Mafia 'Boss of Bosses' Nabbed in Sicily

Deep in the hills outside Palermo, Italy, is a medieval farm town with a history written in blood.

The town's name -- Corleone -- literally means "Lionheart." But to most of the world, Corleone means just one thing -- La Costa Nostra. The mafia. And more than that, the mafia myth as portrayed in "The Godfather" movie trilogy.

In Corleone, the real-life Godfather's face was revealed this week for the first time in 43 years.

Bernardo Provenzano, the most powerful boss in the history of the Italian mafia, was arrested at a farmhouse near Corleone on Wednesday. As Italian authorities escorted Provenzano to jail, young people jeered.

"Assassin," they shouted. "Murderer!"

Provenzano has already been sentenced in absentia to life in prison for the 1992 murder of two anti-mafia judges.

In Sicily, this is a real-life blockbuster.

"Bernardo Provenzano is the boss of bosses of Sicilian organized crime. He is probably, in the history of Sicilian organized crime, the most powerful mafia boss that has ever operated in Italy," said Chris Swecker, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division.

Started a Hit Man, Became the Boss

In the early days, he was nicknamed "Bernie the Tractor" for his propensity to "mow people down. As a top hit man for the legendary gangster Lucky Luciano, Provenzano quickly rose through the ranks.

Luciano once said of him: "He shoots like an angel. Too bad he has the brains of a chicken."

But Luciano seriously underestimated him. Provenzano had been on the run since 1963, and the only picture ever taken of him had to be digitally aged for the "Wanted" posters.

"I hear people saying, 'why haven't we caught bin Laden?' It's been three years! Here's a guy on an island, a tiny island, in 43 years they couldn't catch him!" said former mobster Sonny Girard.

It's possible he had plenty of help from the people of Corleone. The residents who spoke to ABC News said they knew nothing about the so-called "boss of bosses."

"I knew him when we were kids," was all one of them would say. "He was a normal guy." In Corleone the mafia code of silence -- omerta -- still means something.

American Mafia Past Its Prime

For the American mafia, which traces its roots back to Sicily, the glory days are long gone. The days when Carlo Gambino and Paul Castellano hobnobbed back stage with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack are ancient history.

"Law enforcement knows how to attack organized crime, and they've used all these tools -- electronic surveillance, RICO and cooperators to basically knock down the shield of omerta and expose the American mafia for what it is, which is a bunch of gangsters," said George Anastasia, author of "The Last Gangster."

In the United States, the last of the big bosses was John Gotti -- "The Dapper Don." But Gotti came of age when the mob was already in decline.

"If he had been boss in the '30s, '40s, he would be one of those historically great bosses," said Girard. "But he was an old-time gangster in a new-time world. And he was just out of place."

Gotti flaunted his status as an untouchable, almost daring the FBI to arrest him.

"Every time he walked out of his house it was a slap in the government's face," Girard said. "How many times are you going to slap them before they say, 'We're gonna getcha.'"

And eventually, they did. Gotti died in federal prison in 2002 while serving a life sentence for murder and racketeering.

Provenzano's Arrest the End of Italian Mafia?

Many in Italy hope the capture of Provenzano will mark a similar milestone. He is arguably a more important figure than Gotti.

In some ways, Provenzano was the Michael Corleone of the Sicilian mafia. In his latter days, he put a lid on the violence and sought to steer the organization toward more legitimate businesses. Bernie the Tractor became Bernie the accountant.

"There's a whole history of the Sicilian mafia that culminated in Provenzano basically taking over and forming a dictatorship, a mafia dictatorship, where he runs all the families in Italy," said the FBI's Swecker.

Some estimates put his net worth at three-quarters of a $1 billion. But his family lives in a modest apartment above a car dealership.

Provenzano taunted Italian law enforcement through his silence. All investigators had to go on were coded messages written on little scraps of paper to convey his orders.

"Some are to the wife saying, 'please don't give me more pasta. I need more cheese maybe.' But the other ones are 'Mr. 34 asked to meet Mr. 65 and they have to do work on this road or that project,'" said Italian journalist Alfredo Macchi.

It was a criminal empire that could be run from an old farmhouse -- like the one where he was captured Wednesday morning.

The police said they had no idea how long he had been hiding in the farmhouse. What finally betrayed Provenzano was a bundle of clean laundry sent by his wife. A package reportedly passed off 10 times, it took three days to arrive.

There will likely be more arrests, and the top two candidates to succeed Provenzano are not from Corleone. But the mayor of Corleone has big plans.

He said he wants to commission "Corleone: the Musical!" in which an honest guy, not a mobster, is the hero. It's all part of the post-mafia makeover.

But some here quietly point out that the mayor is in office for only one reason: Not long ago, he enjoyed the tacit support from the boss of bosses.