IN HER silver Fiat estate, complete with left-hand drive and Milan number plates, Dorothy Fasola is a familiar figure around the fish markets of Aberdeen. Equipped with a wardrobe of stylish, although well-worn, clothes and a gift for convincing patter, she is rarely seen without a mobile phone fixed to her ear.
Mrs Fasola, the director of two seafood companies, Maresca and Reale Fish, is known for undercutting the opposition and being late in paying suppliers. What she is not known for, at least not until this month, is a shadowy past as a suspected career criminal, with a conviction in Italy, and, more surprisingly, as a prime suspect in one of the most audacious jewel robberies of recent history.
The extraordinary story begins far from the fish markets of Aberdeen in the chic shopping suburb of Ginza, in Tokyo.
On 5 March this year at 11:45am, two men in wigs went into Le Supre-Diamant Couture De Maki. Walking past the thick glass walls and black cabinets of clothes and jewels, they told the assistants, usually beautiful girls in tight-fitting black dresses, that they wished to purchase souvenirs.
They then produced pepper spray and a hammer and told an assistant to lead them to the third floor, where a 17 million necklace, the Comtesse de Vendome, fitted with 116 diamonds including a 125-carat oval-cut diamond at its centre, was on permanent display. The pair smashed the display cases, which weren’t fitted with alarms, and fled with a total of 20 million in gems, including another 20 pieces, among which was a diamond ring worth 1 million.
Outside the store, the men met two women, a Serbo- Montenegrin woman in her 20s and a British woman in her 50s, who police say had been acting as look-outs. Together, the four fled to a hotel in the city centre, where they made calls to Sri Lanka, Britain and India, in search, police believe, for a fence to whom they could sell the gems.
The gang then divided into two couples. One flew out of the country from Narita Airport that afternoon; the other departed the following morning from Kansai Airport. The destination, for both couples, was the same - Paris.
POLICE in Japan believe the British woman was Dorothy Fasola, and on the morning of 7 July they arrived, accompanied by Grampian Police officers, to search the sprawling, ivy-clad home she rents in the Aberdeen suburb of Bucksburn.
Officers from the International Organised Crime Division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police had travelled to Scotland, accompanied by a civil servant from the Japanese equivalent of the Home Office. It is understood they removed a computer and mobile phone for further examination; Mrs Fasola, although present throughout, was not questioned.
A week previously a four-strong television crew from TBS, the Tokyo Broadcasting Service, had been tipped off about her suspected involvement in the jewel heist and had been hiding in the nearby trees and long grass in an attempt to film her. When disturbed by a neighbour, the crew insisted that they were shooting a commercial for Japanese television.
The thud of police boots on her doorstep was not a new experience for Dorothy Fasola. Yet there is nothing obviously unusual about her early life in north-east Scotland.
Born Dorothy May Shirreffs in 1949, she was the eldest daughter of publican Alexander Shirreffs and his wife, Dorothy. She had two younger sisters, Sandie and Deborah, and a brother, Alex.
Mr Shirreffs ran The Black Dog in Bridge of Don for 16 years, as well as The Rat Cellar in Torry and the Copper Beach in Garthdee - but none of his daughters had any ambition to follow him behind the bar, preferring the glamour of music, beauty shows and travel.
Sandie, a talented church soloist, toured the world as a nightclub singer before returning to her native town to work as a dental nurse and beauty consultant. Deborah, who was well-known for her good looks, was crowned the city’s beauty queen in 1983, but later trained as a solicitor.
Dorothy left Aberdeen in 1970, when she was 21, to work as a travel guide in Spain. Some years later, she met, and was swept off her feet by, a visiting Italian, Luigi Fasola. Dark, handsome and romantic in a way which contrasted with her previous suitors - mainly dour young Scots - Luigi was quick to propose and Dorothy accepted.
In 1975, the couple married and moved to Milan, the dark northern Italian city known for fashion, industry and its criminal demi-monde. By the early 1980s, the couple had enough suitable contacts to set up a cable television shopping channel.
On screen, Dorothy - fluent in Italian and now an Italian national - posed with the jewellery and encouraged buyers to phone in and bid. Unfortunately, an 82-year-old woman recognised two white gold rings worth 1,000 as her own, and picked up the phone, not to bid, but to call the police.
She was not alone; a second woman recognised a 1,500 ring snatched from her hand by a thief dressed as a nun. In December 1983, the Fasolas’ Milan home was raided and a large quantity of jewels, antiques and other items were recovered by police.
