Clouds of condensed breath float in the darkness, backlit by the headlights of a parked van.
The wet asphalt is of a ‘hazy shade of winter’, to quote the latest single by The Bangles, blaring from a Fiat ‘Ritmo’, idling nearby.
The van’s back doors are flung open, as a team of four men load it with a precious cargo: bulging bags of cash, the proceeds from a nearby supermarket.
The men in the ‘Ritmo’ and in the van are anxious to get their job done. It’s almost 8:30pm, time to get home and enjoy a quiet evening after another gruelling shift with their security company.
These private guards are well-trained professionals, but tonight they have failed to spot a suspicious package, placed under a bench, a few metres away from them.
The security officers are about to close the van doors, when a loud blast tears the fabric of the night.
The bench is annihilated, and a wave of fire, incandescent air, wooden splinters and metal shrapnel surges towards the van.
The guards are knocked to the ground. Stunned, wounded.
Five men emerge from the shadows, wielding sawn-off shotguns, assault rifles and large calibre handguns. They open fire against the dazed men of the security detail, the last defence before they can grab the hoard of cash.
But the guards are not defeated yet.
They reach for their pump-action rifles and handguns, and a firefight ensues.
A gun battle outside a supermarket, in the most placid of suburbias.
Just when the News on TV are almost over, and the last commuters are returning home.
One of these passers-by is no ordinary citizen. He is a an off-duty police officer and he immediately recognizes the loud blast of semi-automatic weapons.
Drawing his Beretta service pistol, he rushes towards the supermarket, firing three shots towards the robbers.
Facing fire from two fronts, the assailants run back to their car. The roar of the engine and the screeching tires fade into the sound of the incoming sirens.
Two of the guards are lightly wounded. Another one will have to spend the day in hospital but will make it through.
The fourth one, aged only 26, dies on the spot, with his jugular pierced by an unforgiving round. He had just become father to a baby girl.
In the meanwhile, the gang are disappearing through the dimly lit backstreets of the city, pressed into their stolen getaway car.
They are all in one piece, but they are empty handed.
Their action may appear as a failure.
But what if they measured success not in stolen cash … but in terms of spilt blood, filled body bags and blasts of adrenaline to their brains?
At this stage, and for much of this account, this lethal outfit will remain an amorphous, bi-dimensional conglomerate of shadows, limbs and cold hatred – sporadically illuminated by muzzle flashes.
But even in the darkest of nights, allow me to imagine one revealing detail: a human pupil dilating beyond its natural boundaries.
Overcome, and delighted by another fix of natural epinephrine.
This is what happened in Bologna, Northern Italy, on the 19th of February 1988.
And this is what happened many more times, before and after.
This is the story of the ‘White Uno Gang’.
A STATE OF RELATIVE PEACE
Listeners or viewers outside of Italy may not be familiar with this story, so let me give you some basics.
Active from June 1987 to November 1994, the ‘White Uno Gang’ committed 103 crimes, leaving 24 dead and 102 wounded in their wake.
These crimes included standard robberies to supermarkets, banks, and post offices, as well as seemingly random attacks on ethnic minorities or police forces – when there wasn’t anything to gain!
For their actions the bandits always used stolen cars, preferably FIATs and Alfa Romeos. They drove a Fiat ‘Uno’ of white colour only in 16 occasions, but the press picked up on that detail and bestowed this lasting moniker.
Now, as Italy is mentioned in this show, Jen may be tempted to treat listeners with a cheerful mandolin tune to underscore the geographic location.
I hope Jen will forgive me if I point out that in this case it would be inappropriate, as that tune may be more suited to story set in the southern half of ‘the boot’.
But today’s criminal epic takes place in and around the city of Bologna, almost 400km or 250 miles North of Rome.
This fair city was, and is, renowned for its University, its medieval architecture, its art, culture and cuisine. People from Bologna are generally a good-natured, cheerful and altruistic bunch.
Sure, the fact that my grandma hailed from this city may not make me the most impartial of judges … but it is a generally accepted fact by other Italians that the Bolognesi are a hard-working people with a hedonistic streak.
Bologna is still known as the
“City of the three ‘T’s”.
Which stand for:
Towers – a symbol for art and industry.
Tortellini – that’s the food!
And … Tits.
Not very PC, I know. But that’s how the slogan goes.
But even the most glowing Utopia can have its dark corners, and even the capital of the three T’s had been scarred by waves of violence, mainly politically motivated.
This culminated on the 2nd of August 1980, when Bologna’s train station was targeted by a far-right terrFup, the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei – or NAR. They planted 23kg of explosives, which detonated at exactly 10:25am, claiming 85 victims and more than 200 wounded.
But since then, Bologna and the surrounding region, Emilia-Romagna, returned to a state of relative peace.
