“My crime was to have been born and raised in a family of mafia traditions, and to have lived in a society where everyone is mafia and therefore respected, while those who are not are despised.” - Leonardo Vitale
When he walked across the gardens of the Piazza della Vittoria and through the doors into the Palermo office of the Flying Squad that balmy Thursday evening, no one really knew what was about to happen.
He wanted the boss, Bruno Contrada, head of the investigative services of the squad, up the stairs in the back office in what had once been a monastery, and was now filled with men smoking and talking on telephones. The elite of the state police.(1)
It was March 30, 1973, and Sicily’s Cosa Nostra would never be the same again.
The tall, slim, thirty-two-year-old Leonardo Vitale, was carrying a chimeric rucksack filled with doubts and fears that he needed to empty. Drowning in a black hole and needing to find a way out, he vents against his feelings, and is tormented by a rage of injustice.
Contrada (left), who one day becomes head of Sicily’s branch of the Italian SISDE (secret service), will be arrested in 1992 and sentenced to ten years in prison for Mafia association. (2)
It was,” said Italian newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, “like discovering your faithful guardian angel is actually an associate of the Devil.”
Vitale talked with the boss and another cop, who sat smoking like a power station chimney. He was Tonino De Luca. He looked more like a Mafioso than anyone in the room, and said he thought this guy was mad. How could you believe this? It’s like explaining the joys of central heating to an Eskimo. It makes no sense. What is this thing he keeps calling our thing? Cosa Nostra?
De Luca will become one of the Squadra Mobile’s greatest assets, working closely with Boris Guiliano, head of the homicide directive, to attack and torment the Mafia who he thought of as social gangrene, over the next six years. He will go on to bigger and better things. Boris will die at the hands of a Mafia killer six years later.
These three cops -Bruno, Nino and Boris - were the ones the Palermo Mafia really worried about. They were the best of the best. They knew their stuff, except on this night, nothing seemed to make much sense.
They listen and record what is said through the night until dawn the following day. Contrado, by then has thirteen sheets filled with over a hundred names.
Vitale tells them of a meeting at a farm near Campofranco, in the province of Caltanissetta, where Salvatore Riina of Corleone adjudicates a meeting to discuss whether the Altarello family or the adjoining cosca of Noce would get the dibs on construction pay-backs from a builder, Giovanni Pilo, who was working sites along the borders of the two territories.
Raffaele Ganci, the boss of Noce, wanted it, so did the other capo. After hearing both sides, Riina gives the pizzo, the extortion, to Ganci, because, “I have Noce in my heart,” he said. And so it was done.
Riina’s word was law. Even then. All those years ago.
Being in Riina’s heart was not necessarily a good thing as Baldassare Di Maggio would find out twenty-years later.
Leonardo Vitale was the first pentiti for many years.
Pentitismo, from pentirsi, “to repent” refers to the category of Mafiosi who have turned state’s evidence, and are referred to as “collaborators” in the Italian judiciary system. There had been others before him(3).
The Mafia had been leaking for generations. After him, there would be a flood, but in that soft, quiet evening, in a room filled with disbelievers, he could have changed history. He was perhaps the only Mafioso who repented in the real sense of the term.
If only the legal system had listened with open minds.
It was, in the sliver of life between birth and death, the one opportunity Leonardo Vitale would have to try and make amends, and he failed.
As they sit through the night talking and listening, he tells them, “Cosa Nostra opened my eyes to a world made of killings and whatever is worst in the world.”
The media would come to call him “The Joe Valachi of Altarello di Baida,” referring to a rural township located in the south-west of the municipality of Palermo City. A place of narrow lanes, lemon groves, and crumbling houses, and since the early 1960s, hideous high-rise concrete apartments suffocating the landscape like cement tumors sucking out the very air.
Valachi had made the headlines in Washington DC ten years before when he had testified against the Mafia of America at a senate hearing into organized crime.
He had been a soldier in the New York Genovese Crime Family. Vitale, however, was a capo, a street boss, in one of the oldest families in Palermo. His Mafia roots went back a hundred years, before the American arm had even emerged, probably in Louisiana towards the end of the 19th Century.
The Sicilian Mafiosi in those days were born, lived, and died in the same village or hamlet or city district. Their area almost sacred, their biological families living in the same place for generations, and most related by blood ties. In a cosca, a Mafia unit, there could be six or seven surnames, and the rest of the band will be associates. These groups were not actually “families” as such but more like territorial networks.
Biological dynasty connections linked him to Francesco Paolo Vitale, a capomafia, the big boss, in the original family way back in the 1890s. A Mafioso who had close ties to Raffael Palizzolo, one of Sicily’s most corrupt politicians. The Vitale family had been Mafiosi as long as there had been lemon and orange groves to fill the air with their fragrance. They had been the bosses in this area for ever.
