History repeats as mobster murder returns to the streets

Cameron Stewart
Chip Le Grand
“Gotcha.” It was the last word Calabrian fruiterer Alfonso Mura¬tore heard before the gunman wearing a balaclava pumped three bullets into his head outside his Hampton home.
His glamorous, blonde mistress heard the shots from her bed, grabbed a black robe and ran to her dying lover, screaming: “My baby, my baby.”
It was August 1992 and Karen Mansfield suspected she knew who had played what she later called “a very big role” in her boyfriend’s death.
At his inquest the following year, Mansfield took the stand and pointed the finger at a rising 40-year-old Calabrian businessman called Tony Madafferi, who she believed was a hitman and a member of the L’Onorata ¬Societa. Madafferi’s lawyers tried to shut down the show and suppress their client’s name, saying Madafferi was “devastated” by the hearsay allegations.
Almost a quarter of a century on, history has repeated itself for the man who police believe is the Godfather of Melbourne’s feared Honoured Society, the Calabrian mafia. This week, another of Madafferi’s Calabrian rivals was gunned down — a man who, like Muratore, had split from his Italian wife and distanced himself from the mob. And, yet again, Madafferi’s lawyers tried and ¬failed to suppress what they called the “salacious rumours and gossip” sweeping Melbourne.
Now, as was the case then, Madafferi denies any involvement, and no evidence has yet emerged beyond the circumstantial to suggest that he was ¬involved in the murder of gangland lawyer Joe Acquaro.
But one of his lawyers, Geor¬gina Schoff QC, this week admitted that the discovery of Acquaro’s lifeless body in a Melbourne laneway — after, police suspected, Madafferi had put a price on his head — was “an extraordinary coincidence” that would make it hard to fully vindicate her ¬client’s reputation.
“Here we have gunshot wounds. Yes, they could be totally unrelated, but that stark coincidence, that incredible coincidence of, on the one hand, the $200,000 contract … and now the murder of Mr Acquaro, it can’t help but fail to excite the interest of readers,” she told a court in an unsuccessful bid to suppress any reporting linking her client to the lawyer’s murder.
The history of the Calabrian mafia in Melbourne has been rich with “extraordinary coincidences” ever since a series of murders known as the “market wars” in 1964 first exposed the stranglehold of Italian organised crime on the city’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
Police say this so-called Honoured Society has been active in Australia since the 1920s, making it the country’s longest continually operating crime organisation. It has used standover tactics, bribery, threats and murder to infiltrate a range of industries, ranging from fruit and vegetables to the illicit drug trade.
The Honoured Society has ¬revolved round a small network of families and has operated within a strict code of secrecy and discipline unique in Melbourne’s underworld. This has consistently foiled police attempts to crush the mob and has led to a string of cold cases, with fathers dying in a hail of bullets and families left wondering why those responsible are never bought to account.
Police hope that the killing of Acquaro in an East Brunswick street in the early hours of Tuesday will break this cycle of failure.
Madafferi is the initial focus of their investigation into Acquaro’s death after police warned the Calabrian businessman in June last year that they knew there was a price on Acquaro’s head and they would know where to look if the lawyer was killed. Madafferi was understood to be furious at Acquaro, whom he suspected of providing information to Nick McKenzie, a Fairfax journalist who had spent several years ¬investigating his suspected links to the mob.
Police have never been able to touch Madafferi. He denies being a member of the Honoured Society or having any connection to organised crime and, at the age of 65, has a clean sheet to prove it.
Despite his business interests being closely scrutinised for more than 20 years by the National Crime Authority, anti-gangland police and investigative journalists, he has never been charged, much less convicted of any crime.
To his many community supporters, he is a hardworking family man unfairly maligned. Gino Gargiulo has cut Madafferi’s hair for the past 15 years. He doesn’t believe what the police suspect.
He doesn’t believe what he reads in the papers about Madafferi’s alleged mafia links. “He gets up early in the morning, he has a lot of commitments, he employs a lot of people. Honestly, I don’t ¬believe he does any wrong.’’
Madafferi first came to police attention in June 1991 after the body of Sicilian-born fruiterer Tony Peluso was found outside his Glen Waverly home. The father of four had been shot by two masked gunmen at 4.30am as he left for work.
