Feature Articles

February 2009
The Cuocolo Affair

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     The Cuocolo double-murder trial of 1911, which produced the first Neapolitan camorra informer, drew international publicity because it opened a door to a criminal secret society whose operatives were plaguing both Italy and the United States.

     On June 5, 1906, in Torre del Greco, the corpse of Gennaro Cuocolo was found, while in Naples, there was another victim, Cuocolo's wife, Maria Cutinelli. Both were killed in different locations at about the same hour of night. Gennaro was stabbed to death on the rocks of Torre del Greco, twelve miles southeast of Naples, while the beautiful Maria, known as La bel Sorrentino, met a similar fate in their apartment at Via Nardones, Naples. The couple was said to have been condemned to death by the camorra because they used the secret society for private ends.

     Given the circumstances, the two murders appeared related. Cuocolo was known as a barista (Neapolitan argot: crew leader of a den of thieves and receiver of stolen property) as well as, with his wife, dedicated to prostitution.

     The police moved quickly to arrest Enrico "Erricone" Alfano, the alleged camorra capintesta (head) and Ciro Alfano, his brother. They and two others had frequented Torre del Greco's trattoria Mimi a mare, in the vicinity of the Cuocolo murder. The investigation went nowhere and the suspects were released after several weeks in jail.

     Unlike the present situation when many Italian criminals have turned state's evidence and have informed on their former co-conspirators, the pentito (the Italian term for informer) had been, in the past, a rare species.

     The first Sicilian mafia pentito was named D'Amico. He approached the police in 1878. His testimony was not taken seriously. Considered unsound of mind, D'Amico was sent to an asylum. Once released, he was killed by those he had condemned. In 1973, Leonardo Vitale gave the authorities a detailed account of bloody mafia deeds (including his own). Little came of his testimony.

     At the Cuocolo trial, in 1911,the Neapolitan coachman Gennaro Abbatemaggio became the first camorrista to fully testify that "La camorra" was indeed a reality and that he and his co-defendants on trial were in fact loyal members in good standing of the criminal sect. The Cuocolo trial would turn out to be a historically significant event both for its publicity and because sixty years would lapse before there would be another of such scope.

     After the initial arrests and interrogations, the investigations came to a halt and the murder files set aside. The cases were reactivated through the curiosity of the Duca d'Aosta, Emanuele Filiberto. As a result, Prime Minister Giolitti directed carabiniere Captain Carlo Fabbroni and maresciallo Erminio Capezzuti to pursue a camorra connection.

     During the earlier investigation a statement had been taken from Abbatemaggio, who was at the time serving a prison sentence. That was in August 1906. The next interview by Capezzuti was more productive. Swayed by promises to his benefit, Abbatemaggio loosened his lips and then opened wide to denounce several persons, naming names of those who belonged to what the Neapolitans called the "Grand Mamma," the camorra. He openly boasted of his allegiance and membership in the "Bella societ?a? reformata."

      The authorities concluded that the motive for the Cuocolo homicides was Cuocolo's wife pressuring him to denounce a certain Luigi Arena for a robbery. This did not sit well with Arena. He asked for a meeting of the Camorra Tribunal to discuss the matter. On May 26, 1906, at the Ristorante Coppola in Bagnola Irpino (east of Naples), the Tribunal brought down death sentences for the Cuocolos to be executed by five men on the following fifth of June.

     With a seemingly airtight case and success at hand, Fabbroni and Capezzuti got carried away and decided that the golden opportunity had arrived to take down the entire camorra apparatus. Indictments multiplied as camorristi were chased down and arrested. Captain Fabbroni denounced seventy men for camorra association and forty-seven for the Cuocolo murders.

     (The demise of the camorra had been predicted before in previous decades. Consider this statement from The New York Times in the September 28, 1881, issue: "It is believed that the Neapolitan camorra is finally and positively dead. Within the last twenty years it has been several times crushed out by the Italian authorities, who have seized its chiefs and sent them to the gallows or the galleys.")

     Because of a number of obstacles and the possibilities of corruption, the trial was moved to Viterbo on March 11, 1911. This mediaeval town was selected because of its distance from Naples and its much smaller population, fewer than 15,000. Rumors proliferated that attempts would be made to rescue the defendants, which were fueled by the two-hundred supporters who drifted into Viterbo as the trial got underway. The defendants were housed in an old Dominican monastery during the course of the proceedings, which lasted until July 8, 1912.

     Gennaro Abbatemaggio, the star witness for the prosecution, gave his analysis of the camorra: "Camorra, for those who don't know, is a profession with all the rights and duties inherent in such. Another defendant said a few days ago that the camorra does not exist, that it is enough to see a scuffle, a knife fight between two rascals, and define them as camorristi. This is not camorra. Camorra is a muddy, slimy sect that has its grades and hierarchy, its discipline and engages in all the crimes contained in the penal code. You begin, as I did, at the first grade, or level, that of picciuotto [apprentice]. From there, you are then elevated to camorrista. At that level any behavior, any form of arrogance or bullying is permitted. I know well, because being in the mud of the malavita [criminal life] for several years I was a leader of thieves, a basista. I know that everyone was a despicable being enough to make you want to vomit. And that includes me. Don't believe that it does not take intelligence to be a camorrista. Camorristi can devise plans and successfully put them into operation. Particularly ingenious are the basisti of thefts and purveyors of stolen goods. Two of the accused at this trial are celebrated basisti: Luigi Arena and di Matteo."

