While three-year-old Domenico Petruzzelli was being riddled with bullets in the front seat of a car next to his 30-year-old mother, Carla Maria Fornari, and her 44-year-old boyfriend, Cosimo Orlando, his older brothers were “playing dead,” huddled down in the back seat. The horrific massacre happened Monday night on a lonely state highway in Puglia. When police first arrived on the scene, they told reporters they thought it was a bloody car accident. Then they saw the bullet holes. The assassins apparently first bashed the car Fornari was driving several times, finally pushing it into a guardrail. Then they sprayed the front seat with bullets. Orlando was able to open the passenger door and fall to the ground. He died as police arrived. Fornari and her son died immediately from their bullet wounds. “They were shooting at us and we heard screams and we saw Cosimo collapse,” one of the surviving children reportedly told police, according to the Italian press. “We were scared to death.”
The two young brothers, aged six and seven, described how they ducked down in the back seat when the bullets started to fly. They are now in protective custody as the only material witnesses to the latest mafia-style murder involving a toddler. In January, three-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo was shot in the head at point-blank range with his grandfather and his grandfather’s companion. Their bodies were found singed in the burnt-out car in which they were killed.
The heinous crimes may sound similar, but they involve two very different powerful organized crime syndicates, with two very different motives. Campolongo was killed in Calabria by the ‘Ndrangheta, one of the most powerful drug-trafficking crime syndicates in the world. The assassins, who have still not been apprehended, left a shiny 50-cent coin on the roof of the burnt-out car, a clear sign of a debt-inspired hit. Petruzzelli was killed in Puglia, home of the Sacra Corona Unita, a powerful criminal group who are also involved in international drug trafficking, as well as gun running, cigarette smuggling and human trafficking.
The motives for the killing that took little Domenico’s life are still unclear, but given his family tree, it was certainly mob-related. The investigating magistrate, Remo Epifani, told reporters in Puglia that the likeliest scenario was that the Orlando was the intended victim. Orlando, who was on day release from prison after serving 13 years for a double-homicide committed in 1989, had apparently started easing back into the drug trade he left nearly 15 years earlier. Investigators are working on the theory that he was perhaps “in the way” and had to be removed. Fornari was driving Orlando back to prison for the night when the hit took place.
Investigators told Pugliese journalists that the hit could have also been against Domenico’s mother, also a mob widow. Police note she had testified against the assassins of her own husband in a mob-related hit in 2011 when she was pregnant with young Domenico. The three men who were convicted of her husband’s murder have sent people to threaten her from prison.
Intentional child victims are rare in Italy’s long history of organized crime hits. Until now, criminals had abided by the common rule that children should be spared. Prior to these killings, the most famous child victim was Giuseppe Di Matteo, an 11-year-old whose father was a Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia turncoat. The child was kidnapped and held for two years while various extortion attempts kept him alive. Eventually he was strangled to death and his body was dissolved in acid.
On Friday, Pope Francis will meet to pray with 700 families who have lost loved ones to mob violence across Italy, no doubt making special mention of Domenico. On Saturday, the anti-mafia group Libera will read the names of 900 victims of organized crime at a ceremony to mark the annual Day of Remembrance for innocent victims. Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, who has three young children, said he felt “a father’s grief” over the hit, calling it “an awful pain, as a father as well as premier.”
The mayor of Bari, Michele Emiliano, has called for children to be removed from known organized crime families, whom he says know no other way but to pass down their twisted “mafia pedagogy”. One of the last videos of young Domenico uploaded to his mother’s Facebook site and downloaded by Pugliese press shows the child destroying a wall with a pickaxe while unseen adults cheer him on.
“The Mafiosi can not have possession of good things,” Emiliano said at a press conference after the killings in Puglia. “There is nothing left to do but remove these children doomed to a life of crime. This child had known nothing other than that life until he died. With all the warning signs, it should have been an emergency situation to remove the children. Now his brothers might have a chance to escape. But Domenico could have been saved, too. We all failed him.”