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Car dealer pleads guilty to money laundering

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He was a well-respected Winnipeg car dealer with a long list of satisfied customers. Unfortunately for Nello Chiapetta, that included a who’s-who of the city’s criminal underworld.

Chiapetta, 41, pleaded guilty on Friday to laundering proceeds of crime and stashing cocaine for members and associates of the Hells Angels. He was sentenced to four years in prison as part of a joint-recommendation from Crown and defence lawyers.

"He had, at first blush, the veneer of respectability. In reality, his life is marked by a degree of deceit," said federal prosecutor Chris Mainella.

Chiapetta was one of 34 people arrested in Project Divide, the 2009 undercover police sting that utilized the services of a long-time biker turned secret agent. Police captured dozens of illegal criminal transactions on audio and video surveillance.

Chiapetta was working as the finance manager of Eastwood Truck and Toy Centre, which was owned by his brother. None of his close-knit family members knew about his so-called double-life, court was told.

"The family is as much a victim of his deception as the public," said Mainella.

Chiapetta had no criminal record and was a married father of two living in a $300,000 dream home in Charleswood. But he was also deep in debt, having declared bankruptcy only months before his arrest. His years of experience in the automotive industry led him to many contacts within the criminal world, who began using him as a source for stashing their drug profits.

Chiapetta would agree to sell a used vehicle to a gang member, with the idea that it would never actually leave the lot. He would then hold onto the money until the car was "sold" back to him months later at a slightly reduced price. This allowed gang members to stash large sums of money while avoiding suspicion from financial institutions, court was told.

Police executed a series of search warrants during their raids and discovered Chiapetta was also keeping more than $20,000 worth of cocaine in his office desk, apparently for one of his clients. Documents were also seized showing Chiapetta had agreed to take on power-of-attorney for some incarcerated gang members and registered some property such as motorcycles under his name to avoid seizure from authorities.

"He was, in essence, a criminal trustee," said Mainella. Some gang members were caught on surveillance referring to Chiapetta as "the bank."

Defence lawyer Sheldon Pinx said his client made very little profit but got involved in a criminal lifestyle out of a sense of loyalty and obligation.

"He was easily seduced by others to do favours for them," said Pinx. "He’s genuinely a good man, out to help people. His judgment got skewed."

Chiapetta apologized in court Friday to his family members and friends before being led away in handcuffs to begin serving his sentence.

"I wish I could change everything," he said.

More than $50,000 in cash seized by police from Chiapetta’s home will now be forfeited to the government.

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