Dead in 18 Minutes: The Massacre of Gela

Dead in 18 Minutes: The Massacre of Gela

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

                            I want to say that in your land, anger runs thicker and the almond of pain ripens.

                                                                                                                                    Roberto Rovers

The Mafia of Sicily has been at war for years with another Sicily-based criminal fraternity.

This is called La Stidda. The Star. According to two prominent pentiti (informers), the organization grew during the 1980s, its member, disgruntled or perhaps, ambitious, mafiosi who wanted more, quickly. Some were banished from their criminal families for various reasons. Many of the original members were part of the Mafia clan based in Riesi, and drifted away from their cosca after the murder of their boss, Giuseppe Di Cristina, shot dead in 1978.

And there were lots of shepherds.

La Stidda is unique. The other Mafia-type gangs grew over centuries, their origins obscure, their founders lost in the fog of history.* With Stidda, we know when it emerged, give or take a couple of years, and who brought it into existence. Unlike the Mafia, Stidda is horizontal in structure with no formal rites of admission for its members. It taps into a huge potential labour force of impoverished, unemployed young men and, through their fire-power, more than capable of withstanding conflict with Cosa Nostra groups. Its name “Star” seems to have as many origins as the disparate men who will populate it.

It draws many of its members from the shepherd community, the toughest of the toughest. The men who sleep under the stars, perhaps how their brand name develops, watching over their flocks armed with the lupara, the cut-down twin barrel shotgun used to scare off the wolves, human and animal. They are the hard breed that will be the enforcers and killers as Stidda grows and expands.

12326471077?profile=RESIZE_180x180One of the two men who they claim created Stidda, Giuseppe Croce Benvenuto (right), when asked if he was the head, replied: “The Stidda doesn't exist... you journalists invented it. We were just an organization of friends who came together in a paracco, a family."

In the mala vita, the criminal underworld of Sicily, everyone speaks, often saying nothing.

A journalist reporting on the background of Benvenuto claimed, “They put a gun in his hand when he was twelve. He became a ruthless killer, and can’t remember how many he blasted with the lupara in the bustle of the streets or the emptiness of the lonely countryside.”

“The Stidda, essentially,” says Leonardo Messina, a major Mafia boss turned informant, “is made up of groups of criminals who came into conflict with Cosa Nostra, so much so that they rejected the charismatic figures of the leaders.” He claimed it was operating as early as 1981 when he first met Bruno and Antonino Gallea, who headed the Stidda of Canicatti in the province of Agrigento.

As the stiddari (members)** multiplied into gangs, they created problems within the criminal underworlds of south and east Sicily. For the first time in its history, Cosa Nostra was under attack by another bunch of criminals outside their own lawless society in what unfolded as a war of attrition across the dingy alleys of impoverished towns, and on the sun-baked plains of a countryside disowned by God.

A problem never envisaged was that Mafiosi and their associates were being hunted down and murdered by children.

12326470878?profile=RESIZE_180x180Claudio Carbarnaro (right), the Stidda boss of Vittoria, a small town in the province of Ragusa proposed the concept of using ragazzi, the little boys, at a group meeting of stiddari bosses from Gela, Niscemi, Riesi, Porto Empedocle, Mazzarino, Butera and Palma di Montechario, telling the group “that in this war something has to be different.”

Putting money into the hands of children, giving them guns, and pointing to targets. They are successful. No Mafiosi suspects the scruffy tykes kicking a soccer ball around until they turn and gun them down. Or, two on a scooter, pull up and blast away.

The war between Stidda and the Mafia begins on the morning of December 23, 1987 with the killing of Salvatore Lauretta and Orazio Coccomini, Stiddari bosses, gunned down at their vehicle yards, just off Highway 117 to Messina, outside Gela. The killers are Mafiosi Rosario Trubia and Alessandro Emmanuello, and the trigger is a conflict between the two mobs for control of the civil engineering contracts on the new Disueri water dam. And control of the drug business, and everything illegal in the city and area.

