The Double Life of Nick the Cop

Born into a Gypsy life of crime, he's now busting them for their cons. Or is he?

On prime-time national TV, John Nicholas, Jr. steps proudly out of his Palm Beach Sheriff's Office patrol car and helps Dateline NBC reporter Chris Hansen decipher the "Sweetheart Swindle."

The scam is nothing new, just slick and slippery Gypsy women making old men fall in love with them before taking the victims for everything they have.

The television reporter introduces Nicholas as someone who intimately knows about Gypsy cons: He's a Gypsy, born into a crime family, who is now a detective investigating Gypsy crimes. In turn Nicholas supplies an on-camera explanation of the swindle and even translates for Hansen the secret Gypsy language.

Hansen was so impressed with Nicholas that he wrote a letter to Palm Beach County Sheriff Robert Neumann, letting Neumann know how "thoroughly professional and knowledgeable one of your detectives is... I have been an investigative reporter for fifteen years and have interviewed thousands of law enforcement officers. Nicholas is among the very best."

Another pin on Nicholas' chest, another letter in a stack of commendations so thick a separate folder had to be added to his personnel file. He has helped the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, and agencies throughout the United States solve Gypsy crimes. He's become something of a media star and a reliable source for South Florida TV stations, the Palm Beach Post, the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald.

It's an irresistible story: Here was a man who grew up as a Gypsy thief and left the "life" to become a cop. Determined to do right, he now exposes the criminal secrets of fortunetellers and other Gypsies. Nicholas adds delicious details, like his family disowning him and the entire Gypsy world viewing him as a turncoat rat.

But there was a telling inaccuracy in Dateline's report, one that was repeated in Hansen's letter -- John Nicholas is no detective.

Instead, he's a frustrated road deputy working in the outlands of Belle Glade who's applied for the detective bureau over and over again during his eleven years at Palm Beach Sheriff's Office (PBSO), only to be denied each time. He's not even allowed to work on a Gypsy case in his own county without special permission from a supervisor.

Nicholas didn't misrepresent himself to Dateline, Hansen says. It was the show's mistake. But it serves as a particularly appropriate lesson from a show regarding Gypsy swindles: All is not what it seems.

Take John Nicholas.
Even as the story was shown on TV screens across the country, Nicholas was under investigation by PBSO for his close associations with alleged Gypsy criminals.

Associations like the one he has with John Uwanawich, a smooth-talking Gypsy known to wear a diamond-studded, gold-faced Rolex watch and drive a Rolls-Royce he boasts was used in The Godfather. Those are quite some accomplishments for someone who doesn't really seem to have a job.

Uwanawich, who was jailed in 1983 for bribing a police officer, is a central Gypsy figure in South Florida, with family relations and associations reaching through the Gypsy culture, a culture Nicholas calls "organized crime in every sense of the word." There is no black or white in the way Nicholas describes it; either one is in the "life" and therefore is criminal or has left, as he claims he has done.

If Nicholas were to be taken at his word, then he and Uwanawich, a lifelong friend, should have broken ties a long time ago.

But Nicholas admits he still socializes with Uwanawich -- even went on a recent vacation with him to Costa Rica. The deputy also admits he went to Gypsy weddings and funerals with Uwanawich. He claims he didn't know Uwanawich was convicted for bribing a police officer. Of course, to acknowledge he knew about the conviction would be admitting he broke a cardinal rule. Associating with a known criminal not only could have cost him his job, but it could also have led to his decertification as a deputy by the State of Florida. A lenient PBSO internal affairs bureau decided not to punish him for it.

An even more serious accusation against Nicholas came from the Miami Beach Police Department after Nicholas took another Gypsy friend, Vine Miller of Fort Lauderdale, there for a meeting with police. According to Miami Beach police, Nicholas vouched for Uwanawich during the meeting, saying Uwanawich was investing $15,000 in a fortunetelling shop on Miami Beach, and they could trust and work with him in investigations of other Gypsies.

Miami Beach Lt. Tom Skinner was convinced Nicholas was trying to use the police department to give Uwanawich power over their Gypsy rivals on the Beach. In the investigation that followed, Nicholas contended he was just trying to share information with Miami Beach investigators, not help his friend get a criminal stronghold there.

"Some think I am a plant of the Gypsy community in law enforcement," Nicholas says. "But I don't care what anybody thinks. This is the stigma of being a Gypsy. I know what I know, and that's all that counts."

Nicholas has walked a razor's edge, playing about in both the closed Gypsy society, where the double-cross is standard and the truth is hard to come by, and in the equally treacherous and closed world of law enforcement, where cynicism, distrust, and suspicion are tools of survival.

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