By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
“For the world is Hell and men are, on the one hand, the tormented souls and, on the other, the devil in it.” - Arthur Schopenhauer
He had not reached thirty when he died, and although he crammed a lot into his brief life, it was all the wrong stuff. In a playhouse of madness where all the players outdid themselves in their levels of depravity, he had a starring role that lasted over half a decade. A killer who never had time for the luxury of guilt. Years of lead and death to all the targets his Mafia chiefs pointed out. Police officers, magistrates, politicians, a doctor, an old man in the street. No one is safe from the Kalashnikov he brandished like a club of power. And lots of men of the Mafia went down as well. Maybe fifty or more victims between 1980 and 1987.
If sorrow is cold like a winter night, just as long and no way out, and death is black like a raven’s wing, this Mafia hitman from Palermo was a full realization of just how dangerous it is to be a terminator working for men who treated truth, and conscience and loyalty with as much fealty as they showed for a stray dog scavenging in an alley. Everything he did counted for nothing when he became too influential and a perceived threat to men who were even more deadly than he was.
Almost everything we perceive about his Mafia life comes from the testimony of informants, who came out from the cold in the 1980s and 1990s. Although tried and convicted for multiple murders, they killed him before any wheel of justice could turn his acts into reparation though sentence.
Tall and slim, his long hair tied in a knot, he was born in Ciaculli and grew up a normal young man. His friends called him by his nickname, Mariuzzu. Good grades at school, intelligent, personable, but his fate was destined at birth. His father, Giovanni, was a Mafia capo, or boss, of the Croceverde Giardini Mafia family, a suburb in the south-east of Palermo. He and his father, Salvatore, were involved in the Mafia war of the early 1960s. It was a road Mario had no choice but to follow, it seems.
The biological family owned citrus orchards that also doubled as a hiding place for heroin labs and as a graveyard for many of the crime family’s victims. His was to be a life of crime, and he started his apprenticeship as an armed robber, targeting banks and betting shops in the Corso dei Mille area to the south of Palermo central district towards the end of the 1970s.
All four sons of Giovanni become part of Palermo’s Mafia, a dozen or more clans spread across the city and suburbs, which had been their breeding ground for generations. Many become part of a co-operative of power that becomes known as The Corleonesi.
The inexorable rise to power of Salvatore Riina from a Mafia enforcer in the small, provincial town of Corleone, to the boss of all bosses on the island of Sicily, is made possible because of a group of men he called his canazzi da catena. His chain dogs. Death squads made up of Mafia soldiers and sometimes captains from different families. Their names crop up, over and over again, in investigations and reports and newspaper articles that cover the endless murders that stretch across the late 1970s into the early 1990s. The most tumultuous years in the history of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra.*
Prestifilippo is one name that shows up repeatedly.
Giovanni Falcone, a judge murdered on Riina’s orders in 1992, claimed, “The real strength of The Corleonesi is their almost complete control of the providence of Palermo. They’ve got men everywhere and we don’t know them. That allows them to have at their disposal a real and proper ghost army which arrives in the city, shoots and leaves undisturbed.”
Giovanni Brusca, one of them, remembers that when his boss Riina (right) would talk about killings, he would refer to it as “another big bang.” There were so many of them. And Mario Prestifilippo was there so many times, pulling the trigger.
On September 10, 1981, along with six others, he ambushed and killed Vito Levolella as he waited in his car for his daughter to finish her driving lessons. It’s about eight-thirty in the evening. He had parked in the Zisa quarter of Palermo, on Piazza Principe di Camporeale. A senior detective in the carabinieri, he was investigating a drug trafficking ring in the Kalsa, a district on the city’s waterfront, headed by Mafioso Tommaso Spadara, and getting too close for comfort. Levolella may have been the first police officer Prestifilippo murdered.**
Mario’s favorite weapon was allegedly a .38 caliber revolver, especially for the up close and personal stuff like the time he shot dead another officer, Calogero Zucchetto, on November 14, 1982.
Zucchetto, a member of the state police, stopped late in the evening at the Collica Bar on Via Notarbartolo, in Palermo, and went inside for a sandwich. As he returned to his Renault, parked nearby, two men on a motorbike drew up alongside him and the pillion passenger shot the detective five times in the head. One killer was almost certainly Prestifilippo, although the law convicted no one for the killing. The other one was allegedly Giuseppe Greco, another top killer for Riina.
These were possibly the first two police officers that died at the hand of Prestifilippo and his gang. There would be more in the years ahead.
