Giovanni Brusca: No. 5 on list of Top 5 most notorious Mob hitmen

Giovanni Brusca: No. 5 on list of Top 5 most notorious Mob hitmen

Sicilian killer best known for blowing up highway to eliminate an anti-Mafia prosecutor

Giovanni Brusca was a Sicilian Mafia hitman. He was convicted of committing five murders in a highway bombing that killed celebrated anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone. Brusca got his sentence reduced from life to 26 years by serving as a government witness.

In this fifth and final installment in our series on the Top 5 most notorious Mob hitmen, we profile a prolific Sicilian hitman who turned informant to save his skin, but only after murdering civilians and public officials.

Our selections are limited and the methodology subjective. The richness of the stories, the amount of dependable research material and how the individuals fit into the greater context of their times mattered more to us than the number of victims they chalked up.

The Top 5 are: “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Roy DeMeo, Joe “The Animal” Barboza and Giovanni Brusca.

Tunnel blast

By the early 1990s, the legendary Sicilian magistrate Giovanni Falcone had triumphed like no other prosecutor in Italian history in taking down Mafia leaders once considered unbeatable. In 1992, the Sicilian “boss of bosses,” Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, one of Falcone’s targets, was determined to hit the state official in an audacious and brutal way.

The scene on the highway near Palermo, Sicily, on May 23, 1992, after a powerful bomb killed anti-Mafia crusader Giovanni Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards. Mafia hitman Giovanni Brusca was determined to have been the mastermind behind the bombing. AP Photo/Bruno Mosconi

Riina ordered 32-year-old Giovanni Brusca to lead a team of conspirators who placed 1,000 pounds of TNT in a tunnel under a highway Falcone would drive on after his flight from Rome landed at an airport outside Palermo. On May 23, 1992, Brusca and three men waited on a mountain outside Palermo, keeping in contact by cell phone with a Mafioso in a car driving behind Falcone’s armored vehicle and three escort cars.

After hearing a signal from the driver, Brusca activated a refashioned electronic gate opener to detonate the explosives. The eruption blew a quarter mile-sized crater in the road 15 miles from Palermo. Falcone, his driver and three police guards were killed, and his wife and fellow prosecutor Francesca Morvillo mortally wounded. The blast injured 20 others. The assassination of Italy’s top anti-Mafia prosecutor made international news and sparked indignation throughout Italy.

That November, Italian prosecutors in Rome charged 18 men in the murders, including Brusca, who went into hiding. In early 1996, a Sicilian court sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for murdering a tax collector. But he remained a fugitive for almost four years to the day of Falcone’s slaying.

On May 20, 1996, Brusca, hiding in a home in southwest Sicily, was about to eat dinner and had turned on his TV to watch a movie about Falcone’s death when dozens of police poured in and arrested him and his brother Vincenzo. Officers cheered during his prep walk and, despite precautions, one cop punched Brusca in the face, bloodying his nose.

While imprisoned, Brusca, known as “The Pig” for his unkempt appearance and “The Butcher” for his cruelty as a hitman, would not turn out like his father, Bernardo, boss of the San Giuseppe Jato family. Bernardo, a Corleone Mob ally in Sicily given several life sentences in 1985 for ordering hits, kept true to “omerta” and never squealed. Not so the younger Brusca. Found guilty of killing five people in the bombing, he got only 26 years by agreeing to sing on the witness stand. His testimony helped convict some Mafia bigwigs.

Earlier bombing

Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone, shown in February 1992. He was killed in a highway bombing three months later. AP Photo

In 1999, Giovanni Brusca released a prison diary in which he laid claim to being the premier Mafia hitman. He spilled about his involvement in more than 100 gangland hits, including the 1983 car bombing death in Palermo of a second anti-Mafia magistrate (three others were killed and 14 wounded) and the kidnap-slaying of a 15-year-old boy.

“I killed Giovanni Falcone,” he wrote. “But it was not the first time: I had already used the car bomb to kill Judge Rocco Chinnici and the men of his escort. I am responsible for the kidnapping and death of little Giuseppe Di Matteo, who was 13 years old when he was kidnapped and 15 when he was killed. I have committed and personally ordered over 150 crimes. Even today I cannot remember every one, one by one, the names of those I killed. Many more than a hundred, certainly less than two hundred.”

While on the run after the Falcone bombing in 1993, Giovanni Brusca learned from a TV news report that a former accomplice, Santino Di Matteo, had turned informant against him in a separate homicide rap. Enraged, Giovanni ordered some of his men to wear police uniforms as disguises, go to Di Matteo’s home, tell the man’s son that his father wanted him and then kidnap the kid. He made the boy live in shabby conditions for 26 months, tortured him and finally ordered the youth strangled and the body dissolved in acid.

In October 2019, Giovanni Brusca, having served 23 years in prison, insisted he had “repented” and rejected the Mafia life. He asked Italian federal authorities to let him spend the last three years of his term under house arrest. But a national court judge refused the request. The 62-year-old murderer won’t be incarcerated for much longer, though, if he lives. He is scheduled for release from prison in 2021.

Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. A longtime journalist and former university lecturer, he is the author of five books, including Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age and Lost Las Vegas. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.