Feature Articles

September, 2010
Are Informers Reliable?

      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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     Can government informers be relied upon to give true testimony about themselves and others?

     A criminal who turns state�s evidence against his former associates has his own motives for doing so. It may be a desire to evade or shorten incarceration time, to gain protective custody and a new identity, to settle old scores, or monetary gain. He could be sincerely penitent. (Italian informers are called pentiti.) Perhaps he bathes in the attention he receives and enjoys matching wits with his interrogators, who have their own agendas. Given that most want to escape a dangerous situation, their sincerity has been questioned, especially as their numbers have increased.

     Take the case of Luciano Aviello, a former member of a Neapolitan camorra clan. He has claimed on many occasions inside information on a variety of individuals and events over the years.

     Camorristi pentiti have not been common. How reliable have Aviello�s revelations been since the first in 1990? At 21 years of age he presented himself one morning at the offices of the newspaper Il Mattino and declared that he could relate many secrets about the camorra clan operating in the Spanish Quarters of the city. (Earlier attempts by him to engage the police on such matters proved unsuccessful.) Aviello, with total self-confidence and a bit of bravado, assured the editors that as a clan member in good standing he had inside information on those who were at that moment engaging in a killing spree.

     Luciano Aviello was born and bred in Naples, socialized into the street culture, left school early, and never had legitimate employment. What he knew was opportunistic thievery. As he matured he graduated to narcotrafficking, extortion and prostitution. As to the latter, it involved femminielli (transsexuals), an easily exploitable class, who practiced their trade in the Bassi, the crowded slums of lower Naples, and preyed upon by the likes of Aviello.

     He had not escaped the attention of the authorities. He had an arrest record and had called on them more than once, asking for protection. �I want to get away from the city,� he implored. Luciano left the impression of knowing much of the underworld and could be of significant use to the police.

     He was introduced to the rackets by his cousin (who was to be gunned down by Camorra shooters). The criminal life for Luciano became for him �La bella vita,� the beautiful life, a life in which the money effortlessly flowed in, quickly spent on fast cars, fancy clothes, loose women, and sniffing the good stuff: boys acting like big shots, engaged in all that Neapolitan criminality could offer, a life that otherwise was out of reach for him and his kind.

     His boasting included the impression that he was deeply into the mob. He saw himself as more than an ordinary thug. �I present myself in a certain manner, even elegant.�

     At age sixteen Aviello�s cousin proposed that they sell tickets in the Lotto nero (illegal lottery). He was soon earning a few hundred dollars a week and said to be moving packages of contraband�arms, drugs, from sellers to customers.

     The police ears perked up when he mentioned the name Enzo Romano. In those days Romano was the undisputed boss of the Montesanto dei Mariano district. Aviello said, �I met Romano and agreed to be his man to collect his share of the Lotto nero.

     Then the day came when he realized that his co-conspirators considerable him expendable. He was offered a deal that if he would confess to a homicide he would get a big bundle of money, a good lawyer, and a monthly stipend while in prison. He knew that it was an offer that could not be turned down. In a panic, he hurried to the authorities seeking protection and to tell them all that he knew.

      Although in those days a judge concluded that, �We have always considered him a reliable witness,� it was becoming apparent that Aviello was expert at playing the system to his benefit, resulting all too often in sending the police on a wild goose chase. In 1991, Aviello falsely accused a camorra affiliate of murder. Later he would say: �I invented the accusation to collect 1.5 million lire [about $750] that was promised to me.�

     When the anti-mafia squads moved into the Spanish Quarters to arrest clan members, Aviello was one of them. He was condemned for camorra association and received a stiff sentence. He continued to seek ways to ingratiate himself with the authorities and to seek early release into the witness protection program. On one occasion he told a captain of the carabinieri that he knew the mountain hiding location of fugitives of the clan D�Alessandro di Castellammare. The police rushed in to find nothing.

     In 1996, he asserted that a lost infant, Angela Celentino, who disappeared on Mt. Fiato, was in the hands of a childless couple in the northern city of Milan, only to later excuse himself by claiming, �I wanted to give comfort to the infant�s parents, knowing that their baby was still alive.� He did not stop with his �clamorous revelations.� In 1997, he pointed the finger twice in two ongoing legal proceedings. In 2008, he swore that a cellmate, pentito Gennaro Cappiello, wanted his assistance in bribing a female magistrate.

     On November 1, 2007, in the Italian city of Perugia, Meredith Kercher was murdered. A trial was held and Amanda Knox was found guilty of the crime and imprisoned. At the time of the murder Luciano Aviello was out of prison and living in Perugia with his brother, Antonio. Returning to prison for extortion, Luciano from his cell in the Spring of 2010 came forward to announce that the true slayer of the victim was Antonio. �Yes,� he declared, �it was my brother who killed Meredith during the commission of a break-in. I can produce the weapon of the crime and the keys to the house.� This generated international attention and got Avellino into the newspapers. His confession gave the defense the excuse to reopen the case to review the evidence.

     Aviello said this of himself, �My cousin was a member of the Mariano clan. I lived in the Spanish Quarters and was straight away judged as an intelligent child. My cousin, whom I spent time with, said so. I was fascinated by his ways, the easy money he made.�

     Camorra expert Gigi di Fiore said of him: �Aviello is a strange person. He has had several contacts with the Anti-Mafia Commission and was judged to be less than truthful, a confused youth in search of publicity. He would want to exchange information for protection but had little to offer. His story is an emblematic event of no merit.�

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