NEW YORK — It was not long after the turn of the 20th century when Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino, the New York Police Department’s most effective weapon against organized crime, was sent to Italy to attack the problem’s roots.
He stayed in hotels under an assumed name and grew a beard to alter his appearance. But his reputation and purpose had preceded him.
On the day of his murder, March 12, 1909, Petrosino left his revolver in his hotel room. And as he waited for a trolley in downtown Palermo, Sicily, two assassins approached.
Four shots. Three bullet wounds. The only New York City police officer ever killed in the line of duty on foreign soil.
The killing would never be solved, the U.S. authorities said at the time. There was a code of silence, the “omerta.’’ No one would talk.
But on Monday, the Italian authorities said, someone finally did.
A 28-year-old man, Domenico Palazzotto, was heard on a police wiretap bragging to an associate that his great-uncle, Paolo Palazzotto, carried out the killing on behalf of a local mafia leader, Don Vito Cascio Ferro.
The claim, reported by the Italian news agency ANSA, was not included among the charges against the younger Palazzotto, who was among some 90 suspected members of the mafia arrested Monday in Palermo. Nor did it amount to proof of his elder’s responsibility.
What it showed, instead, was the lasting notoriety of the killing that holds currency in the criminal underworld 105 years later.
“That guy could just be running his mouth, thinking that if I say my family killed Joe Petrosino, that will give him some cred in the local prison or something,’’ said Joseph A. Petrosino, a grandnephew of the lieutenant and a retired Brooklyn prosecutor. “Obviously this guy has followed in the family tradition.’’
Then, reflecting on his own work in law enforcement and that of his son Joseph, a New York City detective, he added, “It’s a more honorable tradition, I think.’’
Giuseppe Petrosino left Padula, in the province of Salerno, Italy, for the United States as a boy and went by the name Joseph. He helped to transform the Police Department soon after joining in 1883. Known for being good with his fists, despite being 5-foot-3, he took on the organized crime that then plagued the city, catching cases involving crime in the Italian-American community.
His career intersected the lives of two presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, who as a New York City police commissioner promoted Petrosino to the top of the homicide division in 1895; and William McKinley, whose 1901 assassination Petrosino warned of.
He helped create the canine unit and the bomb squad, which grew out of what was then known as the Italian Squad.
“Who was throwing the bombs in those days?’’ said Thomas Reppetto, a historian of the Police Department who dedicated his book on the U.S. mafia to Giuseppe Petrosino. The answer, as Petrosino knew, was mostly anarchists and Black Hand extortionists, both largely made up of immigrants from Italy like himself.
So when the Police Department decided to send one officer to Italy to attack the crime problem in New York City at what it believed was the source, the choice of Petrosino was obvious.
When his body was returned to the city in a coffin, as many as 250,000 New Yorkers were said to have come to pay respects.
“He was a shining star,’’ said James C. Lisa, president of the Petrosino Association in America.