These are murderers who killed a man, killed a thought, a hope, a way of being, the very idea of humanity.
- Lorenzo Matassa. Public Prosecutor. Court of Palermo, February 23rd, 1998.
In the early 1990s, a courageous Catholic priest, Giuseppe 'Pino' Puglisi, took over the parish of the church of San Gaetano Maria del Divino Amore, in Brancaccio, a neighborhood to the south-east of Palermo City, bordering the district of Ciaculli. Both of these areas were then, and still are today, unyielding Mafia outposts.
Brancaccio is a place of enormous poverty, perhaps the toughest suburb in the city, a place the mob has always considered its own; one of thirty-five quarters in eight municipalities that make up metropolitan Palermo, it has been a breeding ground for the Mafia for one hundred and fifty years, maybe longer.
It's a place of grim squalor. Tightly-packed high-rise cement-faced blocks of residential apartments fronting streets and roadways filled with the detritus and broken dreams of people displaced by intimidation, bribery, abuse, killings, and above all, control. Everything that is bad. It's a place where people die without knowing why.
The why, of course, is the Mafia.
It haunts Brancaccio. It sits down at the dinner table, it stands by in the bathroom; it moves the curtains in the bedroom; it sits down at the dinner table. It comes home with blood on its clothes. In this tortured and miserable suburb of the biggest city in Sicily, the evil of the Mafia was represented by two brothers, Giuseppe and Filippo Graviano.
On September 15th, 1993, fifty-six years from the day he was born, 'Pino,' - see photo on the left - a Father of the Catholic Church, was murdered by the Mafia, a convocation of a much different nature. That they killed him on his day of birth was perhaps symbolic. Maybe it was a message to the world that their control was absolute. They had the power of life and death and it was unconditional.
They ambushed him as he was about to open the front door to his public housing (case popolari) apartment building at No 5 Piazza Anita Garibaldi.
As he looked into the faces of his two killers, he smiled, gentle, cheerful, but also resigned and said:
“I've been expecting you.”
The killers took his briefcase and said, “Father, this is a robbery.”
And then, they shot him dead, with a 7.65 mm pistol. Fitted with a silencer. 20 centimeters from his head. The phtttt of the gun would have been no louder that the pounding heartbeat of the shooter. The bullet boring into the priest's neck, under the left ear and up into his brain. He was leaning forward, head angled down as he placed his key into the lock of the anodized aluminum front door.
The murder had to look like the work of a drug addict or a thief they'd been told.
One of the assassins, Salvatore Grigoli, many years later, confessed, “....don Pino è morto per il bene degli altri e il prezzo è stato altissimo.”
“Don Pino died for the good of others, but the price was too high.”
“We weren't supposed to kill Father Puglisi that evening,” Grigoli later recounted, “but then we saw him out on his own. He was making a 'phone call from a box near his church on the Via Brancaccio. We went and got the gun fitted with the silencer. When we returned, he had gone, so we went and waited for him by his house.” Although the target was a defenseless priest, they had created a “commando” unit to carry out the execution. There were five of them, in two cars, a BMW and a Renault 5.
The last day of Father Puglisi's life had been fairly routine. He had celebrated two weddings, attended a couple of meetings, met the parents of a baby to be baptized, attended a small, informal birthday party hosted by his friends, before calling it a day.
“It was about 8:40 pm as we stood there,” Griglio continued. “He parked his car, the Fiat Uno, and walked to the building. When he started to open the door, Gaspare (Spatuzza) went to take his bag. It was supposed to be the work of an addict or someone like this, that's why we had to take the bag and use a small caliber pistol.
When he looked at me he smiled. It was a smile full of light. Don Pino Puglis' smile. I will never forget it.”
Maybe the assassin had said to himself, “Dear God. Keep me close. Make sure nothing happens.”
Marcello Fava, a soldier in the Porta Nuova Mafia clan confessed that is what he said every time he killed somebody. And all his associates did the same. A Mafia prayer for the dying. Their Stabat Mater, their hymn to suffering. A way of atoning for the evil of their action.
The gunmen left, and the body of the priest lay in front of the building for five minutes, the blood widening around his body before the sound of neighbor’s shouting alerted police officer Paolo Restivo who lived at apartment Number 3, and was eating his dinner. The first ones who found him said the priest was clutching at the cross he wore, as if in a last prayer. Restivo stated that he arrived on the scene of the shooting at 8:45 pm. The ambulance was there in short time and they got him to Ospedale Burchieri La Ferla hospital in via Messina Marine, less than eight minutes away, but the surgeons never had a chance.
