By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. - Henry David Thoreau
It was almost certainly too much for Luciano Raia.
On a wet, chilly Tuesday morning, January 11, 1966, three women dressed in black moved across the gardens of Piazza della Vittoria, towards the immense block of a building standing on its west-side. The Prefecture, the state police headquarters for the city and district of Palermo in Sicily.
One of these women had come to make history, in a kind of way, although she was not aware of this. All she wants is to save her husband. Get him out of prison, away from the nightmare he is living.
The small group approaches the armed guard at the entrance, and the oldest asks if she can see Angelo Mangano, the newly appointed head of the state’s regional police unit. This woman, Biaggia Lanza, the wife of Luciano Raia, will become known in the weeks and months ahead, as Peppina the Brave.1
Mangano had only recently arrived in Palermo, after spending some years chasing the Mafia in Corleone.
Arriving in the small, bucolic town in November 1963, he achieved that aim in May 1964, although a lot of the credit goes to the carabiniere unit that was based in Corleone. It was this branch of the military police under Colonel Ignazio Milillo, that did most of the donkey work, although Mangano got his picture front and center on the evening of the arrest as he helped the sick and disabled killer down the stairs from his girlfriend’s apartment in the town (photo below).
Although he must have been snowed under with the complexities of his new job, Mangano finds time to speak to Biaggia. The police chief has the woman brought to his office on the second floor and listens as she tells him her story. After she leaves, he makes a telephone call, and then perhaps sits back and wonders.
Her husband, Luciano, is a soldier in the Corleone cosca, or Mafia family. One of four men with the same surname, all in the town’s clan: Bernardo, Giulio, Vincenzo and Luciano. Different sources explain their relationship, although the government believes they are linked, if not siblings, certainly cousins.2
Biaggia’s husband is on the losing side, what becomes known as Navarrani, denoting Dr Michele Navarra, the head of the family until his murder in 1958.
The next morning, a state police van arrives at Ucciardone to collect Raia. The massive, polygon-shaped granite prison on Via Enrico Albanese sits near the port of Palermo. Built in the early 1800s, it has sometimes been referred to as Villa Mori after the prefect Mussolino sent to Sicily to destroy the Mafia in the 1920s filled it with men of honor.
For generations, it would be home to men of the Mafia, either serving sentence or awaiting trial on remand. It would by the 1960s, be called The Grand Hotel Ucciardone, and as well as a prison, it served as a Mafia center of power as they came and went, networking their interests, creating schemes of power and control.
Among them that day in January, is Luciano Raia, who is doing his time for extortion and aggravated criminal association. Being part of the malavita (underworld) is bad enough. Association with the Mafia puts criminals in a special category. In this prison, they even had their own wing.
They took him to the Palermo Palace of Justice and escorted to the cramped office of Cesare Terranova, an investigative judge and examining magistrate working with the state police. By the age of forty-five, he’d spent a large part of his professional career chasing the mob. The previous year, as a senior magistrate, he was part of the prosecution in the trial of over one hundred known criminals following the killing in 1963, of five police officers and two soldiers sent to defuse a car-bomb in an outer-city suburb, Ciaculli a Mafia demesne, totally controlled by the Greco family.
In the days and then weeks of his interrogation, sometimes in the presence of the public prosecutor of Palermo, Pietro Scaglione, murdered by the Mafia sixteen months into the future, Raia reveals what he knows about Corleone and the men who run it.
He talks and they listen as the words tumble out. Mangano has spent his career chasing criminals across Italy, and Terranova prosecuting them, yet even these men, hardened to the evils of crime, are facing something different. Raia is new to them and the judicial system. There had been only a few in the previous eighty-years. What becomes a legal phenomenon in Italy’s judicial system:
A cooperating witness against the Mafia. A penitent, as they will come to be known in the years ahead. In return for freedom or a better deal or hope for leniency from the courts, they will provide the information that was impossible under normal investigative procedures. They will unlock doors into rooms that have never been explored.
Ironically, he will be one of three who all come from Corleone in the years between 1957 and 1969.
The others were Vincenzo Maiuri and Vincenzo Streva.3
Terranova already had a lot of background to support his interrogation of the criminal who wanted to come in from the cold. Or this being Palermo, the heat. He had been chasing those like him since 1958.
Among the mountains of files and documents stored in the office of the public prosecutor is a thick portfolio called “Report on the situation of the Mafia in Corleone 1963.” Compiled by Vice-Brigadiere of the carabiniere, Agostino Vignali, who is based in the town, his dossier on the Mafia clan that had terrorized and effectively run the town for generations filled out many blanks. He named names and detailed investigations and murders. The way the criminals had victimized the contadini, the peasant population. How boss after boss had assumed control, killing anyone who opposed them. Including police officers and politicians. No one was safe.
He had also drawn up a map of power in the Mafia organization of Corleone that had emerged following the internal war fought from 1958 until 1963.
