INTERVIEW: Bernadette Maldini

Bernadette Maldini – Il Fantasma

Given time she could prove to be Susan Bekker’s nemesis. The woman who led the investigation that brought down fifteen high-ranking members of the Camorra in Turin is now leading Interpol’s stumbling investigation into the Malandanti. However, ask Bernadette Maldini, seconded from the Carabinieri Special Operations Group (Raggruppamento Operativo Speciale), what she thinks about the paranormal activity attributed to both Bekker and the Malandanti and she’ll give you a short answer.

“Of course it’s bullshit.”

Originally from Milan, Maldini was transferred to Turin in keeping with Carabinieri policy to separate its officers from their home region. But Maldini settled in to life in the industrial city. In nine years, five investigating organised crime, she became known as ‘il fantasma.’ The ghost. The irony isn’t lost on her. “A ghost investigating ghosts, witches, vampires. You couldn’t make it up. But that’s the way I’ve always worked. In the background, follow the money. Organised crime is ultimately about the money.” (She says she’s given up smoking because of the cost not for health reasons, and sits in a bar in Lyon puffing on an e-cigarette.)

There were times when the money trail ran dry she’d resort to Plan B. “Maybe they should have called me il fastidio, the nuisance. One thing criminals do not like is being watched. Surveillance is fine, if they don’t know you’re watching they carry on doing what they’re doing, but if you’re turning up in their face day after day after day, saying hello, asking questions, the disruption is quite effective. They start to make mistakes, become hasty. It takes a lot of attention to detail to run a large criminal conspiracy. They don’t want disruption.”

It’s easy to think this in-your-face approach would be a dangerous game to play in Italian crime. Maldini’s own division of the Carabinieri, the SOG, evolved out of the anti-terrorism group set up by General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa who led the fight against the Italian Mafia in the 1970s. Along with his wife, Dalla Chiesa was shot dead in Palermo in 1982. A murder that outraged the whole of Italy.

“You can’t be complacent, of course not, but you’re shoulder to shoulder with the top people, the ones who don’t do the killing themselves. The threat from the others lower down the food chain is the same whatever tactic you choose. It’s not a tactic I would have used with the Corleonesi in the Great Mafia War, you must know your limits, but in a perverse way there is so much secrecy within the Mafia structure they know who you are and without suspicion less afraid of you. They’re the ones who become complacent. The problem with investigations in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was the amount of corruption throughout the security services and governments. You could never be sure who you were talking to or working with. It was easier to deal with the criminals than with your own colleagues.”

The situation sounds similar to the levels of Malandanti infiltration throughout European institutions, but Maldini has identified one importance difference. “The Malandanti are an old organisation, much older than the Mafia, and they were set up with one goal in mind, self-preservation, protection from the Inquisition, witch hunts and persecution. They achieved that a long time ago and now they’re drifting with no real purpose.

“That’s where the corruption comes from, the disorganisation. They’re like an army after the war has ended. What are they for? They’ve become nihilistic with no purpose, and now they’ve resorted to corruption and infighting. They’re still a dangerous group, but the patterns are historic. Salvatore Riina eliminated virtually all Mafia opposition over ten years, but he eventually became lazy and clumsy. It brings them all down in the end, regardless of how efficient they may once have been.”

Maldini has come close to assassination on two occasions. In 2009 she survived an ambush on a Carabinieri convoy near Palermo, and an attempted kidnapping in Naples two years later, but the threats to her life came in an unexpected form in 2014 in a forest near Wurzburg.

“It was clever. Terrifying, but clever. My colleague and others who were there still believe there was something supernatural, but let’s be pragmatic for a moment. The attack on us took place in a privately owned woodland. It’s not beyond credibility that the area was rigged up to release cyanide gas when we were there. Cyanide is a naturally occurring substance in a lot of vegetation. There’s nothing supernatural about cyanide.”

Her colleague would disagree and often points out to her the paradox of being a devout Catholic whilst refusing to believe any other form of metaphysical phenomena. “It’s not about religion and science, or fact and faith, it’s about evidence. You can provide all the eye witness testimony you want to tell a judge and a jury there were witches flying around a forest. Where’s the forensic evidence? If Susan Bekker was in Rotterdam and Rio de Janeiro at the same time how do you produce the evidence that will convince a prosecuting magistrate or a trial judge?You can’t and no amount of faith in the paranormal will make the evidence any more convincing. It’s anecdotal and circumstantial. Not good enough.”

