A Murder of Crows: How the kidnapping of the wife of a connected man caused a Mafia cleansing

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

To paraphrase the famous staying attributed to Winston Churchill: “It was a mystery, inside a puzzle within a maze.”

The builder and his wife had gone to bed in their summer house in San Martino delle Scale, a small community in the district of Monreale, close to Palermo, the biggest city in Sicily. It’s late evening on Tuesday, July 20, 1976.

Giuseppe Quartuccio was at sixty-six, twenty-three- years older than Graziella Mandala. She is his second wife and is about to cause him and many people a lot of grief. None of it is her choosing as she becomes the litmus to a series of events that will stretch over the next few weeks and involve a lot of dead bodies, intense police activity and a mystery that is never solved.

At approximately 11:30 that night, five masked men break into the house, beat-up and immobilize the builder and kidnap the wife. She is bundled into a red Fiat car and driven off into the night, north and east across the plains of Palermo.

The gang involved in the snatch turns out to be a bunch of misfits rather than professional criminals, although it will be some time until this is realized. No one in this story is a brain surgeon or a member of Mensa International.

The news of the crime when it is announced is a media fire-storm. Never have the Mafia kidnapped a woman and they are the first suspects, although it will be months before the public realized they were not the ones carrying out the crime.

One of the senior officers involved in the investigation, Lieutenant Colonel Giuseppe Russo, will support his enquiry with what is to be his final report to the judiciary before retiring after a long, successful career in the carabinieri (military police) investigation unit in October 1976.

The Mafia will murder him a year later.

The state police and carabinieri wonder if this brazen kidnapping is related to the abduction in 1974 of Franco Madonia, a favorite nephew of Giuseppe “Peppino” Garda, the former don of Monreale’s Mafia. He and Quartuccio had been partners in a major building company called ‘Conca d’Ora.’ registered in Palermo on 2 March 1966.

Madonia’s release seven months after his capture, followed by the payment of a huge ransom, was followed by at least 5 murders, possibly more, related to the kidnapping.

To complicate things it’s strongly believed by investigators that the builder is not only a victim of a kidnapping ring but is actually part of one himself: Anonima Sequestri, a name the media came to use when describing the plague of kidnapping for extortion rings that consumed Italy in the 1970s.

Over 500 people were victims, some of them because of an operation based in Lombardy in the north of Italy. This ring operated on two levels. The first to generate revenue. The second to weaken and embarrass the Palermo clans that were the enemies of the men from Corleone.

One of the driving forces of this group before his arrest and imprisonment in 1974 is Luciano Leggio, the former boss of Corleone. Some sources believed Quartuccio to be one of the treasurers. (1) The man who moves the money around. Has his wife been targeted because of this? Do the kidnappers believe he is sitting on vast amounts of money which they can access by taking his wife?

Although a relatively small town on the fringe of Palermo, this area reeks of money. The diocese of Monreale is the wealthiest in Sicily. The area is also, according to some historians, the birthplace of what we now call The Mafia. (2)

The law’s next line of enquiry was revenge, but why and for what reason? Graziella’s brothers are known members or associates of the Mafia. Perhaps this connection is important. As they struggled through the early hours of the investigation, the first lead was coming down the wires.

At one in the afternoon, three days after the kidnapping, the builder gets the first telephone call demanding a ransom of 1.5 billion lira (about US$1.7 million) if he wants to see his wife again.

He will receive two more calls, the last on July 27 demanding action or his wife will be gone.

Each time he tries to negotiate with the caller, and his lawyer, Giuseppe Candido, is also being contacted by the gang trying to settle. It’s chaos and confusion as is the norm for these events when they occur.

As the hours turn into days, Quartuccio is trying another avenue to save his wife.

He goes to visit a man called Elio Ganci, who runs a jewellery shop in Monreale. A man of mystery, in a landscape fogged by the incipient shadow of the Mafia, his links to organized crime have been established by law enforcement through a connection to Gerlando Alberti, an infamous mobster, part of the Porta Nuova cosca (clan) in Palermo, a few miles to the east. Some sources claim Ganci is the capo, or boss of the town, although this is almost certainly a misconception.