A HIGHER LEVEL OF CARNAGE
The lull in violence lasted 7 years, until our nefarious protagonists entered the scene.
And I call them ‘protagonists’ even though at the time they were still nobodies.
From the 19th of June to the 5th of September 1987, a group of armed robbers assaulted 12 toll booths on the A14 motorway, which linked Bologna to the Adriatic coast.
Younger UK listeners may not be familiar with the concept of a ‘toll booth’, but in many European countries you were – and are – still required to pay a toll when entering a national highway.
Now it’s all contactless and automated payments. But in the 1980s my dad still had to lift the right cheek from the driver seat, extract his wallet with much grunting, and hand over some thousand liras to the bored booth attendant.
Which would inevitably complain that he didn’t have the change, and so we all had to hastily count all the loose coins in our pockets, while the menacing lorry driver behind us was already blasting his horn.
It is understandable how these booths could make for an enticing objective for some newbie thieves.
They were rife with cash, undefended, and gave access to a fast escape route.
The overall booty from the 12 heists was satisfying, but not head-spinning.
A total of 38 Million Liras, which corresponded to 28,000 USD back in 1987. That’s an average of barely 2,400 bucks per heist.
I should point out that violence was seldom used during these actions, with only one person being wounded overall.
Soon, though, the culprits would graduate to a higher level of carnage.
It is a Saturday, the 3rd of October 1987.
We are in Rimini, a seaside town some 120 km – or 75 miles – South-East of Bologna.
Mr Grossi is driving to an appointment just outside town.
This is neither business, nor pleasure. Mr Grossi has received a clear message: pay us a 30 million Liras or we’ll blow up your car dealership.
But Mr Grossi is not one to be intimidated. As soon as he had received the message, he had notified the Police HQ in Rimini.
As he is driving towards the rendezvous, he is nervous but reassured by the presence of an escort of plainclothes police officers. One of them is even hiding in the trunk of his car.
But everything goes as wrong as possible, as fast as possible.
Grossi and the escort car are approaching the established meeting point, underneath a flyover.
Just as they are slowing down, three or four gunmen lay out of barrage of fire from the road bridge above.
A policewoman, Ada Di Campi, has her knee blown apart by buckshot.
Her colleague Luigi Cenci collapses, his lung pierced by another bullet.
Sergeant Mosca also collapses on the front seat. Blood spatters over his partner and friend Luciano Baglioni
[Sounds like ‘Lou – cha – know Bah-ly oh-knee]
The attack is too sudden, too ruthless for the police to fight back.
This is not an extortion deal gone wrong.
This is an ambush, conducted with military discipline. And the gunmen are already gone.
Di Campi and Cenci will survive, but Mosca will never recover from his wounds, and will die two years later.
Sergeant Baglioni suffered from PTSD after the attack and considered leaving the force. But he soldiered on instead, motivated to catch those who had mauled his squad.
Keep Baglioni in mind, as we’ll meet him again.
The attack against the police was a landmark action.
From the following month the gang became more specialized and more violent. They focused on specific targets, mainly the ubiquitous supermarkets of the ‘Co-op’ franchise.
This is when the press gave them their first moniker: the ‘Gang of the Co-ops’.
Their first assault on a supermarket, on the 21st of November 1987, yielded 78 Million liras in cash – some 57,000 USD.
The second one took place on Saturday, the 30th of January 1988 at 6pm.
The supermarket is bursting with customers and eyewitnesses, but the brazen robbers couldn’t care less.
They have been tailing two private guards, charged with collecting the proceeds of the day.
The guards park their Opel outside the supermarket and walk in to collect the money. As soon as they step out and drop a bag full of cash inside the car, two men, faces covered with scarves, move on the attack.
A hail of buckshot erupts from their sawn-off pump action rifles, leaving the two guards and three passers-by bleeding on the ground. One of the guards will die on the way to the hospital. The other four targets, including a nine-year old girl, are severely wounded.
The assailants grab a bag from the Opel, run back to their Fiat and vanish once more. It will turn out that the sack they had seized was completely empty!
This robbery proceeded by a few days the one I described at the beginning.
So, two consecutive violent heists have turned out to be fruitless.
Well, at least in terms of Liras, that is.
But is money really all that matters?
Police forces were stumbling in the dark. At this stage it was clear that the same gang had been responsible for targeting the Co-ops, but they were yet to link those heists with the other crimes perpetrated.
It later emerged that the bandits knew their trade quite well.
They always moved about with stolen cars, white Fiat Unos or other inconspicuous models which would blend against the background of daily traffic.
They almost never used the same firearm twice in a row, and they took care to file the firing pins, so as not to leave recognisable marks on the bullet casings.