The autopsy determined death was due to severed cranial-encephalitic lesions, caused by a gunshot, back to front, left to right, from bottom to top; the gun fired behind and slightly to the left of the victim. A 7.65 mm cartridge case was found at the crime scene. It matched the bullet taken from the victim’s brain.
His death was a crime foretold.
It was a mere four months since Pope John Paul II had urged Sicilians to rise up against the Mafia, calling them the spawn of the Devil.
Intriguingly, Father Puglisi was not the first priest to die at the hands of the Mafia in Sicily.
In 1916, Giorgio Gennaro was murdered by the Mafia of Ciaculi. During a Sunday ceremony, he denounced the Mafia's interference in the administration of ecclesiastical revenues. In other words, the mob was filching the church's money. So they shot him dead. The Mafia of Ciaculi was run by the brothers Greco: Salvatore and Giuseppe.
In an act of supreme irony, the suburb right next to Brancaccio had been ruled by two Mafia brothers, almost eighty years previously, and they had killed their parish priest who had turned out to be bothersome.
In 1919, Constantine Stella went down. Stabbed to death in Resuttano, a commune in the province of Caltanissetta, outside his home. He died in hospital on July 6th, after days in agony from his wounds
In 1920, Stefano Caronia was the victim in Gibellina, a small town in the province of Trapani. A priest for 20 years, he had fought for the rights of farm workers, instigating major headaches for the local Mafia family who had him murdered for the inconvenience he was causing them. They shot him, three times with a revolver, in the town center, late in the afternoon of November 17th, 1920.
Villa Gracia, a quarter of Palermo, lies about seven kilometers to the south-west of the city center. A small, insignificant village, huddling under the mass of Monte Grifone that reaches 800 meters into the clear, blue sky that hangs over Sicily.
Like most of the Palermo suburbs, it is dominated by the local church, the monastery of Parrocchia Maria Ss. Delle Grazie which stands almost in the middle of the main thoroughfare, Via Villagrazia.
On September 6th, 1980, at 8:00 am, two men entered the monastery of the Franciscan order and killed Brother Giacinto-Stefano Castronovo. They shot him five times in the head. When the police started their investigations of the murder they discovered some interesting things.
The sixty-one-year-old brother of the church lived in a monastic cell which turned out to be a lavish seven room apartment. Searching this, the authorities unearthed some unusual trappings for this man of God: a color television set, a .38 caliber revolver, four million lire in notes, and bottles of liquor and expensive perfume along with a wardrobe filled with designer clothes and a collection of leather whips.
It had long been rumored that this church not only offered sanctity to those in need of spiritual redemption but was in addition used by the Mafia to bury their victims and sometimes hide away there from the law.
Castronovo had been born in Favara, a small rural town in the province of Agrigento. He moved to Palermo in 1952, forsaking the sulphur mines and bucolic environment for the faster pace of the biggest city on the island.
The police had been interested in Brother Giacinto as far back as 1964 when they interviewed him at the monastery in Corleone during their search for the elusive Mafia boss, Luciano Leggio.
READ: La Primula Rossi: The Story of Luciano Leggio
At his death, it was alleged the brother was the spiritual advisor to the Mafia Bontade family.
He had first advised the patriarch, Francesco Paolo Bontade, up to his death in 1974, then his two sons, Stefano, and Giovanni.
The Bontades had long been the Mafia rulers of Villagrazia, Santa Maria di Gesu and Guadagna, a sprawling rural area to the south of Palermo City. They were one of, if not the, most powerful and certainly the biggest Mafia clan, numerically, on the island during this period. The old man, Don Paolo was renowned for his legendary political connections and ability to milk the system for the benefit of his clan and biological family.
The killing of Brother Giacinto was intended to send a message to the Bontade clan.
Just who was sending the message and what its meaning was would become clearer six months later.
On March 11th, 1981, Giuseppe Panno vanished. The sixty-eight-year-old head of the Casteldaccia Mafia cosca, near Bagheria, was one of the older and more traditional Mafia heads.
A founder member of the first Mafia commission created in 1957, he had expressed his disgust at the way the men from Corleone were arbitrarily killing off major law enforcement figures, and partaking in kidnapping, strictly taboo to the Mafia at this time, using violence and intimidation as their weapons of choice.
