Father of TV chef Lawson's assistants arrested for mob ties

MILAN Thu Jan 9, 2014 9:16am EST

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MILAN (Reuters) - The father of two former Italian assistants of Britain's celebrity chef Nigella Lawson has been arrested for conspiring to sell cocaine and hashish as a member of the Calabrian mafia, investigators said on Thursday.

In a court case that ended last month, sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo were cleared of defrauding Lawson and her ex-husband Charles Saatchi of 685,000 pounds ($1.13 million).

Michele Grillo, 66, was taken into custody on Wednesday after a long investigation into the criminal activities in Italy's financial capital Milan of the Barbaro-Papalia mafia clan, which is based in the small Calabrian town of Plati.

Judicial sources confirmed on Thursday that Grillo was the father of Elisabetta and Francesca. There was no suggestion that the daughters had any link to Grillo's case.

In the Lawson trial, the sisters had argued there had been an understanding that they could spend at will on credit cards if they kept quiet about the chef's drug taking.

Lawson admitted during the trial that she had taken cocaine several times and said she had smoked pot occasionally in the final year of her marriage to art dealer Saatchi.

A well-known TV star and author in Britain and the United States, Lawson has been nicknamed the "Domestic Goddess" after the title of one of her bestselling cook books.

SELLING DRUGS

The Calabrian mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta, has in recent years eclipsed the power of its more storied cousin, the Sicilian mafia or Cosa Nostra, thanks to its key role in importing cocaine from South America to Europe.

Grillo is accused of conspiracy to sell "large" amounts of cocaine and hash and using threats of violence to extort 85,000 euros from the owner of a petrol station, according to the 196-page warrant for his arrest.

He also helped suppress evidence needed in criminal trials involving men allegedly tied to the clan, the warrant said.

Grillo, a truck driver by trade, had been under surveillance since 2011 and is considered by police to be the right-hand man of Agostino Catanzariti, also arrested on Wednesday and whom police consider to be a high-ranking clan commander.

Grillo previously served 15 years behind bars from 1981 for kidnapping and holding for ransom Tullia Kauten, owner of a designer fashion store in Milan. ($1 = 0.6072 British pounds)

(Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri and writing by Steve Scherer in Rome, editing by Gareth Jones)

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