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In Mafia Arrests, Clues To Slaying Of An NYPD Officer A Century Ago

A portrait of Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino.
Rod Lamkey Jr
The Washington Times /Landov
A portrait of Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino.

Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino is the only New York police officer to be killed in the line of duty outside the United States. It happened in March 1909 when Petrosino, one of the most celebrated officers in the department's history, was sent to Italy to investigate the Mafia.

The New York Times reports:

"He stayed in hotels under an assumed name, and grew a beard to alter his appearance. But his reputation and purpose had preceded him.

"On the day of his murder, March 12, 1909, Lieutenant Petrosino left his revolver in his hotel room. And as he waited for a trolley in downtown Palermo, Sicily, two assassins approached.

"Four shots. Three bullet wounds."

Petrosino's fame was so great that some 250,000 people attended his funeral.

The killing remained unsolved for more than a century. Until Monday. That's when, Italy's ANSA news agency reports, Italian police arrested 95 suspected members of the Mafia in Palermo. One of them, Domenico Palazzotto, was heard on police recordings as saying his granduncle killed Petrosino on behalf of Vito Cascio Ferro, who headed the Sicilian Cosa Nostra at the time.

Is it a breakthrough in the investigation? Petrosino's family members appeared skeptical.

"That guy could just be running his mouth, thinking that if I say my family killed Joe Petrosino, that will give him some cred in the local prison or something," Joseph A. Petrosino, a grandnephew of the lieutenant and a retired Brooklyn prosecutor, told The Times. "Obviously this guy has followed in the family tradition."

Indeed, Italian police noted that Paolo Palazzotto, Domenico Palazzotto's granduncle, and Cascio Ferro were acquitted of Petrosino's slaying for lack of evidence.

The New York Police Department has a brief biography of Petrosino on its website. Here's an excerpt:

"Giuseppe 'Joseph' Petrosino was born in Salerno, Italy, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1873.

"Petrosino joined the Police Department in 1883 and was promoted by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to Sergeant of Detectives in 1895. Petrosino was later named lieutenant and given command of the new Italian Squad, a unit created to combat the crime organization known as the Black Hand. Under his leadership, several thousand arrests were made, and more than 500 offenders were sent to prison. Crimes against Italian-Americans dropped by fifty percent."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.

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