Supernatural activity may not be enough for Maldini to secure convictions, but evidently it isn’t enough for the Malandanti either. Previous attempts to infiltrate the network failed thanks to a sophisticated counter-intelligence system and unique protocols that made surveillance very difficult. Add to that the cellular structure which prevents members of one coven knowing the members and activities of all the other covens. Maldini has seen this before. “The cellular structure worked for a time in Italy when the ? fought the ? But eventually it leads to a disruption in communication that is necessary for the organisation as a whole to maintain structural integrity, which is necessary to operate. They become like a fleet of sheets in a fog bank. Impossible to manage, especially when there is a need to defend the organisation.

“In the case of the Malandanti, I know where all the covens are located and with that information I can track down the membership. But the covens never reveal their details to one another. I know more about them than they do.”

Her involvement in the Malandanti investigation took an unexpected turn in 2014 when Susan Bekker became implicated, apparently by accident, in the network’s affairs. “Events can still take you by surprise, even after twelve years of experience, but I suppose that’s Toten Herzen.” After shifting her attention, temporarily according to her Interpol managers, Maldini found herself in the world of rock music; not an environment she finds pleasant. “I hate rock music. Throughout my childhood and growing up at home in Milan the house only ever played classical music or opera. I’m not a snob, I’ve seen Biagio Antonacci in concert and my partner is nuts about Laura Pausini, but rock makes my stomach turn.”

There’s an irony in the way Maldini speaks and a reality which has seen her projected into a semi-celebrity status thanks to Toten Herzen’s own brand of disruptive behaviour. “They had a photographer follow me around and they published photographs of me on their website. The images made me look quite good, to be honest, but my managers don’t see it that way. It’s clever, the way they work, the whole organisation behind Toten Herzen, the scale of it, is what convinces me there’s more to them than a simple rock band.” Coming from Milan, the centre of Italy’s fashion industry, Maldini doesn’t need Toten Herzen’s help to look important. She radiates the self-confidence of a person who succeeds, and feels she is close to another success, albeit one battle rather than the entire war.

She obviously won’t disclose any details, but she feels she has come a long way in the several months taken to investigate Susan Bekker and the events in Rotterdam. “I’ve become quite an expert on the band. I probably know more about them than Rob Wallet and he single-handedly rewrote the myth. I could tell you anything about them, which worries Interpol because they want me to concentrate on the Malandanti, but I believe there is a link, I’m not sure yet which one or if they’re all linked, but there is a link.” She believes Toten Herzen’s resources are ideal for a criminal conspiracy. “They have the money, they have the communications expertise, they have the talent from the media and the film industry to create the special effects. The Mafia, especially in the US, were not afraid to cosy up to show business, it added legitimacy, a front to their activities. And the dons loved being able to pose with Monroe and Sinatra. I haven’t seen anyone from the Malandanti posing with Susan Bekker though. Maybe in time.”

Maldini is understandably coy when it comes to how she was seconded to Interpol. Commissar Marc Huygens, of Belgium’s organised crime directorate, the DJSOC, was forced to watch one of his own investigators Anders Boorhans driven insane by an investigation that led to the murder of his wife in an arson attack in Anderlecht. The files were passed on to French investigator Tipo Briess who lasted several days before quitting. But the call for Maldini’s inclusion didn’t come from Belgium, but the Vatican.

Patrick Thwaite, Interpol’s chief of the Malandanti programme, a collection of projects aimed at understanding the network in addition to investigating it, made a series of discreet phone calls to an unnamed contact in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a department given the task of overseeing exorcisms. Pope Benedict XVI already had concerns about Satanic influence, a concern shared by the current Pope Francis. “I don’t think the Vatican recommended me. I have no connection to them other than being Catholic. I think there’s a degree of urban myth slowly surrounding this investigation.”

Other rumours suggest Boorhans and Briess were driven mad by the investigation. “They were investigating at the time of the Theo Wenders and Simon Frenzel murders in Bamberg. The pressures on them were immense. It’s too easy to be swept away by the rumours and anecdotes, to be dazzled by the apparent paranormal dimension to all this, but you only have to spend five minutes with an expert in quantum mechanics to realise that the real world contains the answers. My own colleague [Pierre Dremba, French Interpol agent] has said that the Malandanti have a four hundred year head start on us. We’re catching up, but we have the resources.”

Bernadette Maldini has unwavering confidence in finding a solution to the Malandanti puzzle and sees Toten Herzen as a curious sub-plot that can’t be ignored. She doesn’t believe she’ll go the same way as Boorhans and Briess. “They weren’t Carabinieri. If you can survive the insults we’re subjected to you can survive anything.”