LONDON — When Dutch police last week arrested a man suspected of being a fugitive Sicilian mafia boss at the request of Italian authorities, the man’s Liverpool accent must have been a dead gift that they had collared to the wrong person.
The 54-year-old British man, identified only as Mark L, had traveled from Liverpool to the Netherlands on 5 September to participate in the Dutch Grand Prix, a Formula One car race in Zandvoort. He was having dinner with his son. Last Wednesday at a restaurant in The Hague, when, according to several local news media reports, armed police officers arrested him, believing he was a mobster, Matteo Messina Denaro, who has been on Italy’s wanted list since 1993.
Blindfolded, Mark L was then transferred to a maximum-security prison, where he was kept in isolation.
The next day, Leon Van Cleef, a criminal defense lawyer in Amsterdam, was contacted by local police officers, who said a man suspected of being a mafia boss was arrested, specifically asking him to be their legal representative. .
A quick Internet search by Mr Van Cleef’s aide revealed who Mr Messina Denaro was: a Sicilian mobster known for killing police officers and prosecutors. He is also wanted for the car bombings that killed dozens in the early 1990s.
“I asked myself, ‘Why would this man ask me, and how does he know my name? Mr Van Cleef said.
Curious, Mr Van Cleef met the jailed man and recognized him – not as the mafia boss he had seen on the Internet, but as a man from Liverpool he had met about 15 years ago when he met a friend. Some clothes were given for which trial was going on in the Netherlands.
“He’s really Liverpudlian, and not a little,” said Mr Van Cleef, referring to Mark L’s strong accent and deep family roots in Liverpool – not Sicily.
It was not until Saturday that Mr Van Cleef received information from police that his client was to be released, after it was determined that he was not, in fact, an Italian mobster.
“The man arrested at a restaurant in The Hague last Wednesday is not the person Italy is looking for,” the Public Prosecution Department said in a statement on Saturday.
According to Mark L’s lawyer, Mr Van Cleef, an Italian police officer had seen a photograph of his client and concluded that it 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 added, “there is no resemblance between a photograph of Denaro known to public sources and a recent photograph of my client.” He added: “They don’t even know if Denaro is alive or not if he has had facial surgery.”
Italian media reports suggested that prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Trento pursued the case, and did not consult with investigators in the Sicilian city of Palermo, who have long been pursuing Mr Messina Denaro.
However, Italy’s chief anti-Mafia prosecutor, Federico Cafiero di Raho, defended the authorities in Trento, without going into the details of the case. “They did the right thing,” he said in a statement.
The prosecutor’s office in Trento did not respond to a request for comment.
The identity and whereabouts of Mr Messina Denaro is known as the “boss of all bosses” since his disappearance from his hometown in western Sicily in 1993. Investigators believe that he no longer lives in Sicily, but travels throughout Europe, where he is. There have been frequent but unfounded incidents of dacoity.
According to Sicilian journalist Lirio Abate, who wrote a book about Mr Messina Denaro last year, the mafia boss is highly respected by his associates, his business partners and even his many lovers, many of whom are jailed. and their property has been confiscated. but did not betray him by the police.
“Having been hunted for so long has perpetuated their myth,” said Mr. Abbett.
The only available photos of Mr Messina Denaro are from a family album and were taken in the 1990s. But since publishing the book and appearing in the Netflix TV series, “World’s Most Wanted”, Mr Abbett said he has received hundreds of unsubstantiated photos from people he believes have shot Mr Messina Denaro around the world, including police officers. have seen.
“What most people mean is good, but it’s also difficult for investigators who have tried to track him down for decades,” Mr. Abbett said. “He probably doesn’t even see people anymore. He sends letters and communicates without risk. He’s a professional at hiding.”