Suspected Mafia gunmen ambushed a senior Sicilian judge as he returned home to Palermo from a country weekend with his handicapped son, killing them both in a burst of automatic weapons fire, Italian police said Monday.
Investigators could not immediately determine whether the attack was a personal vendetta against the judge or a broader attempt to intimidate Sicilian reformers fighting the Mafia on its own turf.
Police said Judge Antonio Saetta, 66, president of a court of appeals in the Sicilian capital, died of multiple gunshot wounds in the attack on a highway leading to Palermo about midnight Sunday. His son Stefano, 35, described as "a 100% invalid," also was killed.
40 Bullet Casings
Saetta was driving his family sedan on the two-lane country road near the town of Caltanisetta when his killers pulled alongside in a stolen BMW and opened fire, according to the police account. Saetta lost control of the car, and it smashed into the guardrail on the opposite side of the road. Police recovered more than 40 bullet casings at the scene.
In 1985, Saetta served as presiding judge at the trial of two Mafia bosses--brothers Michele and Salvatore Greco. He sentenced them to life in prison as masterminds of the murder of Judge Rocco Chinnici, an investigating magistrate who had been assembling a case against the Greco family.
Seven judges have been killed by the Mafia in Sicily in the last 20 years, but Saetta is the first presiding magistrate to be killed. The other seven were investigating magistrates.
Magistrates are heavily guarded in Palermo, but Saetta took no bodyguard on his weekend excursion to the home of relatives.
"He had no protection. He was an easy target," lamented fellow Judge Alberto Di Pisa as the news swept Palermo on Monday morning.
Earlier this month, a retired criminal judge was murdered in a similar ambush in eastern Sicily. The investigation continues, but police have not yet established any clear Mafia link.
In Saetta's case, however, there was speculation that the murder was intended as a message to other judges.
Saetta was one of two candidates for presiding judge in the imminent appeals process of 338 Mafia figures convicted last December. Since then, victims of Mafia violence have included a former Palermo mayor, an undercover police officer and six acquitted defendants.
The trial marked the Italian state's greatest victory against the Mafia, but it has been followed by bureaucratic disarray that has given the criminal organization a chance to regroup, according to frustrated police and judges.
Last month, Giovanne Falcone, the head of a group of investigating judges who specialize in Mafia cases, resigned to protest what he called obstruction of the anti-Mafia law enforcement effort.
In response, the government promised police reinforcements and named a veteran anti-terrorist magistrate, Domenico Sica, as high commissioner for the fight against the Mafia. Falcone and other judges then withdrew their resignations.
Barely in office and reorganizing the police and judicial effort, Sica was one of the first on the scene of a murder Sunday night that a government spokesman in Rome called "a clear challenge to the state."