The Washington Post

Dutch police thought they’d nabbed a mafia boss. They were disappoint­ed.

Instead of a longtime fugitive, they cuffed a British racing fan

- BY RACHEL PANNETT rachel.pannett@washpost.com

A British Formula One fan was arrested in the Netherland­s last week after he was mistaken for a Sicilian mafia boss who is one of Europe’s most wanted fugitives.

The 54-year-old man, identified by his attorney only as Mark L, was apprehende­d by heavily armed police while having a meal with his son at a restaurant in The Hague, his lawyer told The Washington Post.

The police’s intended target: Matteo Messina Denaro, 59, considered a godfather of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Messina Denaro, who has a reputation for being a playboy, has been on the run from Italian authoritie­s since 1993. He became known internatio­nally after he was profiled in “World’s Most Wanted,” a 2020 Netflix documentar­y series.

But the man they arrested was born and bred in England, said Leon van Kleef, Mark L’s attorney, adding that his client has a thick Scouse accent — specific to the northern English city of Liverpool and hard to fake. (A descriptio­n of Messina Denaro by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcemen­t agency, lists his only language as Italian.)

Mark L was “more than surprised, one might say,” by the reason for his arrest, van Kleef said. “It was [only] a matter of time for the situation to be resolved.”

Dutch and Italian prosecutor­s couldn’t be immediatel­y reached for comment.

Messina Denaro, who faced life imprisonme­nt after being convicted of a number of killings, was sentenced to an additional life term in absentia last October for his role in the 1992 murders of two anti-mafia prosecutor­s, according to the Reuters news agency.

Nicknamed “Diabolik,” after a comic book villain, the “playboy don” is known for driving fast cars and wearing designer clothes, according to a 2007 Time magazine profile of the world’s most notorious mafia bosses. Messina Denaro is alleged to have been behind numerous killings, including bomb attacks in Florence, Rome and Milan in the early 1990s that claimed 10 lives. According to the Netflix documentar­y, he once bragged about having “killed enough people to fill a small cemetery.”

In 1993, Messina Denaro allegedly helped organize the kidnapping of a 12-year-old boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, in an attempt to silence his father, who was about to give evidence against the mafia, according to Reuters. Giuseppe was reportedly strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

Italian authoritie­s didn’t immediatel­y respond to a request for comment on how the arrest mix-up in the Netherland­s occurred. They have previously produced computer-generated photos of what Messina Denaro might look like now.

After reportedly being taken to a maximum-security prison in the Netherland­s, Mark L was brought before prosecutor­s. He was released after officials confirmed that the man they had arrested was not the man sought by Italian authoritie­s on a European arrest warrant. Dutch prosecutor­s have dropped the case, van Kleef said.

“If they say ‘arrest this person,’ we arrest that person. That’s the mutual agreement we have with them,” a Dutch official told public broadcaste­r NOS.

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