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After 43 years, Italy's mafia boss is captured

Italy's most wanted man,  Sicilian mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, was arrested after a 43-year manhunt on Tuesday. NBC News' Stephen Weeke reports on how the notorious mobster eluded capture  for decades.
Palermo's prosecutor Grasso shows police mugshot and photofits of mafia boss Provenzano in Palermo
Palermos prosecutor Pietro Grasso shows mugshots of mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano, Italy's most wanted man. On the run for more than four decades, Provenzano was finally arrested in Sicily on Tuesday.Daniele Buffa / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

ROME — On Tuesday morning, in the Sicilian town of Corleone — which would lend its name to the Hollywood archetypal American Mafia don in "The Godfather" — police arrested the Italian Cosa Nostra's "Capo di Capi [Chief of Chiefs]."   

Italy's most-wanted man, Bernardo Provenzano, was found in a farmhouse a mile outside of Corleone, and gave up without resistance.

The arrest ended a 43-year manhunt. You read it right. Forty-three years.

The first pictures of the man dubbed the "Ghost of Corleone" — for his ability to vanish into thin air whenever authorities believed they were closing in on him — were aired on Italian newschannels a few hours later, throwing coverage of the razor-tight national elections into the backseat.

The arrest video had a Hollywood feel to it. The scene was police headquarters in downtown Palermo, the Sicilian capital. A teeming crowd screaming "Bastardo!" and "Assassino!” pressed against the entrance archway, crushing around a police car.

Police officers, wearing bullet-proof vests and ski-masks, brusquely manhandled an elderly man into the building.

On the lam
Provenzano, now 73, went on the lam in 1963, after the Carabinieri, Italy's largest police force, ordered his arrest for a shootout in Corleone that killed three men.

He knew he couldn't beat the rap, so he went into hiding. Subsequently, he rose through the ranks — having most of his rivals killed in the '80s — and became the supreme chief of the Cosa Nostra (literally “our thing”) in 1993 after the arrest of then "Capo di Capi" Toto Riina.

Provenzano was always believed to be living in Sicily, avoiding capture with the support of a wide network of local people. In addition to his legendary cunning, a lack of pictures raised his mystique — he successfully avoided being photographed by authorities his entire life, except for once: a mugshot taken at his first-ever arrest on Sept. 17, 1958.

The ‘ghost’ submits medical bills
He even managed to have major surgery while being on the lam — and had the gall to bill the government for it.

In 2003, Provenzano was driven to France by his "soldiers" to have a prostate-cancer operation at a hospital in Marseilles. He used the name of the father of one of these soldiers as an assumed identity.

Once recovered and back in Sicily, according to a low-level Mafioso arrested last year,   Provenzano then submitted an insurance claim to the National Health Service under his assumed name. 

When investigators seized the medical files on the operation, they paid a visit to the man whose name had been used, a local bread baker. Police asked him how he was feeling after his operation. He swore he had no idea what they were talking about, that he'd never had a prostate problem and had never been to France.

Another arrested mobster said he had seen Provenzano appear at a meeting of the "Cupola,” the mafia's ruling council, dressed in the vestments of a Roman Catholic bishop.

Finally betrayed by ‘pizzini’
The Capo di Capi was deeply, and rightfully, paranoid of being eavesdropped, so he never spoke on the phone or used cell phones.  But he had to communicate somehow, and it was his unusual method that eventually would lead to his arrest.

Using small pieces of paper with typewritten orders on them, his messages — known in the mob as "pizzini” — were hand-delivered by complicated relays between many assistants.

Months ago, police were able to intercept one such pizzini sent by Provenzano's wife, who lives in Corleone, to her husband. With careful surveillance, they then tracked two packages sent by her that, after tortuous journeys, were delivered to the farmhouse where Provenzano was arrested.

When the police felt confident, they struck. And for the first time in 43 years, Italy would finally see the face of a ghost who ordered the deaths of hundreds of people.

The face of an old man, with glasses, behind bars.