Luciano Raia rambled on, day after day, about how terrorized and confused he had become. He hadn’t slept for months and his conscience was a burden he could no longer carry. He admitted murdering many men, including a shepherd he had strangled to death, near a river.
He first told them about a conversation he had overheard one day on the prison grounds as he was sweeping the dirt and dust away from the courtyard where men gathered, talking and smoking and wandering around. This had occurred sometime in the autumn of the previous year. He knew two of the men well. They were part of Leggio’s group, the winners. They were Vincenzo Liggio and Gaetano Riina, brother of Salvatore, who, along with Bernardo Provenzano, was emerging in police files as persons of interest.
Mangano watched and listened as the judge made notes. Raia (right) was tall and thin, a hard man. By profession, an agricultural laborer, a description that probably fitted half the men in Corleone. Balding, he had small, intense eyes and between his thumb and finger of the right hand, his skin carried five tiny, tattooed dots. A signal to his peers that he was part of malavita. Long before La Stidda did this, men like Raia carried his own, personal signal to let people know just how bad he could be.4
Recalling the conversation he overheard, he claimed the men were talking about the killing of three of Navarra’s men: Francesco Streva, Antonino Piraino and Biagio Pomilla, in September 1963.
Streva was the acting head of the Navarra faction following the doctor’s murder, and this triple killing effectively brought the Corleone war to an end. They had been ambushed and slaughtered by Luciano Leggio, Bernardo Provenzano, Calogero Bagarella, and Salvatore and Gaetano Riina in the area of Pirrello, out in the countryside, beyond the town. And then their bodies set alight. A shepherd found their remains.
Raia spoke of other murders in the town, all of which were on file. A security guard, Leggio, had killed because he may have overheard conversations. There was Paolo Riina who was seen being followed by Salvatore Riina in the small town of Bisaquino, twenty kilometers south of Corleone. No relation, Salvatore at the time was a fugitive from justice, but was not trying to keep discreet about his presence on a busy trading day in the town. The birthplace of famous Hollywood director, Frank Capra, it was also home to Vito Cascio Ferro, who may well have been the first Boss of Bosses of Sicily’s Mafia.
Paolo died in July 1962, violently. Shot dead in Corleone.5
He was one of many. Sources claim between 50 and 300 died in this period as Leggio and his group took control of the town’s Mafia family.
This far removed from the events, it’s difficult to interpret or determine validity and context as they mix and merge in the information that flowed from Raia through the first weeks of his testimony.
Like all informants, the words were as true as he meant them to be and how much they could take him from despair to hope. There was enough to encourage Terranova to create a case. Not against one or two men, but the entire clan. That Raia’s evidence was hearsay and nothing else did not seem an insurmountable problem. Under the Italian Constitutional Court, this is allowed as part of the evidence-giving process.6
The issue is not the message, rather the messenger. He will become less of a devil’s advocate for the prosecution, more a thorn of dissent as the case proceeds.
The first Mafia trial in Sicily involving multiple defendants took place in Girgenti (now Agrigento) Province in 1885, involving the Brotherhood of Favara, who were mainly sulphur miners.7
Coschi, or families of criminals, had existed in organized groups in western and southern Sicily for generations and often operated under various names. One historian believed the accepted term now used to describe them originates from the invasion of Sicily by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860. Thousands of young toughs joined his force and became known as squadri della mafia.8
Other trials would follow in the later years of the nineteenth century, and in the 1920s, following the Mussolini era’s attempt to eliminate the criminal brotherhood once and for all.
There would be three major court cases against the Mafia in the 1960s.
The first which ended in 1967, in Palermo, was about drug-trafficking, which was turning into a major money-earner for the mob in Sicily. The prosecution’s case was weak and ended in August 1968 with all defendants found not guilty.
Next up was The Trial of 114 held in Calabria, in 1968. This was supposed to bring down the bosses of the Palermo families, who had been part of the Mafia war of the early 1960s. It didn’t really work. The only significant figures who went away to prison were Angelo la Barbara, who headed up the clan in the centre of Palermo and Pietro Torretta, boss of Uditore on the west-side of the city. Both were released under a new law enacted in 1970. Salvatore Greco, a boss from the south-east area of Palermo, and a prominent and powerful soldier from a clan in the city centre, Tommaso Buscetta, vanished before trial and escaped to live in South America.
The third and final one is referred to historically as The Trial of 64. This again for security reasons, moved from Palermo to mainland Italy, and unfolded in Bari, the capitol of the region of Puglia, on the Adriatic Coast.
The law, in the form of deputy prosecutor, Domenico Zaccaradi, opened the case against the accused in early February 1969. There would be forty-seven days of trial hearings.
Of the sixty-four in the dock, three were women. One is Leoluchina Sorisi, the woman sheltering Luciano Leggio the night the police finally bagged him. In her bed.
