The Washerwoman’s Genes

May 22, 2006

Betrayed by laundry

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:39 am

“Mafia boss caught thanks to clean laundry and love letters” (The [London] Telegraph).

“Mafia Godfather was ‘betrayed by his laundry’” (The [London] Times Online).

Let’s face it: a mafia don hiding in a farm hut is pretty funny. Capturing same without a shot makes for buffoonery. And add in some laundry, and the whole scenario becomes freakin’ hilarious.

At least it seems so, to read the European media. To them, it has all the makings of either a soap-opera romance or an absurdist comedy.

The common-law wife of a mafioso kingpin sustains her man for decades, passing on the essentials of life—lasagne, good cheese, and clean undies—to him through intermediaries, until finally, the cops catch on. She’s been running a laundry, living modestly, raising the two sons she managed to conceive in secret trysts with her guy. All the while, “Zu Binnie,” (Uncle Bernie), a.k.a. Bernardo Provenzano, lives in a series of obscure and déclassé hideouts near Corleone, a town on the island of Sicily. Reputedly the mastermind behind as many as 400 killings and a racketeer to the tune of millions of lire, Provenzano had been living underground for an amazing 43 years and directing underworld operations as top-dog for as many as 12.

After all that time, upon getting a tip that Serveria was sending him a packet of washed and ironed socks, shirts, and underpants, the police staked out his laundry, watching it travel from Serveria’s house to various stops on the underworld railroad until finally it was driven up some back-farm rut to a cheese-making shed where his pale hand snaking out the crack in the door to take the bundle gave his presence away.

The laundress in question is apparently no innocent lass with her hands in a tub of suds. Severia Benedetta Palazzolo is, rather, a criminal herself because of her complicity in Provenzano’s money-laundering schemes. She had been sentenced to prison years ago, but evaded serving her term by going into hiding (a peculiarity of Italian law), most likely in Germany. When her unserved prison sentence expired, she returned to Corleone, a headquarters of Italian mobsterdom, where she became a washerwoman, of a modern sort.

One arresting officer commented that Provenzano didn’t look much like his mug-shots from forty years previous. Rather, “dressed in a checked shirt, a white scarf, a navy coloured winter jacket and a pair of old jeans, he was ‘calm, rather beatific-looking, a bit like a priest.’” And clean.

The laundry angle is only one of several that makes Provenzano’s capture story-worthy. The squalor of his hideout, more appropriate for an impoverished shepherd than a fabulously wealthy don; the discovery of dozens of his “pizzini,” or little notes, covering everything from operational orders to his mob subordinates to his loving requests to Severia for “more cheese” and other foods; and his incongruous stockpile of Bibles and religious doodads have all left European heads shaking.
According to an Italian police chief, it’s not unusual for a mafioso to be undone by a connection to a woman. Nicola Cavaliere noted that one had been discovered when his wife’s neighbors complained about her blasting radio tuned to the police frequencies. “Women have always unwittingly been the ruin of criminals on the run,” he continued. “So it was in Provenzano’s case that a woman committed a fatal error which led to his capture.”

No matter how much she washed, his was always dirty laundry.


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