- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

ROME | Italian con artists dubbed “the sleeping-draught gangs” are targeting unsuspecting American tourists with potentially deadly doses of hospitality this summer - a free and frothy cappuccino laced with date-rape drugs or sleeping pills.

In the most shocking episode yet of what police and diplomats caution is a growing problem on the crime-infested peninsula, one man is in jail in Rome awaiting trial on charges of murdering a Californian tourist who tumbled under a train in May after falling prey to a gang, railroad police said.

Frank Phel, 74, staggered into the path of an express train at the capital’s Tiburtina railway station, Felice Addonizio, head of the railroad police service in Rome, told a news conference.

Mr. Phel earlier woke up on a bench at the station to discover that he and his wife had been robbed of their suitcases, video equipment, passports and cash by a man who hours before had introduced himself as a volunteer for the Catholic charity Caritas, offering them cups of cappuccino.

“We drank them and a short time later we fell into a deep sleep,” Mr. Phel’s wife, who was not named, was quoted as telling police. “Every now and again, we heard the public address system of the station far away but nothing else. We woke up at dawn - there was nothing on the bench, no bags, no cameras or video cameras, no money or passports. Nothing.”

Each year, criminals using similar methods victimize tourists in the Rome area, but Mr. Phel’s case is the first time one of the victims died, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said.

The State Department´s Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management said Italy has what it calls a “moderate rate of violent crime, some of which is directed towards tourists, principally for motives of theft.”

“Some travelers have been victims of rape and beatings. There have also been incidents of drinks laced with drugs being used by criminals to rob, and in some cases, assault tourists,” the office’s Web site cautioned.

Police examined closed-circuit video footage from the Tiburtina station and identified the criminal as Antonio Schisani, 54, from the southern city of Mondragone.

Officers raided his home and found some of the Americans’ stolen property as well as large quantities of a prescription drug that is widely sold in the United States under the brand name Ativan. It is a common tranquilizer but also has been used occasionally as a date-rape drug.

Mr. Addonizio said Mr. Schisani’s photograph was being distributed to newspapers in the hope he would be identified by other people they think he fleeced.

“These incidents are on the increase,” he cautioned.

Authorities initially treated the death of the American as a suspected suicide, but after the dead man’s widow recounted their ordeal, investigating magistrate Judge Carlo Lasperanza charged Mr. Schisani with homicide as well as robbery, Mr. Addonizio said.

The U.S. Embassy said cappuccino gangsters are active in several areas, not just railroad stations. “Many of these incidents have occurred in the vicinity of Rome´s Termini train station and at major tourist centers such as Campo de Fiori and Piazza Navona, as well as in Florence and Naples,” says the State Department’s Web site.

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