How a Christmas hamper led police to Mafioso hiding in London

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The Independent Online

It was the panettone that helped blow the Mafia fugitive's cover.

For five years Francesco Tonicello thought he had managed to stay one step ahead of the police. Facing a lengthy jail term in his native Italy for armed robbery, the Mafia mobster fled to London in 2000 and began a new and secret life. Earlier this month the Metropolitan Police caught up with him and he was arrested after an extraordinary surveillance operation, details of which have only begun to emerge.

When the 35-year-old arrived in London in 2000 he adopted the alias Gianluca Cappello. He was forced to give up his previous criminal lifestyle as a successful forger and fence for among others the Venetian Mafia head, Felice "Angelface" Maniero. Instead he adopted a frugal existence, claiming benefit, selling The Big Issue magazine, keeping a low profile, and living in a dreary flat in Vauxhall, south London.

Throughout his time in the capital he apparently longed for Italy and all things Italian.

Chief among his desires were the foods and delicacies of his homeland. But his love of Italian food would prove his downfall. Last December his mother and family sent Tonicello a Christmas hamper containing the traditional fruit cake, panettone, along with other Italian goodies.

But the package did not go unnoticed. The Italian police had become increasingly suspicious of a series of correspondence that Tonicello's family had been sending to someone called Gianluca Cappello.

Lt Alberto Prettegiani, the commanding officer of Venice's paramilitary carabinieri special operations unit, recalled: "We monitored the post leaving and arriving in Venice. But what really gave him away was his homesickness and the fact he missed Italian food - he asked for food parcels to be posted to him.

"Officers from my unit and myself travelled to London just before Christmas after we intercepted a parcel sent from Venice to his address in Vauxhall. We X-rayed it and found cheese, salami and panettone."

Lt Prettegiani and an Italian surveillance team flew to London to identify "Gianluca Cappello". The police chief described the moment that he and his officers finally made a positive sighting of Tonicello as he walked back to his flat.

He said: "I remember it very well as if it happened only yesterday. I can never forget it. He was dressed in jeans and a jacket but I recognised him instantly.

"I had been watching the flat while my other officers were watching the news-stand where he worked at Vauxhall Station. When he walked past me he was talking to someone in Italian and I could clearly hear his Venetian accent."

In the early hours of 11 May officers from Scotland Yard's extradition squad arrested him at the flat that he shared with another Italian man on the Wyvil estate in Wandsworth Road.

The former mobster is currently being held at Brixton prison and is due before magistrates next month when the Italian authorities will attempt to have him extradited.

Tonicello was born and brought up on the island of Lido in the Venice lagoon and during the Nineties he established a reputation as an expert forger, often working for Mala del Brenta, the local Mafia syndicate.

His criminal record also includes convictions for drug trafficking, theft, assaulting police and he is also suspected of several armed robberies. He supplied the boss of Mala del Brenta, Felice Maniero, with fake passports and identity cards.

Maniero specialised in stealing religious icons from the state and demanding ransoms for them. When he was jailed in the late Nineties, Tonicello feared he would be next.

In Maniero's safety deposit boxes in Switzerland, detectives found priceless paintings, including a Renoir, believed to have been fenced by Tonicello. Italian courts sentenced him in his absence to nine years for armed robbery.

After arrriving in London he drifted from job to job and mixed with other Italian migrants. He changed his appearance frequently, adopting a variety of new hair styles, different types of beards and glasses.

As well as claiming benefits Tonicello sold newspapers that he stole from outside newsagents' shops in the early hours.

But Tonicello's British adventures appear to have come to an end.

Lt Prettegiani said: "He had a pretty miserable life on the run but he can be sure of a warm welcome from the Italian justice system when he gets back."