Giovanni di Stefano claimed to represent Saddam Hussein and Gary Glitter, yet didn’t have a single qualification to his name
Giovanni di Stefano represented the most dangerous despots and took on barristers – and often won - then he was jailed for fraud CREDIT: Alberto Conti/LUZ/Eyevine
He is known as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’, and rarely can there have been a more deliciously appropriate epithet.
In a legal career that seemingly knew no bounds, Giovanni di Stefano claimed to have offered counsel to Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, Arkan, Robert Mugabe, Ian Brady and Gary Glitter, to name but a few, and regarded many of them as personal friends.
Saddam Hussein? ‘A normal, average, everyday person.’ Milošević? ‘A very nice man. F—k me, what a nice man.’ Harold Shipman? ‘Does he look like a guilty man to you?’ He even said he would defend Satan in court if he could, arguing that ‘no one’s ever asked, “Does Satan have a case?”’ Ditto Adolf Hitler.
In the late ’90s and throughout the noughties, di Stefano was rarely out of the headlines for long, making his name with court victories for notorious landlord Nicholas van Hoogstraten and gangster John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer before graduating to global pariahs.
He was also a walking headline, not only pulling off breathtakingly audacious victories for big-name villains, but ready with a quote, delivered in fluent journalese.
Describing his first encounter with bin Laden, for example, he said: ‘He had very soft skin and a handshake like a girl’s. We talked about Titian.’
His insatiable appetite for notoriety could not, however, be satisfied merely by befriending despots and murderers. He wanted to become a movie mogul, so he instigated a takeover of MGM Studios.
He wanted to own a football club, so he bought an Italian team and got on the board of Dundee FC. He wanted to be a politician, so he founded his own party, the Radical Party of Great Britain, borrowing policies from his two greatest heroes – Margaret Thatcher and Benito Mussolini. He wanted to be a pop star, so he released a CD. The list goes on.
If there was drama in court, on a battlefield, on a soccer pitch or in Tinseltown, di Stefano never seemed far from the fray. ‘He just kept popping up everywhere, like Where’s Wally,’ says the director of a new documentary about him.
Di Stefano with Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan CREDIT: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images
From humble beginnings as the son of a cobbler, growing up in southern Italy and later in a council house in Northamptonshire, he appeared to have achieved it all: homes in London, Monaco, Marbella, Majorca and Rome; Rolls-Royces, Hollywood contacts, millions in the bank.
‘Giovanni was someone who dreamt and the following morning he made it come true,’ said financier Giancarlo Parretti, the former owner of MGM. Or, as another client, the former It girl Birgit Cunningham, put it: ‘He saw his life as a movie.’
Exactly which movie that would be is harder to pin down, rather like the man himself. Because almost nothing about Giovanni di Stefano is as it seems.
While it is undoubtedly true that di Stefano possesses a sharp legal brain that has outwitted respected barristers, it is also true that he is one of the world’s most accomplished con artists.
For a start, he isn’t a lawyer at all. Nor is he an undercover spy, as he once claimed to be, or an ex-boyfriend of the rock star Suzi Quatro, as he boasted while still a schoolboy.
The houses? Rented. The cars? Borrowed. The money? Often stolen. Even his client list was partially invented. As for his legal qualifications… non-existent.
The truth eventually caught up with him and di Stefano is currently serving a 22-year sentence for multiple counts of fraud, deception and money laundering. It is by no means the first time he has been incarcerated; indeed, one of the undeniably impressive facts about him is that he has packed so much into his 66 years, despite spending almost a third of them behind bars.
Next year he will become eligible for release, and as the legal world braces itself for what he might do when he walks free, a three-part Sky documentary, which starts on 15 February, will attempt to answer the question of who exactly Giovanni di Stefano really is.
It is titled Devil’s Advocate: The Mostly True Story of Giovanni di Stefano, because as its director Sam Hobkinson discovered, establishing irrefutable facts about di Stefano is like nailing tiramisu to a wall.
‘What he did very cleverly was, he told lies that were very close to the truth,’ he says. ‘The truth was always in there somewhere, but it was embellished. There was a fog of truth and lies.’
Di Stefano was described by the judge at his most recent trial as a man guilty of ‘greed, dishonesty and utter disregard for the sensibilities of others’.
As well as passing himself off as something he wasn’t, he stole from clients and used forgery to steal from people who had never hired him. He was convicted of swindling more than £1 million, though the true total may be much higher.
