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Joseph Petrosino
NYPD Lieutenant Joseph Petrosinons.joepetrosino.org
Black Hand boss Vito Cascio Ferro
Black Hand's alleged boss Vito Cascio FerroWikicommons/United States Treasury Department

The mystery surrounding the murder of a pioneering US anti-mafia detective might finally have been solved, more than 100 years after he was shot dead in Sicily.

Italian police said that an alleged mobster has accidentally revealed the identity of the long-sought killer of New York detective Joseph Petrosino.

In a taped conversation underscoring the long-running, tight family ties that characterise Mafia clans, Domenico Palazzotto claimed it was his great-uncle who gunned down the NYPD Lieutenant in Palermo in 1909.

"My father's uncle, whose name was Paolo Palazzotto, was responsible for the first policeman killed in Palermo," Palazzotto was heard saying as he bragged about his family's criminal history with fellow mobsters.

"He killed Joe Petrosino, on behalf of Cascio Ferro".

Palazzotto was among 95 suspected Mafiosi held by Italian police in a massive operation codenamed Apocalypse. The tape transcript was included in the arrest warrant.

Petrosino was the first NYPD officer ever to be killed on foreign soil whilst on duty. He was shot four times by unknown attackers upon leaving a restaurant in central Palermo, where he was supposed to meet an informant.

The police lieutenant was in the Sicilian capital on a special mission to investigate criminal ties between Cosa Nostra and its increasingly powerful American counterpart, the Black Hand.

In particular, Petrosino was to collect evidence against Black Hand's alleged boss Vito Cascio Ferro, who had gone into hiding in his native Sicily after being acquitted from murder charges in the US a few years earlier.

Celebrity detective

Petrosino was a celebrity detective at the time of his dispatch to Sicily.

A tireless worker famous for his tough investigating methods, the Italian native had been extremely successful in fighting gangs of fellow Italian migrants responsible for a wave of violent crimes that hit New York at the beginning of the 20th century.

His knowledge of the Italian community and language had proved vital to police, since some 500,000 Italians lived in NYC at the time, more than in any other city in the world but Naples.

In 1908 then Police Commission Theodore Roosevelt had appointed him as the head of an all-Italian elite detective squad tasked with investigating the migrant underworld.

The squad's main target were indeed Vito Cascio Ferro and his Black Hand group, which, according to police, ran a series of trafficking rings and was responsible for many murders.

Its members had also been accused of blackmailing the world famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, demanding money in exchange of his life.

Paolo Palazzotto was among the members of the Black Hand who were arrested by the Italian squad and deported back to Italy.

In February 1909 Petrosino decided to travel to Sicily to collect evidence against Cascio Ferro, despite being advised against it over fears for his safety.

Although his mission was supposed to be secret, details had been published in the American press a few days prior to his departure.

Two days after his murder the New York Times wrote that the American ambassador warned Petrosino about the risks of his trip, but the detective "smiled, as a man feeling sure of himself who did not mind the danger."

More than 200,000 people showed up to pay tribute to the policeman at his funerals in New York.

Cascio Ferro was eventually accused of having ordered the murder but was acquitted due to lack of evidence. He was arrested on separate murder charges in May 1925, and died in a Palermo jail 20 years later.