First, they assassinated Judge Pietro Scaglione in May 1971, then they shot dead Colonel Russo of the Carabinieri military police in 1977; they killed one of their own, Mafia boss Giuseppe Di Cristina, in 1978, and Boris Guiliano, head of the Palermo Flying Squad in 1979. Don Panno represented a severe threat to the men from Corleone in their ambition to dominate the Commission and stamp their mark across the Mafia of Sicily.
He was also a strong ally and good friend of the Bontades.
When Stefano Bontade heard that his friend had gone, he knew he had been a victim of what the Mafia called lupara bianca, the white death. The victim is killed and buried so that his family will grieve without a body to bury. It is a crime of refined savagery that only the Mafia could have conceived.
Bontade swore at a Commission meeting he would kill the man he knew to be responsible--Salvatore Riina.
Castronovo and Panno were quite possibly, the first casualties in what became known as The Second Mafia War which created devastation and death across Sicily in the early 1980s.
Like the two judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, murdered by the Mafia in 1992, a year later, Father Puglisi would find himself abandoned, left deserted, more and more alone. Bianca Stancanelli in her book, Walking Tall. Father Puglisi. believed the priest was killed as soon as the Mafia isolated him.
A gazelle lost in the worst possible kind of urban landscape, surrounded by the hyenas of the Mafia. The more he spoke against them, the more they raged.
There were, in fact, three brothers: Benedetto, Giuseppe and Filippo, and a sister, Nunzia. Their father, Michele Graviano was murdered by Gaetano Grado in January 1982, a victim of the Second Mafia War. He lost the battle but his side, the Corleonesi, eventually won the war.
READ: A Mafia Killing
All of the children were part of the clan's administration, including the sister, although Giuseppe and Filippo were the decision makers. Giuseppe was the Alpha Male.
Nunzia would become perhaps the first woman ever in the Mafia of Sicily to act as a family regent. She was followed in 1997 by Concetta Scalisi who headed up a family in Catania Province until her arrest in 1999 and in 1998 by Giusy Vitale who took over the running of her husband's clan in Partinico.
Just to confirm that men and women are equal in all things, Giusy turned in 2005 and became a state witness, the very first female collaborator with the Italian justice department. A female infame. A petite pentito.
Giuseppe and Filippo were elected to head the family in 1990, replacing Giuseppe Lucchese, the sitting boss who was incarcerated in Ucciadone prison in Palermo awaiting trial on multiple murder counts for which he would receive a life sentence.
The Gravianos were designated capofamiglia of Brancaccio following a Mafia Commission meeting chaired by Salvatore Riina, held at the home of Girolamo Guddo, the boss of Altarello, who lived at No 40 Via Margifaraci, near the Boccadifalco airport. This was subsequently confirmed to the authorities in the confession of Salvatore Cancemi, a member of the Porta Nuova Family, and the first commission member to defect and become a state witness.
Before the brothers, the Brancaccio family boss was Lucchese who had followed Vincenzo Puccio who took over from Pino Savoca and before him Giuseppe Di Maggio, and on and on, generation after generation of killer sharks wanting to feed off the endless misery they would help to create over the years. Don Peppino Russo a cattle dealer and the family capo at the turn of the 20th Century, was so fearsome, people trembled in his presence, all the way from Brancaccio to Bagheria. So it was said.
Like the city it was part of, Brancaccio was a prisoner of its own shadows, and by 1993, as a cosca, the Mafia gang, had expanded to incorporate the nearby areas of Rocella, Corso dei Mille and Ciaculli to become a serious player in the broader field of organized Sicilian crime.
According to pentito Nino Giuffre, the Gravianos were the Mafia's link into the highest government levels - Silvio Berlusconi - who would become a member of The Chamber of Deputies in 1994. Cosa Nostra had dumped The Christian Democratic party which they had supported since 1946 in favor of the newly formed the Forza Italia party, created in 1993 by Berlusconi and six other political figures.
Senator Marcelo Dell'Utri, Berlusconi's right hand would, in due course, be convicted in Palermo's Supreme Court for Mafia collusion. However, the Italian law of garantista, a method of protecting civil liberties, and Italy's torturous appeals system, will almost certainly guarantee that he never sees the inside of a prison cell.
Gaspare Spatuzza confirmed that his boss Giuseppe Graviano had told him in 1994, that future prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, was bargaining with the Mafia concerning a political-electoral agreement between Cosa Nostra and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Spatuzza said Graviano disclosed the information to him during a conversation in a bar Graviano owned in the upscale Via Veneto district of the Italian capital Rome. Dell'Utri was the intermediary between the two groups, according to Spatuzza.