     Abbatemaggio's explosive testimony was attacked by the defendants, all of whom declared their innocence. Among others, Giuseppe "Peppino "'o curto" Salvi, the accused murderer of Maria Cutinelli, responded:
Salvi: I can't say anything. I'm innocent!
Court: Are you a camorrista?
Salvi: Me? No. I'm just a poor wretch!
Court: Were you at the Bagnoli banquet?
Salvi: No signore! That day I and another were robbing the performer Santini! [To confess to a theft rather than a murder was the lesser of two evils.]

     Mariano "'o diciassette" Di Gennaro, a porter, accused with two others of the Cuocolo homicide, began his interrogation thusly: Di Gennaro: You have before you not an assassin but one who has been assassinated! Court: Abbatemaggio has accused you. Di Gennaro: He is but a guaglione (Neapolitan dialect: youth; a person of little regard) who sells human flesh! [Abbatemaggio, from his solitary courtroom cage, shouted out, "And who are you, perhaps Prince Colonna?" [Abbatemaggio was separated from those he was accusing for obvious security reasons.]

     The New York Times' reporters in Viterbo filed dispatches as the trial progressed. In one article (May 3, 1911) the American observer, George B. McClelland, a former mayor of New York, was quoted as saying of the accused men: "Abbatemaggio impressed me as abnormally clever. He withstood the regular cross-examination by President Bianchi and a half dozen lawyers without one slip or contradiction. The other prisoners, like Abbatemaggio, are very intelligent in appearance, looking like prosperous business men. The trial's scope is more extended than the mere conviction of the murderers of Cuocolo. The camorra itself is on trial."

     A few of the defendants were notable criminals who had caught the attention of the authorities long before. There was Gaetano Donadio who, under Alfano's direction, was believed to have planned the notorious murder of New York City policeman Giuseppe Petrosino on February 20, 1909, in Palermo, where he had gone to gather incriminating evidence on camorristi residing in New York. Also the man-about-town Giovanni Rapi (alias 'o professor Rapi) of the alta camorra (high-status camorra), the alleged camorra treasurer (who financed camorra activities) and wealthy owner of gambling clubs in Naples, Rome and Paris. Rapi hob-nobbed smoothly with Italian journalists, politicians and bankers.

     Enrico "Erricone" Alfano was 36-years-old, a brownish man, below medium height, but of commanding presence. Across his cheek he bore a long scar, the sfregio (a knife slash for dishonor; a sign of camorra punishment). Once released from prison Erricone fled to New York, on March 17, 1907, later surfacing when he opened a gambling establishment in the basement of 108 Mulberry Street. His reputation had preceded him. Joe Petrosino, who was the inspiration and head of the famous NYC Italian Squad, wanted Alfano neutralized. He was one of Petrosino's primary underworld targets, and the man believed to be a big player (possibly boss) in the New York branch of the camorra.

     An identification was made of Alfano by Bonanno of the Italian Detective Squad. Erricone was arrested and taken to police headquarters. Petrosino told him that owing to his bad record he could not remain in the country. Without ceremony, Alfano was locked up in the infamous Manhattan Tombs, later taken to France and from there extradited to Italy.

     Once in Naples, Alfano was one of the accused in the Cuocolo trial. For five hours, Alfano withstood the ordeal of a severe interrogation by judge and prosecutor. Here is an excerpt from his testimony: "I am the victim of yellow journalism. I have been ruined by the carabinieri. The story that I have been the head of the camorra is a legend. I was neither its head nor its tail. I admit that I have committed some excesses. What youth of my social class in Naples has not?" He burst into tears, pulled himself together, and continued, "For four years I have suffered persecution and martyrdom. My innocent brother, Ciro, dying in a prison cell adjoining mine. He died innocent." Erricone went on to ridicule the description of the camorra by Abbatemaggio, calling it "fantastic and childish."

     Enrico Alfano and Giovanni Rapi were sentenced to thirty years, Abbatemaggio to five. Thirty of the defendants were condemned to five years behind bars and two were found not guilty.

     After the sentence inflicted upon Alfano he was taken to the prison of Sassari, on the island of Sardinia. The news of his arrival was broadcast immediately to the several hundred inmates. The convicts did all in their power to see the great criminal and to pay him court. As one report noted, "They put themselves at his disposal as subjects would to a sovereign." Many fan letters addressed to him arrived at the penitentiary, including love letters from women.

     The justice system moves slowly in Italy. And the end was not what some would have supposed. Twenty years after the verdicts were brought down, the Fascist Premier Benito Mussolini, who had crushed the Sicilian mafia in the late twenties, granted pardons to all of the implicated defendants. They were all exculpated, freed from blame. And what about Abbatemaggio's damaging testimony against his fellow camorristi? In 1926, fifteen years later, he retracted his testimony, affirming that what he had sworn to was only "the fruit of my vivid imagination," forged by money and promises of leniency made to him by the carabinieri.

     The hopes of Fabbroni and Capezzuti that the Cuocolo affair could be used as a hammer to strike a fatal blow to the camorra were not to be realized.

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