An Italian judge accused of taking bribes to free mobsters from prison is at the centre of an arms trafficking investigation after allegedly amassing a huge arsenal of illegal military-grade weapons.
A new arrest warrant was issued for Giuseppe De Benedictis, after police discovered one of the largest private stashes of weapons ever confiscated in Italy. The Bari judge was already facing corruption charges after police bugged gangsters bragging about buying him for 30,000 euros.
It comes as Italy reckons with the ongoing influence of organised crime in a mafia "super-trial," in which more than 350 alleged mobsters and their collaborators will face justice. It is the biggest mafia trial since the 1980s.
The arsenal was hidden beneath a rural farmhouse among the olive and almond groves north of Bari. When police lifted the cellar's heavy iron lid, which had been soldered shut, they discovered nearly 200 different weapons, including Kalashnikovs, AR15s, UZI, Socimi and Beretta machine guns, pump action shotguns, CZ and other semi-automatic pistols, hand grenades, 100,000 rounds of ammunition, and even an anti-tank mine.
Anti-mafia authorities are now investigating whether some military equipment may have been stolen from the Italian army to be sold on the black market.
Prosecutors believe Mr De Benedictis and an Italian army officer may have been helping organised crime gangs move illegal arms through the port city of Bari, but the ex-judge maintains the collection was just a side hobby.
A known, passionate collector of rare and antique guns, he reportedly firsty told authorities he had dumped any questionable weapons into the Adriatic Sea, but police continued to search for the cache, following leads from wiretapped conversations.
According to Lecce prosecutors and the 40-page arrest warrant issued by Investigating Magistrate Guilia Proto, Mr De Benedictis had wiretapped conversations with an Italian Army official in Bari, Corporal Major Antonio Serafino, about how to procure arms and where to hide them.
Corporal Major Serafino worked at the passport office of the Italian Armed Forces Mechanised Brigade “Pinerolo” in Bari. The brigade has infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments with access to howitzers and other arms.
According to court documents, police bugged his car, and the hidden microphone picked up the sound of machine gun fire from Serafino’s balcony in a Bari suburb on New Year’s Eve, as he and Mr De Benedictis tested out some of their weapons.
The same bugs picked up conversations between the judge and the army officer debating about whether and how to move the cache of weapons from the “well” in a rural location.
The well turned out to be an underground storage cellar in an outbuilding of a farmhouse near the village of Andria.
The arrest warrant issued this week charged the farmhouse owner, Corporal Major Serafino and Mr De Bendictis with illegal arms dealing. It referred to them as “authentic traffickers of weapons of war” which they deny.
Prosecutors are in the process of verifying the provenance of the arms to determine if they may have been the property of the Italian Army, and if so, what other public officials might have been complicit in aiding their disappearance.