Written by Nick Owens and Originally Published in Mirror News on October 4th, 2009.
At first glance Marisa Merico looks like any other mother as she walks happily along Blackpool promenade with her young son and teenage daughter in tow.
But beneath the façade of everyday normality lies the most extraordinary story of gangland extortion, drugs and murder. For Marisa is a Mafia princess... and her quiet seaside life is about to come an end.
Two weeks ago a knock on the door from police signaled that the Italian courts had issued a warrant to have Marisa extradited to Milan and jailed for the crimes of a life she left behind.
“My past has caught up with me,” says Marisa, 39. “It is a chapter in my life I thought I had closed. But if you are born into the Mafia it is something that is always there. I am part of that blood.”
MY DAD THE DON
Marisa is the product of a whirlwind Swinging Sixties romance between her mother Patricia, who went to Italy to work as an au pair, and crimelord Emilio Di Giovine.
Patricia and Emilio wed, but their vastly different backgrounds meant the marriage was doomed and she fled back to Blackpool when Marisa was nine.
Pat did all she could to shield Marisa from the bloodthirsty, dangerous world her father inhabited. But in the end Marisa’s fascination with life beyond Blackpool became too much.
She swapped it for a place of her own in the deadly Mafia underworld and – like her mother before her – married into the Mob. “Everything changed when I was 13,” she says, sipping coffee in a London hotel following the first stage in her extradition hearing last week. “I went to Italy to see my father – and I just felt in total awe of him.”
Her mother had called Emilio a “no-good petty thief”. But the way his prison guards acted showed he was far more than that. In fact, he was a top gangster, held in such awe he slept on silk sheets in his prison cell and dined on lobster.
“He was wearing an Italian designer suit when I went see him in prison,” says Marisa. “And the guards stood to one side to let him pass. Everyone stared at him in awe. He looked so powerful, so important and nothing like my mother had described.
“He walked over and held me in his arms. I was bewildered and confused.”
Marisa – who had been asked to go to Italy by Emilio – was fascinated by him. And she was intrigued about life in glitzy Milan, worlds apart from her schoolgirl days in Blackpool with Patricia. Emilio soon had shy Marisa eating out of his hand.
At 18 she moved to Italy to join her father and the rest of the Mob family in their Milan home.
Marisa says: “Every morning, like clockwork, my father and his brothers would file into the kitchen and sit around the table with my dad’s mum. She controlled it all.
“The drugs would arrive in Italy from Turkey and she would tell them what to do with them. Nan would pay neighbours and friends living nearby to stash the drugs. She never left the kitchen and never took off her apron, but she called the shots. Nothing happened without her say-so. She cooked three meals a day and she ran a Mafia family.”
Marisa fell in love with a handsome Italian, Bruno Merico, who was one of her dad’s most trusted henchman. She says: “Bruno was always around, managing drug deals. I fell in love very quickly with him.”
MY MAFIA MONEY-LAUNDERING
She was handed her own role in the family’s criminal empire… laundering cash from the drug trafficking.
“My dad and I opened a Swiss bank account,” she says. “I would put £50,000 in at a time on some occasions. I’d drive to Switzerland with cash stuffed in my clothes and hidden in the car and put it in the private account.
“But for the whole time I was part of the family business the word ‘Mafia’ was never used.
“I knew my family didn’t do nine-to-five jobs, but I was young and didn’t realise the seriousness of it. My dad would say, ‘Go and put that money there’ – and I never asked any questions. I just did it. I never looked past my nose.”
Being a fully-fledged Mafia family member had plenty of perks… luxury holidays, a sports car, endless Chanel handbags and drinks on the house in the best bars.
“It was a fantastic life and money was never an issue. If you needed cash, it was always there,” Marisa says.
She laundered cash for almost three years until 1990 when she became pregnant. She and Bruno wed in April 1991 in scenes reminiscent of classic gangster move The Godfather.