He is a killer linked into the mysterious disappearance of a man connected to one of the Mafia’s greatest scams of all time: Teatro Massimo, the biggest opera house in Italy, possibly in the whole of Europe. (3)

Asking him for help to rescue his wife, Quartuccio does not know that the jeweler is in fact the man heading the gang that has carried out the snatch. Eight days after they bundled his wife from their home, the builder somehow knows the truth. He’s putting the bits together, using his own criminal resources and the power of Peppino Garda, the patriarch of Monreale, a man with more fingers and more pies than a Salvation Army food hall on Christmas Day.

9745443074?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: Peppe Garda

And more money than God, made from his long established and vast construction interests on Via Sciuti in Palermo, (4) and land deals involving the Belice River dam, one of Sicily’s most significant and longest protracted engineering developments. A project that has its roots in early Mafia conflicts, especially involving Luciano Leggio and Dr Michele Navarra back in the 1950s.

Garda will invest about US$150,000 in the project, and his return will be north of US6 million. About $37 million in today's money.

Street criminal gangs don’t live in a vacuum. Like a murder of crows, they gather and socialize and communicate. Many of the people they interact with are associates of Mafiosi, men often referred to as picciotti. Like islands in a stream, they stop and divert information to wherever it’s needed most. If most people live their lives according to six degrees of separation, criminal are lucky to manage one or two. In the underworld, everyone seems to know each other, and the amount of loose lips sinking ships is almost epidemic.

Secrets and lies are hard to maintain in an environment filled with these kinds of people. The kidnapping of a woman linked to men of respect would be like the front page of the biggest scandal magazine in Italy. Hard to ignore.

And so it is that by the ninth day of the kidnapping, Graziella Mandala staggers out of the night into the arm of a bank clerk, who close to midnight, has parked his car on Piazza Don Bosco, in Liberta, one of Palermo’s trendiest quarters. The kidnappers had driven there and dropped her off, blindfolded, but unharmed. She has been missing for a week, and already the dead are in progress.

The first is already gone.

His name is Francesco Renda. He is 42, married with two children and is found dead on Via Collegio Romano, a narrow street only minutes from his home in Borgo Nuvo. Tortured and strangled, police find his body stuffed into a black plastic garbage bag. According to the autopsy, he had died sometime on July 29. The torturing was no doubt to encourage him to give up the names of his conspirators. Number two is on its way during the following day, but across Palermo in the hills of Monreale.

Cause and effect. Always cause and effect in the world of Cosa Nostra.

His wife in bed, recovering from her ordeal and fussed over by friends and relatives, Quartuccio leaves his house on Via Marsala that Friday morning and walks into the town center about noon.

At the jewelry shop on via della Repubblica, he calls out Ganci, who steps outside and hugs the builder, congratulating him. Everyone in Monreale will now know his wife is home and safe. They stand and talk for a few minutes, then Quartuccio turns and walks away. Moments later, a blue Fiat 128 pulls up, and two men leap out. One is armed with a.38 calibre revolver and the other a lupara, a Sicilian shotgun. Double-barrel, cut-down stock loaded with 00 buckshot, the kind that does irreparable damage.

They blast Ganci off his feet and into the gutter, leaving him sprawled and dead, his lifeless eyes perhaps registering disbelief.

Jumping back into the car, they disappear into traffic and are gone. Elio is number two out of a possible eight, or more.

There is a hiatus of twelve days, then the murders resume.

Nicolo Malfattore and Vincenzo Schifaudo, both in their early twenties are drinking in a social club on Corso del Mille, near Piazza Scaffa in Palermo. It’s late afternoon, August 10. Local gangsters. they are well-known to the neighborhood cops for theft, robberies, movement of illegal weapons, and at least one homicide.

A man approaches them about 6:30pm with a message that they are wanted at a nearby bar close to  the famous, Admiral's Bridge. Waiting outside is another Fiat 128, this one red. Two men, two guns, and the killings are done with no effort on one of the busiest streets in the city. The victims are numbers 42 and 43 homicides in the city for the year.

9745443896?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: Schifaudo and Malfattore

Quartuccio and his brother-in-law, Pietro Mandala, are soon suspects in the killings, although the Palermo Flying Squad and the carabinieri are struggling to find evidence to link them to the multiple murders. They raid the home of the builder, but find nothing incriminating. Just the 15 million lira (about US$22,000) he had offered the kidnappers for the release of his wife in the early days of her disappearance.

On September 2 at about 5am, the three brothers of the late Elio Ganci meet to set up their store at Palermo’s Fruit and Vegetable market in Albergheria. Vincenzo forgets something and goes back to his truck parked on the street. Lucky Vincenzo.

