From war-torn Yugoslavia to blowtorching ATMs: Aniello Vinciguerra's life on the run

One of the ATMs that was ripped from a service station in Wandandian.
One of the ATMs that was ripped from a service station in Wandandian.

A refugee, people smuggler, fugitive and safe cracker.

Over the course of his 37 years, Aniello Vinciguerra – one of his three identities – has been labelled many things.

Much of his adult life, he says, has been spent on the run, evading authorities in Europe after he was accused of killing eight illegal immigrants in a botched people smuggling operation.

However, his journey living under various aliases, using 11 languages and multiple identities, came to a crashing halt in Australia in 2014.

Vinciguerra was part of a gang behind a series of brazen ATM ram raids, which netted the thieves almost half a million dollars in the space of a month.

From the South Coast to the Hunter Valley, Vinciguerra and others used oxyacetylene torches to cut open ATMs in seven locations.

Another of Aniello Vinciguerra's co-accused being extradited from the Northern Territory.

Another of Aniello Vinciguerra's co-accused being extradited from the Northern Territory.

The modus operandi involved disabling alarms and severing communication lines in shopping centres before targeting various ATMs under the cover of darkness.

At the St Andrews Shopping Centre, near Liverpool, the offenders cut into a roof and smashed through a wall in a toilet block to get into an ATM bunker, getting away with $98,900 in cash.

In Parklea days earlier, they tried to pay off a security guard to not dob them in after the guard came across them next to a Commonwealth Bank ATM with smoke and flames seeping out of the machine at 3.45am.

Despite his conviction for 16 offences, the multilingual Vinciguerra maintained his innocence during a sentencing hearing in the Downing Centre District Court on February 3.

Cuts like butter: another destroyed safe.

Cuts like butter: another destroyed safe.

In a tale akin to a Hollywood movie, the Serbian father-of-three sought to explain the the dramatic twists and turns his life had taken.

The baker by trade said he dreamed of being in the army but those aspirations were destroyed when Yugoslavia was torn apart by war.

He claimed his family was shot dead and he had fled his country, spending time in Belgium.

It was there he became the target of a major criminal investigation, accused of being behind a catastrophic people smuggling operation that ended in eight people suffocating in a shipping container in 2001.

According to The Irish Times, eight people, including two children, all died after being hidden in a sealed freight container that travelled from Italy, via Belgium, to Ireland.

Two years later, Vinciguerra and a number of others were arrested and charged over the deaths.

One of the safes that was cut open.

One of the safes that was cut open.

Vinciguerra told the Sydney court in February he was innocent and suggested he was only charged because he was seen by police with a close friend, who was also arrested.

"They arrest me because I was with him in a couple of places in normal life," he told Judge Paul Lakatos.

Dressed in prison greens and throwing an occasional glance at supporters in the public gallery, Vinciguerra conceded that he went on the run when he was released on bail in Belgium.

He said he feared for his life after his co-accused was shot dead.

"I hide myself," he said.

"When you have to deal with serious people you have to think, where is the smallest hole to hide because they will find you."

For more than a decade he managed to dodge and weave authorities, but a Belgium court convicted him in his absence.

Vinciguerra claimed in 2012 he was picked up while sleeping a car in Germany by passport control officers who noticed he was the subject of an arrest warrant.

He said he was then released in 2013, after the High Court in Belgium quashed his absentia conviction.

Vinciguerra said he made the decision to move to Australia – using a false Italian passport – after his house was shot up in 2014.

"After that when I was been shot in the door, I was lucky because I didn't receive a bullet," he said.

"In Eastern European country … they don't forget ever. I came to Australia for a better life, a new life and to leave my old past behind me."

​He arrived in Australia under the name Aniello Vinciguerra, leaving the identity he used in Belgium – Bekin Zogaj – and his real name – Albert Katriotis – behind him.

After getting past border control in Melbourne, Vinciguerra claimed he wanted to seek asylum and headed to the Northern Territory, where he heard it would be easier for him to be granted a visa. 

It was in Darwin where Vinciguerra and his three co-accused were arrested in November 2014 after an investigation by NSW's Property Crime Squad.

Judge Lakatos said while Vinciguerra may be charming, he would not be swayed from his decision of finding him guilty last October.

"He is a human being and deserves to be listened to," the judge said. "That doesn't mean he deserves to be believed."

The sentencing was adjourned so legal counsel could try and confirm Vinciguerra's claims.

Three other Albanian men charged over the ATM ram raids have been jailed for 12, 11 and 14 years respectively.