Daniele Lo Presti: tale of sleaze, blackmail and organised crime

Examination of mafia-like hit on one of Italy's best-known paparazzo exposes a sordid world where the hunters have become the hunted

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 May, 2013, 2:32am


It is more than two months since Italian paparazzo Daniele Lo Presti was murdered under Testaccio bridge in Rome. Lo Presti had been due to meet friends for a run on February 27 at 5.30pm, and had been jogging on the footpath that follows the Tiber River.

He was wearing a tracksuit and trainers and had his keys around his neck. As Lo Presti ran under the bridge's grey concrete arches, someone shot him in the head at point-blank range.

The murder caused shockwaves because Lo Presti was one of the biggest names in the murky world of Italian paparazzi. Nicknamed "Johnny", he had snapped Brad Pitt in Malta; he had caught Rihanna on camera in Capri; he had taken a famous series of photographs of Sara Tommasi, one of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's bunga bunga girls, performing a striptease in front of an ATM. He worked for LaPresse agency and was considered a shrewd, savvy operator, one of a pack of surreptitious snappers who would do almost anything to get a scoop.

The immediate assumption was that Lo Presti had been murdered for invading someone's privacy. A Chinese neighbour in Via Portuense described hearing an argument, and the noisy moving of furniture in Lo Presti's flat, as if someone were searching it. There were other theories: that Lo Presti was a heavy gambler with large debts. There were rumours that one of the homeless people who lived under the bridge was a key witness.

But the notion he was killed for intrusive photographs was soon discredited: Rino Barillari, who has been snapping stars since the era of the Dolce Vita, was interviewed by the daily Il Messaggero and expressed disbelief that anyone would kill just for a photograph. Slowly, and with a sad inevitability, it gradually became clear Lo Presti was more likely a victim not of a vengeful celebrity, but of organised crime.

Lo Presti's death was the culmination of a haunting few months for Italian photography. Only a month before, the photographer Danilo Cerreti died in an unexplained motorbike crash in Rome; and earlier this year Fabrizio Corona, the so-called "King of Paparazzi" who had been on the run in Portugal, was extradited to Italy and started seven years' jail for using compromising photos to blackmail former Juventus striker David Trezeguet.

The game of cat and mouse between paparazzi and stars has always been dangerous (Barillari will proudly tell you he has been admitted to hospital 164 times in his long career). But never until now has the game seemed quite so costly, even deadly. The hunters have become the hunted.

The career of Corona has become emblematic of that change. From a family of respected Sicilian journalists, Corona was never a photographer, but rather the head of an agency - Corona's - that ran a pack of paparazzi. Corona's got scoop after scoop, until Corona hit on a more lucrative scheme: take compromising photographs of stars and then sell them back to the celebrity concerned. Corona called it selling to the highest bidder. Most considered it blackmail.

The scam worked for years. Many of the photos fetched €40,000 (HK$407,000) to €50,000 and Corona had become, in his words, a Robin Hood "stealing from the rich to give to myself".

It came crashing down when Anglo-Italian magistrate John Henry Woodcock began investigating the way certain men used beautiful young women as counters in the casino of power. The scandal became known as vallettopoli and the great and good of Italian society seemed to be involved: the mistress of a politician was given a TV role to induce her lover to change political allegiance; starlets were passed from politicians to entrepreneurs, who were then wire-tapped discussing their sexual abilities. Young girls, it became clear, were sweeteners in business transactions. As Woodcock's probe continued, the world of Italian glamour began to appear deeply soiled.

Barillari, like Lo Presti, was originally from Calabria. As for Lo Presti's murder, Barillari believes the secret lies in that troubled region, not in his work as a photographer. "He must have seen something down there," he says.

Lo Presti's friends revealed he had been talking about a "complicated" situation with a woman he was taking away for the weekend. Many in Rome have speculated that given the professional nature of the hit, it was a woman whose family was part of the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. And rather than wanting to expose it, someone wanted the story, and the man, buried.