Arrest us, but we'll be back next week

In Italy, three men with Aids are making an ass of the law. They keep robbing banks and the police just can't stop them, writes Andrew Gumbel
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's easy to rob a bank when you know in advance that you'll get away with it. Antonio Lamarra, Sergio Magnis and Ferdinando Attanasio have been holding up banks in the Turin area as often as three times a week recently, and show every sign of keeping up their dubious work for the foreseeable future.

It doesn't take long for the police to catch up with them after each heist; after all, they are well known to the authorities and don't even bother to wear masks when they go about their business. But it makes little difference to them if they are arrested. Invariably, they are back out on the streets within hours. All three have Aids, and, under a special humanitarian decree passed in Italy three years ago, they cannot be detained in jail for more than three days, regardless of the crime they have committed.

The Turin robbers have thus been able to expose the entire judicial system to ridicule. Their physiological immune systems may be breaking down, but as long as they remain fit enough to wave a knife around at bank clerks and stuff banknotes into their pockets, they enjoy a perverse kind of immunity from the law.

"What can we do? Our job is to apply the law. If that means we have to release these people every time we catch them, that's what we'll do. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with at a higher level," says Salvatore Mulas, Turin's deputy police chief, who meets up with the miscreants so often you could be forgiven for thinking they were friends of his.

Last Tuesday, he turned up at Lamarra's house a few hours after a robbery at the Banco di Sicilia on Turin's Corso Francia. The 26-year-old suspect, nicknamed "Puppy" because of his short stature, took one look at the policeman and said: "Not you again."

Mulas in turn noticed that Lamarra was holding a crutch to support a twisted ankle and asked him: "That didn't happen by any chance when you jumped over the counter at the bank, did it?" The deputy spoke with some authority; he had seen the whole scene played out on the bank's security video system.

Lamarra responded: "OK, you've got me, but you know that you can't keep me for more than a few hours because I have Aids."

"Puppy" was quite right. By Thursday night, he had been released and was back at home with his wife.

Attanasio also left police custody, but was admitted to hospital following a complication connected to his illness. As forMagnis, he was never caught and is still on the run.

In fact, last Tuesday was something of a bumper day for the gang. In addition to the raid on the Banco di Sicilia, they swooped on a branch of the Credito Piedmontese in the Turin suburbs to make off with a total booty of more than 40 million lire (pounds 15,000). Mulas and his men recovered some 12 million lire from a chest in Puppy's bedroom, but have given up on ever finding the rest. This was a crime that paid, and paid handsomely.

All three men have rap-sheets as long as their arms. All are known heroin addicts, who have for years been financing their habits through robberies and petty scams of all kinds. Sharing needles also led to their infection with the HIV virus.

Since they began showing symptoms of Aids, their precarious lifestyle has paradoxically become much easier to maintain. Attanasio was previously caught two weeks ago after a hold-up at the Banco Ambrosiano Veneto on Via Fratelli Carle but immediately let go. Magnis spent two days in jail back in March after he and his two brothers swooped on eight banks in a row.

So far, the robberies have not led to any injuries, just a lot of panic in the branches of small north Italian banks, and considerable consternation on the part of the authorities. "This situation is running completely out of control," Giuseppe Grassi, Turin's police chief, said last week. Police and judicial officials have urged the justice ministry to repeal the 1992 decree that brought about the anomaly in the law. One magistrate has, rather cynically, asked for a list of all Aids patients with a criminal record so that in future he will not waste time bringing formal charges against them.

Other officials remain remarkably calm. "Obviously, it's a worry to have people carrying an infectious disease threatening customers and workers in banks. But on the other hand nobody really loses out," observed Mulas laconically. "After all, the banks are covered by the insurance companies and the insurance companies help cover each other."

Short of sending them to jail, the obvious place to send the Aids robbers would be a psychiatric hospital. That is what Grassi and any number of social workers in Turin would like to happen. The trouble is, no such institution exists. Italy's asylums and mental hospitals were closed down in one fell swoop in the late Seventies in a rushed attempt to bring to an end the inhumane conditions there. Nothing has since taken their place.

According to police, the robbers are highly disturbed individuals who don't take any pleasure in their flagrant defiance of authority. "For them it's a necessity. They have a drug habit and no amount of money is ever going to be enough for them," says Mulas. "They know they don't have long to live, but they intend to go out with a bang.''

Talking to the men's families (the men themselves refuse to speak to the press), one quickly realises that they are far from contemporary happy- go-lucky Butch Cassidys and Sundance Kids. "All this publicity has ruined his life," says Lamarra's wife. "Having the whole world know you have Aids has taken a terrible psychological toll."

But how much sympathy is appropriate? According to the Turin paper La Stampa, the next robbery is already planned for this Wednesday. The report concludes: "They'll be arrested by Saturday, and on Monday they'll be back on the streets again."