Zucchetto had been investigating the mob in Ciaculli. A semi-rural suburb on the outskirts of Palermo. Prestifilippo and Giuseppe Greco (on right photo that is allegedly him) were the street leaders of the clan, although officially within the Mafia, it was recognized that Michele Greco (a distant relative of Giuseppe) was the official boss. Branches of the Greco family had ruled the Mafia in this area since the late 1800s, or even earlier.
1981 was a busy year in the life of a mob killer.
Among his other known victims were Stefano Bontade in April and Salvatore Inzerillo in May. Two powerful and allied Mafia chiefs of Palermo, Riina, wanted them dead and out of the way so he could continue his slaughter in what became another Mafia war. At least the third in the twentieth century.
Early in the evening of November 6, 1981, Sebastiano Bosio and his wife, Rosaria Patania, were leaving an office building on Via Simone Cuccia in Palermo, when a man stepped out of the shadows and killed the doctor, who was head of vascular surgery at the Civic Hospital. Shooting his victim six times with a revolver, before he disappeared into the night, the doctor’s wife saw his face clearly.
He had, she reported later to Judge Falcone, “an icy look, cold, icy eyes.” She identified the gunman as Mario Prestifilippo.
He and his killers murder the head of the Sicilian Communist Party, Pio La Torre, on April 30, 1982. Along with his bodyguard, they are killed in their car in a Palermo street. La Torre was instrumental in introducing into the Sicilian parliament a bill that would have long-lasting consequences, all of them bad, for the Mafia.
On December 25, Prestifilippo is part of a gang of shooters who kill two Mafiosi, kidnap two and accidentality kill an old man, Onofrio Valve, standing on the Via Lanza, in Bagheria, a city to the south of Palermo.
A botched ambush that went wrong, the gunmen still manage to get their targets. Eight months later, in August, 1982, another squad shoots dead Paolo Giaccone, a forensic specialist and pathologist, as he arrives at his office at the Villa Sofia Hospital in Palermo. He had identified a fingerprint found at the scene of the shootings as that of Giuseppe Marchese, a member of the Corso Dei Mille Mafia, and although under pressure, had refused to alter his testimony. His murder, in front of his workplace, was seen as a warning by the Mafia to those who opposed it.
The shooters were Salvatore Rotolo and Prestifilippo.
A month on, the Mafia claims their most important victim, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, the Prefect of Palermo. He had been at the job for just four months and two days. The number one police officer on the island, and they shot him and his wife and bodyguard into bloody rags late in the evening of September 3. Mario is there along with Giuseppe Greco, their Kalashnikov's echoing through the night as six or more killers converge on the general's car.
August, 1985, Mario is one of a team who ambush and murder Ninni Cassarà, a senior officer of The Palermo Flying Squad, along with his bodyguard as they arrive at the commissioner’s apartment building.
A month earlier, on July 25, Prestifilippo, along with Agostino Marino Mannoia and Giuseppe Greco, gun down police commissioner Giuseppe Montana of the Palermo Flying Squad.
About two months later, Giuseppe Greco is himself the victim of his own gruppo di fuoco hit squad. Known to his fellow Mafiosi as “Little Shoe,” he was perhaps the worst of the worst in the hit men hierarchy of The Corleonesi, to the point his own father disowned him on his death-bed. A man with a lot of charisma, “Shoe” inspired many of the young men of honor in his own and other Mafia families.
Believing himself bigger and better than his bosses, especially Riina, he made the fatal mistake of boasting about his power and fame within the organization.
Joseph Conrad once said, “Thinking is the enemy of perfection.” Greco thought too much about how perfect he was, and then he was gone. Sometime in September, two of his closest aides, Vincenzo Puccio and Giuseppe Marchese, shot him dead in his own house, and he became one of the many who disappeared during the war and the years that followed. When the Mafia kill, they either leave the bodies on display, or hide them. It’s all about politics and control.
Riina spread the word he had fled to America to escape the law. No one knows where his body is. Maybe in a citrus orchard in Ciaculli? Prestifilippoo takes over the running of the crime family, while the titular boss, Michele Greco, is in hiding from the law.
Mario is frequently in Bagheria, a town of 50,000, towards the end. His big boss, Riina, visited the area often, especially to lunch at a famous seafood restaurant, Francu ’u Piscaturi, on the nearby beach of Santa Flavia. Here, he would meet his associates and killers and discuss the next “big bang” over shrimps and lobsters and pasta and lots of red sauces. Red, the same color that would stain roads, and footpaths and walls and car interiors and bodies. Most of all, bodies.
The great Mafia War of the 1980s created lots of them. Some sources suggest over a thousand. Most of them are in or around Cosa Nostra. Killers like Greco and Prestifilippo worked hard to fill their quotas.
The victims of the Ciaculli gunman died for reasons as diverse as the people they were.
