LONDON – When Dutch police arrested a man last week on suspicion of being a fugitive Sicilian mafia boss, at the behest of Italian authorities, the Liverpool accent should have been a clear sign that they had stuck the wrong anybody.
The 54-year-old British man, identified only as Mark L., had traveled to the Netherlands from Liverpool to watch a Formula 1 car race, the Dutch Grand Prix, in Zandvoort on September 5. He was having dinner with his son. in a restaurant in The Hague last Wednesday, when, according to several local media, armed police arrested him, believing it to be Matteo Messina Denaro, a mobster who is on Italy’s wanted list since 1993.
Blindfolded, Mark L. was then transferred to a maximum security prison, where he was held in solitary confinement.
The next day Leon van Kleef, a criminal defense lawyer in Amsterdam, was approached by local police, who said a man they suspected of being a mob boss and had arrested specifically asked him to be its legal representative.
A quick internet search by Mr van Kleef’s colleague revealed who Mr Messina Denaro was: a Sicilian gangster known to have killed police officers and prosecutors. He is also wanted for car bombings that killed dozens of people in the early 1990s.
“I asked myself, ‘Why would this guy ask me and how does he know my name?’ Said Mr van Kleef.
Intrigued, Mr van Kleef visited the man in prison and recognized him – not as the mob boss he had seen on the internet, but as the Liverpool man he had met about 15 years ago when he delivered clothes to a friend who was on trial in the Netherlands.
“He’s really Liverpudlian, and not lightly,” said Mr van Kleef, referring to Mark L.’s strong accent and his deep family roots in Liverpool – not Sicily.
It wasn’t until Saturday that Mr van Kleef learned from police that his client was going to be released after it was determined he was not in fact an Italian gangster.
“The man arrested in a restaurant in The Hague last Wednesday is not the man Italy is looking for,” the prosecution said in a statement on Saturday.
According to Mr. van Kleef, lawyer for Mark L., an Italian police officer saw a photo of his client and concluded that he was the fugitive Mr. Messina Denaro. The Italian authorities then informed the Dutch authorities, who arrested Mark L. with a European arrest warrant issued by the Italian authorities.
But, he said, “there is no similarity between the photo known to public sources of Denaro and the recent photo of my client.” He added: “They don’t even know if Denaro is alive, if he has had facial surgery.”
Italian media suggested that prosecutors in the city of Trento, in northern Italy, had pursued the case and did not consult with investigators in the Sicilian city of Palermo, who have long prosecuted Mr. Messina Denaro. .
However, Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s anti-mafia chief prosecutor, defended those responsible in Trento, without going into the details of the case. “They operated in the right way,” he said in a statement.
The Trento prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Known as the “boss of all bosses”, the identity and fate of Mr. Messina Denaro has been largely unknown since he disappeared from his hometown in western Sicily in 1993. Investigators believe that he no longer lives in Sicily but that he travels through Europe, where there have been frequent but unfounded sightings of the gangster.
According to Lirio Abbate, a Sicilian journalist who wrote a book on Mr. Messina Denaro last year, the Mafia boss remains highly respected by his associates, business partners and even his many lovers, many of whom have been imprisoned and their frozen assets. by the police but did not betray him.
“Being hunted for so long has increased its myth,” Abbate said.
The only available photos of Mr. Messina Denaro are from a family album and were taken in the 1990s. But since the book’s publication and its appearance in a Netflix TV series, “The World’s Most Wanted,” Mr. Abbate said he had received hundreds of unsubstantiated photos from people around the world who believe they have seen Messina Denaro, including police officers.
“Most people have good intentions, but it’s difficult even for investigators who have been trying to find him for decades,” Abbate said. “He probably doesn’t even see people anymore. He sends letters and communicates safely. He’s a hidden professional.