A commando of three masked men, carrying shotguns and revolvers, moves through the crowds thronging the market and riddles the two other brothers, Salvatore and Filippo, who are unloading melons from a delivery truck, with multiple gunshots before disappearing before the astonished throng can react, to a getaway car outside the market. (5)

Almost three weeks later a tenant farmer, Calogero Mannino, ploughing his land near Monreale, uncovers a body, wrapped in a sack and stuffed into a hole near an olive grove. The police identify it as Stefano Giaconia, reported missing by his wife, Maria Sorchina, since leaving their home on September 22. Stefano has a long rap sheet and been closely connected to the infamous Mafia boss, Angelo La Barbera, murdered in prison, the previous year, and also to Rosario Riccobono the boss of Partanna Mondello.

Eleven years later, a Mafia informant will describe how Stefano Bontade admitted to him that he had physically strangled Giaconia helped by Riccobono. His death was Cosa Nostra politics squared, and not connected into the kidnapping of Mandala. (6)

As the carabinieri search the area, they stumble upon another corpse, in a state of advanced decay. This one is 22 year-year-old Salvatore Spaduzza who had ties to the two men killed at Piazza Scaffa, and another man called Salvatore Enae, aged 26, who somehow stays alive throughout these weeks of carnage. Why the two men were buried on the same plot of land has never been revealed. It’s typical of the weird and unnatural episodes that occurs all too frequently in the history of Cosa Nostra. 

Spaduzza is connected into Cosa Nostra as is his family. His younger brother, Gaspare, will become a soldier in the mafia’s biggest family, Brancaccio, and will gain notoriety as the infamous killer of Father Giuseppe Puglisi in 1993. A man so dissolute, that on one occasion associates witnessed him stirring the remains of a victim he had killed and was dissolving in a barrel of acid, while eating a sandwich in the other hand, bought with money taken from the dead man’s pocket. (7)

He is brought up bearing the knowledge of his brother’s death which the family claimed had been engineered by Bontade and his clan in Santa Maria di Gesu.

The empty sockets in this confusing jigsaw are slowly being filled, piece by deadly piece.

The night of her kidnapping, Graziella Mandala is taken by car across Palermo, north to the commune of Partanna Mondello and held there in a villa rented by Francesca Cali. She is a friend of Renda and two others involved in the gang - Giovanni Orofino and Salvatore Enea. Cali will later claim she was unaware of the kidnapping and simply knew that they had brought a woman to her house and she was living in the spare room downstairs.

Mandala was guarded by various shifts of men including Renda, Schifaudo, Malfattore, Spaduzza and another gang member called Vito Mangione over her days of captivity.

Late in the evening of July 29, a stranger knocks at the door of the villa, leaving a message from Renda. It reads: “I am in the hands of friends. Free the woman immediately because it will be better for you and me.”

This information becomes available to carabinieri investigators through Rachela Finocchio, a grocery store owner in Borgo Nuova, and a close friend of Francesco Renda who stocked up on supplies at her shop to feed the captive through the days they held her in Partanna.

The criminals collect like the flock they are, confused and frightened. Their boss is missing and perhaps all of their identities revealed. Which they had. Mangione talks to Finocchio and tells her he telephoned Elio Ganci in Monreale who tells him to come with some of the gang to his place so they can sort out some sort of strategy. They drive across, that Friday, arriving thirty minutes after the killers shot Ganci dead.

They no doubt believed that with the two bosses murdered, justice had been done to reclaim the dignity and honor of Quartuccio and his wife. An assumption that would prove groundless. Except for two of them. Somehow, Salvatore Enea and Giovanni Orofino lived to steal another day.

In November, 1976 following the police and carabinieri investigations, Dr. Vittorio Aligro, deputy prosecutor of Palermo, orders the arrest first of Graziella Mandala for refusing to cooperate with the authorities and then on December 23, her husband, Giuseppe Quartuccio, for the murder of seven men presumed to have kidnapped his wife. The court did not pursue the case involving the deceased Stefano Giaconia and Vito Mangione, who along with his brother, Salvatore, disappeared, presumed dead, by the time of the court hearing.

Quartuccio’s lawyer, Ivor Reina, fought a good fight, and the court found his client and wife innocent and the charges against them dismissed in July 1977. A month later, a Mafia hit squad kills Colonel Giuseppe Russo, now a retired member of the carabinieri.

