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When mobster Johnny (Pops) Papalia was gunned down with a single bullet to the back of his head on a sunny May afternoon in 1997, bleeding to death in a parking lot adjoining his Railway Street business, the wheels of revenge began turning.

Revenge was especially keen in the mind of Mr. Papalia's right-hand man Carmen Barillaro, 53, who lived with his wife and two teenage daughters in nearby Niagara Falls.

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Mr. Barillaro, a career criminal long known to police, believed his boss had been slain by Pasquale and Angelo Musitano, two members of a rival crime clan. He vowed retribution.

Instead, he too, was shot dead. And yesterday the wheels turned full circle, when the brothers pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in Mr. Barillaro's murder.

Pasquale, 32, and Angelo, 22, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, in addition to the time already spent in custody.

The confessed triggerman in both murders, professional hit man Kenneth Murdock, is already serving life imprisonment, along with a concurrent life term for a third killing, the 1985 machine-gun slaying of Hamilton custodian Salvatore Alaimo.

The three murders were textbook underworld hits: A paid assassin stalks his prey, changing and cancelling plans until the right moment presents itself.

But police always believed the Musitano brothers were the brains behind the Papalia and Barillaro killings, and that the bloodshed stemmed from a struggle to control the region's lucrative underworld operations, notably gambling.

The Musitano brothers, sons of infamous mobster Domenic Musitano, were originally charged with murder in the Papalia and Barillaro killings.

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No one disputes they had a hand in them. In an agreed statement of facts between the Crown and defence, which offers a revealing glimpse into Hamilton's ruthless underworld, Pasquale Musitano acknowledged thanking Mr. Murdock for murdering Mr. Barillaro, a convicted drug trafficker who had served lengthy penitentiary terms on both sides of the U.S. border.

But with the prosecution doubtful it had sufficient evidence to convict the pair, they agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of conspiracy in the death of Mr. Barillaro, shot to death at his home on July 23, 1997.

Assistant Crown Attorney John Nixon had sought a 15-year sentence with no chance of parole eligibility before half of that term had been served.

Instead, the pair will be able to apply for parole after serving one-third of their 10-year terms.

Mr. Murdock, on the other hand, must complete 13 years of his life sentence before he has any chance of parole; a source who knows him well said yesterday he is embittered by the way things have turned out.

As to why the prosecution cut a deal, "the Crown's case, as it related to Papalia, relied entirely on the evidence of Ken Murdock," Mr. Nixon said.

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"Obviously, in any trial, Mr. Murdock's credibility would have been a pivotal issue. Mr. Murdock is not a choir boy. The uncorroborated evidence of Mr. Murdock was the Crown's case."

Mr. Murdock, another Hamilton fixture with a local reputation for violent, explosive behaviour, pleaded guilty Nov. 24, 1998, to three charges of second-degree murder in the three deaths.

The agreed statement of facts showed that Mr. Barillaro knew Mr. Murdock to be an associate of the Musitano family, and had been seen with Mr. Papalia just before the Hamilton godfather was killed.

So on June 2, 1997, just 48 hours after Mr. Papalia's violent death, Mr. Barillaro met Pasquale Musitano on Robert Street outside The Gathering Spot, a downtown Hamilton restaurant. There, he accused him of being responsible for Mr. Papalia's death.

Pasquale Musitano denied the accusation, but Mr. Barillaro warned him that if he ever learned the Musitano brothers were involved, retaliation would follow.

Mr. Barillaro told others the same.

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The Musitano brothers alerted Mr. Murdock to the danger. He had a ready response.

"If something is going to happen, why are waiting for it?" he asked them.

So on the afternoon of July 23, Mr. Murdock and Angelo Musitano drove quickly to Niagara Falls with murder on their minds.

Mr. Murdock had a handgun. When they arrived in the honeymoon city, they began looking for Mr. Barillaro's red-and-white Corvette. At about 8 p.m., they spotted the car in the driveway of his Corwin Avenue home.

Mr. Barillaro was home alone. His wife and one of his daughters had left a few minutes earlier.

Mr. Murdock told his partner to wait in the car and went and knocked on the door. When Mr. Barillaro opened it, Mr. Murdock pretended he was interested in buying the Corvette.

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Then he pulled out his 9 mm handgun, said "This is a message from Pat," and fired.

The pair fled.

At the time of the Barillaro killing, Mr. Murdock was also the prime suspect in the 1985 Alaimo slaying, in which additional charges against two other men are still anticipated.

On Nov. 24, 1998, he pleaded guilty to all three murders. Hamilton-Wentworth police arrested the Musitano brothers the same day.

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