LONDON — When the Dutch police arrested a man final week on suspicion of being a fugitive Sicilian Mafia boss, on the request of the Italian authorities, the person’s Liverpool accent ought to have been a useless giveaway that they’d collared the mistaken individual.
The 54-year-old British man, recognized solely as Mark L., had traveled to the Netherlands from Liverpool to attend a Formula One automotive race, the Dutch Grand Prix, in Zandvoort on Sept. 5. He was having dinner together with his son at a restaurant in The Hague final Wednesday, when in line with a number of native information media stories, armed cops arrested him, believing him to be Matteo Messina Denaro, a mobster who has been on Italy’s needed checklist since 1993.
Blindfolded, Mark L. was then transferred to a maximum-security jail, the place he was held in isolation.
The following day, Leon van Kleef, a felony protection lawyer in Amsterdam, was approached by native cops, who mentioned a man they suspected of being a Mafia boss and had arrested had particularly requested for him to be his authorized consultant.
A fast web search by Mr. van Kleef’s colleague revealed who Mr. Messina Denaro was: a Sicilian mobster recognized to have killed cops and prosecutors. He can be needed for automotive bombings that killed dozens of individuals within the early 1990s.
“I asked myself, ‘Why would this guy ask for me, and how does he know my name?’” Mr. van Kleef mentioned.
Intrigued, Mr. van Kleef visited the person in jail and acknowledged him — not because the Mafia boss he had seen on the web, however as a man from Liverpool he had met some 15 years in the past when he had delivered some clothes for a good friend who was on trial within the Netherlands.
“He is really Liverpudlian, and not slightly,” mentioned Mr. van Kleef, referring to Mark L.’s sturdy accent and deep household roots in Liverpool — not Sicily.
A computer-generated picture of Matteo Messina Denaro, a mobster on Italy’s needed checklist, in Palermo, Italy, in 2007.Credit…Alessandro Fucarini/Associated Press
It was not till Saturday that Mr. van Kleef obtained phrase from the police that his consumer was to be launched after it was decided that he was not in reality an Italian mobster.
“The man arrested in a restaurant in The Hague last Wednesday is not the man Italy is looking for,” the general public prosecution division mentioned in a assertion on Saturday.
According to Mr. van Kleef, Mark L.’s lawyer, an Italian police officer had seen a image of his consumer and had concluded that he was the fugitive Mr. Messina Denaro. The Italian authorities then notified the Dutch authorities, who arrested Mark L. with a European arrest warrant issued by the Italian authorities.
But, he mentioned, “there is no similarity whatsoever between the photo that is 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’s had facial surgery.”
Italian media stories advised that prosecutors within the northern Italian city of Trento had pursued the case, and didn’t seek the advice of investigators within the Sicilian city of Palermo, who’ve lengthy been chasing Mr. Messina Denaro.
However, Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s chief anti-mafia prosecutor, defended officers in Trento, with out going into the small print of the case. “They operated in the correct way,” he mentioned in a assertion.
The prosecutor’s workplace in Trento didn’t reply to a request for remark.
Known because the “boss of all bosses,” Mr. Messina Denaro’s identification and whereabouts have been largely unknown since he went lacking from his hometown in western Sicily in 1993. Investigators imagine that he not lives in Sicily however travels throughout Europe, the place there have been frequent however unsubstantiated sightings of the mobster.
According to Lirio Abbate, a Sicilian journalist who wrote a e book about Mr. Messina Denaro final 12 months, the Mafia boss stays extremely revered by his associates, his enterprise companions and even his many lovers, a lot of whom have been jailed and had their property frozen by the police however haven’t betrayed him.
“Being hunted for so long has augmented his myth,” Mr. Abbate mentioned.
The solely footage out there of Mr. Messina Denaro are from a household album and have been taken within the 1990s. But since publishing the e book and showing in a Netflix TV collection, “World’s Most Wanted,” Mr. Abbate mentioned he had obtained a whole lot of unsubstantiated footage from individuals who imagine to have seen Mr. Messina Denaro throughout the globe, together with cops.
“Most people mean well, but it is difficult even for investigators who have tried to track him down for decades,” Mr. Abbate mentioned. “He probably no longer even sees people. He sends letters and communicates without taking any risks. He is a professional in hiding.”