In a Venn diagram of impossible logic, she is the woman who had sworn to rip out and eat the heart of the man who killed her fiance, Placido Rizzotto, in 1948. Although never indicted, everyone knew it was Leggio. Sixteen years later, it seems her feelings had somewhat mellowed. Except of course it was much more complicated.
- READ: The Woman in Black
On the morning of the final hearing, a letter postmarked Palermo, arrives for Vincenzo Stea, president of the court.
“To the President of the Court of Assizes of Bari and members of the Jury:
You people in Bari have not understood, or rather, you don’t want to understand, what Corleone means. You are judging honest gentlemen of Corleone, denounced through caprice by the carabiniere and police.
We simply want to warn you that if a single gentleman from Corleone is convicted, you will be blown sky high, you will be wiped out, you will be butchered and so will every member of your family.
We think we’ve been clear. Nobody must be convicted. Otherwise you will condemned to death–you and your families.
A Sicilian proverb says: ‘A man warned is a man saved’. It’s up to you. Be wise.”9
On June 10 the Court of Azzises announced their decision through a 307 seven page scathing indictment of the prosecution’s case, concluding that they had failed to prove that the Mafia as a criminal association is “without appreciable consequence at the level of the time.”
Luciano Raia, perhaps the state’s most visible witness, was declared to be “mentally unstable; a confused, drug-induced, depressed subject who suffered periodic emotional and volitional instability. He was a lunatic.” A witness to his character, Archangelo Li Causi, claimed not only “was he homosexual, but truly depraved.”
As solid and dependable as an ice-float adrift in the heart of the Sarah Desert.
“The court” it was announced, “is obliged to mark as unreliable all the context of Raia’s depositions for which, without deserving it in any way, he has been identified as a key witness.”
Riina got done for using a stolen driving license. Leggio for stealing grain in 1948. All major charges dropped. The prosecutor wanted three life sentences for the prime suspects and over three hundred years for the rest. The court handed him zero.
And just like that, it was all over.
Luciano Leggio, the primary target of Terranova, smirked his way out of the courtroom. Fat and sleek, he was now officially, beyond reasonable doubt, neither a killer nor a Mafioso. He and Salvatore Riina disappeared. Bernardo Provenzano and Calogero Bagarella, part of the inner circle of killers fighting alongside Lggio, had been on the run for years.
Giovanni Ruffino, the other major player in the war's drama in Corleone, had died in 1967. His body was found decomposing on a mattress in the yard of a cottage in the countryside, near Monreale. He had died of cancer.
It would be almost another twenty-six years until the Italian courts get a winner against the Mafia and confirm the multiple sentences of the Palermo Maxi-Trial of 1985-87, the first successful one since the great trial in Termini Imerese.10
Luciano Raia also vanished from the public view.
Rumors and myths circulated:
He’d bought a house and land on Piano della Scala, the vast estate outside Corleone, to the south, a place as linked to the odor of the Mafia as omerta and images of burning saints. He’d left Sicily and moved to Piedmont, a region to the west of Milan. They locked him up in an insane asylum. He was on the run. More choices than Hobson ever dreamed of.
The state contested the Bari verdict in the Court of Cassation in Rome, Italy’s highest court of appeal, which affirmed a new trial should be held, again in Bari. This time, on December 20, 1970, Luciano Leggio is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the murder of Dr. Navarra. Six others, including Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, each receive a term of five years in prison for their part.11
The law will catch up with Luciano Leggio in 1974, and he will spend the rest of his life in captivity. As will Riina and Provenzano. All in the future. Between them, they will guide the future of Sicily’s Mafia, and influence the political and social structure of Italy for the next thirty-seven years. It will be a time filled with more sound and fury than any Italian opera deserved.
A major source of reference for this story is the book Boss of Bosses by Attilio Bolzoni and Giuseppe D’Avanzo. Published in 2007 by RCS Libri Spa.
- La Repubblica. Feb 20, 2021.
- Parliamentary Mafia Commission, 2 July, 1971.
- Olivo, Ernesto. I Pazzi di Corleone: Di Girolamo. 2020.
- La Stidda is a dissident offshoot of the Mafia of Sicily formed in the early 1980s by men expelled or dissatisfied with cosa nostra. It operates mainly in rural Agrigento and Caltanissetta.
- Acemoglu, Daron, De Feo, Giuseppe, De Luca , Giacomo Davide. Weak States: Causes and Consequences of the Sicilian Mafia: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Loschiavo, Giuseppe Guido. Cento anni di Mafia: Vito White. 1962.
- Poma, Rosario and Perrone, Enzo. La Mafia: Nonni e niponti. Vallechi, Florence, 1971.
10.Following a massive police action against the Mafia by Cesare Mori, prefect of Palermo, selected by Mussolini to rid Italy of the scourge, a trial was held in Termini Imerese. 147 were found guilty in June 1928. They were part of the Andaloro and Ferrarello clans, a mixture of thieves, bandits and perhaps Mafiosi.
- La Republicca. April 26, 2006.
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