There will be killings, ambushes, many wounded, chaos on a titanic scale, innocent men, women and children murdered in savage crossfires, that earns Gela the improbable nickname, Mafiaville, in France’s press. Over a hundred dead in two years, but nothing quite like the events that explode across the town late in November 1990.

It then became the antechamber of hell.

Gela is on the Mediterranean Coast at the estuary of the Gela River, on the south-eastern side of Sicily. The population of about 70,000 transformed from an agricultural base and a mix of fishermen and artisans to one of industries, with the development of one of the largest petrochemical plants in Italy, near the city boundary in the 1960s. Enrico Mattei an Italian energy tycoon who will die in a mysterious plane crash in 1962, in Italy creates Petrolchimico. Some claim is death is orchestrated by the Mafia.

In its rush to change, Gela becomes the victim of greed, corruption and the competing evil of two major organized crime groups out to destroy each other in a ghost city, where 60% of the population live in illegal neighbourhoods with no authorised services.

By 1990 Gela is one of the bloodiest free-fire zones in all of Sicily with plenty of lurid descriptive tags-Inferno, Beirut, Slaughterhouse City- to name a few, and law enforcement had brought few to justice for the endless homicides and over 100 attempted ones.

In a Venn-diagram overlap of such exquisite complexity, Stidda and Cosa Nostra clans scramble to assert themselves, killing each other on almost a daily basis, loosing and replacing bosses, recruiting killers, sometimes school children, eager to become part of the exciting, adrenalin-fuelled thrill of chase and kill, with money as an endless temptation in their poverty-stricken lives.

Police Commissioner Carmelo Casabona, from Caltanissetta, stated to a reporter, "It's not just the big guys who are fighting now. They are mostly removed from the scene. It's the small fish fighting it out, an action-reaction syndrome, and they are out of control."

The child killers. The carusi, with names like Ciccio Shoot Shoot and Salvucio Coca Cola and Sara Saber and Totò Battery because he’s had two place makers in his juvenile life. Displaced, homeless, without futures in a city without birds, near a sea without fishes filled with women without honor and men without speech, according to the macabre nursery rhythm they all favoured.

12326471252?profile=RESIZE_180x180Just under two years before the events of November 1990, Stidda carry out a hit on the Mafia boss of the town, killing the right-hand man of Giuseppe Madonia (right), considered by some law enforcement sources as the chief aide to Salvatore Riina, the powerful Corleone boss, who was waging a war across Sicily against the state and within the mafia itself. Madonia, headed the Vallelunga-Pratamento clan of the Mafia in Caltanissetta and was the boss of Gela through Salvatore Polara, his chosen leader of the local cosca.

The two men headed a construction company working on the major dam project, which was the catalyst for many of the murders taking place in the region.

Polara lived with his wife, Giuseppa Maganugo and five children, in the San Giacomo district of Gela. He was early fifties, living under house arrest, having returned to the city from a period of legal exile.

On December 22, 1988 at 1.30 pm as Polara and his wife and three sons were lunching, a man approached their two-story home in Via Ducezio. He was wearing an obvious dark wig, which was the go-to disguise in Gela for hit men on the prowl. His door-bell ringing brought son Marcello to open it. He is the first victim. The gunman is armed with two 7.65mm pistols, one in each hand, and blasting away, he steps into the house. Within seconds, he massacred the whole family blowing them across the dining table, leaving their bodies like disjointed puppets. Disappearing into the alleyways, the killer joins his escape car parked a couple of streets away and is gone.

Almost thirty years later, it’s alleged the hitman was Antonio Paolello, who along with his brother, Orazio and Filippo Gibilras, had made up the fire-team that day. Antonio will die of cancer in the early 2000s while serving a life sentence for other crimes and murder. The other two remain locked up for forever.

