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Tuesday
Apr022013

Final Dispatch

by Carl Russo

Here’s my final letter, dated February 27, 2013, sent from Sicily to the patrons of my photo shoot. The images mentioned will appear in my upcoming book, The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide.

Massimo CianciminoEscape from Palermo! As much as I love the intrigue of the capital city of Sicily (and the Mafia), three days of maneuvering the confusing streets with cut-up squares of a city map on my lap and no street signs is tedium, not adventure. The saving grace is that it's not roaring hot as in previous trips. If the technology were cheap, I would've attached a live web-cam to the hood and broadcast the ride.

At any turn, you go from a speedway to ancient labyrinthine souk where the cobblestones crack into dirt, and you find yourself face-to-face with an old man shoeing a horse. Add to that cars coming at you from blind corners at all moments. Cross traffic at intersections is a free-for-all, the driver in front of you screeches to a halt in to buy artichokes from a roadside vendor, pedestrian wander into traffic, and yet it all works, without American-style road rage.

Let me catch you up on one uncomfortable moment I mentioned at the close of my last letter. I was parked across the street from the palazzo of Massimo Ciancimino.

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Friday
Mar222013

More Letters from Sicily

by Carl Russo

Below are more excerpts of emails sent to the funders of my Sicilian Mafia photo shoot, which concluded March 2. Where are all the photos? I'm saving them for the book, of course!

Ninetta BagarellaFEBRUARY 23: It took me four trips to Corleone over the years to get every photo I need, and the collection is now complete. Only in the last year did I find home addresses for godfathers Luciano Leggio and his protege, Totò Riina. Totò's sister still lives in the Riina house, but she has never been a problem. Getting the house of Riina's wife, Ninetta Bagarella—that's been intimidating.

She was born into the Mafia in this house and became the first woman to be convicted of Mafia association. Her husband Totò "the Beast", her eldest son and her brother are all behind bars. But with with the youngest son out of prison (living north) and a daughter who married a mafioso in town, I didn't want to let any menfolk catch me taking pictures of the house….

By my luck, I chose Saturday morning, the time the old women beat their rugs on their balconies and waddle off to the market. I waited for one to finish her errands—too short to be Ninetta—then powered up my tiny backup camera in my pocket and walked down that alley. I got to #24 and took three automatic shots of varying exposures. No screams, no guys yelling "O! O!"….

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Friday
Mar152013

Letters from Sicily

by Carl Russo

On March 2, I returned from a very productive photo shoot in Sicily, the last such trip to gather locations for my upcoming book, The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide. The opportunity was made possible by a generous group of donors to my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. Below are excerpts from my near-daily reports sent to these contributors by email.

Gaetano BadalamentiFEBRUARY 20: I touched down on my beloved Sicily a few hours ago. On the very day that two former CEOs of Alitalia were indicted for "alleged wrongdoing" during the airline's bankruptcy in 2008, I feared the worst for the JFK > Rome > Palermo leg of my flight. But everything went off without a hitch: no delays, a very decent chicken dinner with a restaurant-worthy tiramisù, a fascinating effervescent red wine (gratis, of course), and an escort to lead us across the daunting Fiumicino airport in Rome to connect with the final flight. Take that, United!

Maybe I read the Italian papers too much, but I seemed to be the only one who noticed that Pier Ferdinando Casini was on board our flight to Palermo. He's the former president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies and perennial centrist politician possibly implicated in a recent bribery scandal…

To land in Palermo is to be immersed in the Mafia. The name of the airport is Falcone-Borsellino, the two judges blown up weeks apart in 1992. The reason the airport is where it is—too far from the city and too close to the sea for proper landing strips—is because the Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti owned the land and steered all the building contracts his way.

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Saturday
Feb162013

Love is Cold

by Carl Russo

Of the two Sicilians killed by gunmen on motor scooters this week, only one was a member of the Mafia. It happened in the notorious Brancaccio quarter of Palermo, site of the 1993 assassination of anti-Mafia priest Pino Puglisi. In fact, the victim, a 50-year-old man named Francesco Nangano, was considered close to hitman Gaspare Spatuzza, one of the cleric's murderers.

Gaspare SpatuzzaNangano was driving along Brancaccio's waterfront yesterday when two men on a scooter caught up with him. One fired six bullets, stopping him cold in front of the neighborhood gelateria.

Though only a mid-level mafioso, Nangano has had his fair share of media attention. After serving a few sentences for Mafia association before going on the lam, he was caught, tried and sentenced to life for a murder he didn't commit. Released after nearly five years behind bars, the Italian state cut him a €270,000 check to make up for his "unjust detention."

But there's a soap-opera element to Nangano's story. As a fugitive, in 2001, he carried on a love affair with a social worker who served on the jury of a number of Mafia trials. She defended her man, believing him innocent of every charge they threw his way. Naturally, the woman was relieved of her juridical duties.

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Wednesday
Feb062013

Go-Go-Going Back to Sicily

With just a few days left on my Indiegogo campaign, it is unlikely that I’ll meet my entire crowd-funding goal. But I’ve raised enough for plane tickets, so there’s no turning back. Cosa Nostra, here I come!

Click to enlargeThe book will be published, and it will contain the photos I take in this final shoot in Sicily. But it’s not too late to join the campaign and help offset expenses.

My two biggest challenges on this trip (besides money, and the unexpected) will be snowy mountain passes and trying to photograph locations in two mob-heavy cities I’ve never visited: Cannicattì & Favara.

Advance praise: “Carl Russo’s The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide is a seminal piece of work that manages to bridge the gap between John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra and Lonely Planet Sicily. Only exhaustive research and the scalpel-like observations of an Italian-American could create such a unique hybrid. The insights into The Mob are at once fascinating and lurid, made all the more appealing by the in-your-face reality of the many iconic images of the raw underbelly of Sicily. If you’ve followed the infamous tourist trails of the fictional novels, then how much more will you want to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by this odyssey into the true Mafia underworld? They say fact is stranger than fiction—take this journey with Russo and learn that it is also more perilous.” — Crozier Green, author of The Fratellanza Contract and Gladio Resurrection.

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Sunday
Feb032013

The Old Switcheroo?

by Carl Russo

The mystery in Corleone just got weirder. When the townsfolk opened the loculus to remove the remains of Bernardino Verro for transferral to a spiffy new crypt, they found two skulls—an adult's, with a bullet hole, and a child's.

Bernardino VerroBut Verro, the Socialist mayor of the city murdered by the Mafia in 1915, had been shot four times in the head, not once. (The smaller noggin might belong to Verro's son, who died at the age of four months.)

Then somebody seemed to remember that Verro's daughter had exhumed his remains and moved them to a Palermo cemetery in 1959 without notifying police. This would seem to bolster the story of Mafia turncoat Antonino Calderone, who claimed Verro's tomb was used to dump the body of Calogero Bagarella, killed in the Viale Lazio massacre of 1969.

Click to enlargeThe cemetery of Corleone is said to be full of hidden crimes and switched bodies. Verro's new crypt sits next to a twin compartment belonging to Placido Rizzotto. It took sixty-five years to properly identify the remains of the celebrated activist—a victim of godfather Luciano Leggio's vengeance—and place him in the cemetery of Corleone.

And godfather Leggio? Rumors place his corpse in the tomb of a relative. The one person able to shed light on these enigmas, Corleone's mortician, isn't talking. He was killed in 1976.

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