Even if witnesses were present, the robbers covered their faces to avoid identification. And they had an uncanny ability to disappear through backstreets and shortcuts, avoiding roadblocks and patrols, before abandoning their stolen cars.
Moreover, the sudden and apparently irrational violence of their attacks had led many prosecutors to believe that a terrorist outfit was behind these crimes.
After all, Italy was still trudging through its ‘years of lead’: more than two decades of violence during which far-left and far-right terrorists sowed fear amongst the population, murdering civilians, politicians, journalists and policemen alike. Or, in many cases, committing robberies to fund their struggle.
All authorities could do was intensify the presence of patrols in the streets, spot-checking suspicious cars in the hope of a breakthrough.
This takes us to the evening of the 20th of April, 1988.
Officers Erriu and Stasi are manning one of these roadblocks, just 9 km – or 6 miles – north of Bologna.
They belong to the Carabinieri, one of the two main police forces in Italy.
Similar to the French Gendarmerie, this is a military corps sharing many duties with the State Police.
Even though they are much respected, Italians like to make fun of the Carabinieri, always portrayed as terminally dumb in our jokes. And they are often contrasted to the ‘standard’ State Police, with which they have a supposed rivalry.
Having served with the Carabinieri for one year as part of my national service, I can testify that the rivalry is actually mutual admiration. And that even though I wasn’t particularly brilliant in my simple duties, my colleagues were overall smart and competent.
But let me get back to Erriu and Stasi.
They are 24 and 22 respectively.
It’s been too long since the last time I have been in my twenties, but it’s difficult to forget the feelings and impressions left from that wonderful age.
What seems to linger are the sounds, smells and tastes of the best moments, when you are out and about with your mates.
The clink of the ice cubes in your tall glass, the first swig of an ice-cold beer, the sweet scent of her hair as she finally draws closer.
That’s what you should feel when you are twenty.
But what Erriu and Stasi are about to experience are the sinister rattle of bullet casings hitting the asphalt, the taste of blood surging through the mouth, the acrid stench of cordite.
While on duty, they flag a random car.
It’s a Fiat Uno.
Even before they can ask the occupants to produce their IDs, the two men inside whip out their large calibre handguns and open fire.
Stasi raises his Beretta, but a round hits his hand, sending the gun flying to the floor.
Three or four more shots reach their target, and the two Carabinieri slump to the ground.
After some seconds of silence, the two gangsters fire seven or eight more times, at close distance. A cruel coup de grace, to ensure the two young men will never rise again.
Coolly, the two murderers climb into their Fiat and speed northwards.
The slaying of the two young officers was followed by several minor heists, thankfully bloodless.
But the worst was just one Co-op market away.
Until now the gang had fired only against people who could pose a threat, who stood between them and their goals: lawmen and private guards.
Civilians had been ‘collateral victims’.
And that was about to change, on the 26th of June 1989.
I will ask you now to picture Mr Alessandrini.
He is 53. He has retired early, due to a heart condition. His son is due to marry in a few days, and this proud dad is cycling back home.
It’s 10pm, a warm and pleasant evening in Bologna.
But then, the fragrant air is violated by those sounds the Bolognesi have grown to hate.
A series of shots followed by an explosion.
The groan of wounded men on the ground.
Mr Alessandrini knows that there is a Co-op just round the corner.
And he reads the papers!
He knows exactly what is going on.
A group of armed men, carrying a large bag, turns the corner and runs past him.
It is them, the gang, of course, running to their getaway car.
The 53-year-old cannot help himself. He may not be an action hero, but he has to reprimand these never-do-wells!
‘You scoundrels! What are you doing?’
Hardly a threat, but that’s all it takes.
One of the gang stops in his tracks and heads towards him. He slams Alessandrini to the ground and shouts.
‘You must die!’
A second bandit approaches and fires a burst from his sub-machine gun.
That’s all it takes to die, a few steps away from home, a few days before your son’s wedding.
And that’s all it takes for the gang … to stop. To stop giving a f*ck.
To stop giving a f*ck about consequences, about necessary or unnecessary force to achieve what is their apparent goal.
That sweet adrenaline nectar and that feeling of all-mightiness brought about by the Goddess Gun used to be the lingering, pleasurable by-products of the heists, the shoot-outs, the get-aways.
But now they have taken over: they are the main driving force behind the brains and the hands of the gang.
This is when darkness doubled – the turning point, when their exercise of violence became increasingly futile and self-fulfilling.
The next big hit of the gang would prove how dead set they were on spreading terror.
On the 15th of January 1990, a tall man wearing a balaclava storms inside a post office in Bologna.
“Nobody move, this is a robbery!”
And he fires twice in the air.
The post office is crowded by some 70 senior citizens, queueing to collect their pension.