Spatuzza claimed Giuseppe Graviano said to him, “We have everything thanks to the seriousness of these people, specifically Berlusconi... they put the country in our hands."
Back in their domain, the brothers watched the priest and waited. They knew the balance of power lay with them. The youngest regents in a power structure older than Italy itself, Giuseppe and Filippo were the “why” in Brancaccio. The bothersome little man who buzzed around the district in his little car stirring up the locals against the evil in their midst would find this out one day.
Giuseppe Puglisi was himself a local. He had been born in Romagnola, a township within the Brancaccio area, on September 15th, 1937, into a solid, working class family. His father, Carmel was a shoemaker, and his mother, Giuseppa Fana, a seamstress. At sixteen, Giuseppe entered the diocesan seminary of Palermo and was ordained a priest on July 2, 1960. From 1961 until 1970 he held various positions as curate and chaplain and vice-rector and also as a teacher of religious studies. In 1970, he was sent by the church to a small town called Godrano about forty kilometers south-east of Palermo.
It would seem to be almost a 'pastoral' appointment into this bucolic commune setting; it was anything but. Godrano had been the epicenter of a struggle between two families that stretched back to 1916.
When Father Puglisi arrived in the town on October 1st, it was in the midst of a blood feud, something much deeper than a simple Mafia war.
The church was often empty; families did not trust one another; the people of Godrano submitted to an unofficial curfew to prevent the risks of violence. The Lorello and Barbaccia clans had been killing each other for over fifty years at the time Father Puglisi arrived. They had each sought domination of the vast Ficuzza Forest to hide cattle stolen from the great herds that were pastured between Palermo and Corleone. At one time, half the meat sold in Palermo came from stock that had been stolen and grazed in the woods near Godrano.
Over time, things changed in the small rural outpost of only one thousand inhabitants. With the help of volunteers from the Fransican Presenza del Vangelo (Presence of the Gospel movement) Father Puglisi won over the children and youth of the town, and after the kids, he won over the families. By the time of his departure, in 1978, the town was completely transformed.
Following his tenure at Godrano, he held various administration positions and was closely involved with the young as a regional delegate and director of the National Council for Students and Youth. He was passionate about helping and training adolescents through Christian training camps. He had a way with children. He loved them and in turn, they respected and loved him. Everyone came to call him “3P.” It was a nickname that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
And then he moved to Brancaccio.
He arrived there on October 29th, 1990.
A district of about 70,000 people, he must have wondered what God had in store, sending him to a place so devoid of almost any social comforts or amenities.
No cinema, no theatre, no sports field, a warren searching hard to be a labyrinth, filled with old decrepit buildings, abandoned apartment blocks, backyards piled with garbage, drains overflowing, fetid pools of water filling the potholes in the roadways. There was no clinic in his parish, no middle school, no community center. Street-corners the stamping-grounds of ten-year-old children hawking drugs, criminal convictions per capita north of Alaska, everyone held prisoner by fear and lies. Decay and desolation in every direction. Poverty and degradation constant enemies. A place that was a prisoner of its own shadows. And always, the presence, the smell of the Mafia, corrupting the very airways.
As Maria Luisa Romano said “Organized crime (the Mafia) with its extortion and economic control, and certain related but often distinct social practices (such as preferments or "recommendations" for everything from a job to a business permit), preclude any serious development of businesses or much of anything that could help the underclass, the popolino.”
Across Palermo, Brancaccio was known as la borgata piu dimenticata della città: Palermo's most forgotten city.
It wasn’t always so.
In the 1950s, lemon and orange groves stretched as far as the eye could see. Brancaccio was essentially a village in a sea of orchards. Its streets and squares drowning under the scent of basil and lemons, oregano, thyme and oranges, the herbs and fruits of the Mediterranean. Almost an Arcadian oasis in the rapidly expanding urban sprawl that was Palermo. It was, however, one of the districts with the greatest Mafia concentrations, its pedigree dating back into the middle of the 19th century, perhaps even further. To the time when the population in 1873 was only 446 citizens.
Then came Il Saco di Palermo, “The Sack of Palermo.”
Mafia influenced and sometimes controlled, construction groups, in the late 50s and early 60s, bought up the land and built acres of concrete housing blocks subsidized by the billions of lira pouring into Sicily from Rome. During this period, Sicily was the world's biggest consumer of cement.
It was a total capitulation of the city to the barbarians at the gate - the Mafia.
