Italian implicated in 'Pizza Connection' trial detained
Published Saturday, March 31, 2012 2:50PM EDT
ROME - A fugitive Italian banker implicated in the "Pizza Connection" drug and money laundering trial has been detained in Thailand after Italian authorities tracked his whereabouts on Facebook, authorities said Saturday.
Italy's highest court in 2009 upheld the 2006 conviction and nine-year prison sentence against Vito Roberto Palazzolo for Mafia association. Prosecutors allege that while working in Switzerland as a banker, Palazzolo laundered money for some of Italy's top mobsters, a charge he denies.
Palazzolo's lawyer, Baldassare Lauria, said Saturday his client, now a South African citizen, had been detained by Thai police at Bangkok's airport on an Italian extradition request. He said he planned to fight extradition.
Thai police had been tipped off to Palazzolo's whereabouts by Sicilian carabinieri agents who had been monitoring Facebook and other social media postings by Palazzolo and his family, the carabinieri said in a statement.
The "Pizza Connection" investigation broke a $1.6 billion heroin and cocaine smuggling operation that used New York pizzerias as fronts from 1975 to 1984.
Palazzolo acknowledges that in 1982 while working as a banker in Switzerland he returned about $6 million in funds to the Mafia after being threatened by the mob. He said he was made a scapegoat in the "Pizza Connection" case since he was a lone Sicilian working in Swiss banks that were accused of laundering drug money for the mob.
The carabinieri said in a statement that the "Pizza Connection" probe "showed the central role of the Sicilian Mafia in the refining and trafficking of heroin, the proceeds of which were largely laundered by Palazzolo."
Palazzolo has written about his legal woes and getting swept up in the "Pizza Connection" probe on his website, www.vrpalazzolo.com.
He changed his name to Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko in the 1990s, he said, to help escape the media and live unobserved. He denied the name change was aimed at sidestepping the law.