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Officials: New York FBI agents assist in Sicily mob bust with U.S. ties

An FBI agent and an Italian law enforcement

An FBI agent and an Italian law enforcement officer escort Thomas Gambino of Staten Island, after he was taken into custody in Palermo, Sicily, on Wednesday. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/ALESSANDRO FUCARINI

A joint operation in Sicily this week involving New York-based FBI agents led to the apprehension of 19 suspected American and Sicilian Mafia members and associates, including some in the extended family of slain Gambino crime boss Frank Cali, officials said.

In conjunction with Italian police, FBI agents Wednesday took into custody Thomas Gambino, 47, of Staten Island, and executed search warrants in the borough as well as in Philadelphia, an FBI spokeswoman said Thursday.

The joint law enforcement operation, dubbed “New Connection,” aimed at destabilizing efforts by the Sicilian Mafia and its American counterparts in the Gambino crime family in New York City to assume leadership of organized crime in Italy, officials said.

FBI officials wouldn’t disclose the nature of charges or search warrants executed in the United States.

“It is a significant operation with real [Mafia] people,” said a former FBI supervisor who asked not to be identified.

Italian officials and news reports said the charges include extortion, fraud and what was termed “unfair competition," as well as association with the Mafia, which is a crime under Italian law.

At a news conference in Sicily on Wednesday, Italian prosecutors disclosed that among those arrested were Salvatore Gambino, the mayor of a village outside of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, and Tommaso and Francesco Inzerillo, relatives of the Salvatore Inzerillo who was killed in a bloody Mafia purge in the 1980s. 

That period of Mafia warfare was instigated by the late Salvatore Riina, the key Mafia boss of that period and a sworn enemy of the Inzerillo family, according to crime historians.

The Sicilian Mafia needed help from the Gambino crime family and Inzerillo clan to reinvigorate its ranks and finances after years of law enforcement pressure and feuds, said Maurizio Catino, author, crime historian and visiting scholar in the Sociology Department at New York University,

“They are vital for the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, “ said Catino, also a professor of sociology at the University of Milano-Bicocca, referring to the Inzerillo clan. “The Gambino family and the Sicilians are trying to recreate the drug trafficking.”

Cali was related by marriage to the Inzerillo clan. Cali, shot to death outside his Staten Island home in March, was considered by law enforcement officials to be part of panel of three men of Sicilian ancestry running the Gambino crime family. The other two members of the panel were reputed Gambino captains Domenico Cefalù and Lorenzo Mannino, law enforcement officials have said.

Shortly after Cali's death, NYPD detectives arrested Anthony Comello, 24, on murder charges. Police theorized that Comello may have shot Cali over a dispute involving the mobster's niece. Thursday, Comello's defense attorney Robert Gottlieb, told Newsday his client plans to raise in court papers that he killed Cali in self-defense while attempting to make a citizen's arrest on him because of his perceived role as an organized crime figure involved in various offenses.

The court papers could be filed as early as Friday, Gottlieb said.

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