Aldo Anghessa is dead. The legendary Alpha-Alpha, aka Agent Lotti-Ghetti or Commander Manfredini, two names from thousands of successful masks. He died alone and lonely, as he always lived, even when he was among other people, actor of a spectacular play of which he was always the author, the protagonist and the director, and that he played out instead of his true existence, his true feelings of his true Himself.
The press in Como and Ticino, which still remembers him, could not even define him when it announced his death. At the end they wrote ‘ex 007 from Bergamo’, but Aldo was none of that – he had never been a secret service agent, it was just his public facade to get money from his victims. He didn’t even come from Bergamo, but from a Sicilian family and spent most of his life between Como, Chiasso, Bellinzona and Casco, a remote village on the hill behind Bellagio, where no one could find him and where he rested in the times when he couldn’t get enough money from someone else, and lived on the backing of a pharmacist who was madly in love with him: because Aldo had strong, penetrating blue eyes, he was brave and concealed his utter incompetence in any subject very well, so many women adored him – and not just because he was the greatest boastful genius I have ever known.
In that sense, I probably gave the impression that I despised him, but that’s completely wrong. I loved him in a contradictory way and with difficulty, but like everyone who loved him (including his two male children, especially his two male children), I tried to stay as far away from him as possible as he was choking the lives of others, handled everything and everyone, he was the perfect scorpion to cross the lake on the back of a frog.
However, when I was at the start of my career and got into trouble, he was the only one who really helped me – and when I got back on my feet, he threw a party scam on me, first and last attempt he was successful with me, because then I became careful. But I have no illusions that he ever felt a real friendship for anyone, no matter how funny he was.
Once upon a time, I was away with Helmut, my father-in-law from Leipzig. Aldo met us in Locarno’s main square, menacingly jumped off a pillar, he was wearing a black coat and 1930s gangster hat, and Helmut really believed he had met the devil himself or at least the leader of his personal guard. Whenever we were seated at a table with his audience, he often pretended to whisper something in my ear or someone else’s ear. To give the impression of espionage, he said.
Once there was an American family at a very expensive restaurant in Bellagio eating butter spaghetti that they had squeezed ketchup on. Aldo went to meet them and fed them off his plate so they could taste the difference. They didn’t know how to act, they just realized they had made a fool of themselves. Also because what Aldo called “speaking English” was dramatically funny and barely understandable. I know many smugglers and dealers in weapons and toxic waste who revered him as some kind of harmless snake charmer. But he has never been harmless.
Still in prison today (unless he’s dead) there’s another arms dealer, a former secret service agent, whom Aldo persuaded to negotiate with General Ba, one of the military leaders of the RUF, the militia of mercenaries and child soldiers of the dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor. The agent was supposed to sell counterfeit machine guns to Liberians and, if they were to hand over their weapons, have them arrested by police for the RUF massacres in Sierra Leone.
This agent, another madman, went there with his wife to strut. The militiaman gave her a narrow yard, the girl was impressed and flirted. Suddenly the general frowned and said, suddenly switching from English to Italian: “She is a whore, she is dangerous for our profession, you had better get rid of her“. He drew a gun and smashed the woman’s head at close range, then stood up and disappeared into the lewd and sultry calm of Monrovia. Alpha-Alpha brought the desperate man back to Italy, but he went mad and never recovered.
Aldo never quit his role, even though he risked his life or broke the wall of ridicule. I only saw him once for what he really was. He had spent a year in prison, he looked destroyed, didn’t have a penny. He didn’t know where to go, was shaken by uncontrollable tremors, he was dirty and confused (the same Aldo who cared so much about every detail of his appearance). He stumbled over sentences, he sighed.
At that time, my wife Kerstin and I were living in Menaggio. We took him home and kept him there for a week, and he was like a sad, confused kid hanging out making speeches he had never given before or since. After all, he was showing the fear that had marked his entire life – and that was his great strength, because with that horror behind his back, he was capable of anything: to travel endlessly without ever sleeping; to have unspeakable cynicism; to lie no matter what; he had a clumsy and elegant way of threatening to frighten someone. And make money by promising the moon, then delivering a pebble to the side of the road, which he said was a Venusian stone.
In his youth he wanted to be a parachutist, but he was rejected. And then the Marines rejected him, and he must have played a prank at the time because he was taken out of service, left a girlfriend pregnant and only reappeared a few years later: he ran away to Israel as a pedestrian, after being allegedly trader for firewood in Beirut for a while. Then he was arrested for vagrancy and sent back to Italy. Shortly after, he emerged again like a mole out of a tunnel, halfway between Bellinzona and Locarno, where he had met an innkeeper and had married, had a son and had started bragging for a living.
The method was always the same. He read the newspapers and when he came across an interesting criminal investigation he spoke to the journalists who worked on it. Then he invented an alternative truth. Then he did three things: showed up to the judge, claiming he was a former secret agent who is now a freelance with new evidence – and demanded money. Then he introduced himself to the suspects, promised them protection through a misguided investigation or took evidence that other friends had been involved – and demanded money. Then he spoke to reporters and built another story for them – 50% true and 50% false.
