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Prosecutors Announce Charges in Murder of Anti-Mafia Hero

November 13, 1993 GMT

ROME (AP) _ Four men stood on a hill overlooking the highway outside Palermo, Sicily, one nervously smoking Merit cigarettes, as Italy’s leading anti-Mafia crusader made his way from Rome.

Lookouts in contact by cellular phone tracked his moves. They watched as Giovanni Falcone took off in a plane, as his police escort left to pick him up, as his car set off down the highway.

Then came the final call from a car trailing behind Falcone’s.

A remote control was activated, and Falcone was blown away by hundreds of pounds of explosives planted under the highway. Falcone’s wife, prosecutor Francesca Morvillo, and three police guards also died. A quarter-mile of highway was demolished.

With charges announced against 18 suspects, a more complete picture emerged Friday of a crime that shocked and revolted Italy and helped prompt a crackdown on the mob.

The charges are a major breakthrough in a country where spectacular crimes often go unsolved. They also should provide a morale boost to Italians battered by corruption scandals and recession.

In Washington, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh congratulated Italian law enforcement officials for ″a brilliant and relentless investigation″ and said the FBI would continue its cooperation with Italian authorities.

At the time of the May 1992 killing, Falcone had reached near-legendary stature for engineering most of the government’s successes against the Mafia in the previous decade. He also was a key ally of U.S. mob prosecutors pursuing the Sicilian-U.S. Mafia connection.

American investigators helped in the case, including FBI analysts who helped identify DNA on the Merit cigarette butts on the hill overlooking the highway.

Prosecutors in the central Sicilian city of Caltanissetta issued arrest warrants Thursday for 18 people. Ten already were in jail, five were arrested and three remained fugitives.

Dozens of murders have been attributed to the suspects, including the killings of a leading Sicilian politician and police commander.

The leading suspect is Salvatore ″Toto″ Riina, the Mafia ″boss of bosses″ who was arrested in January in a major coup.

″Riina gave the order,″ prosecutor Giovanni Tinebra told reporters in announcing the charges Friday.

His driver, Salvatore Biondino, coordinated the plot, Tinebra said. Riina’s brother-in-law, fugitive boss Leoluca Bagarella, also allegedly took part. Another suspect was Palermo builder Salvatore Sbeglia, who is charged with providing the detonator, apparently a modified automatic gate opener.

One of Falcone’s contributions was inspiring the confidence of ″pentiti″ - Mafia members who became informers. His murder and that of close friend and colleague Paolo Borsellino by a car bomb two months later have prompted a wave of new collaborators.

A key pair of ″pentiti″ helped special anti-Mafia police, the DIA, break the Falcone case.

It began with a secretly taped phone call, the ANSA news agency reported. Two of the plotters mentioned a certain ″Santino″ during the call.

Another turncoat, Baldassarre Di Maggio, whose help had led police to Riina, identified Santino as Mario Santo Di Matteo, known as ″Half Nose.″

Investigators then connected Di Matteo with a portable telephone used to make calls discussing the attack.

Confronted with the evidence, Di Matteo gave in and provided a detailed description of the crime, investigators said. Corroborating his testimony are tapes from bugged prison cells and apartments and records of telephone calls.

Prosecutors said the four men on the hill were Di Matteo; Bagarella; Antonino Gioe, the Merit smoker, who later committed suicide in prison; and Giovanni Brusca, a fugitive, who was accused of setting off the explosion.

The plotters waited days for Falcone’s arrival and went through trial runs beforehand.