Hunt for the don on the Don
The Sunday Times, 26 January 2003
Italian police believe Aberdeen may be the northernmost outpost of the Neapolitan mafia. Kenny Farquharson investigates
Aromas of basil and garlic wafted from the kitchen as waiters at Pavarotti’s restaurant tweaked cutlery on tablecloths of deep Mediterranean blue. On the walls were prints of Italian fishing villages bathed in sunshine. On the plate was tagliatelli with monkfish, squid and prawns, glistening in good olive oil.
Naples? Sicily? Not quite. This was Aberdeen on a wet Wednesday last week, in a restaurant that Italian police believe is the northernmost outpost of the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia.
Clues to why they had come to this verdict were not immediately obvious to the lunchtime customer in Union Terrace last week. Unless you counted the red wine labelled Principe di Corleone. Or the three men hunched in a corner near the kitchen, attacking their penne with little obvious enjoyment, talking Italian in angry whispers and taking fraught calls on their mobile phones.
Looking particularly pained was the one wearing a pink shirt and sporting two days’ stubble on his heavy jowls. Antonio La Torre, regarded by some as the don on the Don, was not a happy man. On Monday last week, anti-mafia units of the Naples police swooped on the homes of his close family in their Mondragone stronghold. Among the 25 people picked up by the police were Antonio’s sister, Esterina, 48, and sister-in-law Anna Maria Giarra, 41. Antonio’s younger brother Augusto, the alleged head of the family’s crime operation, is already serving 22 years in an Aquila jail for mafia offences.
The initial accusations against those arrested included mafia association, trafficking counterfeit money, forging documents and money-laundering at home and abroad. By “abroad”, they meant Scotland. Naples police believed the La Torre criminal clan strategy was to use its Scottish connections to launder the profits from mafia racketeering. Antonio himself and Michele Siciliano, the co-owners of Pavarotti’s, were among those accused in the voluminous report published last week by the Italian prosecutors.
According to investigators, phone taps had thrown up conversations between Aberdeen and Italy, arranging for large sums of money to be brought to Scotland to be invested in legitimate businesses in the booming north east.
Investigators believe other members of the Camorra were preparing to move long-term to the Aberdeen area to strengthen the organisation’s presence in the UK, after a concerted anti-mafia push by the Neopolitan authorities back home.
Last week’s accusations were not Antonio La Torre’s first brush with the law. He was first charged with mafia association in 1984, when police considered him a major player in the clan. But by the time the case came to be processed he had left Italy for Scotland. Unbeknown to the Italian authorities, he had married a Scot, Gillian Fraser, in 1982. A new life in Scotland beckoned as a family man and respectable restaurateur.
It was not that simple. In the early 1990s, La Torre came to the attention of investigators who were looking into drug running between Uruguay and Europe. His phone was tapped, and Italian detectives became suspicious after they heard him discussing South American business deals with his brother. An arrest warrant on drugs charges was prepared but then withdrawn. But he was still wanted for those alleged offences in the 1980s.
La Torre could not be extradicted from Britain because the peculiarly Italian crime of “mafia association” is not recognised in Scots or English law. He was safe as long as he stayed in the UK.
He chose not to. In 1996 he flew from Scotland to Amsterdam, was immediately arrested and deported to Italy. Sentenced to two years for firearms offences and mafia association, he served half his sentence before being ordered by a court to live in the small town of Terni, north of Rome. A Naples tribunal ruled that he was no longer a dangerous individual. Soon he was back in Aberdeen with his wife and two children, trying to rebuild a living from the ruins of his restaurant business. Then came last week’s swoop on his small home town on the picturesque coast between Naples and Rome.
Mafia involvement in Scotland? Money laundering in the Scottish economy? Cause for concern among the Scottish authorities, you might think. But ask Grampian police about the latest developments in the Camorra saga and detectives play dumb. Customs and Excise, who took a particular interest in La Torre in the early 1990s, decline to comment. If you want to find out what La Torre and Siciliano have have been doing in Aberdeen, you have to go looking yourself.
DOWN at Aberdeen docks, seagulls are ripping at a stack of fish boxes. All along Palmerston Road are bleak warehouses and low-rise offices, home to various players in the fishing industry: agents, dealers, processors, financiers. In one granite building is the office of C-Fish Ltd, the firm that holds the restaurant licence for Pavarotti’s. Siciliano is the sole director. The firm also has a storage facility nearby in a lock-up under a railway bridge.
The Italians moved in just before Christmas, befriending nearby businesses with gifts of olive oil and wine. A few doors along, in a small car hire firm, a bored branch manager is sitting. What does he make of the news that his neighbours are regarded as mafia suspects? He brightens up. “To be honest, nothing would surprise me round here. You get people coming off the boats trying to sell you hot cigarettes and all kinds of things. The police are always here. But the mafia — that’s a bit of a different league.” The news has made his day.
According to local businessmen, C-Fish has been building itself into a decent sized fish trader, supplying local restaurants and exporting to Italy. One man who has dealt with Siciliano says the popular Italian has has built the firm into a six-figure business with great potential. “If you see Michele, remind him he owes me £1,300,” the man says.
There have been other small debts and the local branch of Fish Merchants’ Credit Management (FMCM) — the industry’s debt collectors — have had occasion more then once to chase Siciliano up. They do not have to go far — his office is two flights of stairs up from their own. FMCM employees say he has never given them any trouble and, when asked, always pays up promptly, “unlike some”.
La Torre’s career has been reasonably well documented but Siciliano has been more of a mystery until now. He used to live in Surrey, and often stayed in the Woking home of a friend, 52-year-old hairdresser Luigi Alighieri. “I’ve known Michael since he was knee high,” Alighieri said last week. “We were neighbours in Naples.” He describes how his friend’s business interests in the stockbroker belt were destroyed when in 1995 he was arrested at the request of the Italian authorities with a view to having him extradited.