As they all dive to the floor, two more robbers walk calmly in and place a cylindrical makeshift bomb by the safe. Then, all three gangsters run outside the office, quickly followed by a powerful deflagration.
Amidst a cloud of dust and plaster flakes the three black-clad figures return to complete the heist.
But the safe has withstood the explosion. The gang scoops up a few million liras from the cashier desk and leaves the scene. They cover their getaway by detonating a second explosive device and laying suppressive fire against nearby shops.
The whole action has lasted barely two minutes but has left 45 wounded on the ground. One of them will lose both legs, and one year later will die from his injuries.
The gang then laid low for several months. During Winter, Spring and Summer their guns stood silent.
But as leaves started to wither and fall, death returned to the streets of Bologna.
Between the 6th of October and the 27th of December 1990 five more bodies dropped to the ground. Three of the victims were felled simply for bearing witness to small time robberies, against a grocery store and a petrol station.
But in the case of the other two victims, the motive appeared to be senseless violence.
It’s the morning of the 23rd of December, and a group of Romani travellers are camped in the outskirts of Bologna.
The night has been freezing cold, and the nomadic community is huddled by a bonfire. An old lady notices two men, who have just climbed out of two white compact cars.
As she will later state:
“I called them so they could warm themselves. The fire is everybody’s”
But the two just look at her. They laugh. And then the bullets fly.
A man and a woman die instantly. Two more bystanders are left severely wounded, one of them a six-year-old girl. As per a recurring script, the whole attack lasts barely seconds, and then the white cars have vanished.
This time they haven’t even tried to steal anything, and the only explanation ventured by the press is racial hatred towards the Romani community.
Notably, it was after this string of attacks that newspapers first referred to the assassins as the ‘White Uno Gang’.
This is when journalists, police forces and ordinary citizens started piercing together the fact that most of the violent events that had gripped Bologna and the surrounding region could be ascribed to a single malevolent entity, a force of nature, driven by obscure motives, appearing out of nowhere to sow chaos.
The Mayor of Bologna, Mr Imbeni, speculated they were terrorists. Probably of the far-right inclination, who wanted to punish his city, historically governed by left-wing administrations.
The Chief Commissioner, Mr Cannarozzi
[Kahn na raw tsee]
followed another lead, believing the White Uno gangsters to be ordinary criminals.
But only a few days later, they would prove they were anything but ordinary.
WAR ON THE STATE
Night has fallen again over Bologna, and a thick fog shoruds the Pilastro district,
an area riddled with violence, drug dealers and petty criminals.
It’s the 4th of January 1991, and three young men are cruising in their dark blue Fiat. Otello, Andrea and Mauro are all 21, in the prime of their life.
But tonight, they are on duty: they are Carabinieri on patrol.
Shortly before 10pm, they drive past a white car.
It’s a white Fiat Uno.
Otello is at the wheel. After taking over the Uno, he slows down. Is he suspicious? Is he about to radio in the license plate number? Nobody will ever know.
A short man leans out of the Uno, brandishing an assaults rifle. He lets out a burst, and Otello is mortally wounded.
But the young officer continues driving in his last waking minutes, speeding off to take his mates out of danger. In a reversal of roles, the robbers now chase the cops through the streets of Pilastro, until Otello lets go of his life, and the patrol car crashes against a row of rubbish bins.
The White Uno screeches to a halt.
The three occupants climb out, take position behind their car and release volley after volley.
Andrea and Mauro are wounded, but put up a fight. They also take position and fire back with their Beretta M12 sub-machineguns.
The shortest of the three assailants is lightly wounded in the stomach and slumps to the ground. And that’s probably the last thing that Andrea and Mauro will ever see.
All three Carabinieri are down and the guns fall silent for a few seconds.
Then, two of the gangsters calmly walk down to them. They place the muzzle of their .357 handguns against the back of the officers’ head and fire the last shots.
The Pilastro massacre was an outrage that could not be left unpunished.
Police forces and security services reacted swiftly, but with little coordination.
The terrorist hypothesis emerged once again, as a far-right faction, the “Armed Phalanx” claimed responsibility for the deed. But this group was widely considered unreliable, little more than phone pranksters, all talk and no action.
You see, ‘serious’ terrorists normally asserted ownership for their actions by phoning authorities or the press long before the media had made them public.
While the ‘Phalanx’ issued their claims only after the crimes had been announced on the news on TV!
The secret services chipped in on the investigation, placing their bets on the drug trade. They issued a memo to the Bologna police, advising them that the Pilastro culprits were six Romani of Slavic origin, implicated in a gang war to control the illicit drug market in the area.
But this trail proved to be a dead end.
From their side, the Carabinieri followed two leads.