- READ: Emanuele Notarbartolo, the man who fell from the train, and the dark heart of Italy
Leonardo’s father, also called Francesco, had died when his son was twelve (some sources claim seventeen.) Francesco had been a great killer in the family. His hands had been stained with blood from all his victims. He was an illustrious Mafioso. A hard act to follow in a family with links into the brotherhood going back decades.(4)
Leonardo had come under the protection of his paternal uncle, Giovanni Battista “Titta” Vitale, the boss of the cosca. He would guide him, like a Samurai docent, into the evil that lay within the corridors of Cosa Nostra.
In a childhood without maps, Leonardo was led into a land of darkness by a man who would influence him for the rest of his life. Vitale would come to say, “I found in my uncle the father I never had. I never felt like a criminal when I was with him. I followed him everywhere.”
“Titta” was big in the construction industry, helping to contribute to what became known as “The Sack of Palermo” as Mafia-driven building contractors razed the old town and rebuilt it with high-rise concrete apartment buildings, turning one of the most beautiful ancient cities in Italy into a twentieth-century monstrosity.
It was, as this story begins, an urban jungle that hardly functioned, devastated by the corruption of the Mafia, with some of the worst slums in Europe.
In 1974, the uncle became a victim of lupara bianca, the white shotgun, as the Mafia call it when a victim is murdered and disappears. It’s claimed he was strangled and his body dissolved in a drum of acid. Observers believed he died a victim of his nephew’s betrayal in disclosing the operation and function of his Mafia family.
When Leonardo was sixteen, his uncle had taken him to a field of olive trees and handed him a 12-gauge shotgun.
“Shoot the horse,” he commanded, pointing to an old, tired nag, swaying in the evening breeze. It was the first thing he had killed. Leonardo closed his eyes, and blew the horse down. After that, it was easy.
A year later, in October, 1960, there was his first human victim, Vincenzo Mannino, a campiere, an estate guard, from the rural hinterland, in Borgetto. He had been buying up leaseholds on land controlled by “Titta” in Altarello without permission and had to be taught a lesson. The Mafia way. Their informal method of conflict resolution always ended the same.
After tracking his movements for days, Leonardo waited for him one night on the Via Tasca Lanza. Driven there by Giuseppe Ficarra, he was standing next to their Fiat Cinquecento as Mannino walked down the street. Leonardo blasted him dead with a shotgun his uncle had provided. The killings were a test, and he passed with flying colors. He was ready.
Later that year, he was taken to a farmhouse that belonged to Domenico Guttadauro in Uscibene, on the outskirts of the city. Surrounded by the family capi, the crew bosses - Giuseppe Bologna, Dominic Calafiure, Ciro Cicchia, Emanuele La Fiura, and his godfather, Salvatore Inzerillo - his uncle pricked his gun finger with the thorn of an orange and burned a santina, an image of a saint in his hands, and kissed him, bringing him into their world.
Nine years later, in March, 1969, Leonardo will murder Bologna, shooting him as he walked in the garden of his home on Via Giovanni Evangelista in the Zisa district. He had slapped his uncle’s face in front of the men, accusing him of being a spy for the police.
There are few things worse in the world of the Sicilian Mafia than to be called cascittuni. The response is always fatal. Bologna maybe was making a play to take over the family. It would not be the first or last time in the world of Cosa Nostra that this kind of action resulted in this reaction.
Crouching behind the garden wall, waiting for his target, shooting him in the throat at close range as he stopped to light a cigarette. This was the second killing his uncle had ordered him to carry out. Maybe it was this murder that slipped him over the edge. There were other acts of criminality. Lot’s of them-extortion, burning down buildings, breaking bones- but perhaps, this one, up-close and personal act of homicide was the tipping point.
Killing a senior Mafioso of this caliber was not something taken lightly. “Titta” had consulted the bosses, Gabrielle Marciano of Boccadafilco and Rosario Sansone of Passo di Rigano, neighboring cosche and men held in high esteem within the honored society, before arranging the assassination.
A year later, his uncle promoted Leonardo from soldier to capo, boss of ten, head of his own crew. Now he would learn about the structure and membership of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra at management level. Who the leaders were. Who the crooked politicians were. How big money was made.
An emotionally fragile young man, Leonardo, known to his family as Leuccio, was driven to prove his manliness to his uncle, perhaps in some ways to mitigate the doubts he had about his masculinity. At this time, in Sicily, to be gay was to be a pariah. To be gay and in the Mafia unthinkable. Even worse, he wondered if he might be a pederast, a “chicken-hawk,” as the Austrian police referred to them.
He has a kind of religious awakening, and his collaboration with the police is his way of trying to stop the evil of the Mafia, whatever the cost to his own safety and well-being while purging his evil thoughts. Although everyone will come to call him crazy, after he arrived at the Palermo Police Headquarters and spoke to the squad, he was, according to Bruno Contrada, as sane as he was.
The madness would evolve through his psychiatric treatment, and from the years of incarceration in mental asylums and prisons in the years ahead. That night in March, he just had to unburden himself in a city a prisoner of its own shadows. If courage is fear that has said its prayers, he had come to the police to be consecrated and freed from his torments.
