ROME—By no stretch of the imagination does Francesco Galdelli look anything like George Clooney. But the 58-year-old Italian fraudster allegedly stole the American superstar’s image and forged Clooney’s signature to bilk scores of people out of thousands of euros from 2008 to 2010 with a faux fashion line called GC Exclusive by George Clooney. The premise was simple enough. Galdelli’s 45-year-old wife Vanya Goffi supposedly was an escort who, the couple claimed, had dated the actor—and Clooney gave his name as a way to pay homage to their impossible love story.
The only problem was that none of it was true. Goffi wasn't an escort, Clooney never dated her, and none of them had ever met.
Galdelli and Vanya created the GC line, superimposing Clooney’s face onto photos of Galdelli’s body in shots snuggling up to Goffi and wearing fine Italian suits supposedly designed by the actor.
The faux Clooney also wore special Rolex watches he purportedly signed and wore before sending them to customers who paid thousands. In at least a dozen cases, when the shopper opened up the box they thought would be a suit or watch that made them at least feel like George Clooney, they would find packets of salt–a bizarre calling card that tied the couple to the fraud.
It is well known that Clooney has links to Italy, as owner of the impressive Oleandra villa on Lake Como since 2002, where he is well known to his neighbors, and having married Amal Alamuddin in Venice. It's no great surprise that he got wind of the scam in 2010 when a friend of his asked about an upcoming fashion show where he was billed to appear at the Westin Palace in Milan. By the time the police intervened, Galdelli and Goffi were nowhere to be found. Italian investigators said by then they had earned $128,000 through their fraudulent activities.
Clooney traveled to Milan in 2010 to testify against the couple. “I came here because I believe in the law,” he said, according to a transcript of his testimony seen by the Daily Beast. “These people are using my name not to cheat me, but to cheat other people.”
The actor also said he wouldn't be caught dead in the clothes the doctored photos showed him wearing. “Finding my photos is easy,” he told the court. “But these are not me: I don’t smoke, I don”t have this watch and I don’t wear that kind of short pants.”
Still, Clooney’s testimony did little to bring justice to the duo who continued to bilk online shoppers for thousands, creating a string of scams unrelated to Clooney’s clothing line that would suddenly disappear just as the cops were homing in.
In early 2014, an Italian court convicted and sentenced the couple in absentia for fraud. Galdelli got eight years and four months; his wife was sentenced to six years and five months. Then, in July 2014, Galdelli was picked up in Thailand at Pattaya’s Dusit Thani Hotel on an Italian arrest warrant. But at the end of his arraignment hearing, even before the Italians could apply for his extradition, he escaped custody with his wife, earning the two of them the nickname Bonnie & Clyde for the notorious couple in Depression-era America immortalized in a 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
Goffi & Galdelli, fortunately, were less violent than the Amerian gangsters. Local police eventually determined that they paid around $630 to corrupt guards who ferried them to freedom.
Before the 2014 conviction and arrest, and despite the 2010 allegations tied to the faux Clooney fashion line, the couple lived as prominent foreign citizens in their community in Thailand, acting as benefactors for the Italian community and donating to local charities, including a center for children with HIV, according to Italian police.
“Until 2013, they would go back and forth to Thailand,” Andrea Vitalone, the Italian police detective who spearheaded the operation in Thailand, told CNN on Monday. “They were considered respectable citizens and even benefactors amid the Italian community in Thailand. Then, they went on the run.”
After Galdelli escaped arrest, the couple went back to business as usual underground, allegedly creating new ways to con people into paying them for services and goods they had no intention of delivering.
Then it all ended on Sunday, when Thai police, backed by Italian detectives led by Vitalone, carried out what they called “Operation Bonnie & Clyde,” surrounding their luxury villa in Chon Buri and nabbing them on an Interpol arrest warrant after conducting surveillance with drones and wiretaps.
Thailand's Crime Suppression Division commander, Jiraphob Puridet, confirmed the arrests on Sunday. “During the interrogation, Francesco confessed to claiming to be George Clooney and opening a clothes business to trick people into sending money," a statement from the unit said.
A representative for Clooney did not respond to a request for comment from the actor. Assuming they don't escape Thai justice again, the two will face extradition to Italy.