On one hand, they launched a manhunt for a mysterious, military-trained killer, also part of a drug dealing ring. Apparently, this assassin was on a personal vendetta against the Carabinieri, guilty of cracking down on the Pilastro drug dealers.
On the other hand, an elite undercover unit raided the hide out of a far-right extremist group, suspected of being linked to the massacre.
Both enquiries were inconclusive.
Only the State Police seemed to be on the right track.
Their Special Operations Division had tracked down an eye-witness, Simonetta Bersani, who identified one of the shooters as Peter Santagata, a career criminal.
After a lengthy investigation, on the 20th of June 1992 the police arrested Peter, his brother William and a third suspect, Marco Medda.
Medda was a member of the ‘Camorra’, the equivalent of the Mafia for the Naples area. And he wasn’t just any rank-and-file member, he had been the right-arm man to Raffaele Cutolo, one of the most powerful bosses of the organisation!
These initial arrests were followed by a massive operation, leading to the round-up of 191 suspects in the Pilastro district. By pulling at that thread, authorities believed they had identified a ‘Fifth Mafia’, a powerful organisation to rival the traditional four crime syndicates from the Italian South: the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta and the ‘United Sacred Crown’.
It looked like the State had finally won.
But had they?
I am sorry to throw in a spoiler at this stage, but while the Santagatas and Medda were no saints, it much later emerged that they had nothing to do neither with the Pilastro massacre, nor with the White Uno in general!
While the investigations and trials against them were still ongoing, the real bandits went for a brief period of hibernation, soon to be followed by more seasons in the abyss.
On the 20th of April they assaulted a petrol station in Borgo Panigale, a district of Bologna known as the home of Ducati motorcycles. Another heist, another victim: the 50-year-old station attendant.
On the 2nd of May, the White Uno killers stole two Berettas from a gun shop, murdering the two shop assistants.
On the 19th of June, they shot dead the owner of another gas station.
On the 18th of August, they shifted their operations on the Adriatic coast, for an unprovoked and apparently racially motivated attack. Dark muzzles protruded from a White Uno, unleashing fire against three Senegalese factory workers. Two of them, Ndiaj Malik and Babou Chejkh, died on the spot.
After a hiatus of some months, it was time for the bandits to enter yet another phase.
Leaving behind supermarkets and petrol stations, they graduated to robbing banks. From 1992 to 1994 they assaulted 14 banks, spanning the entire area between Bologna and the Adriatic coast.
During this phase they became increasingly efficiently and somehow less blood-thirsty, leaving ‘only’ three bodies on the ground. But one of these killings was particularly cruel.
On the 24th of February 1993, while getting away from a heist, the gang ditched their stolen Fiat to board another vehicle. It was then that they noticed they were not alone.
A 21-year-old man, Massimiliano Valenti, had witnessed their movements and was taking note of the license plate.
A brave action from an upstanding citizen – but essentially futile.
Also the second vehicle was stolen, and destined to be abandoned or burnt.
And yet, the gang decided to complicate their own escape plans. They screeched to a halt, drove back, and kidnapped Massimiliano at gun point.
The young man was taken to an isolated location and forced on his knees. His indiscretion was punished with a veritable execution: a gunshot to the back of the head.
This method of dispatching a witness was – and is still – considered a trademark of Cosa Nostra.
But during this period, prosecutors and journalists started to consider a rumour which would have placed the White Uno in a completely different environment.
The rumour may have been sparked by a hunch from Senator Gualtieri, president of the parliamentary commission on terrorist attacks. When discussing the White Uno gang, he commented:
“These guys wear the stars”
This phrase references the small star-shaped pins which Italian military personnel wear on the collar of their uniforms.
A journalist from Bologna, Carlo Lucarelli, discussed this with some policeman friends.
And they all agreed the idea had some legs … the gangsters may have belonged to the military!
Or be part of the police forces themselves!
The shooters displayed a marksmanship, discipline and speed compatible with military squad tactics, at that time part of police training.
The gang appeared to have extensive knowledge of escape routes and knew how to avoid the roads most patrolled by the police.
Finally, some of their heists appeared to be timed with the shifts of uniformed officers. In other words: some cops may be clocking off, quickly changing into civilian clothes and then switch to the other side of the law.
Lucarelli happened to be also a popular author of mystery novels. Drawing inspiration from this hunch and the unlikely involvement of domestic terror, he wrote his next successful novel: ‘Armed Phalanx’, published in 1993.
In this piece of fiction, a shady criminology professor leads a cabal of neo-Nazis and police officers into committing violent attacks against immigrants.
In the novel, the case is solved by a ‘lone wolf’, the clumsy yet brave Sergeant Coliandro.