It was not to be.
Claire Sterling, in her book “The Mafia,” tells us, “In 1973, a modest Man of Honor, called Leonardo Vitale (right), tries to tell an unbelieving Italian court about Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. He testified to its code and structure, meetings, methods, and unspeakable crimes. And he named those who were fast becoming its most sinister leaders, his co-defendants, Luciano Leggio’s men. Prominent among these was Giuseppe “Pippo” Calo, later known as the Mafia’s treasurer and one of Leggio’s closest allies. The court acquitted his co-defendants and committed Vitale to a criminal lunatic asylum. He was freed in1984 and shot dead in December of that year.” (5)
That pretty much sums up the story. Except it doesn’t of course. Like life itself, the devil is in the detail.
After his initial interviews with The Flying Squad, Vitale is sent to Ucciardone Prison, down near the waterfront. For over 150 years, it has housed thieves, murderers, and Mafiosi. Here, there is more interrogation from cops and lawyers and another layer to the story.
One of the investigators who needs to talk to Vitale is Giuseppe Russo, a colonel in the military police, Arma dei Carabinieri. He specialized in chasing Mafia villains. To his cost.
One night, in 1979, they would catch him in Ficuzza, one of Sicily’s few remaining forests, and shoot him dead. It’s no coincidence that Ficuzza sits like a bushy eyebrow above the town of Corleone, home to at least two of his killers.
For four days, under the guidance of investigating magistrate, Aldo Rizzo-who one day will be deputy mayor of Palermo, and a court judge-Vitale is questioned and offers more information than the law can handle.
He gives his interlocutors so much they can barely cope. He gives them names: Mafiosi, bosses, crooked politicians, the structure of Cosa Nostra, that it has a governing board, the crimes; so many crimes, that this organization commits. The way it controls construction across the city and province of Palermo. The way it corrupts and bribes politicians. How even nobility is part of their life. That Vanni Calvello, Prince of San Lorenzo, one of the oldest noble families in Sicily, is their man.
He tells them one of the killer squad that carried out the famous Vialle Lazio massacre two weeks before Christmas in 1969, was Damiano Caruso, a butcher, from Villabate, who belonged to the Mafia cosca of Giuseppe De Cristina in Reisi, almost 200 kilometers from Palermo to the south and east of the island. Where is all this coming from, they wonder?
Moreover, he knows things about the murders he committed that only the killer would know. That Giuseppe Bologna was carrying a basked that evening in his garden. That he laid it on the ground as he lit a cigarette just before he died. They were both found next to the body when the police investigated the crime scene. Contrada knows all of this to be true because he had headed the investigation into the murder of Pinuzzu Bologna.
And then another layer unfolds into his life-story. A few days into April, Friday the sixth, his cousin, Salvatore Vitale, a florist, is found dead, his body sprawled across an old folding-bed, in a garden shed behind his house in the Zisa district. He had swallowed plant pesticide then stabbed himself twice in the head. According to Dr. Marco Stassi, who conducted the autopsy, it was suicide.
Of course, it was.
Leonardo tells the detectives, “Toto knows it all. He knows more than I do.”
He had supplied the gun that was used in Bologna’s murder. He knew everything, and now he was dead. He knew about the 4000 building permits the city had issued through four men, two bricklayers, a night-watchman, and a street hawker.
He knew about Vito Ciancimino, one-time mayor and the bent public works bureaucrat, from Corleone, who almost single-handedly transformed Palermo from a place of magic into an endless slum. And his compatriot, Pino Trapani, the planning manager for the city who also just happened to be a soldier in the Porta Nuova Mafia family.
He knew about Salvatore Riina, the little thug from Corleone who was building bridges everywhere the Mafia was. Which in Sicily, was everywhere.
- READ: Five Minutes to Midnight: The Sicilian and New York Mafias, the Catholic Church and a huge finance scandal
Following Vitale’s confession, the police, through the night of April 9-10, carry out a series of arrests in Sicily and the mainland, bringing in over 40 suspects. Vitale’s uncle “Titta” confined on Linosa Island, where he was in soggiorni obbligati (forced resettlement) for previous criminal acts, is served an arrest order.
Leonardo’s padrone, Salvatore Inzerillo is rounded up along with Giuseppe Ficarra and Antonio Rotolo and Giuseppe Calo and Raffael Spina and Filippo Mirabella and Francesco La Fiura and Ignazio Motisi and dozens more. The whole clan of Altarello is bundled into the indictment.
Three weeks into custody, the judiciary appoint three eminent psychiatrists-Alto Costa, Vittoria Terrana, and Agostino Rubino-to interview and analyze Vitale. They did, and just like economists, psychiatrists sometimes struggle to reach conclusions, or at least the same conclusions based on the evidence before them.
He turns up one day with no shoes, and cuts on his arms.
“Madman,” he says to them, I am a madman.”
Continue reading part 2 of The Madman of the Mafia
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