He looked like any other senior citizen with a prostate condition.
Wearing a sheepskin coat, winter cap and sunglasses, Andrea Bonafede arrived on Monday morning for bloodwork at a medical clinic in Palermo, Italy. He was being treated for a cancerous tumor.
But the police knew there was much more to this man — including his real identity, Matteo Messina Denaro: the most wanted fugitive in Italy.
“[Authorities] worked for a long time on the trail that led them to Matteo Messina Denaro,” author Giacomo Di Girolamo told The Post of the 60-year-old mob boss who had been on the lam since 1993. “They discovered he was ill and compiled a list of patients in Italy with colon cancer. When the name of the person due to visit the Palermo clinic did not match, they understood that it could be Denaro.”
Paramilitary police officers staked out the medical facility. At 8:30 a.m. on January 16, they saw the man whose face matched their digitally updated photo and pounced. Upon spotting the officers, Denaro reportedly appeared to consider bolting.
Then, realizing he was covered from all angles, Denaro — who once bragged about having “killed enough people to fill a cemetery” — decided to go easy. Asked his name, he replied truthfully.
“He did not even need to be handcuffed,” said Di Girolamo, who wrote a Denaro biography, “L’Invisible.”
According to multiple reports, when a crowd in the street recognized the notorious mobster in custody, they broke into applause and raised fists toward the sky.
“I thought he would never be caught,” Cyprien d’Haese, who directed “The World’s Most Wanted,” a Netflix documentary about Denaro, told The Post. “Seeing him between two policemen, it was like a dream.”
Taking no chances, police transferred Denaro to a secret location from which he’ll be shipped to a maximum-security prison outside of Sicily.
The three-decade hunt was so intense that even Italy’s journalists did what they could. One reporter created a photo depiction of Denaro as a woman. Di Girolamo called it “a journalistic provocation” that could have rattled Denaro and smoked him out.
At one point, police followed a lead that took them to New York City. “A few years ago, Denaro was searched for in a luxury hotel [there]. But it was a false lead,” said Di Girolamo. Although the Sicilian mafia “has always had great relations with New York,” there is no proof that Denaro was actually in the Big Apple.
A lifelong criminal and the son of a mafia boss in the province of Trapani in Sicily, Denaro is said to have committed his first murder on behalf of the mob at 14.
“Soon after, Denaro’s father ‘gave’ him to the godfather of godfathers, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina,” said d’Haese. “Riina had started a war inside the Cosa Nostra. He killed 3,000 people in several years. He was the most violent of all the godfathers. People say that the father of [Denaro] was not killed and to say thank you, he gave his son to Riina as somebody who would work for him. It was an offering — as if the father was a subject of the king.”
Riina was so vindictive that he once sent a hitman to America with the assignment to kill Rudy Giuliani. That was in the 1980s, when the mob boss was ticked off over Giuliani’s friendship with Palermo’s anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone. The hit was ultimately canceled over fears of blowback.
As to why Riina saw value in the young Denaro, d’Haese said, “He was a true Mafioso. He was smart and really believed in the Cosa Nostra. It was his life. Riina knew he could trust [Denaro] … He said to kill, and [Denaro] killed.”
At some point, Denaro picked up the nickname Diabolik — a popular Italian comic-book character portrayed as a murderous thief.
According to the Globe and Mail, Denaro owned a fleet of Porsches and wore flashy clothes and a Rolex. He also developed a reputation as a lady-killer, juggling a half-dozen girlfriends at a time.
“He once murdered a man because the man was interested in a woman that Denaro liked,” said d’Haese. “Usually in the mafia you do not kill somebody on the outside for personal reasons. Denaro didn’t care. He shot the guy while he was riding his motorcycle.”
Denaro specialized in extortion, drugs — he is said to have mastered the importation and distribution of heroin and cocaine — and crooked public contracts.
“If you wanted to run a business in Palermo, it went through the mafia,” said D’haese. “Later, he got into controlling online gambling.”
He also, reportedly, earned a fortune investing in wind farms and running a supermarket chain.
Denaro contributed to pulling off the murder of two anti-mafia judges and strangled a pregnant woman. His reign of terror amped up in 1993, after authorities tracked down and arrested Riina, who himself had spent 23 years on the run. Denaro allegedly played a key role in making sure there would be hell to pay for the pinch.
He and his blood-thirsty crew, according to d’Haese, “put bombs in Milan, Rome and Florence” — including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, a hit that left five people dead and destroyed paintings by Old Masters Giotto and Rubens. “They blew up national monuments and a museum. It was their way of saying, ‘We are so powerful. We can get anyone anywhere.’”
Maybe Denaro knew that the same could be applied to him. He went on the run in 1993 but gained control of the Cosa Nostra crime family sometime before 2007, when Riina’s successor Bernardo Provenzano was arrested.
“People say he does not have a nice life,” d’Haese told The Post in 2020 of Denaro. “He’s hiding, frightened, not having a good time.”
While Denaro is said to have kept up his habit of buying finely tailored suits and expensive watches, his life on the run sounds far from glamorous.
“If there was one guy living in a cave or basement to avoid detection, it is Denaro,” Thomas Zribi, executive producer of the Netflix doc, told The Post.
He also would have been dependent on favors and payouts. Di Girolamo wrote about Denaro buying freedom by greasing the palms of politicians: “He has a network of allies and is always on the move.”
As to where he moved, Di Girolamo told The Post, “He spent his time on the run in Western Sicily, in his [mafia] territory, because the mafia boss is only protected when he is in his territory.”
D’Haese figures that he would have been living on “small farms.” According to the Globe and Mail, Denaro communicated with his associates by leaving written messages on scraps of paper at one farm before he moved on to the next. There is even talk that Denaro traveled overseas for plastic surgery.
But things almost unraveled for Denaro when his penchant for romance got the better of him.
“He took so many risks to see his girlfriend Maria Mesi,” said d’Haese. “He was interested in her and she was in love with him. Her parents could do nothing about it. But the police found out and began shadowing Maria. It took the police months to realize that they met in a flat in front of her flat — his hideout was just a few feet away from where she lived.”
Cops staked out the apartments but never got Denaro. “They arrested the girl; she was jailed and she never betrayed him. But I don’t think they ever got back together. Denaro had other girls.”
Still, he never had much of a family life. According to Di Geralomo, Denaro is “the only Cosa Nostra boss not to be married but to have had an unmarried partner and even a daughter [out of wedlock].” Her whereabouts are unknown and, Di Geralomo added, “Over the years, he was increasingly ill and alone.”
He was also being drained of the power that once seemed to give him life.
Even as Denaro ran his criminal enterprise remotely, said d’Haese, “Everybody told us that he is a ghost. And when you are a ghost for 30 years, it’s difficult to say, ‘Hey, I am still the boss.’ In a way, that is the price he paid.”