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The role U.S. authorities and Robert De Niro played in nabbing one of Italy's most wanted suspected terrorists
It remains one of Italy's darkest days.
On the morning of August 2, 1980 – as Italians milled through the bustling Bologna Centrale railway station – a time bomb detonated inside the crowded waiting room, blowing almost the entire building – and a waiting train – to bits.
Eighty-five people died, more than two hundred were drastically wounded, and thousands endured several painful hours trapped beneath the burning rubble beneath the summer sunshine as those passing by attempted to join authorities in issuing lifesaving aid.
Several members of the Italian Neo-fascist terrorist outfit known as the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR, Armed Revolutionary Nuclei) were later sentenced for the attack, although the group dismissed any involvement. However, immediately after the assault, several leading figures went underground or fled.
Stefano Procopio was one of the first to escape with an alleged fraudulent passport to train militias in Lebanon – and languish on Interpol's Red Notice as one of the continent's most wanted men.
Yet the story of how U.S. officials brought him to the brink thirteen years later, with the accidental help of Robert DeNiro, is coming to light.
"An international Red Notice was issued through Interpol some years before, and it was requested by the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of N.Y. that we up the case," recalled Craig Caine, a then New York-based inspector for the U.S. Federal Marshals (USMS) who partnered with Lenny DePaul. "I was given Cart Blanche (by the late Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Mike Hollander) to pick a team and run with it."
Through the U.S. Attorney's Office, USMS investigators secured a reverse trap and trace on the mother's phone in Italy. Once information started coming in from the trace, investigators came up with two addresses, one in the Bronx, NY and one in Manhattan, right in the heart of Tribeca – directly across the street from Robert De Niro's popular restaurant, The Tribeca Grill.
"If he was indeed here, we didn't know if he was planning another terrorist act, so we pulled out all the resources we had available," Caine continued. "We received information that the mother had called both the Bronx and Manhattan phone numbers, and through investigative work, we were able to ascertain that the phones were subscribed to a female."
Investigators learned that the woman had a Jeep with New Jersey tags and was using the Bronx, New York apartment. A team of about 30 investigators then assembled – comprised of U.S. Marshals, NYPD, DEA and Customs – to start surveillance on both locations. The NYPD Bomb Squad and their Emergency Service Unit were on standby.
"To complicate the situation, President Clinton was due to arrive in New York – just a stone's throw from where we believed Procopio was staying in Manhattan," Caine said. "We contacted the Secret Service to advise them of our action plan. The S.S. took this very seriously and supplied a Counter Assault Team. Since we had no idea what might happen, S.S. agents deployed snipers on various rooftops and stationed extra agents in sensitive positions in and around the area."
But the most critical view of the target was De Niro's famed restaurant – with his silver screen notoriety seamlessly slipping into the arrest plan.
"We convinced (restaurant) management to supply a few waiter's uniforms and had (operatives) having lunch in the outdoor seating area," Caine explained.
Caine and De Paul had teams watching the Bronx apartment and were informed that the woman got into the Jeep with several boxes – filled with unknown content – and was heading down the West Side Highway towards Manhattan.
"The Jeep pulled up to the Manhattan target location. The woman just sat in the vehicle. Then, suddenly, a person fitting Procopio's description emerged from the building and was walking towards the Jeep," Caine recalled. "The agents and detectives sitting in De Niro's put a positive I.D. that this was our guy."
The team debated whether to hit the locations simultaneously or wait to see what develops, but Caine made the call that the safest thing was to nab the suspect as soon as possible before he got his hands on one of the boxes. So they put it out over the radio – for all units converge on the target – and the street exploded into action. Cars began flying up one-way streets from all angles. Agents in waiter uniforms shed their guises to show raid jackets. Authorities drew handguns, shotguns, and machine guns from every direction.
Procopio, Caine remembered, struggled for a little as another officer got him to the ground. He finally gave in to being cuffed.
"Catching my breath, as I looked around, I heard clapping. There were all these tourists standing around applauding and snapping photos. It turned out De Niro's is a major tourist attraction, and they assumed it was a scene from a movie," Caine pointed out with a laugh. "They wanted to know when Robert De Niro was going to show up; I said, 'stick around because he is getting his make-up put on for the next scene,' and we bolted. This was the first and only time I received a standing ovation for just doing my job."
Italian authorities quickly touched down for the hearing – complete with a doctor who carried a long needle in case the suspect required sedation – and Procopio pled not to fight extradition. He was escorted directly to the JFK tarmac.
Nonetheless, more than 40 years since the bombing, what exactly happened – and the role of the left-wing, right-wing, ad even Middle East-based entities in endeavoring to destabilize Rome's leadership – is still a subject of ongoing speculation and investigation. It was not until early 2021 that an Italian court determined it was a "state massacre" and subsequently issued a life sentence to a fourth NAR member.
The Bologna bombing still ranks among the most horrific terrorist assaults to have struck Europe, and much of the findings and documentation are classified. The only surviving structure in the tragedy, the looming clock tower, still stands at the station, which was later rebuilt. However, it remains frozen in time – 1025 local time – marking the moment that lives were lost and changed forever.
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