© Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
Italian paparazzi agency owner Fabrizio Corona at a previous trial in Milan.
Fabrizio Corona, the "king" of Italy's paparazzi, was being hunted yesterday after a court ordered him jailed for five years for blackmailing a footballer with compromising photographs.

Corona, who is missing from his Milan apartment, was found guilty by Italy's top appeal court of demanding €25,000 (£20,000) in 2009 from David Trézéguet, the married French footballer then playing for Juventus, in return for not publishing photos of him leaving a nightclub with a woman.

The sentence tops a rash of other convictions for blackmail, fraudulent bankruptcy and even passing forged currency handed out to the photographer who is more famous than many of his subjects and who has dated Italy's top showgirl Belén Rodríguez.

Corona's scoops helped fuel the celebrity TV culture driven by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's channels and publications over the last decade, and his downfall matches the fate of key players from that era starting with his friend Lele Mora, formerly Italy's top talent agent, who was jailed on fraudulent bankruptcy charges and is now on trial for procuring prostitutes for Berlusconi.

Corona, 38, has claimed he never blackmailed celebrities he snapped, merely offering them first option to buy the photos at the rate he would have sold them to publications. But police tapping his phone during an investigation heard him tell his then wife: "Yes, it's true, I ruin lives, I am a piece of shit and I don't even feel guilty any more."

On hearing that an arrest warrant was out for Corona, one of his neighbours in Milan said: "I hope they arrest him soon, he only made trouble."

Corona was so bold he even demanded, and received, €20,000 from the Berlusconi family in return for not publishing photos of Barbara, the former prime minister's daughter, taken as she left a nightclub reportedly looking the worse for wear.

Corona photographed many of the starlets who passed straight from Berlusconi's soirées to plum roles on Italian TV dramas or coveted spots on reality shows. He had a starring role himself in Videocracy, the critical 2009 documentary about Italy's fascination with celebrity TV culture and the belief held by many Italians that getting on TV is the key to success. Berlusconi has appeared to prove that in recent weeks, bouncing back in the polls amid a campaign of TV talk show appearances ahead of February elections, after he had been written off thanks to his endless scandals.