to death in April 1981, on his birthday, by a fire-team on a road in the Bonagia district of Monte Grifone. He was the first victim of the Russian machine gun in the Mafia’s history.

Although there had been three previous notable killings linked to the rise of the Corleonesi, this ambush in Villagrazia is believed to be the opening salvo in a war that will last for months and kill hundreds. Like a cytokine storm, Cosa Nostra is destroying itself in order to emerge as a stronger and even more destructive structure.

Not known during these first days of mayhem, is that Giovanni Bontate, Stefano’s younger brother by six years, is part of the conspiracy to murder him. Fratricide is not uncommon within Sicily’s Mafia. The earliest recorded case dates back to 1874 and was also in Palermo. Greed and jealousy are lethal bed-mates and have been part of the Mafia’s genetic code since its inception.

Giovanni had hoped to take over the leadership of the family after his brother’s murder, but was side-swiped by Riina who promoted Giovan Battista Pullarà, (one of the killing team that murdered Stefano Bontate,) and when imprisoned, Pietro Lo Iacono, the family consigliere, counselor,  moved into the job. By then, Giovanni was in jail himself, awaiting his spot in the great trial. On October 8,  1986, he stood and asked the presiding judge, Alfonso Giordano, if he could read a statement.

This is what he said:

“We join the Domino family in their grief. We refute the idea that such a barbaric act could have anything to do with us. We reject the attacks and indiscriminate accusations that the press is making against the defendants. We are moved. We have children too.  We ask that there be a minute silence.”

In fifty-four words he used the pronoun, “we” six times.

The Mafia had never publicly acknowledged its existence. Now, here was a senior member, a lawyer no less, saying “We” are innocent. No one could doubt who the we are. The court in session had been struggling to understand just what Mafia meant. Now, they understood all too well.

The declaration had been a joint effort, created along with Luciano Leggio and Giuseppe Calo, both defendants in the trial. One, the ex-boss of Corleone, was already serving a life sentence for the murder of Michele Navarra, and died in custody in 1993.

The other, “Pipo” Calo, had run the Porta Nuova clan in central Palermo. One of his soldiers was Tommaso Buscetta. He became the most famous informant in Sicily’s Mafia history and was a keystone in building the maxi-trial case through his relationship with senior magistrate, Giovanni Falcone. From this day on, Calo’s future lies in a prison cell, where he remains to this day at almost ninety.

Giovanni Bontate’s future is also not so bright.

At the trial's end, they give him an eight-year sentence. Nine months later he comes home in a wheelchair to be with his wife at their property in Villagrazia. He’d developed a herniated disc and the justice department had released him on house arrest to get it fixed, and would then take him back to finish his term.

Palermo’s public hospitals weren't the greatest places to be when you became ill. One Mafioso, stabbed almost to death in a hotel, and then rushed to Ospedale Civico, survives. After surgery and while recovering, a group of men burst into his ward and riddled him with machine guns.

Back home, basking in the warmth and love of his wife and three children, Giovanni could keep on manipulating and scheming to increase his parasitical wealth. Unfortunately for him, there were others plotting a whole different course. In the world of Cosa Nostra, treachery works so well because those deceived are never vaccinated against the source foraging for its host.

He will die at the hands of friends. Almost an unwritten law in the commonwealth of the Mafia.

Thursday, 29 September 1988, Francesca organized their three daughters off to school, and when they had left, she and her husband sat drinking coffee, dipping rusks into hot milk. A late breakfast before the start of a busy day. They lived in a sprawling, white villa, fronted by palms in an area of narrow roads, high, stone walls and citrus orchards everywhere. There were four bodyguards who fronted as gardeners or handymen.

Francesca Citarda had never dreamed of an exogamous marriage. She came from roots dug deep and old. Her father, Benedetto, had been the patriarch of the Cruillas Mafia clan operating near Viale Lazio, in the Mortillaro neighborhood, and was third, or fourth generation Mafia. His daughters, three of them, married into their code.

Francesca had been a Mafia princess her whole life. And that was how she died.

Photo: Giovanni Bontate and Francesca Citarda.

The ten-room house is quiet until the video intercom at the locked front-gate buzzes. Whoever answers it, reassured by the visitors, unlocks the entrance. Two, perhaps three men walk up the gravel driveway. We know who two of them are. To one side a horse stable, the other, an archway leading into the property. It’s sometime between ten and eleven. The men walk into the kitchen through open French-doors.

Francesca is wearing a blue-silk dressing gown. There would have been kisses and hugs, the way friends greet each other in Sicily. The men move around, slowly, like serpents embracing their prey.

The killers are carrying .38 caliber revolvers. One shoots Francesca twice in the back of her neck. Another blows Giovanni out of his wheelchair. Like ghosts, the killers whisper away.

It is such a perfect crime. No one hears anything or sees anything. Especially the four bodyguards.

Later in the morning, Giovanni’s sister, Rosa, drops by to visit them, and discovers the bodies. Hysterical, she calls the Flying Squad, then waits for the three girls to return from school. It’s impossible to image the nightmare they found themselves in. One, fourteen-year-old Angela Daniela, will go through it again, thirty years into the future.

Soon, there will be a new boss of the Santa Maria di Gesu family, Pietro Aglieri (right), allegedly one of the killers. The other is Antonino Bontà. Tried and convicted of the double murder, he dies in prison while serving his sentence.

Buscetta claimed in evidence he gave at the maxi-trial that Giovanni had sided with Riina and his Corleonesi to overthrow his brother. He wanted a bigger slice of the pie. History has accepted the lawyer died because he disclosed Cosa Nostra publicly for what it was. An irreproachable breach of their rules.

In fact, evidence from Mafia informants pointed more towards Riina becoming increasingly concerned by Bontate’s erratic behavior, and perhaps his greed, and used the courtroom speech as an excuse to get the job done. Rinna would also have probably thought a man who deceived once could do it again. Cheat me once, shame on you. Cheat me twice, shame on me. That sort of thing.

His wife was not collateral damage. She knew the secrets and had to go along with him.

Giovanni had been part of a huge, international drug-trafficking ring involving three Sicilian Mafia clans and at least two, maybe three, in America. Annual profits were hundreds of millions of US dollars, shared by relatively few Mafiosi. There was so much money they needed a professional banker to help them launder its seemingly bottomless depths.

Authorities arrested Bontate in May 1980. He was in and out of court until 1985, and then, his last arrest by Falcone's agents as part of the massive anti-Mafia sweep.

The musics over. It’s time to call time as events fall over themselves to fill the media and the world’s attention. Life and death goes on in Palermo, as it has for almost 2,500 years. There's  a pause, but like a murder of crows, darkness would settle again over these same streets.

Continue reading: End of the story: A Death Less Than Just

Read the entire trilogy:

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Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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