The men murdered following Mandala’s kidnapping were victims of the Mafia, but who did what to whom is harder to pin down.

Antonino Calderone, the underboss of Catania who became a government informant, claimed Rosario Ricobbono, boss of the Partanna Mondello clan, carried out the killings and organized the release of Quartuccio’s wife.

9745445080?profile=RESIZE_710xPhoto: Rosario Ricobbono

The famous magistrate, Paolo Borsellino, stated in an interview that “he heard that Riccobono and Vittorio Mangano, a soldier under Pipo Calo, eliminated those responsible for kidnapping Graziella Mandala and had her released.”(8).

That makes sense to a degree. Calo, although based in Rome, would have control of his family under the regency of Alberti, but it is hard to see either of these linked into the Piazza Scaffa killings, in an area which was controlled by a psychopathic killer called Filippo Marchese, the kind of man who would probably have carried out the two murders there, himself. He enjoyed killing so much it has been alleged, a street shoot-out would have made his day.

Milinciana (eggplant) as he was known to his associates, apparently because he was short, dark and chubby, was the uncle of Leoluca Bagarella’s wife, Vincenzina. As he murdered his victims, often strangling them with his bare hands, he would whisper, “Here your story ends.”

Gaspare Spaduzza’s memory of the involvement of Bontade’s gang in the murders perhaps also confirms this exercise in tracking and murdering over many weeks was something linking more than one Mafia clan.

As often happens in these cases, nobody really knows anything definite. Those who presume will not speak, he who speaks is terminated. Whoever did the killings, and that mystery has never been solved, the message will get through to the criminals operating in the underbelly of Palermo:

“Mess with me, I’ll let karma do its job. Mess with my family, I become karma.”

I acknowledge the writings of Mario Francese, as a major source for this story. An investigative journalist for Giornale di Sicilia, he was murdered by the Mafia in January 1979. Shot dead outside his home by Leoluca Bagarella, the Corleone hit man.

A prodigious examiner of the rural Mafia, in the brigand corridor of Palermo, Francese in his dossier published posthumously in the newspaper, wrote about drug trafficking, murders, kidnappings, money laundering, corruption at play within state and federal politics, the intergeneration of the Mafia into the public sector, and was perhaps the first reporter to understand what was going on in Corleone and how it would impact on the so-called “mafia of the velvet gloves” in Palermo.

1) The other was Agostino Coppola, a parish priest in Carini, a few miles to the north of Monreale. Nephew of the infamous Italian/American gangster Francesco “Three Fingers Frank” Coppola, the clergyman who one day will perform the marriage ceremony for Salvatore Riina and his bride, is himself, a Mafioso, in the clan of Ramacca, under the leadership of Calogero Conti, in the province of Catania. See La Repubblica, April 1, 2018.

2) Cutrera, Antonino. The Mafia and The Mafiosi, Palermo: Albert Reber, 1900. Sciascia, Leonardo. The History of the Mafia, Storia Illustrata, 1972.

3) Teatro Massimo opened in May 1893 and closed in 1974 for renovations. It stayed that way for 23 years, held hostage by Mafia controlled corruption, as Palermo clans screwed the city and state of Italy out of hundreds of millions of US dollars as they determined supply of materials and labour to their advantage. The man who disappeared was Vincenzo Guerico, a manager of a bar near the theatre who was a mufffutu, an informant, for Colonel (then captain) Russo. He vanished on the way to work, and his obvious murder by the Mafia is deserving a story of its own.

4) Corte Di Assise Diapello, Palermo, 2002.

5) L’Unita, September 3, 1976.

6) Arlacchi, Pino. Men of Dishonor, New York: William Morrow & Co, 1993.  Giaconia was a close ally of Salvatore Riina, a deadly enemy and eventually killer of Bontade, at the beginning of the great Mafia war of the early 1980s.

7) Dino, Allesandro. A Colloquio con Gaspare Spattuza: Il Mulino, 2016.

8) Paolo Borsellino: The Hidden Interview. Fatto Quotidiano, January 5, 2010.

Crows are members of the Corvidcore family of birds. We often associate them with fear, loathing and death. In 1486, The Book of Saint Albans includes reference to a “murder of crows.” The term died out over the centuries and next re-appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary in 1939 then was popularized by James Lipton in his book An Exaltation of Larks in 1968.

Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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