An alleged high-ranking mobster with the American branch of the Sicilian Mafia was arrested in New York City in a joint operation Italian police and the FBI, for an extortion related to a 30-year-old debt.
Francesco Palmeri, 61, who Italian authorities say is an affiliate of the infamous Gambino family, was among eight alleged mobsters arrested Thursday in pre-dawn raids in New York and several Italian cities. Also known as "Ciccio the American," Palmeri sent threatening letters and personally traveled to Italy to intimidate a local businessman into paying 1 million euros, or $1.25 million, that the mob claimed he owed since the 1980s, prosecutors in the southern town of Potenza, Italy, said.
In a story exemplifying the underworld cliché that mafia don't forget, Lorenzo Marsilio told Italian authorities he asked for a loan to an acquaintance some 30 years ago, for his then-struggling company, Sudelettra. The acquaintance was Giovanni "Johnny" Grillo, who, like Marsilio, was a native of Matera, in the southern Basilicata province, but had started a new life across the ocean in Brooklyn.
Grillo was not able to provide the whole 400 million lire -- roughly $230,000 -- needed by Marsilio on his own, so he had part of the money (120 million lire) provided by another man, Roberto Pannunzi, said an Italian judge authorizing the eight arrests.
Pannunzi, 66, also known as Bébé, is the renowned Calabrian Mafia boss who was described as the world's most powerful drug broker, before he was arrested last year in Colombia with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Marsilio found himself in the uncomfortable position of owing money to the mob, but said he'd repaid his debt, handing Grillo 200 million lire on top of the 400 million lire he had borrowed and also paying for his children's education through the years.
Nevertheless, in 2012 the businessman was visited by Grillo, along with Salvatore Farina, the son of a Sicilian Mafia boss, who demanded he pay another $1.25 million. Upon refusing, he began receiving threatening postcards signed "Your friends in Brooklyn," which prosecutors said were mailed by Palmeri.
In July 2013, Palmeri personally traveled to Sudelettra headquarters in the town of Matera to extort the money, Marsilio said. He was arrested in New York by U.S. police with the cooperation of Italian detectives. Farina and Grillo were also among the arrested, and the latter was held as he was about to board a U.S.-bound flight at Milan's airport. They are facing charges of being members of an international criminal organization and extortion.
"This [operation] demonstrates once again the existence of a well-oiled criminal axis between U.S. crime syndicates and Italian-based mafia gangs," Italian police told Ansa. The arrests came on the heels of another joint operation by the FBI and Italian police nicknamed "New Bridge" that saw 26 people, including eight affiliates of the Gambino family, arrested last year on a number of charges, including money laundering, drug trafficking and organized crime.