David Fisher

Senior reporter of the year

Cold case gets chef in hot water

Fingerprint scanners led to chef Antonio Crisci's arrest in Los Angeles. Photo / NZ Herald
Fingerprint scanners led to chef Antonio Crisci's arrest in Los Angeles. Photo / NZ Herald

A high-society restaurant owner turned to an ex-All Black and a multi-millionaire businessman for bail money after being arrested in the United States on historic charges that prosecutors allege stemmed from a heroin deal.

Chef and restaurateur Antonio Crisci, 59, returned to New Zealand three months ago after being sentenced in the United States cold case.

He was arrested after fingerprint scanners at Los Angeles Airport matched him to a 25-year-old arrest warrant for "Mario Starace".

Crisci has refused to comment but his US lawyers say the restaurateur had no idea he had left the US as a wanted man in 1987.

He was kept in the US for six months last year - including time in jail - before pleading guilty and being sentenced on a 1987 charge of deliberately structuring bank deposits to avoid government detection.

In January, Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York sentenced Crisci to time served and ordered him to pay US$10,000 ($12,230) to the court "representing the proceeds obtained".

Charges alleging a conspiracy to import and distribute heroin were dropped after the sentencing.

Crisci's lawyer, David Willingham, described as a "rising star" specialising in high-profile cases, said his client was unaware he had left the US as a wanted man in 1987.

"There's no evidence he even knew what was going on. He moved to New Zealand and started a new life for himself."

Mr Willingham said there was no sign of any illegal conduct by Crisci for 25 years.

"This is a chance for him to move on with his life, live with his family, his children and his wife and resolve an issue that apparently cropped up 25 years ago."

He said Crisci's friends and family were ready to raise money for bail.

Crisci - inmate number 61021-112 - was held in jail for a fortnight until a group of friends collected $665,000 of the $805,000 bail bond.

They included ex-All Black Andy Haden, who put up $50,000, $90 million rich lister Kevin Harvey and wealthy IT whiz Dean Marris, who each put in $100,000.

The bail allowed the award-winning chef to leave the Metropolitan Detainment Centre in Los Angeles for home detention in New York where he got special court permission to volunteer at a charity kitchen for the seriously ill.

Crisci is known for founding Italian restaurants Toto, Waiheke Island's Poderi Crisci and Non Solo Pizza, which has been a regular for Hollywood star Tommy Lee Jones during his current stay in New Zealand.

In court US Attorney Preet Bharara sought up to 18 months in prison for Crisci. "As the court is aware, those charges stem from the defendant's involvement in a September 1987, 500g heroin transaction."

He said Crisci was "involved in a significant heroin transaction and then took steps to conceal the fact his proceeds from the transaction were drug money".

Mr Bharara said Crisci had left the US in 1987 just after the undercover drug buy took place. He said Crisci had changed his name and moved to New Zealand, making "dubious" Crisci's claim he was not trying to "conceal his involvement in the criminal activity".

US Attorney's office lawyer, Vicki Chou, told an earlier bail hearing that the investigation stemmed from an inquiry into an international drug trafficking ring.

Crisci refused to comment to the Weekend Herald.

His lawyer, David Ryken, said Crisci was not convicted of a drug charge. Mr Ryken said Crisci and partner Vivienne Farnell "do not see any point in your focus on things that are in the past". Judge Praska told Crisci he could spend four hours, two days a week, working for a volunteer kitchen delivering 4000 meals a day to seriously ill people in the New York.

Judge Praska was told Crisci was an accomplished and celebrated chef. Crisci's tasks would include "chopping carrots, wrapping rolls, peeling potatoes or making meatballs".

"I expect his experience in the kitchen would be of great benefit to the organisation," said one of Crisci's lawyers.

United States authorities accused Crisci in court of using a false name but later returned his New Zealand passport.

Crisci told the Herald three years ago he had arrived in New Zealand in 1991 and spent 18 months travelling the country before deciding to stay.

He said he had come from the United States by way of his native Italy.

He said he had made money in New York selling Italian fashions, including Armani, before returning to Italy. From there, he said he sailed with friends to the Caribbean and Pacific, ending in New Zealand.

An Immigration NZ spokesman said any declaration Crisci made when he arrived was irrelevant because he now had citizenship.

An Internal Affairs spokesman said the department considered any issues which might affect "good character" requirements would be declared by applicants for citizenship.

He said issues which were not declared could be grounds for removing citizenship.

Mr Haden, Mr Marris and Mr Harvey refused to comment.

Spazio Casa owner Paolo Cozzolino, who put in $50,000, said he was called by a lawyer in the US who explained Crisci needed money for bail.

"They asked all the people who knew him for help. At the time I didn't know what it was for.

"I don't know what he has done in the past and I don't care. It was a request for help and we tried to help as much as we could."

Mr Cozzolino said Crisci was a "great man". He had seen him for five minutes since he had returned to the country but hoped to see him soon.

- NZ Herald

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