The concrete, made-to-order slums, became a breeding ground for drug dealers, as a source of fodder for the Mafia's human resources, and the factories and commercial establishments which grew alongside the people sprawl, became an endless source of the funds that fed the Mafia's extortion program. There was a saying that developed here, “even the dogs had to pay pizzo” -the Mafia word for protection. Now in Brancaccio, the new smell of Palermo was at its strongest. The scent of sulphur, and red soil and venality and corruption.
In the three years that Father Puglisi practiced at his parish he worked hard to make an impact; to do good, to assist the people who needed help in some ways, more than life itself. He recognized the evil around him and spoke out fearlessly against its source. He actively encouraged his parishioners to support the police in their fight against the mob. When the Mafia approached him, he offered only rebuke. He would not accept their money for feast day celebrations, and against previous tradition, would not allow any known Mafioso to head religious processions.
He saw the young as the key to unlocking the stranglehold of Mafia activity, helping disadvantaged children, encouraging them to stay at school; discouraging them from the life of petty delinquency which was often the prelude to their entry into the ranks of organized crime.
His favorite saying, which became a catchphrase across the city after his murder, was:
“And what if somebody did something?”
He considered the ideology of the Mafia as radically pagan and profoundly anti-Christian and came to believe that his struggle was a kind of exorcism of its evil in the name of the Gospel.
He scooted about his parish in a little white Fiat Uno, organizing, encouraging, managing and above all preaching the gospel of anti-Mafia. The Gravianos were not impressed. Father Puglisi received several verbal warnings from people within the local Mafia cosca, telephone calls made to the church or his home, often late at night. On the evening of June 29th, 1993, an attempt was made to burn down the door of the church. He ignored all of this and increased the pressure on the local gang. He denounced crimes and the collusion between politicians and the Mafia exposing himself to more threats and intimidation. He once said, “I'm not afraid of the words of the violent, but the silence of the lambs.”
The Graviano brothers came to believe that the DIA (the Italian government agency set up to fight the Mafia) had set up operatives in a monastery opposite Father Puglisi's church and were carrying out surveillance on all the people moving in and around the area, and that the father was covering for them and also supporting the agents with help and information.
Working like beavers, making his life difficult, Gaetano Castiglione and Antonino Catanzaro, two picciotti, low-level Mafia associates of the Branccaccio clan, buzzed around the neighborhood, intimidating and harassing the people who supported Father Puglisi, and hovering in the background, was Doctor Salvatore Nangano who was working the back end, stirring up trouble with “important” people through his Praxis Masonic Lodge contacts, helping the brothers Graviano in their efforts to stifle the activities of the good father.
Nangano owned and ran a medical clinic in San Lorenzo, and had a branch in Brancaccio in the parish of Father Puglisi. Nangano's sister, Maria Caterina, was married to Giuseppe Mafara, a member of the Brancaccio Mafia, and Nangano was also the doctor to the Graviano family. He was part of their team, even though he wasn’t made into Cosa Nostra. His partner in the San Lorenzo clinic was Antonino Cinà, who just happened to be the personal doctor to Salvatore Riina, the Majordomo of the Sicilian Mafia. Nangano was as deep into Mafia politics as it was possible to be without actually being a Mafioso.
Whatever reward he was offered by the Graviano's for his help in providing Intel on the priest, the State thanked him with two years in prison and ensured his disbarment from the medical profession.
In early 1993, Father Puglisi set in motion the event that most likely triggered his murder.
On January 3rd, he opened a social center for the local people at 210 Via Brancaccio. This was targeted at helping families and especially young children, and his success at sucking dry the pool for adolescent recruits into the Mafia enraged the Gravianos, who perceived this as a double insult. First, they believed the father was using the meeting room as a place to set up and encourage informers, and second, the club was located close to the Graviano's homes.
As Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, the Bishop of Palermo said, “It was his success at drying up the pool of young recruits that especially enraged the Gravianos. His very act of living the gospel in that society was a challenge to criminality.”
The brothers Grimm were furious with the behavior and activity of Father Puglisi and they were not the only ones. Pressure from other Mafia extremists within Palermo was coming into Brancaccio to do something about this bothersome priest who was giving all of them a bad name.
Especially from one man.