The entire Di Giovine clan – more than 150 strong – turned up for the festivities at a restaurant in Milan. Guests drank champagne and danced to a band playing in the Milan sunshine.
Children ran around happily on the edge of the dance floor as the “elders” clapped along to the music. The only person missing was Marisa’s dad – who was on the run from police.
Guests queued to stuff envelopes full of cash in the bride’s hand.
Marisa says: “It was the perfect day. And I was very much in love with Bruno. I had never been happier.”
But just months later things turned sour. By then the family’s criminal activities were at their height and they became involved in gunrunning and murder.
And after giving birth to daughter Lara in September 1991, Marisa stopped working for the family.
Her relationship with Bruno suffered because he was involved in a series of turf wars with rival Mafia gangs in Milan. A dozen people were killed in a matter of weeks.
And one of the main targets was Marisa’s dad. He narrowly escaped death when rival mobsters opened fire in a restaurant he was eating at in Milan. His pregnant girlfriend and a member of his gang were killed.
He fled to New York after he killed a rival – linked to the attack – in a street shoot-out and, although given refuge by the notorious Gambino family and having plastic surgery, he was eventually arrested.
The family’s drugs empire was also starting to have tragic consequences. Marisa says: “Four of my uncles and aunties died from heroin addiction.”
And at the start of 1992 the family’s criminal empire started to tumble when Marisa’s aunt Rita was caught with 1,000 ecstasy tablets.
She gave evidence against her family and a series of arrests started which eventually put 100 of Marisa’s relatives behind bars. She says: “It was then I realised the seriousness of what I was involved in. I was shocked.”
By then Marisa’s relationship with Bruno was all but over so she fled back to Blackpool with Lara – then aged two. But with the family’s interests still at heart Marisa still carried out orders for her dad and went back to laundering cash.
Her mum Pat even made one collection because Marisa was unable to.
Both were arrested in Blackpool in June 1994. Marisa pleaded guilty to laundering more than £1.6million in dirty money.
All charges against her mum were dropped.
She was sent to Durham Prison and put on the same wing as child killers Rose West and Myra Hindley.
“I was petrified,” she says. “But what I found hardest wasn’t being on the same wing as those monsters and being away from my daughter.”
On her release, Marisa was extradited to Italy for Mafia crimes. But after 15 months an appeal ruled the extradition process had been flawed. The Italian authorities released her, but said they would be appealing against the ruling.
She returned to the UK and looked for work, but struggled to find a job. She has since kept clear of crime, living a quiet life as a single mum to Lara, 18, and Frank, eight, her son by a new partner.
For 11 years she heard nothing about any appeal against her blocked extradition – until two weeks ago. And three days ago she was back in the dock at a hearing in London where she was told the Italians want her to serve another four years and eight months.
Last night Marisa said she fears she will die in jail if she is sent back. Her father Emilio is under witness protection after helping to jail dozens of Mafia figures. And Marisa, whose life story is set to be told in a new book, fears she will be a target in prison for her dad’s betrayal.
She says: “I fear for my life if I am sent back to jail. Being extradited will be tantamount to a death sentence. My dad has enemies.”
FEARS AND REGRETS
Her solicitor Trevor Colebourne said: “Marisa’s safety if returned to jail is a genuine concern and will be a key part of our appeal.” He will also argue the authorities have delayed too long in demanding Marisa’s extradition.
Marisa says: “When I look back I regret the choices I made. But I have put my past behind me and just want to be a mother to my children.
“It breaks my heart to know I may not be here for my son, who has barely been apart from me since he was born. And my mum has also just been diagnosed with a serious illness.
“I have not reoffended since I came back to the UK and for this to come 11 years on when I’m getting on with my life is devastating.
“I just hope the courts agree that it serves no purpose to send me back. I feel I have already served my time and been punished enough. I have walked away from my past and can’t believe I am now being dragged back.”