The Sicilian Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, who was captured in January this year after three decades on the run, died on Monday in hospital in central Italy, taking to the grave the secrets of his brutal reign.
The 61-year-old had been treated for colon cancer while detained in a high-security jail in L’Aquila but was moved last month to hospital after his condition deteriorated.
Pierluigi Biondi, the mayor of L’Aquila, confirmed that the mobster died in hospital overnight “following a worsening of his illness”.
The Italian state radio station Rai said that the heavy police detail guarding his hospital room moved to the hospital morgue following the death.
His death “puts the end to a story of violence and blood”, Mr Biondi said, and thanked prison and hospital staff for their “professionalism and humanity”.
It was “the epilogue of an existence lived without remorse or repentance, a painful chapter in the recent history of our nation”, the mayor added.
Messina Denaro was one of the most ruthless bosses in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.
He was convicted of involvement in the murder of the anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992 and in deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993.
One of his six life sentences was for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 12-year-old son of a witness in the Falcone case.
“No-one should be denied prayers. But I cannot say I’m sorry,” Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister, said of the mobster’s death.
Messina Denaro disappeared in the summer of 1993 and spent the next 30 years on the run as the Italian state cracked down on the Sicilian mob.
But he remained at the top of Italy’s most-wanted list and increasingly became a figure of legend.
It was his decision to seek treatment for cancer that led to his capture. He was arrested on Jan 16 this year when he visited a health clinic in Palermo.
He was initially treated in his jail cell but was moved to the inmates’ ward of the hospital in L’Aquila in August, where he remained under heavy security.
He was reported to have been in an “irreversible coma” since Friday night. Medics had stopped feeding him and he had asked not to be resuscitated, Italian media reports said.
His arrest may have brought some relief for his victims, but the mob boss always maintained his silence.
In interviews in custody after being arrested, Messina Denaro even denied that he was a member of the Cosa Nostra.
“Unfortunately his capture did not help the search for truth and justice,” Borsellino’s brother Salvatore told LaPresse news agency.
After a routine autopsy, Messina Denaro’s body is expected to be transferred to his hometown of Castelvetrano in western Sicily.
But there will probably be no funeral, religious or otherwise, because police normally ban such ceremonies for Mafia bosses.
The Corriere della Sera newspaper had previously reported that Messina Denaro could be buried in the family tomb, alongside his father, Don Ciccio.
Don Ciccio was also head of the local clan. He was said to have died of a heart attack while on the run, with his body left in the countryside, dressed for the funeral.
After Messina Denaro went on the run, there was intense speculation that he had gone abroad, but in the months before his capture, he had been staying near his hometown.
Enzo Alfano, the mayor of Castelvetrano, said that he hoped the “suffocating cloud” hanging over his town would now lift.
“It will take decades to eradicate the mentality, the sometimes rampant culture of lawlessness, of impunity” that Messina Denaro had “cultivated for so long”, he said.
Investigators had been combing the Sicilian countryside for Messina Denaro for years, searching for hideouts and wiretapping members of his family and friends.
They were heard discussing the medical problems of an unnamed person who suffered from cancer, as well as eye problems – a person who detectives became sure was Messina Denaro.
They used a national health system database to search for male patients of the right age and medical history, and eventually closed in to make the arrest.