A man who was evil personified. One of the worst psychos in a huge nest of homicidal maniacs who constitute the Sicilian Mafia. Cosa Nostra beget many like him, although this one was a breed apart even for an organization overflowing with depravity and malevolence:
Born and raised in Corleone, he had lived his whole life in the shade of Cosa Nostra. He became, along with his brother Calogero, part of a gang under the control of Luciano Leggio, along with Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. When Leggio assumed the leadership of the Corleone Mafia after killing the boss, Michele Navarra in 1958, Bagarella became a trusted killer for the group. It's believed he murdered dozens, even possibly into the hundreds. Following the arrest of Riina in January 1993, he had formed a breakaway group of Mafia families known as stragisti which included Brancaccio. Provenzano had created his own assembly known as moderati, and the two groups were facing each other off, searching for the advantage.
Bagarella, the capo of the Corleone Mafia, lived in Palermo, in a condominium on Via Malaspina. The other residents knew him simply as “Signor Franco.” He was the hard man of Cosa Nostra, and like his boss “Shorty” Riina his philosophy was based on bombing the state into submission.
At this time, 1993, he was in the middle of his own personal vendetta, first to eliminate the Mafia of Villabate, then to seek out and destroy the Inzerillos, a Mafia family which had been close to the Bontades, and who had fled Sicily at the start of the Second Mafia War, in 1982, but had gradually started moving back into Palermo. He went through Sicily like sand through a sieve, killing his enemies with the efficiency of a jack-hammer, blasting away at a lake surfaced in egg custard. There were already 35 dead in Brancaccio, Villabate, Misilmeri and Corleone.
Sometime around early April, his wife committed suicide, luckily for his victims, as Bagarella decided on a moratorium in order to mourn her. He stopped the slaughter on April 28th. He had a reputation for really enjoying the killing. A close aide said, “He had always done the job with love.”
Bagarella went to pray in church before he killed anyone. “Lord,” he would say, “you alone know that they are the ones who want to be killed. No guilt attaches to me.”
He did not want the balance of power to move against him and the controversial priest was not helping his cause.
His bodyguard and chief assistant, Tony Calvoruso, confirmed after he became an informant: "The priest was killed for his commitment to the anti-mafia, which was already a good enough reason.”
But in practice, the Gravanos had commissioned the crime because Bagarella had criticized them for allowing this priest in their territory to make these speeches, demonstrating against the Mafia, and urging the children and youth not to go with the Mafia.
Everything was stacked against Father Puglisi.
Francesco Marino Mannoi, another pentito, (informer) said during one of his debriefing interviews: “In the past, the Church was considered sacred and untouchable. Now, Cosa Nostra is attacking the Church because you are speaking out against the Mafia. The message is clear: Do not interfere.”
There was also the danger to the warehouse at number 18 Via Azolino Hazon, in Brancaccio. Reports coming back to the Graviano brothers suggested Father Puglisi or some of his associates were making too many enquiries about this place. He and his group wanted to take over and develop part of it for a community center. Even suggesting the police open up a station here as well.
It wasn’t just any dilapidated housing building in the wasteland to the west of the quarter. In the basement was the place where the Mafia stored their armaments, among them, the explosives that were used to kill the judges, Falcone, and Borsellino, in 1992.
Not only was Father Puglisi stealing their labor base away from them, he was getting dangerously close to the Mafia's most closely guarded secrets.
The killing of Pino Puglisi was a work in progress since October 29th, 1990. The mystery is not why he was murdered by the Mafia, but why it took them so long to get around to it.
They buried him on September 17th. Because of the crowds expected, it was decided to have the funeral service outdoors and it was held in a square in an industrial area of Brancaccio. Over 8,000 people crammed the space in front of the stage erected for the burial service. The funeral cortège, followed by crowds of young people, moved from the Church of San Gaetano down to Via Conte Frederico through streets heavily guarded by the police, even lining the rooftops, to the Piazza die Signori. Padre Ignazio D' Acquisto and Padre Giuseppe Maratta who had each in turn been the pastor at San Gaetano before Puglisi, were at the front of the procession. Letizia Battaglia the famous internationally renowned activist and photographer stood in the crowd, tears in her eyes.
In his blessing, Cardinal Pappalardo of Palermo, said:
“Father Puglisi died because of his thirst and hunger for justice, both divine and human.”
His body was laid to rest in the cemetery of the Church of Sant' Orsola in the chapel of Sant' Erno, a beautiful, baroque 17th-century sacellum. He was in good company. The body of Judge Giovanni Falcone is buried here.
Ten years later, in April 2013, Padre Puglisi's remains were moved, to rest in perpetuity, in Palermo Cathedral.
