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?

Now, he's largely considered a traitor in both.

To understand John Nicholas at all, you have to understand the world of Gypsies. They aren't people who randomly ragtagged together; they are a bonafide race, sanctioned as such by the United Nations. They wandered out of Northern India into Eastern Europe more than 400 years ago, and why they left isn't known. Initially, their dark complexions led to the false assumption they were Egyptian, giving them the nickname that stuck. Their true name is Rom, pronounced with a strong roll on the "R" in their language, Romany, which is made up of bits and pieces of other languages, especially French and Spanish.

In Europe the Rom people were made slaves, executed, or systematically banished from most countries. The persecution of Gypsies hit its zenith with Hitler attempting to eradicate them altogether. Hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were killed in Europe during the Holocaust, a systematic massacre that went all but unnoticed in light of other genocides.

The mistrusted Gypsies, though, did little to ingratiate themselves with the locales where they set up camp. Their culture has, as Nicholas teaches, always been based on thievery and swindles. Most everything they present to the outside world, to the gadjes, as non-Gypsies are called, is a sham. Their names -- and many of them have quite a few of them, along with a cache of social security numbers and driver's licenses -- are simply covers. They go by Marks, Johnson, Nicholas, Uwanawich, Miller, Williams, Mitchell, and other monikers, but their Rom names are kept a secret. While living behind a shroud of mystery, Gypsies have managed to keep their own ways alive and unchanged in the United States.

Gypsy weddings are still arranged by fathers, and brides fetch a price. After marriage, the wife opens a fortunetelling shop, or ofisa, where swindles are common. Gypsy women also often conduct store and home burglaries where the victims are distracted. Men specialize in home-improvement scams and in the buying and selling of used cars, among other ploys. Whole families engage in insurance swindles. Instead of going to school, Gypsy children are taught to be criminals. They learn that the Gypsy life accumulates treasures, the kind of booty that rarely fails to astonish police when they get lucky enough to seize it, like chests full of expensive jewelry and safe-deposit boxes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Gypsies conceal the origins of that treasure by trading it among clans on opposite ends of the country. Gypsies work in territories, each run by a Rom Baro, or "Big Man." Any Gypsy who comes to an area to swindle is supposed to pay the Rom Baro a tribute.

A council of Gypsy men settles disputes and tries to prevent turf wars -- like the one that rocked Palm Beach and Broward counties back in 1993 when three fortunetelling shops were firebombed in a 48-hour period. There is a council in South Florida, a popular place for Gypsies, mainly because of the warm weather and the hordes of their favorite targets: vulnerable retirees. A check of occupational listings shows no less than 25 Gypsy families with fortunetelling shops in Broward County alone. Every year new Gypsy scams pop up and new victims emerge, prompting press releases from police agencies and media warnings, many of them featuring the old standby, John Nicholas.

While police routinely investigate Gypsy crimes, they also often provide the main source of power for the Rom Baro. Gypsies constantly feed cops information on their rivals. If they're lucky enough to find cops who are dumb enough or dirty enough to become friends, they simply use them to enforce their command over rival Gypsies.

"Just like anything else, they are not going to tell the police anything unless it helps them," said Fort Lauderdale police Det. Mike Debilio, who is the department's Gypsy crime specialist.

Cops, in turn, rely on Gypsies for information -- just as they rely on drug dealers to break up drug rings. One difference is that Gypsies constantly invite police to weddings and funerals and Gypsy parties to build bonds with them. Befriending Gypsies can be hazardous to one's career, however, as two suburban Chicago detectives found out in December: Both resigned after a federal investigation alleged they were taking payoffs from Gypsies. In Orlando a detective was investigated after he was spotted giving a gift at a Gypsy wedding. He was later fired for accepting bribes.

John Nicholas has explained the relationship between Gypsies and cops this way: "I was first taught to trust the police, then to con them whenever possible."

It was into this strange, criminal, and complex Gypsy world that Nicholas was born on October 3, 1952.

The story goes that his mother, Rose Nicholas, went into labor while traveling through Georgia in a caravan of house trailers. She and her husband decided to go to the town's hospital, and after the birth the family quickly packed up and left town. As far as John Nicholas knows, the medical bill was never paid, making his birth the first swindle in which he was involved, though far from the last.

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