Tue, Jul 13, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Italian police seize legendary lake linked to Mafia

THE GUARDIAN , ROME

A tract of land including a volcanic lake near Naples, cited by the Roman poet Virgil as the entrance to the underworld, has been seized by police who suspect it was used by the Mafia to host summits and hide one of the mob’s most bloodthirsty assassins.

Officers descended on Lake Avernus on Saturday to impound the entire 55-hectare lake, a restaurant on the water’s edge, a bed and breakfast (B&B) and a disco, all allegedly bought using drugs and extortion profits by the Casalesi clan, part of Naples’ Camorra Mafia.

According to Virgil’s Aeneid, the area by the lake once hosted a mysterious prophetess, the Cumaean Sibyl, and an entrance to Hades. Avernus’ otherworldly reputation is linked to its volcanic origins, with legend stating that hellish fumes that once bubbled up from the water killed birds as they flew overhead.

Centuries later, investigators believe the lake became a hideout for Casalesi killer Giuseppe Setola, who took refuge with his crew at the B&B and ate at the restaurant between 18 cocaine-fueled hits in 2008, including the massacre of six African immigrants in nearby Castel Volturno.

At first glance a peaceful, vineyard-lined retreat for weekend trippers from Naples, the lake sits near the Phlegraean Fields, a stretch of gaseous craters west of the city and is close to two ancient underground grottoes touted as being home to the Sybil and the steps down to Hades.

The lake was owned by the Bourbon rulers of Naples and ceded in 1750 to an aristocratic family, who sold it in 1991 to the Cardillo family.

After Setola’s arrest last year, investigators learned of his lakeside hideaway and launched an investigation. Last month a member of the Cardillos was arrested on suspicion that the family had been fronting for the Casalesi clan, who gained notoriety by building a criminal empire on profits from dumping toxic waste in the nearby countryside.

Setola, a former mob chauffeur, allegedly enjoyed the B&B’s stunning lake views, while resting between the rash of killings he undertook as he rose rapidly through the ranks of the clan in 2008 after a series of elders were jailed.

The lake was connected by Roman tunnel to the nearby settlement of Cuma. Large enough for chariots, the tunnel remained in use until World War II, when it was used to store munitions before being blown up by the retreating German army.

On Sunday, a veteran guide at the lakeside grotto said it had not been impounded during the police operation on Saturday.

“They seized the lake, but not the grotto,” said Carlo Santillo, 80, whose family has been taking visitors down through the 200m of tunnels since 1875.

After watching police on jet skis post signs about the seizure, Santillo said he had seen no suspicious activity to suggest the lake had become a mob stronghold.

“I have seen nothing and anyway I have no interest in putting my nose in other people’s business,” he said.

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