March 02, 2009

Vassilis Paleokostas is the Arsène Lupin of the Olive Republic, aka Hellas or Greece. He is by profession a bank robber, known for his impeccable manners but unfortunate jowly, plebeian looks. He is 42 years of age, a ladies’ man, and Greece’s most wanted man. Three years ago, Vassilis managed a daring escape from the high-security Korydallos prison of Piraeus via helicopter. The chopper landed in the exercise yard, Vassilis hopped in and was flown off to freedom.

All hell broke loose following his sudden departure. The newspapers accused the government of incompetence, the government blamed prison officials for watching porno films instead of the prisoners, but the buck stopped when the chief screw came up with a brilliant idea. He called a press conference and announced that Vassilis’s escape would be the last one ever attempted via air because a large net would be installed over the yard. Cheers and congratulations all around, and then life returned to normal in Korydallos. There was only one problem. Prison officials forgot to put up the net.

Vassilis, in the meantime, along with his brother and an Albanian low-lifer, did not remain idle. Taking inspiration from their Italian counterparts, they kidnapped Milonas, an important industrialist from Salonica, demanded and got six million euros from his coffers, and then deposited him safe and sound at his front door. Anarchists and envious types all over Greece cheered. It was good guys (bad) one, rich people zero. Then the fuzz got lucky and Vassilis ended up back in Korydallos.

This time the government acted smart. They split up the brothers, knowing full well that Vassilis would never try to escape without his sibling, who was sent to do time in a jail far away. Last Saturday, three years to the day of his first helicopter getaway, Vassilis did it again. This time with the help of a girlfriend, an unknown lassie but one who I imagine looks like Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth circa 1950s. This time the chopper hovered over the yard, Ava-Rita threw out a rope ladder, and Vassilis and his Albanian sidekick climbed into the helicopter while the cops were blasting away at it. Ava-Rita, in the meantime, returned fire with an automatic weapon in the best western tradition. The firefight took the best part of two minutes, each side strafing the other — and here is why Greece is one of my favourite countries — without anyone getting nicked. Even the helicopter was untouched as round after round whizzed by. Talk about the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Mind you, I like to think that Ava-Rita missed on purpose. The ones below were simply very bad shots. What I find fascinating is how a prison screw can shoot for two minutes at a target slightly larger than a pheasant and not even nick the bugger. In the meantime, down in the bowels of Korydallos jail, a large net remained unpacked and untouched.

The Albanian sidekick, Alket Rizaj, 34, is not known for his good manners. Unlike the Paleokostas brothers, who are famed for their kind words to bank employees while robbing them, the Albanian is a drug addict who speaks roughly to those he holds under the gun. In fact, there are rumours that Vassilis has time and again warned him to be more polite or else. Needless to say, although I am a law and order man, Vassilis and his exploits have me cheering for him. As I loathe all politicians and all officials, Vassilis and his impeccable old world manners is a natural. I only wish he didn’t look as ghastly as he does. Errol Flynn would be perfect playing him, but Errol, alas, is long gone.

Mind you, not all Greeks are asleep at the wheel. The morning after the daring escape half the nation’s army and 90 per cent of all the fuzz were sent to Trikala, where the brother is being held. The thinking behind that move is that Vassilis is going to try to free his sibling. Now I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but if I were Vassilis I’d go straight for a couple of Athenian banks while the country’s security forces are waiting for him to emerge from the sky in Trikala.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. When Vassilis was picked up after the Milonas kidnapping, he refused to hand over the loot the industrialist’s family had paid to get him back. Six million euros ain’t hay in the land that invented electrolysis. One can even afford to rent a chopper with that kind of moolah in reserve. Ava-Rita was the one who hired the helicopter and put the gun to the head of the pilot. The latter dropped them off north of Athens and then returned to base unharmed. He was not an accomplice and was not treated like one by the authorities. The first thing the pilot did was to go to church and light a candle and thank the Virgin Mary for the poor shooting skills of the Greeks.

Mind you, if one reads the Greek press the country is falling apart and fast. I’m not so sure. Greece has less unemployment than, say, Spain or Portugal, and fewer race problems than France or Britain. The politicians are crooks and cowards who failed to back the cops during the riots late last year. But the Left is even worse. Bigger crooks and bigger cowards. And let’s not forget the bankers. They are the biggest fraudsters of them all, so when it comes to Vassilis vs the banks, I’m for the former and it’s not even close.


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