He sometimes constructed the fake with real documents. He did that to me the first time too. He made me feel important. He invited me to lunch or dinner at an expensive hotel in Como, where he didn’t pay because he was blackmailing the owner. He had given him his documents to protect himself in a scandal, and Aldo had handed them to the judge. Alpha-Alpha was a smart man and often guessed the truth by making it up, as he did when he took a carousel ride with a nearly blind Italian trustee in London who told him the truth about the bribes of Telecom Serbia two years before their official discovery.
Aldo had become famous for inventing ‘red mercury’, which he said was a substance that made airplanes invisible to radar, and used a true story of arms smuggling between Trieste and Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) to get accreditation from law enforcement and earn enough money from it for years – and board a contraband ship, the Boustany One, which he promised protection and then took sold to justice.
During the Bosnian War, Aldo uncovered a real case of fraud against the newborn Slovenian state and reported it to German authorities – but it was an investigation that touched powerful personalities. The Munich prosecutor sent an incognito inspector to investigate, although Aldo advised against it. The German policeman was killed with his wife in Trento and the local judge (who went on to have a long and successful career) was never able to find out the truth about these murders. I wrote two important articles about this for the German press, and because of it Aldo brought me to meet a Slovenian human trafficker: a scary man who is currently serving a life sentence in Australia for several murders, pedophilia and car theft. Another fool.
All the prosecutors who had worked with Aldo got into trouble because after a while they no longer understood what was true and what was wrong. He was interviewed by RTSI (Ticino’s State television) and said that an atomic bomb had been left in a safe at Geneva customs and even gave the serial numbers of the box. How did he know that? He had offered to sell arsenic and explosives on behalf of certain Dominican smugglers, then handed over the data from this box to the cantonal police. The Geneva officer who made the arrests told me he laughed himself dead: as he identified and confiscated the box a worker sat on and ate a sandwich with sausages and beer. He had been told not to move, maybe he was sitting on a nuclear device, and the poor guy had vomited and passed out.
When people stopped believing him, he did what I thought was his masterpiece. The Zurich Honorary Consul of a South American country retired, his wife was dying of cancer, he was strapped for cash, and he sold the luggage of all the citizens of the South American country who had passed through his house over the years and left something behind had. The consul (another madman) put advertisements in the newspaper and wrote in one that he had a briefcase with a bottle of uranium and an unidentified red liquid. Aldo told him: I’m Alpha-Alpha, aka CIA Commander Manfredini, I’ll take care of it. He called two Sicilian mafia couriers living in Ticino who had escaped the rigged investigation of the Lugano justice, two thugs from a Slavic suburban bar and a real Russian arms broker and organized a meeting in Zurich to sell enriched uranium and red mercury. All the bullshit. But the Zurich police believed him and arrested everyone, Aldo collected his bounty. After all, neither of the accused was really innocent.
He played this game a thousand and a thousand times until he found out that justice had decided to take revenge for the large sum of money he had deceived on the police. Among other things, authorities said he repeatedly warned that there were bombs on trains and collected the bounty. It was later determined that the bombs could not have detonated and at trial it was alleged that Aldo himself had planted the bombs.
He had a knack for spotting crazy people like Guido Garelli. The latter had invented a non-existent state in the desert of southern Libya and had started trading in arms, gold, oil and burying toxic waste. Aldo stole his girlfriend (who later became the mother of Aldo’s last child, a little girl), turned all the files over to the police, and Garelli ended up first in jail, then in an asylum. Aldo said to me: I perceive crazy people, because I know only too well what they are, deep in their soul. With me they cannot lie – he said – because I am the master of all lies, the others are just pathetic amateurs.
All of his energy was put into his last ride, which he hoped could have been real and clean, looking for a Ukrainian gas supply deal, but put his kids in trouble (and me too, if I hadn’t been careful) then he had to flee to Dakar because he had been convicted and knew all too well that he would die in prison. In this last race, in which he was really honest, he failed because he didn’t know how to work as a team and he surrounded himself with idiots who were hungry for money and lacked skills – and who ruined the operation.
He never had any friends, he hated himself with tenacity and disenchantment, all his life he pursued the dream of becoming a true hero, of truly being the 007 he claimed to be – and he suffered, knowing this would never be. And that’s exactly what made him earn a living. That’s why I loved him, because I understood him. Even if he caused me professionally problems – when I published I only wrote what I knew to be true and documented, he got mad about it and disappeared for months. After ordering me once to write an article to which I said no, he disappeared for over a year, then dove aboard a Lotus (he looked like the Delorian from “Back to the Future” …) outside the door of the editorial office of the Zurich weekly magazine I worked for – as if nothing had happened.
But he was alone, always alone, terribly alone: he betrayed everyone, then he asked for help, and he died alone like a dog, in exile, in Dakar, forgotten and discredited. The Italy he swam in was 1970s, in the new century he was no longer in his place, he no longer knew how to behave, his tricks no longer worked, people had changed. I read in the newspapers that he was dead and it hurt me a lot. I owe him life lessons that I will never forget: not the cheek, but for understanding what an unbearable price to pay is, forever and constantly to be a swagger, a manipulator, a cynical Scorpio.
I hadn’t heard from him for almost 15 years. But I never forgot him. In my extraordinary gallop in life, Aldo Anghessa remains unforgettable. For this reason, I wanted to tell everyone about him, like a grandfather to his grandchildren by the fire. No other journalist who knew him well and worked with him will ever have the courage to do so.