A doctor because he would not give preferential treatment to a Mafia boss. A politician who dared to introduce a tough new law against them into parliament. Another doctor who would not bend to their wishes. An old man who walked outside his house on Christmas morning to see what all the noise was about. Police officers who stood up to them as part of their pledges to fight crime, and mobsters who represented a threat to Salvatore Riina and his allies.
One of the many penitents, (police informants,) that testified against Riina and his shadow state, Leonardo Messina, told his handler:
“They took power by slowly, slowly killing everyone … We were kind of infatuated with them because we thought that getting rid of the old bosses we would become the new bosses. Some people killed their brother, others their cousin and so on, because they thought they would take their places. Instead, slowly, (The Corleonesi) gained control of the whole system. … First they used us to get rid of the old bosses, then they got rid of all those who raised their heads, like Giuseppe Greco ‘Little Shoe’, Mario Prestifilippo and Vincenzo Puccio … all that’s left are men without character, who are their puppets.”
- READ: The Rules of the Game
On his last day, Mario Prestifilippo was in Bagheria for some reason, and then heading south on his motorbike in the evening towards Baucina, a commune about 25 kilometers south-east of Palermo.
For months he had been on a mission to stay alive. He had openly criticized the murder of Giuseppe Greco, and even though he had assumed his position as family street boss, he knew his days were numbered.
He maintained a “safe house” here, which was one of several hideouts he used. Not far from the town, taking the old rural highway, he passes by the Enel power station. Dressed in a canvass jacket and blue jeans. A heavy gold chain hung around his neck, under the crash-helmet he wore. The .38 on his hip as always.
Up ahead, he sees the cross-roads and in that last eclectic moment, the moon clears the grey clouds, highlighting the stage where he will be the last act. A pack of gunmen, about ten, waiting in the shadows of the night, blow him off the bike like leaf-blowers blasting their target.
Riddled with bullets, he ends up sprawled in the dirt, one shoe torn away, helmet still on. One of the killers, Giovanni Drago, confirms the murder by poking a shotgun under the crash-helmet and blowing a hole in the victims throat.
It’s Tuesday, about 7:30 pm, September 29, 1987.
Because he was carrying a driving license in the name of Giovanni Gammauto, it was after midnight before the police final identify him by a fingerprint match.
At the time of Mario’s death, Palermo was the epicenter of The Great Mafia Maxi-Trial which had begun in February 1986. It’s possible Riina wanted him gone in case he was arrested and turned as a government informer. Perhaps the boss is worried about Mario’s ambitions. Then again, maybe his killers were part of some of the losing clans in the war with The Corleonesi. At this point in time, we don’t know the answer.
The leader of the hit squad was almost certainly Drago, who himself had been part of the fire-teams working under Riina. He was a member of the Mafia clan of Brancaccio, numerically, the biggest in Sicily, and very staunch allies of Riina.
- READ: To Kill a Dream
On September 30, a pathologist examined the shattered body in the examination room at the autopsy unit of the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the Palermo Polyclinic. Along with doctors and police and judges, Mario’s mother is brought to identify her son, accompanied by one of her daughters. Someone in the group huddled around the body whispered, “This time, the right eyes are crying.”
Dressed in black, the woman stood by the table. She suddenly produced a square of brilliant white cloth, caressing the wounds of her son and then washing her face, screaming, U sangu du miu sangu! “Your blood is my blood.” No Hollywood movie could ever quite match that for the sheer melodrama.
An investigative magistrate who was present, Lorenzo Matassa, later claimed, “ ......that image often comes back to my memory to tell me about Sicily and the ferocity of those days.”
It’s almost impossible to understand the forces that drive a man like Mario Prestifilippo. Attilio Bolzoni, an expert on the Mafia, claimed he was “greedy for money and thirsty for violence.” Another master writer, this one of fiction, says it differently:
He was from the kingship of men who would “make a conscious choice to murder the light in their souls. They never come back from that moment.” ***
* The terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra- our thing- appear to be interchangeable in Sicily. Originally believed to describe an Americanized version of Mafia, Tommaso Buscetta, arguably the most significant informant during the 1980s, and a major witness at the Palermo Maxi Trial, claimed the term had been in use during his years as a soldier in the organization, following his induction into it during the late 1940s.
** There are five federal police forces in Italy. The oldest established is the military police, the carabinieri, formed in 1814.
*** Another Kind of Eden. James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2021
The fire-teams that Salvatore Riina had at his disposal during and after the Mafia war of the 1980s comprised the following. There could have been more:
Giuseppe Giacomo Gambino
Agostino Marino Mannoia
Giovan Battista Pullara
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