Police and first responders find that the youngest son, fourteen-year-old Pietro, survives the blood-bath. There is the wig, and lots of empty shell casings scattered in the apartment. The two daughters are away from home that day, otherwise it’s almost certain they would have died alongside their family.

To a city inured to violence, this latest example of mob savagery seems the ultimate symbol of the complete breakdown in social order in a population beaten senseless by endless killings.

There is worse to come.

By five in the evening, darkness has come to Gela on this Tuesday, November 27, 1990. Light winds were blowing away the afternoon humidity, and the temperature was in the low, comfortable 20s Celsius. Stidda fire-teams were setting out from their bases, one in a country house in Acate, about thirty kilometres to the south and east of the city, and the rest from their hideout in the inner city suburb of Settefarine. Each group of killers had a target, and they went after them with almost military precision. Like a swarm of killer-bees, they descend into Gela on Enduro off-road motorbikes and other vehicles and begin their deadly attack at 7pm.

In a tight perimeter of seven blocks by three, fronting via Emanuele, the hits go down as four ambushes with over 150 shots fired.

The first target is a billiard hall, a hole-in-the-wall cave filled with pinball machines and the one big table. It’s halfway down Via Vittorio Emanuele, Gela’s major thoroughfare, almost next to San Giacomo Square. While one gunman guards the doorway, two other leap on the table and spray the room with bullets from long guns and handguns. They leave behind three dead and six wounded. It’s a charnel house. The youngest victim is seventeen. His name is Giuseppe Areddia and there is something unique about his place in this story***

Seven minutes later, gunmen blast a fruit and vegetable store in Via Terere, near the corner of Via Venezia, two blocks to the east of first attack. Here, the toll is two killed and three injured. They find the owner, Giovanni Domicoli, sprawled dead among the lettuce and beets, with his wrist-watch shattered and stopped at seven minutes past seven.

The next to die, at seven-fifteen, is Luigi Blanco gunned down in Via Butera. His murder puzzles the police, as they did not connect him to any criminal gang, other than by marriage. He was a brother-in-law to a member of the Madonia clan. It was enough to get him killed.

The last act in this macabre drama unfolds in a butcher shop in Via Venezia at seven-eighteen. The victim is Francesco Rinzivillo, aged fifty, who is riddled with fifty bullets. He was a Mafia don close to the leaders of Gela’s Cosa Nostra.

It is all over in eighteen minutes.

In the chaotic hours that follow, carabinieri (military police) achieves some progress with their investigation and by the end of the week, they have discovered a disused building in the kasbah of Settefarine.

Among the detritus, they find traces of a celebration feast-lobster, champagne and cocaine-along with discarded weapons, and in a secret room, uncover Carmelo Rapisarda an eighteen-year-old  gunman, who had been hiding there for three days. Law enforcement will hold him, and eventually track down and arrest Carmelo Dominate, Claudio and Bruno Carbonaro, Francesco Di Dio, Salvatore Cassano, and Emanuele Antonuccio, all of whom will face indictment.

12326471283?profile=RESIZE_400xRapisarda (left) claimed in later life as he served three life sentences, “I was born in Catania on 9 January 1971. I was born, because for many years now, too many years, I have been dead, without hope and without a future. I was arrested at nineteen, I was accused of thirty murders and sentenced to three life sentences. I find myself imprisoned in the Sulmona prison. I was subjected to the hard prison torture regime of 41 bis for fifteen years."

A female witness to the billiard hall massacre picks him as one of the killers. She even described his clothing, the same as he was wearing when discovered in Settefarine, “jeans, green jacket.” She could even describe the colour of the jacket lining.

The police discover a stolen Fiat Uno that belonged to a parish priest that was used, along with a panel van, another car, two motorbikes and two scooters to transport the fire-teams around their chosen perimeter of death.

The Caltanissetta flying squad has volumes of suspect hard criminals that operate in Gela, at least 500 of them, operating in sixteen sub-groups, linked into the Madonia Cosa Nostra and the Iocolano Stidda. They are sure the killers are in here somewhere.

