PALERMO, Sicily (CN) — Matteo Messina Denaro, a once-fugitive Mafia boss linked to Cosa Nostra's most heinous attacks on the Italian state, died Monday after a long illness in a hospital in L'Aquila at age 61.
Messina Denaro, often dubbed the “last godfather,” was arrested in January at a private medical clinic in Palermo after he showed up for cancer treatment. Before his arrest, he had been in hiding for 30 years in Sicily, apparently receiving help to escape capture by what Italian police have described as a “middle class Mafia.”
“It is the end of a story that tells of violence and blood, of suffering and heroism,” said L’Aquila Mayor Pierluigi Biondi, who confirmed his death Monday. “The epilogue of an existence lived without remorse or repentance, a painful chapter in the recent history of our nation, which we cannot erase, but whose end we can tell today thanks to the work of the women and men who have dedicated their lives to the fight against Mafia crime.”
Messina Denaro's arrest was hailed as a historic moment in the fight against Cosa Nostra because he was considered the last Mafia boss still at large who was behind bombings that killed anti-Mafia Sicilian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992.
The Mafia continued its war against the state into 1993 with bomb attacks in Florence, Milan and Rome that killed 10 people and wounded 40. Messina Denaro was accused of being behind those attacks too.
After his arrest, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison in L'Aquila in central Italy where other Mafia bosses are held in Italy's tough system of solitary confinement.
Just over a month ago, he was transferred to a hospital in L'Aquila as his advanced colon cancer worsened. On Friday, he suffered significant bleeding and fell into a coma, according to ANSA, the Italian news agency.
Italian media said Messina Denaro was allowed to meet with family members after it became clear he was nearing death.
At his death bed were Lorenza Alagna, a daughter he had in 1996 while in hiding and whom he had never recognized, a sister and his niece Lorenza Guttadauro, who served as his defense lawyer. Before dying, the Mafia boss recognized Lorenza Alagna and she reportedly accepted taking his last name.
While in custody, Messina Denaro refused to declare any regret and denied he had been a Mafia boss behind murders and other crimes. He reportedly also refused to reveal details about where he may have hidden his wealth and bragged to Italian authorities that he was caught only because he was forced to lower his guard after falling ill.
His body will be shipped to Sicily and buried next to his father's remains in a family tomb in his hometown of Castelvetrano, a city in the southwestern province of Trapani. His father, Francesco, was a Mafia boss in the 1980s who died of a heart attack while on the run from authorities.
Messina Denaro wrote in papers found in his hideout that he did not want a religious funeral and described priests as “garbage,” according to the Giornale di Sicilia, a Palermo-based newspaper.
Regardless, the Roman Catholic Church in Sicily refuses to perform funeral rites for members of the Mafia.
Messina Denaro was a ruthless assassin who once boasted he could “fill a cemetery” with his victims. Besides murders, he was accused of overseeing racketeering, illegal waste dumping, money laundering and drug trafficking.
Among mafiosi, he was given the nickname “Diabolik” — the name of a popular comic book series about a thief who can't be caught.
He was believed to be a protégé of Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, the head of the Corleone clan, who was arrested in 1993 after 23 years on the run. The Corleone clan was immortalized in “The Godfather” films. Riina died in prison in 2017.
Messina Denaro was tried and sentenced to life in prison in absentia in 2002 in connection to numerous murders, including the 1992 murder of Vincenzo Milazzo, a rival Trapani boss, and strangling his three-months-pregnant girlfriend.
He was also sentenced for his involvement in the kidnapping, torture and killing of an 11-year-old son of a mafioso-turned-state witness. The boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, was strangled and his body was never found after it was dumped in acid in 1996.
But it was the killings of Falcone and Borsellino that compelled Italian authorities to take action by making hundreds of arrests and cracking down on political corruption.
While in hiding, Messina Denaro reportedly enjoyed orgies with Palermo women, ANSA said. When he was arrested, he was living in an apartment in Campobello di Mazzara, only 5 miles away from Castelvetrano.
The discovery of his hideout so close to his hometown, the ease with which he received medical treatment under a false name and reports that he lived a seemingly normal life raised questions about the effectiveness of police efforts to find him and whether he received widespread support to hide.
After his arrest, there was hope that he might collaborate with Italian authorities and provide more information about who else might have been behind the killings of Falcone and Borsellino, but he reportedly did not provide any information.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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