ROME — Sicilian gangsters dropped 25-kilo (55-pound) cast-iron weights on the limbs of drug addicts, alcoholics and other vulnerable people to obtain insurance payments for fake car accidents worth hundreds of thousands of euros, police said Wednesday after making 11 arrests in the case.
Among those arrested was a nurse at a Palermo hospital who Italian police allege procured mild anesthetics from her workplace to tamp down the pain.
The weights, like those used in gyms, were violently dropped onto an arm or leg, which had been immobilized by being held between blocks of cement, prosecutors alleged, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. Sometime ice was the only thing used to try to deaden the pain before the limbs were crushed.
Police said electronic surveillance of some of the suspects' locations picked up the screams of those being mutilated, in private homes or warehouses. They released a video of some of the intercepted conversations indicating the ring had accomplices in several of Palermo's clinics and hospitals. In one call, one suspect told another that both an ambulance and a wheelchair would be needed the next day.
After the limbs were smashed, the injured were taken to hospitals where accomplices in the scheme would handle their cases, authorities said.
Rodolfo Ruperti, who heads the Palermo police operations squad, said the suspects would go to the Sicilian capital's train station to recruit drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally disabled and poor people desperate for money. "They were attracted by the mirage" of a lot of money, Ruperti told RAI state TV.
But in reality those who agreed to participate in the scheme by having a leg or arm or both smashed, generally received only a few hundred euros (dollars), while the gangsters kept hundreds of thousands of euros in insurance payments, the authorities said.
"They were both accomplices in the scheme and victims," Ruperti said of those who agreed to have their limbs broken.
A smashed "arm and a leg" could bring as much as a 150,000 euro in claim payments, Ruperti told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Investigators are trying to determine if the Sicilian Mafia had a hand in the fraud racket, Ruperti said.
Cosa Nostra often has accomplices or associates in local institutions including clinics.
Ruperti said just how much money had been defrauded in total isn't yet known because investigators are still trying to determine how many years the racket has been going on.
SkyTG24 TV said some 70 people are known to have had limbs smashed in the racket.
The investigation was triggered by the discovery, in January 2017, of the mutilated body of a Tunisian man on a Palermo street. Initially presumed to be victim of a road accident, he was later determined to have died of a heart attack suffered after having his limbs deliberately smashed.
Ruperti said the racket employed a network of accomplices, including those who agreed to falsely say they had witnessed a car hitting someone.