For mafia hunter Alfonso Sabella, who was desperate to rescue a kidnapped 12-year-old, the acid-burned remains of the boy’s bed in front of him were too much to bear.
The scene has haunted him day and night for the past 25 years.
“The picture is in my head and I can’t get over it,” he says, taking a drag on his cigarette.
“The child was only 12 years old. He was kidnapped because his father was a” Pentito “- a police informant.
“I was walking with colleagues when we found that he was being held in a cave. There was no body to be seen. It was completely dissolved in acid.
“All that was left was his bed, burned by the chemicals he slept in.”
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Very little else makes Alfonso flinch these days. From 1993 to 1999 the judge was one of the elite members of the Italian anti-mafia unit.
Often times, it spent years gathering evidence from informants and eavesdroppers and was responsible for the successful convictions of some of the most bloodthirsty organized crime ringleaders.
Now Alfonso’s book about his work is the inspiration for the hard Channel 4 drama The Hunter with Italian actors Francesco Montanari and Miriam Dalmazio.
There is more than one reference to Reservoir Dogs in the series that tells the story of the fictional Magistrate Saverio Barone’s ruthless battle against the Mafia. A breathtaking torture scene is not for the faint of heart.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday People, 58-year-old Alfonso tells how crime bosses planned to blow him up – once with a bowler hat filled with explosives, and later with a rocket.
Pouring himself a drink in his Naples kitchenette, he explains that living under 24-hour protection and constant movement to stay alive was too stressful for his marriage.
And since the largest mob trial has been going on in southern Italy in three decades, he insists that it is now up to the next generation to continue their fight.
Alfonso became known while working in the public prosecutor’s office in Palermo in northern Sicily – a traditional Mafia stronghold. He was bold and hungry for promotion.
“I had gathered evidence that my chief prosecutor was working with the mafia,” he explains. “I’ve been told it’s a brave thing to do.
“People knew it was just that no one had talked about it before.
“I grew up with bread and justice, as we say in Italian. I came from a family of lawyers – including my mother Giuseppina, which was not a common job for a woman at the time.
“Even my sister Marzia worked in the anti-mafia.
“I didn’t question the decision to take the job and my parents gave me tremendous support.”
In the early 1990s, Alfonso had cut out his work. The north of Sicily was controlled by the Mafia, which on the island is often referred to simply as Cosa Nostra – “our thing”.
Alfonso recalls: “You couldn’t do anything, even if you opened a business without paying any money to the mafia.
“There was no escape. They drove drug trafficking and were rich in money.
“There was a very deliberate campaign to kill in the 1990s. It was a declaration of war to show the state that the mafia was in power. “
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In 1992, less than a year before Alfonso joined the anti-mafia unit, the bloodshed was worse than usual. Two of the most famous anti-Mafia judges were murdered.
First, Judge Giovanni Falcone drove home from the airport – 300 kg of explosives were detonated in a drain running under the motorway.
The explosion killed him, his wife, and three members of his police escort.
Less than eight weeks later, Judge Paolo Borsellino and five members of his escort died in a car bomb near his mother’s Palermo home.
Mafia bosses from the Sicilian city of Corleone roasted the murders with champagne. In a matter of days, the government dispatched 5,000 military personnel to contain the threat.
Bombs went off everywhere – not just in the streets, but also in places that were of great importance to Italians, such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Alfonso reveals: “Once we stopped the explosion of 200 kg of explosives in the Tower of Pisa.”
But his new world brought with it a great loss of freedom. He was safe around the clock and always flanked by bodyguards.
He never lived a restless life in the same place for long, pushed from one hiding place to the next. Taps showed that the mafia was approaching him.
He says: “In a recording of a phone call between two mafiosi, a clear reference to me was given.
“They were talking about a red bowler hat with explosives and a timer. It was repayment because I had just sentenced the son of a Mafia boss to life imprisonment.
“Another time I found out that a rocket launcher was meant for me.
“I wasn’t worried about my life, but I did it for my wife back then. It was too risky. She moved to Milan with our daughter. It was so difficult for her that we eventually split up.
“At some point I had to hide in a castle in the mountains.”
He sent some of the most dangerous and cruel bosses in the Sicilian Mafia to prison. Among them was Leoluca Bagarella – called “il capo dei capi” (the chief of the chefs).
Bagarella headed the Corleonesi Mafia clan, a Sicilian faction that had murdered hundreds of people.
He was based on The Godfather and had music from the Marlon Brando film played at his wedding.
There was also Giovanni Brusca, known in Mafia circles as The Swine.
Alfonso said: “I made a list of all the people who have died for the Mafia since Brusca was 17. We started scrolling through the names and he said,” This, yes, this, no “.
“In total there were about 200 that he murdered.”
There were also those who died in massacres in whose conspiracy he was involved. At his 1997 trial, Brusca admitted to detonating the bomb that killed Falcone.
Somehow Alfonso managed to stay alive and is now working at the court of Naples – fighting the region’s Mafia-like Camorra.
He is the father of a five-month-old daughter and his partner Diana is also a judge. But while corpses may no longer line the streets, the mafia is still very much a presence
In January, 350 people were tried in the region of Calabria in the boot-shaped southern toe of Italy.
It is the largest and most important organized crime trial in over 30 years.
They came from the Ndrangheta clan – allegedly even more violent than their Sicilian brothers.
The four-year investigation that led to it involved gathering 15,000 pages of evidence and intercepting 24,000 hours of conversations through eavesdropping devices.
Charges include bullying, drug trafficking, extortion, loan shark, disclosure of official secrets and abuse of office – to name a few.
Alfonso says: “The mafia are much more closed now, but they still have a lot of money. We know so much more about their operations.
“The courts and the police are doing a great job. But when I speak to the younger generation in my country, I very much regret that I couldn’t give them a state without a mafia.
“I wanted to eradicate this tumor from our country. I tell them now it’s up to you. “
■ Walter Presents The Hunter, first episode on Channel 4, Sunday evening, 11 p.m., then complete box for Walter Presents / All 4