And of course the government went mad. The media went ballistic. Law enforcement was all over Gela like a rash and the church did what it always did, metaphorically washed its hands in grief and pontificated.

Police Commissioner Casabona wonders if the “small fish” are acting interdependently and just how much they are part of the endless Stidda-Cosa Nostra feud.

There had been nothing quite like this involving the Mafia since the October 1984 mass killing of Piazza Scaffa in Palermo on the other side of the island.

More and more, it looks like the gangs and sub gangs of delinquent extortionists might be behind the night of slaughter. Are they acting for Stidda? That’s the big question.

Most of it will become clear thirteen years later. After his arrest in Turin in late 1992, Gaetano Ianni, 40, the current boss of Stidda, switches sides and cooperates with the authorities in early 1993, just about the time the law catches Salvatore Rinna after almost thirty years on the run.

Ianni told the backstory of the last ten years of the mafia and its wars with the Stidda in Gela, Caltanissetta, Niscemi, Mazzarino and Riesi. His revelations explained dozens and dozens of murders and mysteries. He confirmed a tapped telephone message made by his men to Cosa Nostra, that said, “Tell Madonia Gela is under the control of the Stiddari. We are 500. You are under 100. Agree, or the war will continue.”

The Mafia and Stidda agreed to disagree and, somehow, declared a kind of truce and a pact to share the spoils of war in Gela. It’s uneasy and as flexible as a steel rod, but somehow works. Until it doesn’t, and to this day, Cosa Nostra exists in a kind of ambiguous harmony with this outlaw band of shepherds and displaced Mafiosi and the uncertain criminal detritus of a geographic place in south-east Sicily cursed with the evils of not one but two competing organized criminal groups.

Spreading into mainland Italy, Stidda clans link into Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta families, setting up supply chains in heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Stiddari go off to prison and on their release, reform into units, sometimes existing, sometimes created. Like a chain of infection, its pathogen of evil moves from its portal of entry into its susceptible host:

The people, normal people, who have to live and survive somehow in this landscape of endless friction and be always the debtors in the mob’s comparable sharing of profits from extortion, drug trafficking, usury and control of business dealings.

Mafia is one of the few brand names that is internationally recognizable.

Maybe one day, Stidda will join that infamous ranking.

* There is one other gang that fits into the profile of Mafia-type operation in Italy, apart from ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra. This is called Sacra Corona Unit and is based in Apulia, central Italy. It emerged at about the same time as Stidda, early 1980s, lead by a Camorra boss, Raffaele Cutolo. With 50 clans and about 2000 members, it has never gone to war with Sicily’s Mafia, unlike Stidda. Which did. In a big way.

** This was their name in the province of Caltanissetta, but for some reason, in Agrigento, they called themselves Stiddaroli.

*** Areddia was the boyfriend of Emanuella Azzarelli, a sixteen-year-old delinquent who lead perhaps the biggest gang in town, the Via Abela mob over 50 in number, of wild children who terrorized the city. Extorting, terrorizing, carrying out murders-for-hire, the law was powerless to control them because they all fell under the age of adult laws and regulations. As a young child, she witnessed the murder of her father, Benedetto, a Mafia don, who was shotgun blasted to death by two men when he opened the door to their home. The police assumed she was one of the targets as witnesses placed here near the Las Vegas gaming room moments before the massacre.


La December 22 1988, Gela, A massacre at Home.

Lúnita. 29 November, 1990. La Strage di Gela.

Sardol, Carmelo. Dogs Without an Owner. La Stidda. Melampo editors. Milan 2017.

La January 20 1993.

La July 24 1997. Gela, Where Stidda and Cosa Nostra Do Business Together.

Cutrufelli, Maria Rose. Canto al Deserto. Storia di Tina, Soldato di Mafia. Sperling& Kupfer. Milano. 2017

Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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