Yet what makes him fascinating is that he cannot be simply filed away in a box marked ‘fraudster’. Some of his legal victories were both genuine and brilliant, despite his lack of qualifications.
‘Everyone had their questions about this guy – he turns up, he wins cases, but he has no background,’ says Hobkinson. ‘People had questions about his legal credentials yet nothing happened.’
Jerome Lynch QC, a barrister with almost 40 years’ experience, worked alongside di Stefano on around 10 cases in the noughties, including the defence of Ian Strachan, who was jailed for five years in 2008 for attempting to blackmail a member of the Royal family in a plot involving claims of gay sex.
Lynch explains, ‘There were rumours about whether Giovanni was qualified or not, and I thought perhaps he wasn’t properly qualified in this country but had a qualification in Italy.
It didn’t matter [to me] because I never worked directly for him. There was always an intervening solicitor and I understood him to be a freelance who introduced work to firms of solicitors who would let him work on cases with them.’
Di Stefano claimed to be an ‘avvocato’ in Italy and it seems no one checked his bona fides. But Lynch says there was nothing bogus about the work he put in.
‘In the cases he worked on with me, he was as good a lawyer as you could get. He was diligent in his analysis, he was committed in the amount of work he invested in it, and he came up with novel and interesting legal arguments that others had not seen.’
Stefano famously said he would defend Satan in court if he could, arguing that ‘no one’s ever asked, “Does Satan have a case?”’ CREDIT: Alberto Conti/LUZ/Eyevine
In 2003 di Stefano was credited with helping timeshare businessman and gangster John Palmer, once described as Britain’s richest criminal, to defeat a £33 million confiscation order after papers served on him referred to the wrong section of an Act.
Palmer, who got his ‘Goldfinger’ nickname after being acquitted of handling gold bullion in the £26 million Brink’s-Mat raid in 1983, served four years in prison after being convicted of swindling money out of 20,000 people.
The previous year di Stefano had helped score another high-profile victory when he worked on behalf of van Hoogstraten, who had been convicted of the manslaughter of a business rival and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Van Hoogstraten’s team successfully argued that the jury at his trial had been misdirected by the judge, and a retrial at the Old Bailey collapsed after the prosecution failed to prove that van Hoogstraten, who was alleged to have sent two thugs to confront his rival, knew they had taken a gun with them. Van Hoogstraten walked free.
Yet, in a contradiction that is typical of any story about di Stefano, van Hoogstraten now claims he never hired di Stefano at all, even though records show he was visited by him in Belmarsh prison and went to the High Court to demand the visits be allowed to continue.
Lynch believes the discrepancy may be explained by di Stefano’s modus operandi of pitching ideas to law firms that then paid him as a subcontractor, meaning he was not necessarily hired directly by defendants.
Regardless, word went round the criminal underworld that di Stefano got results, and wasn’t afraid to bend the rules. With his rectangular glasses, beaky nose and small mouth, he even had the look of a Mafia consigliere.
Six of the most notorious clients di Stefano has represented – or claims to have represented: Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Robert Mugabe, John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, Saddam Hussein, Arkan, Jeremy Bamber CREDIT: Getty Images
‘When I was working with him I would have described him as bright, diligent, committed to finding loopholes and an interesting character,’ says Lynch, ‘but I would also have said “be wary” because not everything he says is necessarily 100 per cent accurate. He was just on the right side of shady, playing everything right up to the edge, but someone you could have fun with, he had a sense of humour.’
Lynch is unapologetic about the fact that he liked di Stefano. ‘He was so enthusiastic about everything, and he was always looking for an angle. He was quite irreverent and I find that quite attractive. We would talk about a wide breadth of subjects, including politics, and I always found him to be interesting.’
Did he embellish stories about himself? ‘Of course! We all do that to some degree. He liked to beef himself up. He came across a little like a failed entrepreneur, he always had the big one just coming up, it was always right on the very edge, but it never materialised.’
Knowing what he knows now, Lynch describes him as ‘a damn fool’ because, ‘He is really good at it and he is better in some ways than many a lawyer, but he wanted to present himself in a way that clearly was wrong.’
Or, as di Stefano himself put it: ‘I have fought some of the best legal brains in the UK. If I’m unqualified, what on earth does that tell you about them? They should make me the f—king Lord Chief Justice.’
Lynch’s description of a man perpetually on the brink of The Big One brings to mind an Italianate Del Boy, except that Sir David Jason’s cockney chancer believed he would be a millionaire by ‘this time next year’ whereas di Stefano always expected to be a millionaire by this time tomorrow.