[Koh Lee Andro]
In real life, investigations were hindered by the presence of too many wolves.
Let me explain.
In Italy, enquiries are conducted in the field by the State Police and/or the Carabinieri. But the high-level coordination rests with the public prosecutor’s office.
Each city or province has its own office, with authority to proactively kick off investigations.
When a string of crimes is committed across several provinces, as in this case, each prosecutor office is free to lead their own investigation, with little or no coordination with their colleagues in the next town.
This approach changed in January of 1994, when a new, young prosecutor, Mr Daniele Paci,
took charge of the case.
He obtained permission from his superiors to create a special ‘pool’ or squad of policemen, Carabinieri and other state attorneys, to gather and review evidence across all territories involved.
Paci had a valuable asset at his disposal: former sergeants, now Inspector, Luciano Baglioni.
Remember him? The one who had lost a friend in the extortion operation.
Baglioni and his deputy, Sergeant Costanza, followed some key investigative principles, based on razor-like simplicity.
First: identify to which category of criminals could the gang belong to.
Were they terrorists? They discarded this line of enquiry. Terrorists always laid claim to their actions. The only faction to do so had been the laughable Armed Phalanx.
Could they be part of a larger criminal organisation?
Baglioni and Costanza grilled their extensive network of informants in the criminal underworld, and the reply they got was consistent. The local large cartels had nothing to do with the White Uno. In fact, they were p*ssed off that those newbies had been attracting so much media and police attention lately, making life harder for everybody!
Ok, then. How about the ‘rotten cop’ theory?
The two detectives preferred to focus on a similar trail: disgruntled former cops, who may have been kicked out of the force.
Before their enquiries could lead anywhere, the ‘pool’ led by Mr Paci was disbanded for lack of resources.
But Baglioni and Costanza received authorisation by Paci to continue investigating on their own.
The lone wolves had jumped off the page and into real life.
Two officers with very limited resources could not follow every faint trial, every unlikely line of enquiry.
Again, they went for focus and simplicity.
They had worked out the gang’s MO when assaulting banks.
The robbers always went for small affiliates, with no security personnel. The offices were located on or near thoroughfares and featured a security exit with a panic handle. These characteristics allowed the gang to enter the bank and then leave the area as quickly as possible.
These choices implied that the gang stalked potential targets for days before staging a heist.
So, cops Baglioni and Costanza decided to play robbers.
They made a list of banks with the recurring characteristics within the Rimini province, over which they had jurisdiction.
Then, they spent all their work time – and most of the spare time – lurking outside these banks, just as the gang would. Sooner or later, they would spot suspicious activity.
They always carried with them, in their pockets and in their memories, the only known image of a gang member. It was a frame captured by CCTV during one of the later bank jobs. The image was only partially clear, but it showed a recognisable face: a tall man with glasses and a protruding jawbone. Inspector Baglioni dubbed him ‘Mr Big Jaw’.
Days and weeks of crushing boredom finally paid off.
On the 3rd of November 1994 Baglioni and Costanza were parked outside a bank in the Santa Giustina district of Rimini, when they spotted a Fiat Tipo. What made it suspicious was its licence plate: it was partially covered in dirt and mud, enough to make it illegible.
The Tipo lingered around the bank for a while, before driving off. Baglioni and Costanza followed it at a safe distance through winding country roads, until they reached the village of Torriana, not far from the microstate of San Marino.
There, they saw as the driver parked the Tipo and entered a small flat. But they still could not see the face of the mystery man.
Badge in hand, they visited the local registry office and asked the clerk to produce any documents related to the flat’s occupier.
It was one Mr Fabio Savi, owner of a body shop.
Unfortunately, the registry did not hold a copy of the man’s ID. But hold on! He had recently requested a fishing permit. And here was a copy of his photo ID.
Baglioni later admitted having goosebumps, as he stared down at the ordinary, bespectacled face of Mr Savi.
It was him.
They had found Big Jaw!
Years of stunted, dead-end enquiries unravelled at surprising speed.
Baglioni and Costanza immediately requested authorisation from Mr Paci to place surveillance on Savi. By trailing him and wiretapping his phone, they discovered that he and an accomplice were planning a large heist against a bank in Ravenna, 63 km or 40 miles north of Torriana.
It turned out that this accomplice was more than just a ‘colleague’ in crime, it was Fabio Savi’s older brother, Roberto.
The two were too smart not to realise that the police were following them, and so they decided to call off the robbery.
Fabio got even colder feet. He returned to Torriana, packed up his bags and left with his mistress, Romanian national Eva Mikula.
Young, blonde and attractive, Eva may have been a stereotypical gangster’s moll, straight out of a novel of Mr Lucarelli. Fabio had met her while holidaying in Hungary and was so smitten with her to abandon his wife.
