Too many of Joe Calo's friends in the Italian-restaurant business and the drug trade here in Phoenix were being systematically murdered.

Seven died in less than a year--June 1988 to February 1989. The cops figured this could not be written off to mere coincidence. Especially since in so many of the cases death was caused instantaneously by a bullet to the back of the head from a .38-caliber pistol.

At the time of his arrest, Calo was part owner of Michelina's restaurant at 3241 East Shea. Since coming to Phoenix from Italy in 1979, Calo had worked as a carpenter and painter in various Italian restaurants. This included Livia's, Pronto and Maggiore's.

During this time, he became a $2,000-a-week drug runner for Romano Sbrocca, the owner of a fancy Italian restaurant, Ernesto's Back Street at 36th Street and Indian School. Part of his compensation, Calo says, was a BMW provided by Sbrocca.

Calo's wife, Michelina, had been chef at Pronto in 1983 and 1984 when the restaurant won coveted New Times awards for being Phoenix's best continental restaurant. The pair then moved on to the restaurant which still bears the name Michelina's.

This riveting tale came together last week when Superior Court Judge Norman Hall ordered Calo's sworn, 89-page statement about his part in the murders unsealed to the public.

The record had been kept secret by the County Attorney's Office so the agency could attempt to build a case with the information.

Calo, who has pleaded guilty to seven murders, made the confession to assistant county attorney Myrna Parker on July 31 and August 2 in 1992. He wanted to save himself from the death penalty. Currently being held at Arizona State Prison in Florence, Calo will be sentenced by Judge Hall on October 16.

The County Attorney's Office had tried in vain to put the case together in the year the record was sealed, but without success. It has not gathered enough evidence to corroborate Calo's story.

In his confession, Calo named James Majors, 38, who worked with him as a painter and contractor in the restaurants, as the killer.

Majors served two previous prison terms, one for burglary and another for kidnaping. He once escaped from a prison in Indiana. Majors is currently being held in jail in California for three separate killings connected to a drug deal that went bad.

According to police records, Majors--the designated hit man--committed ten murders in a little less than a year's time.

Majors is a fascinating study in sociopathy. A diary maintained by his wife during the period of the killing spree reveals him as a cold-blooded, violent man with no sense of guilt.

Calo says Sbrocca ordered the killings during meetings which were always conducted at Pronto after closing hours.

Here is how Calo described the order for the death of Angelo Desideri.
"Romano said all of it," Calo told assistant county attorney Parker. "It was out of his mouth . . ."
"And what was it that Romano said?" Parker asked.
"Angelo Desideri had to disappear, had to go," Calo said.
"Were those his words, 'had to go'?"
Calo told Parker, ". . . He never said 'kill him,' but that's what he meant."
"Who contacted Jim Majors?"
"I believe I did."
"What did you tell him?" Parker asked.
"I told him there was a job for him, those guys had a job for him," Calo said.

By "those guys," Calo was referring to Sbrocca and two others--one the owner of another Italian restaurant--who have not been charged.

Sbrocca, free on bond while awaiting sentencing on drug charges in federal court, denies Calo's story.

"Calo is a world-class liar," Sbrocca says. "If I were guilty, I would not be sitting around here, would I?"
Calo insists he was only the middleman. He brought the money paid for the killings to Majors, the hit man. He helped set the victims up, but never fired a gun. But Calo does admit he dug graves for two of the victims.

Here are the victims in the order of their deaths:

Angelo Desideri He owned the shopping center at 40th Street and Campbell where the Italian restaurant Pronto is located. Desideri, 59, was a comparatively wealthy man who also ran the business Italian Imports on 16th Street south of Glendale. He was generous. Lorenzo Vivolo, owner of Pronto, reportedly owed Desideri $60,000 at the time of Desideri's death.

Desideri also was the treasurer of the North Italian Social Club located on 16th Street and sometimes kept the club's money in a safe at his home. He was shot to death by Majors and buried in a shallow grave in San Diego on June 5, 1988.

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Tom Fitzpatrick