The saga of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer takeover in 1990 is a case in point.
‘Giovanni came to see me in Rome and he told me he wanted to buy MGM and the adventure began,’ said Giancarlo Parretti, who had earlier tried and failed to buy Pathé.
In his self-published book, The MGM Connection, di Stefano claims to have been ‘the man at the helm of MGM for four years’. However, other reports suggest that in reality he may have been snubbed by his prospective partners.
Parretti, who claimed to know di Stefano because he was ‘the nephew of [film producer] Dino De Laurentiis’s hairdresser’, went ahead with a tortured takeover of MGM, presided over a series of flops including Rocky V, and lost control of the studio when he defaulted on a bank loan.
Parretti and his business partner Florio Fiorini were found guilty of bribing officials of Crédit Lyonnais bank to lend them the money to buy MGM.
Di Stefano was not prosecuted because, in the di Stefano version of events, he stayed on the right side of the law. In the Parretti version of events it was because: ‘He was never our business partner. He never set foot in MGM. I never thought one could do business with him. Lunch, yes. I had lunch with him five or six times but no, these are fantasies.’
Nicholas van Hoogstraten and friend leaving the High Court CREDIT: Abbie Trayler-Smith
Di Stefano has claimed that amid the opaque goings-on, he bought a chain of 50 UK cinemas for £8 million and sold them to Crédit Lyonnais for £160 million, which he said formed part of a personal fortune of £450 million.
He also said he was advised to leave America by an ex-CIA agent and decided to lie low in the Balkans because, he later explained, ‘Who the hell is going to look for me in a war zone?’
The truth was rather more prosaic: he was deported from the US after details of previous criminal convictions came to light. The £450 million fortune was another fantasy. Di Stefano was almost certainly paid large sums by some of his clients, but it slipped through his fingers as quickly as it arrived, so he topped up his income through fraud and theft.
In 1990, as the MGM buyout was taking shape, di Stefano befriended a travel agent and was, she says, interested in buying her travel agency for $400,000.
He paid her a small deposit and she subsequently got a phone call from American Express saying she owed $250,000 in travellers’ cheques – di Stefano had used his foothold in her company to get access to the AmEx account and then disappeared with the cash, she claims.
The story of how di Stefano became the man he is begins in 1955 and the village of Petrella Tifernina near Campobasso in southern Italy, where he was born into a humble family. Di Stefano describes them as ‘peasant stock’.
When he was four, his father, unable to find work in Italy, emigrated to England and took a job in a shoe factory in Northampton, sending money home to di Stefano and his mother.
Even at such a young age, there were early signs of the man he would become. ‘Wherever there was trouble Giovanni would be in the middle of it,’ his childhood friend Angelo di Lallo said.
When di Stefano was six he and his mother joined his father, settling into a council house in the village of Irchester. He would later say that he was bullied at school as an ‘Eyetie’, and so he started calling himself John to try to fit in.
He claimed that the racism he suffered in childhood drove him to help underdogs, no matter how desperate the cause. ‘When everybody else has abandoned you, that is a terrible feeling,’ he once said.
‘I have been there myself when everybody else thinks that you’re finished, you’ve gone and you’re a loser and you’re a nothing and a nobody. I had that, I had that most of my childhood here as an Italian.’
Teachers and friends remember a boy who would try to win popularity through showmanship. Former classmate Martin Bridgeford said: ‘He was always immaculately turned out and he was a natural performer, happy on stage.’ He also told Bridgeford he had written a play and was writing a novel.
Di Stefano arriving at court in 2013 CREDIT: Getty Images
Howard Buchanan, who taught him at Wellingborough Grammar School, said he made ‘a big splash in the music society’ and formed a pop group called Chuck-wills’-widow.
In later life, di Stefano would claim to have appeared with his band on the talent show Opportunity Knocks, though no evidence of it exists. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if he claimed he had been on Opportunity Knocks,’ said Buchanan. ‘It would surprise me to learn he had actually been on it… He had the beginnings of a con man.’
Di Stefano has said he was inspired as a schoolboy by the works of George Bernard Shaw, who likened poverty to a disease. He remarked: ‘When I read that as a kid I thought, “Well, f—king hell, I better go and get rich then.”’ And so began his lifelong obsession with money and fame.
Riches did not come easily, at first. After a stint as a waiter in London’s Savoy Hotel, he moved to Cambridge where he found a job as a lab technician and research assistant. By 1978, aged 23, he was married, and went on to father four children with his first wife, Tanja, a New Zealander: Michael, now 42, Antony, 41, Anna Meri, 40, and Milan, 39.