On May 15th in a ceremony on the Foro Italico, an open-air lawn area on the Palermo waterfront in the Kalsa District, the beatification of Father Giuseppe Puglisi was effected by priests, archbishops, and cardinals before a crowd estimated at close to 100,000. He would become the first martyr of the Catholic Church killed by the Mafia.
Beatification is the penultimate step in the Catholic Church to sainthood.
The Palermo archdiocese now marks the official opening of each ecclesiastical year on September 15th as a way of always keeping alive the memory of Father Puglisi.
On the night of his murder, Lorenzo Matassa, a deputy prosecutor and investigative magistrate, attended the scene of the crime. He would be the first of many judiciaries who would be involved in the investigation of this dreadful crime. Ten police officers would work full time for two years on the investigation. Matassa and his peers would eventually bring all of the perpetrators to justice.
On January 27th, 1994, the Graviano brothers were arrested while enjoying lunch in Milan. They were both convicted of multiple criminal acts and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Three years later Salvatore Grigoli, who had been on the run for some years, was arrested, decided to roll, and became a pentito. He, in turn, gave up the rest of the commando squad involved in the killing of Father Puglisi.
They were Gaspare Spatuzza, Cosmo Lo Nigro, Luigi Giacalone and Antonino Mangano. These and Francesco Giuliano, Vittorio Tuttino, Pasquale Di Filippo and Pietro Romeo were un gruppo specializzato nel commettere omicidi, a specialist murder group that the Graviano brothers maintained to carry out hits, effect lupara bianca, operate kidnapping and extortion jobs. The heavy stuff.
Grigoli (left) and Spatuzza between them had murdered eighty-one people in their careers as killers for the Mafia.
Spatuzza had stolen the Fiat 126 that was packed with 200 pounds of TNT and detonated outside Via Mariano D'Amelia 18 as Judge Paolo Borsellino and five of his bodyguards arrived on July 19th, 1992. The judge had gone to visit his mother who lived in the apartment building. Everyone in his cavalcade died.
With the exception of Grigoli, each of the arrested men received life sentences. He, the self-confessed killer of the priest, for his act of repentance and collaboration with the authorities, was given a sentence of sixteen years, but only served two. He was released under house arrest in 2004.
Salvatore Grigoli had been born May 7th, 1963, in Brancaccio, growing up on Via Giafar. He left school after the fifth grade and worked at various jobs into his teens. In his early twenties, he was with a building company that went bankrupt. Out of a job, with a wife and baby to support, like so many of his peers, he turned to crime, robbing and stealing to support his family. He worked for a time as a driver and bodyguard for Giovanni Sucato of Villabate, a con man known as “The Money Magician.”
Then through a contact made with a local mafioso, Filippo Quartararo, came his introduction to the Mafia, and soon he was not stealing so much, as exterminating. He found a skill in an area most important to Cosa Nostra, He became not a combinato, a 'made man,' but a sciari, a killer, un persona che vale, a man of value to the clan.
As his brother was a police officer, Grigoli could not technically, be inducted into a Mafia family.
He was so valuable however, he graduated to the rank of viserrato, answerable only to the family capo. He was efficient, intelligent and ruthless. He came to be held in high esteem by senior Mafiosi across Sicily, such as Matteo Messina Denaro, Leoluca Bagarella, Rodolfo Virga and Nicolò Di Trapani.
He killed his first victim in 1987 when he was 24. From then on, he stopped searching for a map of the moral landscape or a tutorial on a life without sin. Like his peers, he walked a walk far removed from that of normal human beings, a walk that often led him into a darkness deeper than black.
To Grigoli, a killer angel for an organization governed by violence and sudden death, murder was less a sin than a duty. Not unlike a shinobi of Japan, a ninja warrior, he would endure, rather than live through the years ahead. William Faulkner said, “The past isn't dead, it isn't even past.” What he meant was that everything that happens to people remains with them throughout their lives. Every man Grigoli killed. Every victim he destroyed. Every family he decimated through his acts would cling to him like a second skin. An epidermis of evil that would help to hold him secure and carry him from job to job.
As a legitimate front, he managed a car dealership and opened and ran a sporting goods store on the Corso dei Mille. When it started to fail, the family administration organized to pay him a regular, monthly cash drop of about $US 2800 for his services to them as a hit-man.
The night they murdered the priest, Grigoli received his orders from Antonino Mangano who was heading up the gruppo di fuoco, the fire team, set up to do the job. The two men had known each other since childhood, growing up in the same neighborhood.