Their relationship had been largely dysfunctional, marked by repeated physical abuse. Even on this occasion, Eva could do nothing but abide to the wishes of his partner, and followed him in his escape attempt.
The two tried to shake off the police off their trail, first traveling to Milan, then to Mestre, near Venice, and finally heading towards the border with Austria. But it was all futile: the police arrested them on the 24th of November, just a few km short of the border.
In the meanwhile, Roberto had also been seized. While at work, some colleagues had lured him out of his office with an excuse, and then pounced on him.
Some pretty brave office workers, you may say.
But I should point out that Roberto was no ordinary pencil pusher.
He was a seasoned police officer, having clocked 18 years with the Bologna HQ!
That was the big reveal, or if you like the big confirmation of the hunch shared by Senator Gualtieri and Lucarelli the crime writer.
Roberto Savi was known to his colleagues as a stern, taciturn, introvert, but overall effective cop. A tad too violent perhaps. Once, while on patrol he had physically abused a suspect, completely shaving his hair.
As a result of that incident, he had been relegated to a desk job. He oversaw the operations centre, coordinating the activities of patrol cars and answering calls to the ‘113’, Italy’s equivalent of the 999 or 911.
And that explained a lot!
That’s how the gang always knew which roads were the less patrolled, that’s how they could avoid police roadblocks.
Costanza and Baglioni’s squad raided Roberto Savi’s garage, and there they found a military-grade arsenal: sub-machine guns, assault rifles, handguns, even explosives. Surprisingly, all weapons appeared to have been regularly purchased and declared to the authorities.
Prosecutors set to work, interrogating the Savi boys and Eva Mikula. The put-upon mistress was a treasure trove of information, which helped identify the remaining members of the gang.
Another Savi brother, the youngest: Alberto. Profession: policeman at the Rimini police station. In other words: he had occasionally worked side by side with Baglioni!
And then: Pietro Gugliotta. Policeman.
[Goo lee ottah]
Marino Occhipinti. Policeman.
[Oh key pin tee]
Luca Vallicelli. Policeman.
[Vallee chel lee]
All three Savi boys were sentenced to life.
Gugliotta was sentenced to 14 years and was released in 2008.
Occhipinti received life, but was released in 2018 on good conduct.
Vallicelli, who never participated in a murder, was freed after 3 years and 8 months.
The outcome of the investigations and subsequent trials left Bologna and Italy as a whole in shock. Uniformed officers, sworn to serve and protect citizens had turned to heinous crime.
No one was as shocked as the father of the Savi boys, however. Mr Giuliano Savi was a stern and authoritarian figure, who liked to collect arms and was a strong proponent of law and order.
A disciplinarian father, he was however dead proud of his boys, especially those who had joined the police. Actually, also Fabio had tried to enrol, but was discarded due to his poor eyesight.
Overcome by guilt and shame, on the 29th of March 1998, Mr Savi sat in a White Uno not far from Rimini and swallowed the contents of seven boxes of lorazepam, a strong benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety and insomnia.
Allow me to consider him the last victim of the White Uno gang.
But what could have turned those otherwise respectable guardians of the law – and a body shop mechanic – into killing machines?
The three Savi boys gave a very plain answer: money.
By early 1987 Roberto was struggling to pay his mortgage. Fabio’s body shop business was going under. While Alberto had a long-distance relationship and could not afford the fuel to go and see his girlfriend.
It was Roberto who first joked they supplement their income with heists, a joke which gradually turned more and more serious.
Throughout their criminal career, Roberto remained the lead, the brains of the operation, present at every action.
Fabio was the second-in-command, also always present. He was the ‘point man’, the first to go in, the first to attack, the first to shoot.
Alberto and the other three were occasional members, joining only for certain crimes.
Their criminal CV could be roughly split in three stages: the toll-booths, the Co-ops and the banks.
It is easy to see a progression there: as the gang acquired skills and confidence, they selected more profitable targets.
The overall loot from their robberies was around 2.5 Billion Liras, which was about 2 million USD in 1990 money. Divide that by 7 years of activity, by 6 gang members, and you get an individual booty of roughly 50K USD per year.
Which is a respectable salary – but I wonder: if I were in the same situation would I risk my life, the life of my brother, and the life of many innocent victims for that kind of money?
If I needed a side hustle would I go ‘full White Uno’? Or I could, I don’t know, write articles for a certain bearded content creator. Sure, both lifestyle choices would end up with incarceration in a basement, but at least I would have a clean conscience.
These same questions about motives were posed to Fabio Savi in January 2001 by Mrs Franca Leosini, a legend of Italian crime journalism.
Leosini stages lengthy interviews with the worst that humanity has to offer, which she conducts with the demeanour of a headmistress trying to figure out the troublesome kid in her school.