It is at this point in his life that di Stefano and the truth seem to have parted company.
He began claiming to have a PhD in law from Cambridge University, and to have set up a business importing videotapes from Hong Kong, which he claimed earned him a £200 million fortune while he was in his 20s.
The pattern that had emerged in his school days was now fully formed: he didn’t have a law doctorate from Cambridge but he did work there; he didn’t make hundreds of millions but he did import videotapes.
Di Stefano has said he was inspired as a schoolboy by the works of George Bernard Shaw, pictured, who likened poverty to a disease CREDIT: Bettmann Archive
By the early 1980s he had become a currency trader selling dollars for sterling to Zimbabwe and South Africa. He found himself at the Old Bailey in 1986, and after a 78-day trial he was jailed for five years for conspiracy to obtain property by deception and fraudulent trading. The judge branded him ‘one of nature’s swindlers, swindling without a scruple of conscience’.
It was shortly after his release that he moved to California and later to the Balkans, where he displayed his uncanny knack of inserting himself into the action.
He quickly befriended and began advising both Slobodan Milošević, then president of Serbia (now remembered as a war criminal), and Zeljko Ražnatović, better known as the Serb paramilitary commander Arkan.
Di Stefano would later explain his ‘in’ with the pair by claiming that Arkan had become a ‘true and loyal friend’ when they both worked in hotels in London (almost certainly another lie).
Di Stefano was appointed an honorary general in the feared Serb Volunteer Guard – dubbed ‘Arkan’s Tigers’ – and effectively became a spokesman for the warlord, shrugging off charges that the militia were to blame for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. ‘I didn’t give orders to kill anyone or anything,’ he protested later.
In the Balkans he met his second wife Mirjana, an interpreter, with whom he fathered another son, Gianni. Then came his return to England in 1999 (or, more accurately, his extradition from Rome to face fraud charges that were eventually timed out) and a decade of high-profile clients including sex offender and former DJ Jonathan King, murderer Jeremy Bamber, train robber Ronnie Biggs, Britain’s ‘most violent prisoner’ Charles Bronson and even, posthumously, Dr Crippen.
He also claimed to be representing Harold Shipman but both the Shipman family and the late serial killer’s legal team have denied he was ever involved.
Di Stefano’s legend was given wings by a 2003 BBC documentary called Notorious, in which he claimed that Hitler would never have been convicted of killing Jews, and boasted of his friendship with Saddam Hussein.
‘I had about three meetings with Saddam and found him to be a very amenable person,’ he said. ‘He spoke reasonable English, liked a drink… and talked about his children. He was a normal, average, everyday man. I took it as a compliment when I learnt from his wife that he wanted me on his defence team.’
He also claimed the Iraqi dictator was hooked on Premier League football and went ‘mad’ for Jaffa Cakes.
It was this cheeky chappie approach that made di Stefano so popular with journalists, but away from the cameras he was both ruthless and heartless in his criminality.
Anthony Chatzifotiou, now 47 and an NHS psychotherapist at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, was one of his victims. While on holiday in Argentina in 2009, Chatzifotiou was involved in a coach crash which ripped off his left arm and damaged his right arm so badly that it was at risk of amputation. It took five years and 25 operations to save it and restore its function.
Chatzifotiou’s travel insurance entitled him to £150,000 compensation for loss of a limb, and the insurer agreed to pay but asked him to sign a liability release statement. He said he needed to seek legal advice first and an anaesthetist at Charing Cross Hospital offered to put him in touch with a ‘really good lawyer’ who had represented his brother.
Stefano claimed to be representing notorious serial killer Harold Shipman, until his family and legal team denied he was ever involved CREDIT: Getty Images
‘At the end of a long day of treatment I got a phone call from the lawyer, who told me his name was Giovanni di Stefano,’ Chatzifotiou recalls.
‘He said he was calling from Iraq and started talking about all the other cases he had dealt with. I could tell straight away he wasn’t someone I would get involved with, he was so full of himself and asked me to sign an authority paper to represent me. I said I wasn’t going to make any decisions at that point and that was the end of the conversation.’
The call lasted four minutes and was the one and only time Chatzifotiou spoke to Giovanni di Stefano.
Almost three years later, with the insurance claim still outstanding, Chatzifotiou engaged a law firm in Cardiff to pursue the payment. ‘They contacted the insurer to demand the compensation was paid to me. That was when the bomb exploded.’