The couple, however, who now had a year-old daughter, Elena, were never charged. Yet less than a year later, Luigi was back in court after bouncing more than 300,000 worth of bad cheques. Once again, however, charges were dropped.
In 1985, Luigi died suddenly. Dorothy’s next known partner was Amedeo Pani, a former policeman, but she chose not to keep to the straight and narrow.
By the late 1980s, her criminal activity had expanded to the alleged production of counterfeit US dollars, a scam uncovered by Italian police with the assistance of the FBI.
In June 1989, a Milan warehouse was raided by police and two gang members were arrested. They had failed to hear the alarm over the roar of a printing press as it noisily churned out 25,000 in fake $100 bills.
Dorothy Fasola was among ten people eventually arrested as a result of the operation. A police source said at the time: "She is a very clever woman and played a key role but was always careful to stay just on the margins."
This was the second time in her career she had been arrested and the second time the prosecution did not press charges. Two years later, she was arrested again; it was to be third time unlucky.
By 1991, Dorothy Fasola was running a gold and jewellery shop in Milan’s Piazza Borromeo, and had an eye on more than rings and bracelets; her target was 660kg of gold. In March 1991, she co-ordinated a gang who staged a robbery at a jewellery workshop called New Oroitalia, with the full knowledge of the owner, Vittorio Nahmad, who then made a false insurance claim against Lloyds.
Three men, Cosimo Giustu, Vittorio Boiocchi and Vincenzo Mannino, posing as tax inspectors, threatened the owner’s nephew with a gun and escaped with the gold. Unfortunately for Dorothy Fasola, Vincenzo Mannino turned "pentito" - a police informer - and insisted that a "40-year-old Scottish beautiful woman" by the name of Doris organised the job. Her luck had run out. She was sentenced to five years at Milan’s women’s prison, the grim "L’ Opera", named after the local area.
The reason is unclear but Mrs Fasola, it would seem, was released early, because in February 1994 she was arrested in Milan for using false credit cards.
The past, it is said, is a foreign country. This was certainly the case when it came to Dorothy Fasola. Arriving back in Aberdeen in the late 1990s, after almost 30 years away, the details of her shady past in Italy were unknown to her new neighbours.
AFTER her return to Scotland, she set up a number of companies. Itasco 2000 was dissolved in 2003, but a second company, Maresca, through which she exported salmon and shellfish to Italy, had a turnover in 2002 of 745,000.
The firm was run from a single room and had a sole employee - herself - but she was always on the look out for a financial opportunity and was at one point involved in inviting women to join a financial pyramid scheme.
When visited by The Scotsman at her home, with its large fir trees and rose bushes, Mrs Fasola refused to answer the door. However, a girl, believed to be her daughter, said: "We have no comment to make. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you anything."
At the time of the police inquiry, Mrs Fasola issued a statement through her lawyer, Sheila Ritchie, of Grant Smith & Co.
It read: "Mrs Fasola has discussed the matter with us in full. She knows nothing about a jewel robbery in Tokyo."
Yet the police in Britain and Japan believe they now know a lot more in their search for the missing diamonds.
On Tuesday of this week, Nebojsa Denic, a Montenegrin Serb, was found guilty of robbing Graff Jewellers in London’s exclusive Mayfair in May last year.
At the time, he was accompanied by a second thief, believed to be a man called Marco, who was later revealed to be Pedja Vujosevic, an international jewel thief now under arrest in Paris. Vujosevic is being investigated in connection with the Tokyo robbery. It has been reported in the Japanese media that he was in Tokyo seven days before it took place.
So what drives a woman, whoever it may be, to take part in a jewel heist?
Someone who understands the compulsion is Joan Hannington, described as "Raffles in a Wonderbra" for her success at switching real diamonds for fakes during visits to prominent London stores.
She says the motivation is simple: "Money. Diamonds are just a commodity, but they are easy to hide, and retain their value."
Ms Hannington is set to benefit from Japanese public interest in the robbery; her autobiography, I Am What I Am: The True Story of Britain’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief, is to be published in Japan.
Ms Hannington explains that the thrill of a jewel robbery is utterly intoxicating.
"You walk in, do the job and walk out," she says. "It’s better than an orgasm."
IN DOROTHY Fasola’s garden is a little wooden wishing well. She may need to use it. Her innocence of any involvement in the Japan robbery must be assumed; no charges have been brought, nor have any applications been made by the Japanese government for her extradition.
Yet there is no doubt a cloud is hanging over her, one she no doubt wishes would go away.