In the interview, Savi drones on matter-of-factly about his criminal career, displaying some remorse, zero passion and even less charisma.
Fabio stated once more that the reason for the White Uno crimes was money and nothing else. When asked about the killings, he replied that the murders were needed to remove ‘obstacles’ and reach the gang’s end: grabbing the cash.
And what about the attacks against the Romani and the Senegalese workers?
Savi initially stated that those actions were intended to mislead authorities. At the time, some criminals at Pilastro had been randomly attacking nomadic communities, and the plan of the Savis was to link their heists to that other gang.
But in other parts of the interview he slipped, admitting that they shot the Senegalese because they simply
‘didn’t like them. They were drunk and annoying’.
When pressed further, he conceded that the gang was not just after money. But after increasingly heightened emotions. They were in for the thrill, for the adrenaline of storming in, shooting down ‘obstacles’ and get the hell out.
Eventually, Fabio revealed that he and Roberto gradually slipped into a pattern, where rationality was shut down and the need to kill took over.
To quote Spanish painter Francisco Goya
“The sleep of reason produces monsters”
Hence the question mark in this episode’s title. Were the White Uno gangsters, and Roberto and Fabio, ordinary violent robbers, or became serial killers along the way?
There is another interpretation, of course: the lingering suspect that the gang were part of a larger terrorist outfit, charged with striking at citizens and representatives of the institutions.
At the time of their arrest, some journalists speculated that the Savis were part of Gladio. This was a secret Stay Behind Organisation, created in the 1950s by the Italian secret services under the auspices of NATO. Gladio and other equivalent networks across Europe were essentially sleeper cells of armed citizens, charged with launching guerrilla attacks against a potential Soviet invasion.
As the Red Army never invaded Western Europe, authors such as Daniele Ganser speculated that Gladio was used to launch false flag attacks and drive public opinion to support a right-wing, authoritarian government.
I should point out that the Savis were never part of Gladio, and that this Italian ‘Stay Behind’ has been cleared of such allegations.
More recently, magistrate Giovanni Spinosa has theorised that the ‘Armed Phalanx’ group was not a bunch of mythomaniacs, but a legit far-right faction who manipulated the White Uno gang to stage their dirty work.
Again, nothing was proven to that effect.
All these theories stem from a state of mind known to all Italians as
[Dee etro law gee ah]
Which could be translated as
Or the drive to understand what’s behind apparent truth. What conspiracies and cabals are lurking at the back of the official versions propagated by the press and the government.
Was there a larger conspiracy behind the Savi brothers and their acolytes?
When Fabio was asked what was behind, or at the back, of the White Uno, he coldly replied:
“The licence plate, the lights and the bumper”.
The speculations linking the White Uno to Gladio were fuelled by a similar string of violent robberies which had shocked Belgium in the 1980s.
From 1983 to 1985 a criminal outfit known as the ‘Brabant killers’ assaulted several supermarkets, killing 28 people and stealing a laughable loot. They were never caught.
In 1991 the Italian Prime Minister first revealed to the world the existence of Gladio and the other European stay behind organisations. Following this declaration, the Belgian Senate launched an enquiry to understand if the Brabant killers could have been part of the local network, the SDRA8.
The enquiry found no evidence that SDRA8 took part in criminal activities, and the Brabant case remains unsolved.
In 2021, Eva Mikula, Fabio Savi’s lover, self-published a book giving a different version of the end of the White Uno gang.
According to Eva, it was all down to her. As Fabio kept her virtually incarcerated, one day she managed to contact a Hungarian journalist friend, spinning a story that the Savi brothers run a human trafficking ring. The journalist notified the Hungarian Embassy in Rome, who then alerted the police.
Thus, Baglioni and Costanza sprung into action, looking for human traffickers, and came across the White Uno instead.
This version of events remains unconfirmed by the magistrature.
Local newspapers in the Bologna area have recently started writing again about the White Uno. They pointed out several faults in the early police enquiries, claiming that the gang could have been stopped after the attacks at the Romani camp.
For that killing and subsequent crimes, Roberto and Fabio broke their rule of changing weapons. They always used the same assault rifle, a Beretta AR70, which Roberto had privately purchased and regularly declared with authorities. At that time, only 30 people in the region owned an AR70, and Roberto was on that list!
His colleagues knew about it, and even asked to bring it to the station so that they could look at it. Not out of suspicion, mind you, but just out of curiosity. The crafty Roberto promptly bought a second, ‘clean’, AR70 and handed it over.
This weapon was kept in the station for a few hours and was never analysed. During the trial, Roberto even pointed out that if forensics had done a more in-depth ballistics analysis, they could have been stopped much earlier.