From humble beginnings as the son of a cobbler, growing up in southern Italy and later in a council house in Northamptonshire, he appeared to have achieved it all: homes in London, Monaco, Marbella, Majorca and Rome; Rolls-Royces, Hollywood contacts, millions in the bank.
‘Giovanni was someone who dreamt and the following morning he made it come true,’ said financier Giancarlo Parretti, the former owner of MGM. Or, as another client, the former It girl Birgit Cunningham, put it: ‘He saw his life as a movie.’
Exactly which movie that would be is harder to pin down, rather like the man himself. Because almost nothing about Giovanni di Stefano is as it seems.
While it is undoubtedly true that di Stefano possesses a sharp legal brain that has outwitted respected barristers, it is also true that he is one of the world’s most accomplished con artists.
For a start, he isn’t a lawyer at all. Nor is he an undercover spy, as he once claimed to be, or an ex-boyfriend of the rock star Suzi Quatro, as he boasted while still a schoolboy.
The houses? Rented. The cars? Borrowed. The money? Often stolen. Even his client list was partially invented. As for his legal qualifications… non-existent.
The truth eventually caught up with him and di Stefano is currently serving a 22-year sentence for multiple counts of fraud, deception and money laundering. It is by no means the first time he has been incarcerated; indeed, one of the undeniably impressive facts about him is that he has packed so much into his 66 years, despite spending almost a third of them behind bars.
Next year he will become eligible for release, and as the legal world braces itself for what he might do when he walks free, a three-part Sky documentary, which starts on 15 February, will attempt to answer the question of who exactly Giovanni di Stefano really is.
It is titled Devil’s Advocate: The Mostly True Story of Giovanni di Stefano, because as its director Sam Hobkinson discovered, establishing irrefutable facts about di Stefano is like nailing tiramisu to a wall.
‘What he did very cleverly was, he told lies that were very close to the truth,’ he says. ‘The truth was always in there somewhere, but it was embellished. There was a fog of truth and lies.’
A career built on lies
Di Stefano was described by the judge at his most recent trial as a man guilty of ‘greed, dishonesty and utter disregard for the sensibilities of others’.
As well as passing himself off as something he wasn’t, he stole from clients and used forgery to steal from people who had never hired him. He was convicted of swindling more than £1 million, though the true total may be much higher.
Yet what makes him fascinating is that he cannot be simply filed away in a box marked ‘fraudster’. Some of his legal victories were both genuine and brilliant, despite his lack of qualifications.
‘Everyone had their questions about this guy – he turns up, he wins cases, but he has no background,’ says Hobkinson. ‘People had questions about his legal credentials yet nothing happened.’
Jerome Lynch QC, a barrister with almost 40 years’ experience, worked alongside di Stefano on around 10 cases in the noughties, including the defence of Ian Strachan, who was jailed for five years in 2008 for attempting to blackmail a member of the Royal family in a plot involving claims of gay sex.
Lynch explains, ‘There were rumours about whether Giovanni was qualified or not, and I thought perhaps he wasn’t properly qualified in this country but had a qualification in Italy.
It didn’t matter [to me] because I never worked directly for him. There was always an intervening solicitor and I understood him to be a freelance who introduced work to firms of solicitors who would let him work on cases with them.’
Di Stefano claimed to be an ‘avvocato’ in Italy and it seems no one checked his bona fides. But Lynch says there was nothing bogus about the work he put in.
‘In the cases he worked on with me, he was as good a lawyer as you could get. He was diligent in his analysis, he was committed in the amount of work he invested in it, and he came up with novel and interesting legal arguments that others had not seen.’