A self-styled Italian lawyer who went to school in Wollaston and became known as the Devil’s Advocate has been sentenced to a total of 14 years for a series of frauds on “desperate and vulnerable victims” people he tricked into thinking he was a bona fide legal professional.
Giovanni di Stefano, 57, who became known as the Devil’s Advocate for taking on “unwinnable” cases, was convicted on 25 charges including deception, fraud and money laundering between 2001 and 2011 at London’s Southwark Crown Court.
He pleaded guilty to another two counts of fraud and a further three counts were ordered to lie on file.
Judge Alistair McCreath, the Recorder of Westminster, noted there were many offences over significant periods of time.
The fact the victims, which included a disabled man seeking damages for the loss of an arm, were all “desperate and vulnerable” and faced losses which were not just financial but also included the “raising and dashing of false hope” were aggravating factors, the judge said.
He conned clients out of millions of pounds by setting himself up as a lawyer when he had no legal qualifications and was not registered to work as a lawyer in Italy or the UK.
He used the Italian word “avvocato” on business cards, letterheads and identification documents to give clients - and the judiciary - the impression he was an advocate.
In a loud voice di Stefano told the judge “I am obliged, my Lord” as he stepped out of the dock.
The judge told di Stefano: “I recognise that you did not actively seek out those whom you defrauded. They came to you. You did not approach them but there is more than one kind of predator.
“Some predators hunt down their victims, others lie in wait for them.
“Your victims in this case were all desperate people and people who, because of their desperation, were vulnerable.”
The judge also noted that, while this case is about money, “it is also about something different and great - it is about the real distress you caused to so many people”.
“You had no regard for them nor for their anguish,” he said. “Your only concern was to line your own pockets.”
The harm that di Stefano inflicted was “in financial terms alone high”, said the judge.
There is also the devastating emotional cost to the people who had gone to di Stefano for help, the court was told.
The judge said: “In terms of emotional harm, it was much greater - the building of false hopes, always and inevitably dashed, followed by years of misery and frustration as they tried to recover what you had stolen and in the end were forced to come to terms with their financial loss.”
The judge said di Stefano had “lied” to his victims about what he was capable of and who he was.
His crimes were “planned and persistent” and some of his attempts to defend his behaviour in court amounted to “breathtaking cynicism”, the judge noted.
Di Stefano, of North Stream, Marshside, Canterbury, Kent, was found guilty of nine counts of obtaining a money transfer by deception, eight counts of fraud, three counts of acquiring criminal property, two counts of using a false instrument, one count of attempting to obtain a money transfer by deception, one count of obtaining property by deception and one count of using criminal property.
He pleaded guilty to stealing £150,000 compensation that should have gone to a man who had lost an arm in a car crash. The money was due as part of an insurance policy but di Stefano had it paid in to his business account and “duly stole it”.
This was a “wicked” crime and is one which “stands in a league of its own”, according to the judge.
The bogus lawyer also admitted defrauding engineer David Brown and his family of £160,000 including the £75,000 life savings of his partner’s mother. This case also involved £20,000 costs which were not paid out.
Due to the “utterly wrong” advice that di Stefano gave him - “to protect your own position” - he lost his home and his job.
During the trial the court was shown a BBC documentary from 2004 in which he described Saddam as a “nice guy” and boasted of being asked to defend killers such as Jeremy Bamber, Harold Shipman, Kenneth Noye and Linda Calvey.
He was born in the small town of Petrella Tifernina in central Italy, but moved to the UK as a boy and went to school in Wollaston.