“He spent spent six weeks in prison in London before appearing in court accused of being involved with La Camorra. Nothing came of it and he was released but the publicity ruined his business. He had a restaurant in Walton-on-Thames then but it closed down and he moved to Aberdeen in 1996. The authorities haven’t left him alone since. The reason is they have been unable to take him back to Italy to question him. Michael is an honest working man who pays his taxes. He gets up in the morning and sells fish. Michael knows people in La Camorra and they are his friends but that does not mean he has done anything wrong. I can only think that they’re trying to make him guilty by association.”
Once in Scotland, Siciliano became involved with an Aberdonian businessman called Graham Truscott. The 45-year-old son of a paper mill worker had, according to former colleagues, a burning ambition to become a millionaire. “He would stand in the pub and discuss what it would be like if everyone in the bar knew you were that rich,” recalled one former associate.
In the past decade Truscott has clocked up a dozen directorships. In February 1997, he and Siciliano started a firm called Ferro Supplies (Scotland), importing steel from Italy. It appears Truscott started calling himself Fabio Fiorentino in some of his business dealings, according to records in Companies House. For a time, Truscott was also a director of C-Fish, with Siciliano. But the main interest of the go-ahead Aberdonian lay in the property market. During the time he was in business with Siciliano, Truscott was also director of a number of firms trying to get a slice of lucrative building projects in oil-rich Aberdeen. These firms included Jollybadge, Aberdeen Estate Agency Ltd, and Aberdeen Estate Agency Leasing Ltd. There is no evidence Siciliano was involved in these firms, or that Truscott was in any way involved in any potentially illegal deals with mafia suspects.
Last week, Truscott said he was sure Siciliano and and La Torre were innocent of the charges made against them. “I think it’s an old vendetta from Italy. The chaps, in the dealings I had with them, certainly didn’t do any of the things the papers said they did. Knowing their financial situation, all their financial dealings are through legitimate loans from banks.” As to whether any of his ventures with them could have been used for money laundering, Truscott said he would deny that idea completely. “Naturally. There’s never been any money laundering or anything else. I can assure you there is nothing going on. That is a heap of rubbish.”
Truscott also denied having an alias as Fabio Fiorentino — the name listed in Companies House with his date of birth and a business address he has used in the past. “That must be a mistake by Companies House,” he said. So who was the elusive Fabio? “Don’t know. Some Italian, I would have thought.”
Business was thin at Pavarotti’s last week, the locals seeming to prefer a less formal trattoria a few doors down. Pavarotti’s kitchen staff, perfectly turned out in whites and colourful bandanas hung around waiting for custom as the bosses discussed their predicament with a string of visitors. La Torre’s future business ambitions appear to concentrate on expansion in the restaurant trade. He formed a company last year called Anglo-Italian Catering Ltd, with a view to building a chain of eateries. Recently he applied for planning permission to convert an empty shop just off Union Street, in Chapel Street, into a new restaurant. But it seems to have stalled.
La Torre certainly does not live the life of a rich mafia don. Home is a modest flat on a busy road in the Rosemount area of Aberdeen, next door to Herd’s the butchers and the Monte Rosa café. Associates say the Chapel Street venture has not so far materialised because the money behind it seemed to dry up. If La Torre has indeed been laundering mafia profits, as the Italian authorities suggest, then he has been doing so without anyone noticing, which is a rare feat in Aberdeen.
“This city is a village,” explained one businessman. “Everyone gets to hear about everything. It would be very difficult to splash money around without anyone noticing.”
It is time to speak to La Torre and Siciliano about the accusations. Standing in Pavarotti’s, bags under his brown eyes, La Torre’s face is a hangdog scowl. “You are a policeman, yes? No, a journalist? Be careful what you write. In Italy things go in the newspapers before they are proved. It is a military state with military law. Of course, I can challenge what has been said about me. It is bullshit, you know? My lawyers in London are preparing something and it will be ready next week.” He promises to be in touch.
Contacted by phone, Siciliano speaks of his frustration at the publicity the Naples swoop has generated. “I am fed up now speaking about this. I am really, really tired. If I have committed any crime it is up to the local authorities to come and check it. I am open any time and they can see anything they want. In Italy the jurisdiction is f****d up. In 1995 (when Italy tried to extradite him) they lied to the English government, they said I was facing so many other charges, which I wasn’t. When the paperwork arrived the Home Office discovered I was saying the truth and it was just (Mafia) association. Now they are probably going to try to do the same again.”
Now both men will now have to wait for Italian justice to take its course, and that could be a while. An Italian legal source said of the latest arrests and charges: “This is all part of the investigation process. It works like this. The investigating magistrate asks a judge for the warrants in order to facilitate the collection of evidence. It does not mean that they have been found guilty. The case will be presented to an examining judge after the preliminary investigation and he will decide whether or not to proceed with the prosecution.” Only then, when it is clear what the final charges are, will any attempts be made to extradite him.
IN ABERDEEN, it seems the citizens are becoming used to having such exotic characters in their midst. A few hundred yards from Pavarotti’s is the site of La Torre’s former restaurant, the Sorrento, on Bridge Street. It closed a few years ago to the disappointment of its regular customers who enjoyed its authentic Neapolitan atmosphere. So they were pleased to see the street now has a new Italian restaurant, unconnected to La Torre. It has begun to advertise itself with big banners on Union Steeet. Its name? Soprano’s.
Additional reporting: Ron Mackenna and Denis Cassidy