Following dirty money leads police to alleged Mafia clan north of Toronto living life of luxury

VAUGHAN, ONT. — Mobsters started fretting at precisely 9 p.m. on Friday when police crashed into several gambling dens north of Toronto, seizing equipment, paperwork, money. Word then spread among better-connected gangsters that homes of Mafia members were also being raided, their friends led away in handcuffs.

And, then, the big news: one of those arrested was the alleged boss of a powerful Mafia organization with international ties.

If mobsters thought this was just another periodic gambling crackdown, which they apparently did, the news kept getting worse.

Over the weekend and into this week, raids and search warrants kept coming: real estate offices, accountants firms, a bookkeeper, a loan company, a former banker, construction companies and other businesses were all raided by police.

Even on Thursday, 400 to 500 bank accounts were frozen.

Some of the cash and other items seized during recent arrests of members of the Ndrangheta crime family are displayed at York Regional Police headquarters on July 18, 2019. Peter J. Thompson/National Post

It didn’t feel like business as usual, an underworld source said. It got worse “day after f—in day.”

York Regional Police revealed the mystery behind the commotion Thursday — it was the endgame of a remarkable investigation attacking a powerful Mafia clan allegedly operating for decades, more or less with impunity, in the Toronto area and beyond.

There was a very different feel to the public announcement. Instead of settling for the low-hanging fruit of junior gangsters caught with their hands dirty, this ambitious project aimed for the top and punched where it hurts mobsters the most: right in their assets.

At the large Vaughan home of Angelo Figliomeni, 56, whom investigators allege is the head of the Mafia clan, police hauled away two Ferrari sports cars from his garage, seized stacks of cash, Rolex watches and bottles of outrageously expensive booze, including a $6,500 bottle of Macallan single-malt Scotch.

Then they seized the house.

Police seized 23 high-end vehicles, including five Ferraris. York Regional Police

It was not an accident police showed off the markers of extreme luxury at the media announcement instead of the usual bricks of cocaine and handguns.

That was the plan.

“We needed to focus on taking down a criminal organization by attacking the finances, the laundering of dirty money and large profits from proceeds of crime that have built these organizations over decades and allowed them to thrive,” said York Regional Police Chief Eric Jolliffe.

And so the Figliomeni crime group became the first target of a permanent anti-mob task force quietly launched by his force in 2017.

“(The Figliomeni group) has benefited for generations of crime to live a glamorous, indulgent lifestyle at the expense of law-abiding citizens,” Jolliffe said.

Highlighting the white-collar nature of the probe, forensic accountants with the Canada Revenue Agency helped follow the money. CRA accountants even joined the police raids, said Stéphane Bonin, acting director of CRA’s criminal investigations division.

“Like Al Capone thought he didn’t have to report his taxes,” Bonin said of the notorious Prohibition-era U.S. gangster who was ultimately prosecuted for tax evasion.

“He was wrong.”

This is something we have never seen before

Figliomeni is alleged to have not claimed an estimated $4.5 million of income on his 2015 to 2017 tax returns. Along with such charges of directing a criminal organization and possessing proceeds of crime, he faces charges of defrauding the government, wilfully evading taxes and making false tax statements.

Tackling the mob’s money also builds strong cases — because it relies on spreadsheets not witnesses, police said.

“A victim has to be able to testify and, to testify, there is a lot of fear,” said Carl Mattinen, with York’s Traditional Organized Crime Task Force.

“Forensic accounting is not afraid. Math is not afraid. Documentary evidence is not afraid. We can tender that in court with no worry of recanting or fear from the community of the ‘Ndrangheta,” he said, using the proper name of the Mafia formed in Italy’s southern region of Calabria.

“Our focus on the financials is what truly will make a long-lasting impact on crime.”

Investigators seized roughly $1 million in cash. York Regional Police

The numbers behind Project Sindacato do a lot of talking: 27 seized homes worth an estimated $24 million; 48 searches of businesses, cafes and residences; 23 high-end cars seized, worth $3.5 million, including five Ferraris, one of which is worth $880,000; about $1 million in cash and $1 million in jewelry and Rolex watches seized; ATM machines and gambling machines confiscated.

Fifteen people were arrested, including nine directly linked to the ‘Ndrangheta organization, police said.

Police surveillance officers followed suspects to Ontario’s legal casinos almost every night and watched them run through as much as $50,000 in allegedly dirty money. They would lose 10-20 per cent but then cash out and pass it off as legitimate casino winnings, police said.

An estimated $70 million in dirty money was laundered through casinos in just a few years, police said.

A car financing company in Vaughan, Option B Solutions, played “a major role” in laundering the group’s money, police alleged. Salvatore Oliveti, 54, of Oakville, Ont., a manager with the company, was arrested in Halifax and faces organized crime and financial charges as well as careless storage of a firearm.

The scope of the probe stretched to Italy.

Police say the organization was conducting illegal gaming operations. York Regional Police

At the same time as the announcement in Canada, a similar panel of police officials gathered in Italy, where they announced the arrest of 12 people in a related investigation of what is known as the Siderno Group, a cluster of related mob families with ties to the town of Siderno.

Fausto Lamparelli, an officer from Italy’s Polizia di Stato, a federal police force, in Vaughan for the announcement, said suspects wanted for murder were among those arrested.

“This investigation allowed us to learn something new,” Lamparelli said through a translator. The ‘Ndrangheta crime families in Canada are able to operate autonomously, without asking permission or seeking direction from Italy. Traditionally, ‘Ndrangheta clans around the world are all subservient to the mother ship in Calabria. It suggests the power and influence the Canadian-based clans have built.

“This is something we have never seen before,” Lamparelli said.

Charged are, top row from left: Angelo Figliomeni, Emilio Zanutti, Erica Quintal, Francesco Vitucci, Giuseppe Ciurleo; and bottom row from left: Nicola Martino, Rafael Lepore, Salvatore Oliveti, Vito Sili. And still being sought by police: Giacomo Cassano. York Regional Police

The York task force was formed in 2017 with specially selected officers. By October 2018, the Figliomeni group had been selected as the most viable high-level target and Project Sindacato was up and running. New people with different specialties were brought in and eventually it expanded to other agencies.

For nearly a year, officers had wiretaps running in gambling dens and cafes and other locations. Officers from York travelled to Italy this year to share information on links between the organizations.

That gave rise to the parallel police probes in each country.

Mattinen said the investigation will now be used as a template to target other organized crime groups in York region.

Also charged are Emilio Zannuti, 48, of Vaughan, alleged to play a senior role in the organization; Vito Sili, 37, of Vaughan, alleged to help move the group’s money; Erica Quintal, 30, of Bolton, alleged to be a bookkeeper with the group; Nicola Martino, 52, of Vaughan, alleged to be another money man; Giuseppe Ciurleo, 30, of Toronto, alleged to help Zanutti run gambling; Rafael Lepore, 59, of Vaughan, alleged to be a gambling machine operator; and Francesco Vitucci, 44, of Vaughan, alleged to be Figlimoeni’s former driver who moved up to help run a café.

One man was not found when police came knocking. Giacomo Cassano, 46, of Toronto is wanted for gambling and drug charges.

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