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He stole pounds 40m and got 22 years in jail. But he is let out to live it up with his Armani suits, Merc and girlfriends; 11 YEARS AFTER HE WAS SENTENCED FOR BRITAIN'S BIGGEST ROBBERY, WE REVEAL VALERIO VICCEI'S AMAZING LIFE AS A PLAYBOY PRISONER.

SITTING at a pavement cafe sipping a cappuccino, the silver-haired, sharp-suited figure looks like any other successful businessman.

On his wrist is a pounds 1,000 Bulgari watch and by his feet an expensive brown leather briefcase. He is wearing an Armani suit from which he pulls out a Louis Vuitton wallet. Inside is a wad of banknotes in a silver money clip and a gold American Express card.

He stops talking into one of his two mobile phones to flirt with a pretty girl as she walks by.

But Valerio Viccei is no ordinary businessman. He was the mastermind behind Britain's biggest robbery, the pounds 40million Knightsbridge safe deposit raid. And he is in the middle of a 22-year prison sentence.

But, instead of being locked up in a maximum security jail, Viccei leaves his cell at 7.45am every day to drive to his nearby flat in his pounds 25,000 Volvo S90 - where he keeps his other two cars, an Audi A3 and a Mercedes.

There he changes into one of his many designer suits before heading off to the office where he runs a small translation firm.

Once inside his rented second-floor office in the seaside town of Pescara in southern Italy he checks how business is going, makes calls, reads faxes, goes through the post and visits new clients before heading off to his favourite restaurant for lunch. And, as long as he's back in jail by 10.30pm for lock-up, prison officials are happy.

Viccei, 45, is reluctant to reveal how much his company makes, but he says: "I make enough to get by. I pay my taxes and national insurance. All the bills are paid on time. I cover the rent, telephone and cleaner in good time and am never late.

"I have a little money left over each month which helps pay my restaurant bills and run my cars but, in spite of all this, there is one thing I don't have - my freedom.

"I have to give the prison - or the hotel as I call it - a little something for my bed but not breakfast as the food is awful." He pays pounds 10 a day.

"The prison people let me park my car in the jail, which must be the safest place to leave it in Pescara. People in England may be surprised but I don't see why. I am showing the authorities that I can be trusted and I am now a respectable businessman.

"I like to look and dress well and I eat the best food. If you have the money there's no point looking at it in the bank collecting dust, you may as well appreciate it."

Viccei says that his neighbours know that he had "a little bother with the police a few years ago, but they don't know anything about my background - to them I'm just a successful businessman."

He adds: "After all, I don't look like an armed bandit who has spent more than 16 years of his life in jail - as you would say, in England I'm going straight now."

Viccei hit the headlines in 1987 after he and his gang raided the Knightsbridge safe deposit centre and escaped with an estimated pounds 40million after breaking into more than 120 strong boxes.

The true value of the haul was never known as more than 30 keyholders failed to come forward.

Ferrari-driving Viccei had spent three months planning the raid. The haul was so vast that he filled his bath with banknotes and glittering jewels covered the floor of his flat in Hampstead, North London. One diamond alone was worth over pounds 4million.

He was arrested at his favourite London hotel, Whites, after police discovered his fingerprint on one of the boxes and in 1989 at the Old Bailey he was sentenced to 22 years jail.

Eleven years on, as he sits at a table his regular restaurant, The Black Bull, which is just a short walk from his office, Viccei recalls the trial judge Robert Lymbery's words..."In court I have seen a man of charm and courtesy...but these qualities combined with others serve to make you a very dangerous man... therefore I sentence you to 22 years imprisonment."

Now halfway through his sentence, following his transfer from Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, the former triple- A category prisoner has been granted semi-freedom by an Italian judge.

He is eligible for parole in 2003 and has been given a release date in 2007 but for the last year he has been allowed out to run his business.

As we talk, Viccei is constantly interrupted by phone calls. Two passing policemen wave a friendly hello to him.

Between mouthfuls of chicken and sipping beer he explains how he came to own the company.

"At first I was just an employee, but then they closed down. I simply took up the rental lease for the office and opened the business up again.

"It is all above board and done with the consent of the prison authorities. I just have to report to a magistrate once a week for an assessment report."

Viccei tells me that he is not allowed to go more than 100km from the prison - "but that takes me easily to the home of my mother so I can visit her, no problem."

He adds: "As business sometimes takes me away from Pescara I have to get permission from the governor, but that's never a problem.

"As long as I report to the police station of the town where I am going I am fine, but I can only do this for 45 days of the year, which makes my sex life a little difficult.

"Of course I have sex - it wasn't part of my sentence not to.

"I don't have one girlfriend...I'm Italian, I have girlfriends, I enjoy the company of beautiful women and I take every chance I get."

Viccei, whose father and brother are both lawyers, turned to robbery after a spell as a right-wing terrorist, which included blowing up a local electricity power station when he was just 17.

When he arrived in London in 1985 he was on the run from Italian police after a string of high-profile bank robberies which netted hundreds of thousands of pounds. He rented a smart flat in St John's Wood and soon had a string of glamorous blondes in tow, dined at the best restaurants and drove a gleaming Ferrari.

He funded his playboy lifestyle by doing what he knew best - robbing banks. He was responsible for the first successful raid on the Queen's bank, Coutts. Viccei says: "For a short time I was involved in politics, but I soon realised it wasn't worth it and just started robbing banks. I enjoyed the thrill of the chase with the police.

"I have lost count of the number of jobs I did in Italy and during the two years in London but, although I was armed, nobody was ever hurt."

He smiles. "The best job I did without question was Knightsbridge - it was magic, wonderful, when I saw all that money and jewellery I really thought I'd done it.

"I could see myself living it up in South America for the rest of my life without having anything to worry about - I could take care of everything with the money from that job. I planned that job down to every last detail, but in the end I was let down by amateurs. But I don't bear them any grudges - they took the risk and it didn't pay off.

"I took my punishment and I am serving my sentence, but I don't think it was worth those years in jail. All the others from that job are now free men but I am still inside.

"OK, I can leave in the morning and come back in the evening but at the end of the day I always have to go back to my cell.

"At first I thought I had committed the perfect crime but I was obviously wrong as I have spent these 10 years of my life in jail.

"To get away and never be caught is the perfect way to do it.

"People in England may think I am getting off lightly but I am not. As I said before, everyone else is free and only I am now in jail. My nights are planned for me, I can't do anything I want."

I tell Viccei that I find it hard to believe that a small business could make enough money for him to live so well, and ask him where the rest of the pounds 40million is.

"I never said it was pounds 40million - you said it was that much," says Viccei. "I don't know how much we took.

"A third of the people never came forward to claim what was in those boxes. If you had a stash of cocaine in there would you tell the police it was missing?"

"So crime doesn't pay then?" I ask.

Viccei flashes a smile and whistles at a pretty blonde as she walks past. "You said that, not me," he replies.
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Author:Pisa, Nick
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 12, 2000
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