Madafferi had come to Australia as a teenager from Calabria, a poor region in the ¬extreme south of Italy. Like many Italian immigrants in Melbourne, he soon established himself as a fruit and vegetable seller. He is related by marriage to a prominent Calabrian mafia family, the Benvenutos.
Police told an inquest into ¬Peluso’s death that Madafferi ran a rival fruit shop in the same street and that the two were involved in a price war at the time of Peluso’s death. Madafferi said he was home at the time of Peluso’s death and told police: “I don’t know anything about his death or who may have killed him.’’
Madafferi’s name was again linked to Peluso during a 1993 ¬inquest into the death of Alfonso Muratore, who had been gunned down outside his home in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Hampton. He was killed despite carrying a gun in his sock after he had been warned that the mob was out to get him. His sin was to separate from the daughter of the alleged Godfather of the Calabrian mafia, Liborio Benvenuto, who died in 1988. He had brought dishonour to L’Onorata Societa and its late boss. Ironically, Muratore’s own father was murdered, allegedly by the Benvenuto family during the 1964 market wars.
Muratore’s mistress, Mansfield, told the inquest that after Muratore’s murder, she and her sister were warned by an Italian funeral director not to talk to police about the killing “if they loved their family’’. Mansfield testified regardless. She told the ¬inquest that she believed Madafferi had played “a big, big role” in Muratore’s murder. She also said that her Muratore had told her that Madafferi was ¬responsible for Peluso’s murder. She said Muratore had told her Madafferi was “one of the men who wanted to be the next godfather’’.
“Fonse (Muratore) had on many occasions told me that Mr Madafferi was a man that you feared greatly — that you didn’t cause any trouble to, and that you made sure that you kept a very healthy respect for him,” Mansfield told the inquest.
The inquest heard claims that Madafferi was known as a Calabrian hitman. However, the claims were nothing but hearsay; no tangible evidence was ever provided to a court and no charges were ever bought against Madafferi. That remains the case today.
The lawyer for Madafferi at that inquest, George Defteros — who would go on to represent gangland clients including Alphonse Gangitano, Tony Mokbel and Mick Gatto — told The Weekend Australian it was no surprise that Madafferi was never charged.
“There was no evidence whatsoever that linked (Madafferi) to the allegations being made by ¬Muratore’s girlfriend,” he said.
He said he found his client to be “very forthcoming and willing to listen to good legal advice’’.
Two years before Peluso’s death, Madafferi’s brother Frank had arrived in Australia from ¬Calabria. Recently released from an Italian jail after serving a stint for extortion, drug charges and ¬assault, he was wanted by police investigating a prison stabbing and the theft of car parts.
Frank arrived on a six-month tourist visa and did not disclose a string of prior offences in Calabria.
His brother Tony helped set him up in Melbourne’s fruit and vegetable trade where Tony was already making his presence felt. He married an Australian and had a family.
But Frank Madafferi’s past caught up with him in 1996 when he was arrested by immigration officials for overstaying his visa. He applied for a spouse visa but the Department of Immigration, armed with information about his criminal history in Italy and false statements he had given to officials, refused him on character grounds. That decision began an eight-year legal and political campaign by the Madafferi family and their influential supporters for Frank to be allowed to stay. It also revealed the extent of police suspicions about Tony Madafferi and his alleged links to murder.
Victoria Police sergeant Wayne Bastin, then a senior intelligence manager with the Organised Crime Squad, provided a statement to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal detailing his “belief’’ that Tony Madafferi was the head of an organised crime syndicate operating out of the Melbourne markets.
The statement cited intelligence provided by two unnamed informants. One informant linked Madafferi to the murder of Peluso, the other to the murder of Muratore. It concluded that Frank Madafferi belonged to a “crime family’’ involved in blackmail, extortion and murder.
In a June 2000 decision, AAT deputy president Alan Blow agreed that Frank Madafferi was not of good character. However, he overturned the department’s decision to refuse him a visa, finding instead that the rights of Madafferi’s young children and wife, who didn’t want to live in Italy, should be prioritised.
