Cold Case

Who Really Murdered Joe Petrosino?

No, despite the headlines, we still don’t know who gunned down the legendary NYPD detective in Sicily 105 years ago.


ROME, Italy — The competition among Mafiosi-in-the-making can get pretty tough in Sicily. So when a 28-year-old wannabe superboss named Domenico Palazzotto was looking for a way to better his position among the Cosa Nostra, he apparently started bragging about his pedigree by claiming his father’s uncle killed New York City police officer Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino more than 100 years ago.

The news made headlines, not least in New York, where Petrosino is a sort of NYPD icon. He was one of the first Italians on the force, a favorite of Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt back in the hard-scrabble streets of the 1890s, and one tough cop. A New York alderman once said Petrosino “knocked out more teeth than a dentist.” He also worked effectively to infiltrate the underworld of the Mafia and the Black Hand—which is what took him to Italy the year he was killed.

But Italian police are skeptical of Domenico Palozzotto’s claims to the murderer’s bloodline. They say he isn’t even directly related to Paolo Palazzotto, the triggerman who allegedly killed the American hero. In fact, Paolo Palazzotto was tried for the 1909 murder along with Cosa Nostra boss Vito Cascio Ferro, but both were absolved of the crime due to lack of evidence.

The younger Palazzotto was arrested on Monday for Mafia collusion and drug charges in a sting operation in Palermo called “Apocalypse” that netted 95 suspected Mafiosi. The operation had nothing to do with Petrosino’s murder per se, but when the documents supporting the arrests were made public, wiretap transcripts also were released to the press. Domenico Palazzotto’s claim to fame was taped in February 2013, but Sicilian police dismissed it then as braggadocio.

According to the transcripts published in Italy’s La Stampa, the Palazzotto wannabe was reminding people of his supposed relative’s supposed place in history. “Petrosino? He was killed by my father’s uncle,” said Palazzotto, according the transcripts. “I’ll even show you the books. Our family has been Mafiosi for a hundred years. We killed the first cop in Palermo,” he said, using the word sbirro, which is Italian slang for a street cop.

According to additional transcripts published in Italy’s Corriere Della Sera, Palazzotto also went on to describe Petrosino as a prime target. “He dropped in from America to stir up shit here, to investigate the Mafia.”

Sicilian investigators have dismissed claims that the present-day Palazzotto in their custody has inside information into Petrosino’s murder. Instead, police announcing the arrests told reporters in Palermo that the kid was just “trying to climb the ladder” by dropping names. He also claimed that his family had been involved in the murder of anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, clearly hoping that would bolster his rep as a man with bad-guy DNA.

What makes this cold case so fascinating, in fact, is not wise-guy talking about it, it’s the cop who got shot.

Joe Petrosino was born near Salerno on the Italian mainland in 1860 and was sent to New York to live with his grandfather ahead of his parents in 1873, long before the wave of Italian immigrants came to America via Ellis Island. His grandfather died and he and a cousin were sent to live with an Irish family who afforded him an education and opportunities many Italian immigrants only dreamed of.

Petrosino became a New York City police officer in 1883 and soon specialized in organized crime. According to Securing the City by The Daily Beast foreign editor Christopher Dickey, Petrosino sometimes “presented himself as a sharply dressed detective complete with bowler hat, but he often moved through the streets in the rags of a day laborer, easily blending in with other recent arrivals in this city of immigrants.” Sometimes just to taunt the Mafiosi he would stand on the stoop of his place near the old police headquarters—near what’s now called Petrosino Square—and play the violin. He knew no one would dare to touch him.

But in 1909 Petrosino went on a secret mission to investigate the Italian underworld on its home turf. A New York police captain leaked the news. The Italian and American press reported his undercover mission, effectively outing him, and he was killed with four shots to the head in Piazza Marina in Palermo. A brass plaque marks the site of his murder.

Despite Palazzotto’s claims, the mystery of who really pulled the trigger is still just that, and unsolved. But one can hardly blame a young Mafioso for laying claim to what is essentially the holy grail of Mafia hits.