The insurer’s underwriters explained that they had paid the compensation three years earlier to Chatzifotiou’s authorised solicitor, Rome-based Studio Legale Internazionale. ‘I googled the name of the firm and di Stefano’s name came up. I just thought, “Oh my God.”’
Papers shared by the insurers showed that a forged authorisation document had been sent to them in September 2010, on the day Chatzifotiou was undergoing a 15-hour operation. The money was paid out days later.
Chatzifotiou agreed to an out of court settlement against the underwriters, but said, ‘The effect on me has been massive. It’s not even about the money. It has completely knocked my ability to trust other people.’
By this point di Stefano had come to the attention of the City of London Police force’s fraud squad, where a detective constable called Jerry Walters would spend seven years doggedly building a case against him.
A client of di Stefano’s complained to police that she had paid him £100,000 to handle a bail application but that nothing was ever done.
Walters checked the police database for previous convictions and found nothing, but did discover a John di Stefano who had three fraud convictions going back as far as 1975. John and Giovanni had the same fingerprints, yet di Stefano claimed it was not him.
Police eventually caught up with him in a villa in Majorca, arresting him in 2011 over multiple fraud allegations. On the flight home he chatted to British police about football, about Real Madrid, about being friends with the club’s chairman, how his son was on the club’s books.
Once they got him back to the UK, the case took a dramatic twist: di Stefano told police he was a long-standing MI6 agent and had been acting at all times out of patriotism and selflessness. It also meant he was immune from prosecution, he claimed.
In his role as an international spy he had gained access to persons of interest to MI6, the CIA and Mossad, and it was of course true that his roster of clients included Saddam Hussein, Arkan and Slobodan Milošević. He even claimed to have offered legal advice to Osama bin Laden.
There was more. His father, he said, had been murdered in 2006 by British security services, partly as revenge for having filed legal papers against Tony Blair on behalf of Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister.
The trial was, therefore, politically motivated, and di Stefano began a private prosecution against DC Walters for corruption and hounding witnesses, which was quickly thrown out.
In January 2013 di Stefano stood trial at Southwark Crown Court on 25 charges of fraud, deception and money laundering, including stealing from Chatzifotiou. At his trial he told the court that he was a qualified advocate because Milošević had awarded him an honorary law doctorate from the University of Belgrade ‘simply because he had asked’.
He was convicted of all the charges and handed a 14-year sentence, which the following year was increased by a further eight and a half years after he refused to pay £1.4 million in compensation to his victims.
Judge Alistair McCreath said di Stefano had preyed on ‘desperate and vulnerable’ clients and mounted a ‘breathtakingly cynical’ defence in court.
But Lynch believes the sentence was unusually harsh and says, ‘You could argue it was the legal establishment’s revenge.’
Giovanni Di Stefano arrives at Southwark Crown Court in London January 29, 2013 CREDIT: Suzanne Plunkett
Sam Hobkinson has reached the conclusion that di Stefano ‘started out with more honest intentions than he ended with’. He says, ‘Defrauding clients was not the reason he got into lawyering. The stand he wanted to take against the Establishment would be seen by a lot of people as a worthy one.
‘I think he truly believes that everyone deserves legal representation, no matter how villainous they might seem. He clearly has a very astute mind and I don’t think he was being a criminal for the sake of it, it was a means to an end.
He was a lover of the good life and when the money ran out more money had to be found to fuel that life. He is an intelligent guy who is bored very easily, he wants to be at the centre of things, he loves gossip and intrigue and wants to be the centre of attention.’
And Lynch agrees that what motivates di Stefano is ‘notoriety first, money second. He wanted to be recognised for what he achieved.’
Di Stefano was once asked for his own explanation of why he had become obsessed with the legal world.
He replied: ‘What else have I got to do? Some people take mistresses, some people have polo ponies, some people play bridge, some people like football, some people like collecting stamps, some people enjoy ornithology. I like the law. What’s wrong with that? It’s my hobby, my vocation.’
Lynch regularly calls di Stefano in prison. ‘I still keep in touch because he hasn’t got any friends now. People do stupid things in life and he has hurt a lot of people with his bullshit but I liked him then and I still like him.
‘I suspect that when he is released he will want to make television programmes about his life. There is no chance of Giovanni ever going quietly.’
Giancarlo Parretti, meanwhile, has already thought of a title for any autobiographical work that di Stefano may one day write.
With an ironic smile he says, ‘The title would have to be “How I tell lies”.’