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Assunta ‘Pupetta’ Maresca, reputed ‘godmother’ of Naples mafia, dies at 86

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/5/2022 Phil Davison
Assunta “Pupetta” Maresca in 1964. © Archive/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Assunta “Pupetta” Maresca in 1964.

On Aug. 4, 1955, Assunta Maresca — 20 years old and six months pregnant — took a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver and, in broad daylight on a busy avenue in Naples, pumped its contents into the body of the man she suspected was behind the assassination of her husband.

Later explaining why she had gripped the butt of the revolver with two hands before shooting, she said, “I was afraid I would miss.”

A former teenage beauty queen known as “Pupetta,” or Little Doll, she was also the daughter of a leading member of the Neapolitan crime syndicate known as the Camorra, and the crime she committed became a global sensation. Her trial, which began four years after the shooting, was covered by news media from around the world, and featured “Pupettisti” (her supporters) and “anti-Pupettisti” avidly following the murder trial outside the Naples courtroom via loudspeakers from inside the courtroom.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she told the court to erupting cheers. She claimed she had also acted out of self-defense, because she feared she would be the next target of the man she killed. He was Antonio Esposito, a fellow Camorrista who had been a witness only months earlier to the signing of her marriage papers to another Mafioso, Pasquale Simonetti.

In the fatal shooting of Esposito, police initially suspected there was a second assassin, possibly Ms. Maresca’s brother Ciro, who was with her during the attack. But she insisted she alone had fired the shots to avenge her husband — a claim that glorified her among members of her Camorra clan. She was sentenced to 18 years, later reduced to 13 years and four months, but was pardoned by a court in 1965.

Assunta Maresca, who subsequently became the first “padrina” — or godmother — of the Camorra, died Dec. 29 at her home in Castellammare di Stabia, near Pompeii. She was 86, and the death, of undisclosed causes, was reported by the Italian news agency LaPresse as well as the Associated Press.

Ms. Maresca. © Ciro Fusco/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Ms. Maresca.

In prison while awaiting trial, Ms. Maresca gave birth to her baby, Pasqualino. Her brother Ciro was jailed for 12 years for “facilitating” his sister in the murder of Esposito. Carlo Gaetano Orlando, the hit man allegedly sent by Esposito to kill Ms. Maresca’s husband, was jailed for 30 years.

After her release, Ms. Maresca moved in with another Camorra boss, Umberto Ammaturo, nicknamed “O Pazzo” (the Crazy Man) and they had twins, Roberto and Antonella. She is said to have supported Ammaturo’s drugs and arms-running operation in the Naples area. In 1974, Pasqualino, then 18, disappeared after he was supposed to attend a meeting with Ammaturo on a construction site.

The latter was said to have felt threatened by young Pasqualino’s Camorra ambitions, and Ms. Maresca strongly suspected Ammaturo of murdering the teenager and burying him in cement. Nevertheless, Ms. Maresca stuck by him, telling friends that it was “for the sake of the twins.”

In 1981, Ms. Maresca was accused of ordering the killing an aide to a rival, Raffaele Cutolo, but she was never charged. The following year at a news conference, she denounced Cutolo as “a power-crazed madman,” raising fears of a major internal war among the Camorra clans.

Later in 1982, she and her partner, Ammaturo, were arrested for the murder of neo-fascist forensic scientist Aldo Semerari, who was widely suspected of involvement in “the Bologna Massacre,” a 1980 terrorist attack on the city of Bologna’s Central Station that killed more than 80 and wounded more than 200 on a busy Saturday. Semerari was arrested after the bombing but released in 1981. His decapitated body was found in a stolen car the following year.

Ms. Maresca denied killing him but spent four years in prison before being released for lack of evidence. Ammaturo had fled to Peru, where he became a cocaine kingpin until he was extradited back to Italy in 1993, confessed to the killing but turned state witness to implicate other Camorristas. As a result, his brother Antonio was killed. Because he had broken the mafia’s omerta, or code of silence, he was freed and given a new identity under the witness protection program.

Assunta Maresca was born in Castellammare di Stabia on Jan. 19, 1935. As a Camorrista, her father dealt mostly in contraband cigarettes; her mother was a homemaker. The family were known locally as the Lampetielli, the “Lightning Knives,” for their use of switchblades on anyone who double-crossed them. Pupetta’s uncle Vincenzo Maresca was convicted of murdering another brother, Gerardo.

Brought up with four brothers, she was said to have shown a violent temper at school, once seriously injuring a classmate with her fists and putting her in hospital. With her dark good looks, she won a local beauty contest when she was 18 and was crowned Miss Rovegliano, bringing her to the attention of her ill-fated future husband.

Attention was something she enjoyed. In 1958, while she was awaiting trial for the murder of Esposito, the noted Italian director Francesco Rosi made the film “La Sfida” (The Challenge) loosely based on her story. In 1967, two years after being released from jail, she played herself in a domestic Italian movie. As recently as 2013, her life was the basis of an Italian TV drama titled “Pupetta: The Courage and the Passion.”

Among her survivors are her twins from her relationship with Ammaturo. She was buried almost secretly on New Year’s Eve in a private “blessings” ceremony after Naples police and local officials banned a public funeral for fear of clashes among her supporters, her enemies and members of the general public.

Ms. Maresca had spent much of her later life as a recluse between Castellammare and the nearby seaside resort of Sorrento. Because of her reported Camorra connections, all her assets were seized, but she later owned two classy fashion stores in Naples.

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