The Mafia Killed This Boy—but His Heart Lived On

How a 7-year-old American boy, murdered by Mafia hit men on a lonely Italian highway 22 years ago, changed a nation.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

ROME—Nicholas Green was a thoughtful, imaginative 7-year-old boy touring southern Italy with his parents, Reg and Maggie, and younger sister Eleanor. On a lonely stretch of highway the night of Sept. 29, 1994, bursts of gunfire targeted their car, and a bullet hit Nicholas. After two days fighting to survive, his life ended tragically on Oct. 1 in a Sicilian hospital, and his parents decided to donate five of his organs and his corneas to seven different people.

One of Nicholas’s corneas went to Domenica Galletta, who had been waiting for a transplant for five years and who had never seen her daughter. Another went to Francesco Mondello, a young father. The liver went to 19-year-old Maria Pia Pedalà, who went on to have a child she named Nicholas. His kidneys went to 14-year-old Maria Di Ceglie and 10-year-old Tino Motta. And his heart went to Andrea Mongiardo, who, at 15, had spent more than half of his life in hospital before Nicholas’s death saved him.

Sadly, Mongiardo died of lymphoma in a Rome hospital late last week, silencing Nicholas’s heart forever, but reminding Italians once again about the gifts of life the Green family had bestowed. Mongiardo’s funeral was attended by a group of young transplant recipients who credit Green with their survival, and the doctor who performed the heart transplant who came to give “a final farewell” to both Green and Mongiardo.

The organ donations enhanced and saved lives, but more importantly the act forever changed organ donation in Italy because of what is commonly referred to as the “effetto Nicholas” or “the Nicholas effect.” Previously, transplants were regarded with superstitious suspicions and in some cases ran afoul of the Catholic Church. But since Nicholas’s death, organ donation has tripled in this country, unquestionably thanks to the Green family’s generosity.

“Every year tens of thousands of people around the world at the worst moment of their lives resist the temptation to turn inward in sorrow or bitterness and instead put their grief on one side long enough to reach out to complete strangers—people they can’t even visualize—and transform their lives,” Reg Green told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. “The enormous increase in donations represents the generous hearts of the Italian people. I doubt that any other country in the world would have shown the compassion that Italy has. When Nicholas was killed it seems as though the whole country wanted to comfort us.”

A month after the murder, two local thugs, Francesco Mesiano and Michele Iannello, were arrested for the shooting. They pleaded their innocence, even though the car from which they shot was owned by Iannello, who says he had loaned it to his brother that fateful night. They were initially acquitted in 1997 due to the fact that none of the Green family survivors could positively identify them. How could they? The killing had taken place in the dark of night with Reg Green trying to save his young family by attempting to outrun the perpetrators as the masked killers fired shots. An Italian appellate court overturned the acquittal in 1998 and convicted the duo of the murder, which was upheld by Italy’s high court in 1999.

Over the last 20 years, Green has written two books, The Nicholas Effect and The Gift that Heals and Jamie Lee Curtis was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Maggie Green in a made-for-TV movie called Nicholas’ Gift. Green has become a global advocate for organ donation, speaking on the cause and keeping in touch with the those who got a second chance at life thanks to Nicholas.

During that time, Mesiano served his sentence and is now free, and Iannello, who turned state’s evidence against other mafiosi, managed to win house arrest. He is now living in northern Italy with his wife and two children, despite having been given a life sentence, and he has been quietly petitioning for a full pardon from Italy’s president. His case most probably would have gone unnoticed if Mongiardo’s death had not brought to mind again the murder of the little boy. Now the killer’s plea for a pardon is being met with fierce public opposition.

Iannello “has consistently denied his guilt but the evidence was very strong against him and Francesco Mesiano,” Reg Green told The Daily Beast. “We have never wanted revenge, only justice, and we accepted without protest their acquittal at the first trial. Victims make very bad judges, as you know, so my opinion about his pardon is too subjective to be of value.”

Iannello, who admitted to killing four other people under contract with the Calabria ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate, would be able to move from his house and even leave the country if he were pardoned.

“Your readers will have to decide for themselves if a man who was sentenced to life imprisonment and admits to a series of other killings but who has lived outside prison for years, has paid the price for taking the life of a child,” said Green.

Still, the most important legacy is not that of his son’s killer, but that of his son. “He saw the best in everyone so that when you were with him you always wanted to be your best,” Green says of his son. “On the plane on the way home, after he had been killed, Maggie was sitting on the row behind me with Eleanor. She leaned forward and said quietly, ‘You know, I never heard him tell a lie.’ There was something shocking about it. It seemed so absolute. I thought about it and said that was true for me too—nor any of the sneaky half-truths I and just about every other child I’ve known has done.”

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In Italy today, “the Nicholas effect” is a household term that carries with it a whole history of love and generosity. “Of all things I think it is the longevity of Italy’s loyalty to Nicholas’ memory that has surprised me most,” Green says. “One small death more than 20 years ago in a place almost no-one has been to should have been forgotten long ago by everyone except those closely connected to it.”

Luckily, for the thousands of people who are alive because of the impact of that “one small death,” no one wants to forget it, and no one will.