The gun used to shoot Father Puglisi was hidden on a Lupetto truck parked in a warehouse in an industrial area close to the church, less than a kilometer away. The commando, armed up, went and waited for Father Puglisi. This was a team well used to doing the killing work. The Graviano brothers used them whenever the dirty work was needed. That night, it was as dirty as it got.
Following the arrest of the brothers Graviano, then Bagarella in June 1995, Grigoli went on the run in July.
A phrase, as Petra Reski remarks in her book, The Honoured Society, which has become in Sicily, as normal as a description of someone's marital status: single-married-on the run. In Sicily, few are as sought after as the ones on the run. The capture of Matteo Messina Denaro, the Mafioso everyone wants, is a Sicilian police officer's wet dream. The farmer from Castelvetrano, who has been avoiding the cops for almost a quarter of a century. Hiding in plain sight in towns and villages across Western Sicily. As Leggio did. And Riina. And Provenzano.
Grigoli spent a year in Trapani province under the protection of Denaro, sometimes acting as his chauffeur. He was fitted up with an apartment in Alcamo, and like Denaro, moved freely, with seeming impunity from the reach of the law. He eventually returned to Palermo, confident of his security under the protection of the new boss, Spatuzza, who had been “bumped” up to lead the family in Brancaccio. However, on June 19th, 1997, Salvatore Grigoli was arrested by the Squadra Mobile, the city's police flying squad, while living in an apartment at number 17 Via Demetrio Camarada, near Boccadifalco Airport. He was cooking dinner when the cops burst in. Within a year, he became what the Mafia call infame, an informer.
Under house arrest, he continued to give evidence in cases for the prosecutor of Palermo, until 2013 when he left the witness protection program. He lives with his wife and three sons somewhere in Italy. He knows his life will always be in mortgage to the Mafia. Those who are in the shadows do not forget.
In an interview in 2013 he said:
“That death (Puglisi) followed me like a curse. I bear the horror of my past, but do not forget it.”
The new boss of Brancaccio, after the Gravianos were arrested, was apparently Nino Mangano until the law caught up with him, after which Gaspare Spatuzza inherited the title from June 1995 until his detention. He was followed by the third brother, Benedetto Graviano, and after him, Giuseppe Guttadauro, a doctor of medicine and brother-in-law of Denaro, until 2002, when he went down. Ludovico Sansone took over at least until March 2009. With him inside, Cesare Lupo assumed the role. He was arrested in 2011. Along came Bruno Natale who eventually, went the way of all his predecessors.
There is a lot of activity in the district identified by the police in a survey carried out in 2007 as being the biggest clan by membership, in Sicily. There were then, 203 known men of honor plying their trade here.
Somewhere in the wastelands of Brancaccio, there will be another man who would be king, waiting in the wings or already in the jump seat. Maybe it's Nino Sacco or Antonio Lo Nigro or Salvatore Buffa or Giuseppe Arduino or any of a dozen, short, squat, ugly thugs in a dirty T-shirt and scuffed jeans. Whoever it is, the reins will still be held by the brothers Graviano. Although they face interminable years locked away in some grim, Italian prison, they will control the destiny of Brancaccio as long as they live.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
On May 25th, 2014, at six in the evening, a soft, warm, spring end of day, the Catholic Church formally blessed the apartment of father Puglisi and it was declared a museum in memory of the priest.
A previous priest, Don Mario Golesano, who had replaced Padre Puglisi in 1993, and the current head of the parish and church, Father Maurizo Frankfurt, were two of the speakers. The Mayor of Palermo came along with all the usual bureaucrats; there were the two surviving brothers of Pino, Fransesco and Gaetano, old and grey and balding, and choirs and music and lots of celebrating.
The gospel group, “The Nightingale Singers” filled the air with their songs, and when the dignitaries had their fill of the walk-around of the tiny apartment, the crowds lined up and snaked in through the door of building Number 5 to gaze at the wooden floors and minimalistic furniture, the flimsy curtains and the Spartan, single bed. It seemed more like a monastic cell than a home.
Not a lot to show for a life devoted to his faith.
A life that was the death of him.
First, they came for the gypsies and I was happy because they pilfered.
Then they came for the Jews and I said nothing because I was unsympathetic.
Then they came for the homosexuals, and I was relieved because they were annoying.
Then they came for the Communists, and I said nothing because I was not a communist.
One day they came for me, and there was nobody left to protest.
- Bertolt Brecht
For more of Thom L. Jones' stories check out his Mob Corner.
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