First Cosa Nostra Pentito: The "Valachi Of The Palermo Suburbs"

Around 11 p.m. on March 29, 1973, in Palermo, Sicily, a lifelong member of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, for no earthly reason, walked into a police station and spilled everything.

Leonardo Vitale had been a capo in the Altarello di Baida family.
Leonardo Vitale had been a capo in the
Altarello di Baida family.

Leonardo Vitale, then age 32 and a capodecina in the Altarello di Baida family of the Sicilian Mafia, explained to the  officers of the Palermo Flying Squad that he was undergoing a religious conversion and wanted to begin a new life.

The officers were dumbfounded as their visitor copped to committing: two murders*, attempted murders, kidnapping, and a range of lesser crimes, a bizarre number of which involved Sicily's citrus fruits industry.
In addition, he named men who he said had committed homicides (many of them the police already had on the books as murder suspects). He also discussed how a Mafia family was organized and identified by name members of his Altarello di Baida family.

Nothing was off limits. He revealed the existence of the Mafia's highest governing body, the Commission, or Cupola as the Sicilians called it. He identified the entity prior to Tommaso Buscetta. Vitale however had been too low ranking to know the names of the members of the Cupola, except for one --  he knew that Salvatore Riina, one of the triumvirate running the Corleonesi, had given a ruling on a dispute between Riina's family and a neighbor.

Vitale would become known as the "Valachi of the Palermo suburbs” after the American Genovese soldier who flipped. He apparently provided the authorities with the first rough draft of the facts and history of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, though Buscetta would fill in the many blanks and help Sicilian magistrates polish up the final draft.

Three weeks after Vitale's surrender, the investigating judge called in a team of psychiatrists to the Ucciardone prison to examine Leonardo to see if he was sane enough to serve as a credible trial witness.

There was concern about the man's sanity owing to something that had happened earlier that year: namely, he had covered himself in excrement. The man's seemingly wild confession and the fact that he'd covered himself entirely in shit had made law enforcement question his mental health.

Years later, some would conclude that Vitale likely had taken the harsh, seemingly mad measure to simply punish himself for committing what he had known, deep down inside, were horrible, unjustifiable crimes.

Vitale grew up in a family that went back to the 19th century beginnings of Cosa Nostra. His father, who was a Mafioso, had died while Leonardo was young. He had found a mentor to idolize in his uncle, who also was Mafioso.

He was made after killing for the first time. He was in the back of a Fiat 500 that sped past the man who had been targeted. Leonardo stood up on the backseat as the car whipped around and sped back toward the man, who Vitale blew away with a gun.

When made, his finger was pricked with a thorn from a Seville orange tree.

Leonardo spent the next 13 years engaging in a grab bag of crimes. He poisoned guard dogs, killed a lemon thief, vandalized orange trees, set fires, sent extortion letters with hand drawn skulls in them that sound very similar to one's sent in America in the early 20th century by members of the so-called Black Hand, he planted bombs, he damaged heavy equipment on building sites.

Vitale had carried out his uncles orders, ran day to day extortion operations that involved taxing those on his family's territory.

Then in 1969, he was given a special order, to kill another Mafiosi. Afterward, his uncle started to tell him some of the deepest secrets of Cosa Nostra. He learned, for example, of the Cupola, which had ordered the death of the Mafioso he'd killed.

He learned who was behind the murder of La Ora journalist Mauro de Mauro, who had mysteriously vanished in 1970.

For the murder Leonardo was again rewarded — he was elevated to capodecina, which meant he got a bigger cut of the profits.

Leonardo Vitale actually could've been considered a success in the life he chose. But instead he began to feel like he'd become a different person. He felt like all his crimes had been committed by another man, not the new man he believed he'd turned into.

So he went to the police and told them everything -- confessing wholeheartedly and unreservedly. And he had done it, he explained, because confession was the only way to wash the sins from his soul.

While in jail confessing to his past over the next few months however, depression began to weigh on him. Investigators noticed he'd begun cutting the skin on his arms. He also walked around barefoot and had grown a long scraggly beard.

The psychiatrists who were called in told the magistrate that while they believed Leonardo was telling the truth, they also believed that he had some mental health problems.

In 1977 Leonardo went on trial -- alongside 27 other defendants, including his uncle. Ultimately only he and his uncle were convicted.

John Dickie noted in the book Cosa Nostra that “Vitale’s profoundly important insights into the nature of the Mafia were subsequently completely ignored by the authorities.”

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but was released in December 1984. Shortly thereafter,  while walking home from Sunday mass with his mother and sister, he was shot twice in the back of the head and killed by a never identified man.

Leonardo Vitale
Leonardo Vitale

Later, Tommaso Buscetta became an informant and his confessions, it was later confirmed, subsequently backed up much of Vitale's testimony.

Some years later, Magistrate Giovanni Falcone commenced the Maxi Trial with a reading of Vitale's original testimony.

 "It is to be hoped that at least after his death, Vitale will get the credence he deserved," observed Falcone, who'd be murdered alongside his wife and bodyguards in 1992, during the trial.

Falcone later remarked that the Sicilian Mafia had understood the importance of Vitale's revelations much better than the Italian justice system had at the time, and that Cosa Nostra had killed him at the most opportune moment...

* Vitale copped to two murders, yet it seems he committed three. This may be an editorial oversight somewhere. Anyone have any input?