For Mafia-hunter Alfonso Sabella, racing desperately to save a kidnapped 12-year-old, the acid-burned remains of the boy’s bed in front of him were too much to bear.
The scene has haunted him day and night for the past 25 years.
“The image is stuck in my head and I can’t get over it,” he says, taking a drag of his cigarette.
“The child was only 12. He was kidnapped because his father was a ‘pentito’ – a police informant.
“I went with colleagues when we found he’d been kept in a cave. There was no body to see. It had been completely dissolved in acid.
“All that remained was his bed, burned from the chemicals, where he’d been sleeping.”
What do you think? Have your say in comments below
Very little else makes Alfonso flinch these days. From 1993 to 1999, the magistrate was one of the elite members of Italy’s anti-Mafia unit.
Often spending years gathering evidence from informers and wire-taps, it was responsible for the successful conviction of some of organised crime’s most bloodthirsty ringleaders.
Now, Alfonso’s book about his work is the inspiration behind hard-hitting Channel 4 drama The Hunter, starring Italian actors Francesco Montanari and Miriam Dalmazio.
Telling the story of fictional magistrate Saverio Barone’s ruthless fight against the Mafia, there is more than a hint of Reservoir Dogs about the series. An eye-watering torture scene is not for the faint-hearted.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday People, Alfonso, 58, tells how crime bosses plotted to blow him up – once with a melon packed with explosives, then later with a missile.
Pouring himself a drink in his Naples kitchenette, he explains how living under 24-hour protection and constantly moving to stay alive was too big a strain for his marriage.
And, as the biggest mob trial in three decades continues in southern Italy, he insists it is now down to the next generation to continue his fight.
Alfonso came to prominence while working at the public prosecutor’s office in Palermo, in the north of Sicily – a traditional Mafia stronghold. He was audacious and hungry for promotion.
“I’d compiled evidence that my boss in the prosecutor’s office was colluding with the Mafia,” he explains. “I’ve been told that was a brave thing to do.
“People knew, it’s just that no one had spoken out about it before.
“I was brought up on bread and justice, as we say in Italian. I came from a family of lawyers – including my mum, Giuseppina, which wasn’t common work for a woman at that time.
“Even my sister Marzia ended up working in anti-Mafia.
“I didn’t question the decision to take the job and my parents gave me enormous support.”
In the early Nineties, Alfonso had his work cut out. The north of Sicily was controlled by Mafia, often referred to on the island simply as Cosa Nostra – “our thing”.
Alfonso recalls: “You couldn’t do anything, even opening a shop, without paying money to Mafia.
“There was no escaping them. They led the traffic of drugs and were money rich.
“In the Nineties there was a very deliberate campaign to kill going on. It was a declaration of war, to show the state that the Mafia held the power.”
The Mirror’s newsletter brings you the latest news, exciting showbiz and TV stories, sport updates and essential political information.
The newsletter is emailed out first thing every morning, at 12noon and every evening.
Never miss a moment by signing up to our newsletter here.
In 1992, less than a year before Alfonso joined the anti-Mafia unit, the bloodshed was even worse than usual. Two of the highest profile anti-Mafia magistrates were assassinated.
First was judge Giovanni Falcone, driving home from the airport – 300kg of explosives were detonated in a drain running under the motorway.
The blast killed him, his wife and three members of his police escort.
Less than eight weeks later judge Paolo Borsellino and five members of his escort died in a car bomb near his mother’s Palermo apartment building.
Mafia bosses from the Sicilian town of Corleone toasted the murders with champagne. Within days the government dispatched 5,000 military personnel to contain the threat.
Bombs went off everywhere – not just on the streets, but in places that held great importance to Italians, such as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Alfonso reveals: “On one occasion we stopped 200kg of explosives being detonated at the Tower Of Pisa.”
But his new world brought with it a huge loss of freedom. He was under 24-hour security, and always flanked by bodyguards.
Never in the same place for long, he lived a restless life, shunted from one hideout to the next. Wire-taps revealed the Mafia were closing in on him.
He says: “In one recording of a phone call between two mafiosi, there was a clear reference made to me.
“They spoke about a red melon, with explosives and a timer. It was payback because I’d just given the son of a Mafia boss a life sentence.
“Another time, I found out that a missile launcher was intended for me.
“I didn’t worry for my life but I did for my wife’s at the time. It was too risky. She moved with our daughter to Milan. It was so difficult for them, we eventually separated.
“At one point I had to hide in a castle in the mountains.”
He sent some of the Sicilian Mafia’s most dangerous and cruel bosses to jail. Among them was Leoluca Bagarella – called “il capo dei capi” (the boss of bosses).
Bagarella ran the Corleonesi Mafia clan, a Sicilian faction which had murdered hundreds of people.
Modelling himself on The Godfather, he had music from the Marlon Brando movie played at his wedding.
There was also Giovanni Brusca, known in Mafia circles as The Swine.
Alfonso said: “I took a list of all the people who had died for the Mafia since Brusca was 17. We started scrolling through the names and he’d say, ‘This one, yes, this one, no’.
“In total there were about 200 who he’d murdered.”
There were also those who had died in massacres he had helped plot. At his 1997 trial Brusca admitted detonating the bomb that killed Falcone.
Somehow Alfonso has managed to stay alive and now works at the Court of Naples – fighting the region’s Mafia-like Camorra.
He is father to a five-month-old daughter and his partner Diana is also a magistrate. But while bodies may no longer line the streets, the Mafia are still very much present
In January, 350 people went on trial in the region of Calabria, in boot-shaped Italy’s southern toe.
It has been the biggest and most important organised crime trial in more than 30 years.
They were from the ’Ndrangheta clan – said to be even more violent than their Sicilian brethren.
The four-year investigation that led to it involved gathering 15,000 pages of evidence and intercepting 24,000 hours of conversations via wire-taps.
Charges include mob association, drug trafficking, extortion, loan sharking, disclosure of official secrets and abuse of office – to name just a few.
Alfonso says: “The Mafia are far more closed now, but they still have a lot of money. We know so much more about their operations.
“The courts and police are doing a great job. But when I speak to the younger generation in my country I have a huge regret that I wasn’t able to give them a state without Mafia.
“I wanted to eradicate this tumour from our country. I tell them, now it’s up to you.”
■ Walter Presents The Hunter, first episode on Channel 4, Sunday night, 11pm, then full box set to follow on Walter Presents/All 4