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IDENTITY THEFT

A very lucky escape for an unlucky man

Mild-mannered Spanish osteopath was shocked to find himself wrongly jailed in Italy as a mafia drugs baron. He was finally released thanks to a rare stroke of fortune

José Vicente Piera Ripoll is now back at work in Gandia, following his 248 days in an Italian prison
José Vicente Piera Ripoll is now back at work in Gandia, following his 248 days in an Italian prisonJosé Jordán

You may think that José Vicente Piera Ripoll, who spent 248 days in prison due to a case of mistaken identity, is a man with plenty of reasons to feel angry and bitter. However, four years on he is still an apparently calm man, devoid of rancor. He is convinced that doing what you can for other people reaps its own reward. It is no surprise that he is so optimistic; despite all he has been through, in retrospect, he has been very lucky.

In 2008, 134 men accused of being members of a criminal organization were arrested in Italy, and he was sentenced to 15 years for drug trafficking.

But Piera Ripoll is not a drug trafficker. Nor is he the head of a criminal organization. Nor had he ever been to Italy, where he was tried and convicted in absentia, as cases involving organized crime often are in Italy. He is an osteopath from Gandía, Valencia province, who works with disabled children. Prior to his extradition, the only time he had ever been abroad was when he went to the Caribbean on his honeymoon.

It was for this trip that he had applied for a passport, although he only used it once. When he returned from his romantic holiday, he left it in some corner of his house and did not think about it again.

Little did he know that years later it would be his passport that would lead him to ruin.

How can I be a 'supercapo' in Italy if in Spain I am a nobody?"

His extraordinary experience began back on April 17, 2009. Around mid-morning he received a telephone call from a police inspector at the station in Gandía. The inspector said that he had a summons for him. There were no more details. It did not seem urgent so believing it would be a parking fine or something similar, Piera Ripoll said that he would go to the police station when he finished work.

He went along as promised, but the police officer was not there. So Piera Ripoll left.

He received another phone call: "Excuse me, could you come now?"

He went back, still wearing his work uniform. He waited for 10 minutes.

When the inspector finally arrived, Piera Ripoll was told: "I have an international arrest warrant for you. You are sentenced to 15 years in prison for drugs trafficking." The police officer proceeded to search him.

It was nearly 250 days before he would see his home again.

The day after his arrest he was taken to the High Court in Madrid, where he was informed that he would be extradited to Italy. He was sent to the prison at Soto del Real outside the capital to await his transfer.

He protested his innocence, saying: "How can I be a supercapo in Italy if in Spain I am a nobody?" He did not know that there are many international criminals living double lives in Spain as if they do not exist.

Nearly all of the prisoners at 'The Opera' were serving life sentences

His lawyer asked the authorities for proof that Piera Ripoll was indeed the man the Italian police were looking for. Could they provide finger prints, photos, copies of conversations that were intercepted? There could not be two Piera Ripolls, he argued. Someone must have been using his client's identity.

No reply came from Italy. "These matters are treated as an agreement of mutual trust between Italy and Spain," explains Piera Ripoll. For this reason, the actions of the Italian courts were not questioned.

After three months, Piera Ripoll flew to Milan accompanied by two police officers. His destination? "The Opera" - the city's prison.

He had managed to survive prison at Soto del Real with a reasonable quality of life. The reason for this is simple: as an osteopath he was able to do plenty to help his fellow inmates. All he needed were his hands and a good technique. He had plenty of customers.

At Opera, things were very different. Whereas in Spain he was able to make 10 phone calls a day, in Italy he could only make two a week. At Soto del Real he had spent a lot of time outside in the yard, but at Opera he was locked up in his cell.

However, just as in Spain, he was able to use his skills as an osteopath to help his fellow prisoners. "Nearly all of the prisoners were serving life sentences, more than 30 years. That's why they try to get comfortable in prison; because it is where they know they will spend the rest of their days."

He would have celebrated both his 50th and 60th birthdays in jail

The news from his lawyer in Madrid was daunting. There was no way to reopen the case. They would have to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which would have meant three or four years in prison waiting for the case to be heard.

Each block at Opera has its own yard and its own life. It is not easy to talk to prisoners in other blocks.

One day, Piera Ripoll met an old friend, an Italian called Massimo whose wife had been a patient of his back in Gandía. The pair had been out drinking together a few times.

He told his old friend what had happened to him. It was then that Massimo made a confession; he had stolen Piera Ripoll's passport and delivered it to gang boss, "El Gordo." Massimo had been arrested in 2008.

The Italian confessed. If he had not, Piera Ripoll would now have had 10 years of his sentence left. He would have been celebrating both his 50th and 60th birthdays in jail. He would have missed 15 years of his son's life.

Massimo recommended an Italian lawyer who knew how to pull strings. They were able to compare a photograph of Piera Ripoll with that of El Gordo (whose real identity was Colombian Paulo George de Silva Sousa).

Finally, he was able to persuade the courts to release him.

Piera Ripoll later received 85,000 euros in compensation and at six in the evening on December 21, 2009 he was able to say goodbye to The Opera.

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