Feature Articles

December 2011
The Strange Case Of Leonardo Vitale

      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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"My crime was to be been born and bred in a family of mafia traditions, and to have lived in a society were all are mafiosi. For this they were respected, while those who were not were scorned." (Leonardo Vitale, 1941-1982, mafia informant, March 1973)

     Leonardo Vitale was the first Sicilian informant of modern times. A very troubled conscience drove him to denounce mafia bosses Toto` Riina, Bernardo Provenzano, Michele Greco, Vito Ciancimino, and others; and to confirm the ongoing collusion between the political system and mafia interests. He was convinced his cause was just. "All men who are of good will understand me. I intended to help the justice system in strangling this cancer that infests our island. All criminals commit crimes to gain vile money. It is wonderful to live in the grace of God." In confessing his sins and the sins of other mafiosi, "I have never felt so happy, so secure; I am at peace with myself." Case closed? Hardly. What was to happen to Vitale approached the surreal.

     Vitale was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1941. At age 13, after his father died, he was placed in the custody of his paternal uncle, Giovan Battista "Titta" Vitale, a "man of honor" of the Altarello di Baida clan. Leonardo idealized his Uncle Titta, who substituted for his father, and to prove his loyalty and courage killed a dog, then a horse. His next test was to kill a man in cold blood. Titta pointed out the victim: study him, his movements and at the opportune moment take him down; which he did.

     Vitale's first arrest and confinement came with an attempted kidnapping. After forty-seven days in penal isolation he was released because of insufficient evidence. His incarceration sparked a state of depression. On his release, he began to exhibit pyschotic symptoms; in retrospect not surprising for his fragile personality began to disintegrate.

     Falling into a silent state, Vitale was first seen by a physician, a cousin, who was to be charged with mafia association and later released. Vincenzo Bonacita, a certified neuropsychiatrist, diagnosed Leonardo as having a paranoid depressive syndrome, and suggested immediate treatment. At the close of 1972 the patient spent a month in a private clinic where he was drugged and subjected to electric shock treatment. His chart read: "Depressive anxiety caused by a persecution complex."

     A further professional opinion was critical of the diagnosis and treatment. So Vitale was transferred to a prison on Asinara Island, situated off the northern coast of Sardinia, where his mental capacity continued to deteriorate. This lead to moving him to the neurological clinic at the Sardinian University of Sassari, where he continued to be observed.

     While undergoing questioning by the police, Vitale readily confessed to his many crimes and willingly detailed the inner workings of the mafia-names, bosses, organizational structures, norms, rituals, rules. This information thus gathered led to Vitale's arrest along with some forty other members of the Altarello di Baida clan.

     There persisted a question of his reliability. Several investigators considered his statements nothing more than "science fiction," the mutterings of an unbalanced mind. That is what his lawyer argued in court. But the magistrate ruled otherwise. He gave substance to Vitale's confessions and to the "lucidity" of his mental powers. (Not others: relatives, doctors, wanted him to be found insane, incapable of rational thought, and not responsible for his ramblings and actions. The mafia in particular followed the events closely.)

     The mafia showed its face through terror by killing Leonardo's cousin, an obvious signal to both him and his loved ones. His mental health continued a downward trend-uttering statements that were either unintelligible or improbable. Meanwhile, twenty of the arrestees were released from confinement because of insufficient evidence.

     Vitale was housed in Palermo's Ucciardone Prison. In April of 1972 a term of three psychiatrists was tasked to study the patient and report to the court. The finding was that he was suffering from a "schizoid syndrome."

     There now commenced an odyssey of transfers to prisons, asylums, and other confinements. In October of 1973 he went to the Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto institution for the criminally insane. In July of 1977 Vitale was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison for his confessed crimes. (His Uncle Titta received much more for homicide and criminal association.) The Court of Appeals referred his case to another team of psychiatrists who found him of unsound mind: "Leonardo Vitale is unreliable. He committed crimes to punish himself. He is incapable of understanding reality because he has schizophrenia. Vitale is affected by a nervous disorder and suffers from ideation. He lives his fantasies as though they are real. He cannot distinguish between fact and fiction. He slanders himself and others in order to pay for his sense of guilt, and thus cannot be taken seriously."

     Leonardo said of himself that he "killed in order to demonstrate that I was worthy of something. Because my uncle took the place of my deceased father I admired and sought to imitate him. Uncle's motives were of no importance to me. I followed him in everything for everything, voluntarily, to please him. I did not feel I was a delinquent." He also questioned his sexuality, believing that he was a pederast. "My relations with prostitutes I did not enjoy. I had to frequent them. Not to do so would have signaled to others that I was not a man. I continued to feel myself half man half woman. To prove my manhood, I had to kill and frequent prostitutes."

     Judged insane, Vitale was detained in a mental institution in Messina, Sicily, where he remained for twelve years. On his release, he returned to his mother and sister who had visited him regularly during his incarceration. Shortly thereafter, on 2 December 1984, while exiting from the Church of the Cappuccini of Palermo where he participated in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, having received Holy Communion, he was gunned down by a member of his former mafia clan wielding a lupara. (Lupara means wolf gun, a sawn-off shotgun traditionally favored by the mafia.) He died on the church steps while in a state of grace.

     When a high ranking mafioso, who had turned state's evidence, was asked about the homicide, he remarked, "This thing of Vitale was a lesson for everyone. As they say, we will always find you, even if it takes ten or twenty years."

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