The AAT deputy president was unconvinced by the police intelligence implicating Tony Madafferi in murder. “Sergeant Bastin has produced two hearsay statements, one of them likely to have been the product of guesswork, from two individuals of doubtful reliability, either of whom may have had good reason for lying.’’ Blow added that whatever the sins of Tony Madafferi, they couldn’t be used against his brother.
In October 2000, then immigration minister Philip Ruddock used his ministerial discretion to refuse Frank Madafferi a visa. The Madafferi family, having failed to get what they wanted through the courts, redirected their considerable resources into political persuasion. In the lead up to the 2004 election, Tony Madafferi organised a political fundraiser in Melbourne attended by Liberal MPs Russell Broadbent, Bruce Billson and the now Defence Minister Marise Payne. It was Payne who encouraged her fellow senator, new immigration minister Amanda Vanstone, to fly to Melbourne to attend. All three MPs separately contacted Vanstone about Frank Madafferi’s immigration issues.
Joseph “Pino’’ Acquaro, having helped argue Frank Madafferi’s case before the AAT, was a key figure in the lobbying effort.
Acquaro, aside from being the Madafferi family lawyer, was a figure of rising influence within Melbourne’s Calabrian community. His father Alfredo came to Australia as part of the post-war ¬Italian diaspora. A respected ¬accountant, he would meet immigrants when their ships docked in Port Melbourne and help them fill in the required paperwork.
For his services to the Italian community he was made Cavaliere, a form of Italian knighthood. Now 80, he was this week mourning the death of his son at the family’s Mediterranean-style villa in Altona, in Melbourne’s west.
Joseph Acquaro sought to follow in the steps of his father. Like his father, he served as chairman of the Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Like his ¬father, he was community-minded. But, increasingly, his choice of profession and, particularly, choice of clients, drew him into the dangerous world of Melbourne’s crime gangs.
In 2006, Vanstone exercised her discretion to issue Frank Madafferi a visa and free him from detention. Within 18 months, Madafferi had abused the goodwill shown to him by the Howard government. In 2007, police discovered 4.4 tonnes, or 15 million tablets, of ecstasy hidden in tomato tins in a shipment on a Melbourne wharf. It was the world’s largest importation of ecstasy, with a street value of nearly $500 million.
Police focused their investigation on Pasquale Barbaro, a man born into a Calabrian mafia clan from Griffith in NSW, the town where local businessman Donald Mackay famously vanished in 1977 after campaigning for action against local marijuana growers. Surveillance of Barbaro in 2008 led police to Frank Madafferi, whom they suspected of trafficking pills for Barbaro. A telephone conversation tapped by police showed Frank Madafferi considered Melbourne to be his fiefdom.
“Don’t f. k around too much with me, understand? You think Melbourne is f. king yours? It’s not f. king yours, understand? Ah? I’m responsible for f. king Melbourne. Melbourne is mine and doesn’t belong to Pasquale (Barbaro).”
Madafferi was eventually charged with drug offences and in late 2014 was sentenced to 10 years’ jail. His earliest release date is August 2021.
He has been notified by immigration officials that his visa has been cancelled. As soon as he gets out of prison, he will be deported to Italy, where he faces another lengthy jail term for convictions in absentia.
Acquaro was the lawyer ¬responsible for Madafferi’s defence. This time, his long-term ¬client was unhappy with his services. He refused to pay his legal fees and, in 2013, while Madafferi was out of jail on remand, the pair came to blows inside the Lygon Street gelati bar and cafe part-owned by Acquaro.
Acquaro won the fight, leaving Madafferi with a bloodied nose, but lost far more. In the months and years that followed, he became increasingly ostracised from the Calabrian community.
Acquaro, a well dressed, affable man who could often be found behind the counter of his gelati bar, liked to call himself consigliere; an Italian word for counsellor. But by the time of his murder, even his three adult sons had stopped taking his advice. He became increasingly indiscreet, meeting regularly with newspaper reporters to talk about the mafia in Australia.
He refused to heed police warnings that someone wanted him dead. At 12.40am on Tuesday, Acquaro was gunned down as he left his shop — yet another extraordinary coincidence in the history of the mob in Melbourne.
Additional reporting: Greg Brown