LOCRI, ITALY—Italian prosecutors are calling for a Thunder Bay man to be sent to prison for 19 years if found guilty of Mafia charges in a trial authorities say highlights the global reach of a secretive organized crime clan, from the Calabrian region of southern Italy all the way to northern Ontario.
Giuseppe Bruzzese, 66, who was arrested while in Italy in 2011, is accused of “Mafia association” — a serious crime there, which has no comparable offence in Canada — after being caught on secret police recordings meeting with a top crime boss in that country.
Bruzzese, who denies the charges, looked relaxed and confident during the proceedings in the sweltering courtroom, wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt and smiling from behind the glass wall that separates prisoners from spectators and the battery of lawyers.
But his trial — and outstanding Italian arrest warrants issued for three other Thunder Bay residents, including a successful local businessman — may shed light on the connection between the city and a powerful Mafia organization called the ’Ndrangheta.
Thunder Bay, population 108,000, may not seem an obvious base of operations for international organized crime, but a joint investigation by the Toronto Star and Radio-Canada/CBC has obtained court records showing what one Italian judge called “amazing implications” about a “parallel existence” of Mafia cells in Thunder Bay.
Bruzzese was one of four Thunder Bay men named in Italian arrest warrants issued in February 2011 as part of a two-year investigation called Operazione Crimine.
Also listed in the arrest warrants are Antonio Minnella, 72, who runs a real-estate and development firm; a retired welder named Rocco Etreni, 66; and Cosimo Cirillo, 55.
Minnella denied he has any connection to the Mafia, in a telephone interview with the CBC on Thursday.
Canada does not recognize the crime of “Mafia association” as an extraditable offence, in effect putting those three Thunder Bay residents out of the reach of Italian law.
But Bruzzese, whose lawyer says he is retired from the construction industry and visits Italy every year, had the misfortune of being was outside of Canada at the time of the Crimine crackdown.
“In Bruzzese’s case, we followed him in Italy and arrested him quickly,” said prosecutor Antonio De Bernardo, who is in charge of the case at the tribunal of Locri, a Calabrian hotbed of ’Ndrangheta activity.
Bruzzese’s defence lawyer, Armando Gerace, said the crime of Mafia association was “unclear.”
“My client is a humble man, a man who never committed a crime in Canada. Perfect reputation. How can he be a mobster?” he said. “They . . . never came out with a single crime, a single act of intimidation committed by Bruzzese.”
The ’Ndrangheta, a family and clan-based gang, is considered by police to have displaced the better-known Sicilian Mafia as the fastest-rising Italian-based crime organization.
A Star/Radio-Canada investigation last fall revealed Ontario has become an international “penal colony” for alleged Italian Mafia figures who find refuge here, untouched by Canadian law. RCMP officials told the Star there are likely two ’Ndrangheta cells — or “locali” — in Thunder Bay and five in Toronto.
The Italian allegations derive from a series of meetings and conversations between visiting Canadians and a prominent ’Ndrangheta leader who was eventually jailed for Mafia activity.
Giuseppe (The Master) Commisso held court inside his basement laundromat in Siderno, Italy, in 2009 where police were monitoring his activities as part of the Crimine probe.
Commisso was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
At a February 2011 hearing in Reggio Calabria before Judge Kate Tassone to determine pretrial detention, Bruzzese and the other Thunder Bay men faced charges of holding “important positions” within the ’Ndrangheta, which meant “taking the most important decisions, giving instructions or imposing other sanctions associated with their subordinates.”
In her ruling, Tassone said the allegations of “association with the Mafia” were connected to underworld crimes of firearms and drug trafficking, extortion and murders, and concluded there was sufficient evidence to order the arrest of Bruzzese and the other men.
“We have them on audio talking to The Master about activities in Thunder Bay,” prosecutor De Bernardo said in an interview. “Anyone who spoke to The Master is a boss or a powerful player.”
Court documents allege Bruzzese attended at least two of the meetings with the ’Ndrangheta leader between July 27 and Aug. 10, 2009.
Proceedings against Bruzzese and about a half dozen defendants in the case began several months ago. A verdict is expected by the end of July.
With files from Alberto Nerazzini in Locri, Italy.
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