By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
His mother ran a fortunetelling shop and orchestrated burglaries. His father bought and sold used cars that would "run great for a week or two -- and then totally break down." As a child Nicholas went on burglary missions in residential neighborhoods. He was boosted to second-floor balconies, where he'd scurry through unlocked sliding glass doors, run to a bedroom, and steal the valuables. Other times he'd pretend to be going to an unwitting stranger's bathroom, but instead would make a beeline to the bedroom for jewelry and cash on nightstands and dressers. "Gypsies don't ransack," he explains. "They scan and steal what they see."
Nicholas, who grew up in New York City and New Jersey, says his very first experience with cops was staking them out, rather than the other way around. As a little boy he'd go to the police department with his father and sit across the street for hours, memorizing the faces of the men who walked out in civilian clothes, the detectives. The guys in uniform didn't count. If he were to see one of these detectives while playing on the street, he was to warn his parents, who'd flee through the back door.
Nicholas also did something many Gypsy children don't do: He went to a public school in New York City. His parents had him go to school because keeping him at home would just bring more scrutiny from the police. School opened up the world of gadjes to him, where a kid could aspire to things he could never be, like a fireman or a cop. He already knew he'd be a swindler and his wife would be a fortuneteller. "I started not liking the idea of my set life," he explains. To join the Boy Scouts he had to forge his father's name. The uniform had to be kept at a friend's house. When his father found out, the boy was beaten.
He says he became rebellious against Gypsy ways, but it didn't stop him from marrying into the life as a teenager. His father bought his first bride for $6500, outbidding another family for the girl. The rival boy was a kid from Kansas City named Jimmy Marks. It wasn't the last time the paths of Nicholas and Marks would cross.
Nicholas says his father's buying him the fourteen-year-old bride was just a ploy to get him back into the fold of Gypsy life. Nicholas said the girl bore him his only child, a son, but the marriage still failed after only a year. "I broke my mother and father's heart and left the life," he said.
In a feature story on Nicholas that ran in the Palm Beach Post, Nicholas told a reporter that he was "not yet seventeen years old" when he "left the Gypsies forever."
That story, however romantic, doesn't quite jibe with reality. Court documents contained in his PBSO file show that Nicholas was married again, at the age of 22, to a Gypsy woman named Rachel Marks. It was she who gave birth to his son. They didn't separate until 1983, when Nicholas was 30 years old.
Nicholas' explanation for these contradictions isn't known: He quit talking to New Times after he found out his "integrity was being questioned."
Before he quit talking, Nicholas spoke of his early dream to be a detective. His personnel file at PBSO shows that he played informant to detectives on Gypsy cases long before he became a cop. He used to frequent the Paterson, New Jersey, police department, and met a detective named John Rafferty there back in 1972, when Nicholas was 20 years old.
"While John Nicholas, Jr. was living here," Rafferty wrote in a letter to PBSO in 1988, "I used him many times in cases where gypsy's [sic] were involved. His knowledge of Gypsy life and Gypsy language (Gypsy Romany) were of the best."
In 1981, before his 30th birthday, Nicholas became an officer for the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Even then he didn't lose his Gypsy friends, not even those who were getting in serious trouble with the law, like John Uwanawich.
During the summer of 1983, according to PBSO reports, Uwanawich called a detective in Rockaway Borough, New Jersey. He asked the detective if he would file arrest warrants on some rival Gypsies who had moved into his territory, adding that there would be "something in it for him" if the officer filed the bogus warrants. The detective went to prosecutors, who gave him a wire to wear in the ensuing sting. The brazen Uwanawich paid the detective $300 for what he thought was going to be the detective's help on an upcoming insurance scam, and on August 2, 1983, Uwanawich offered $600 to arrest his Gypsy rivals on the phony warrants. He was arrested and sentenced to 100 days in jail, a fine of $10,000, and two years probation.
Nicholas, meanwhile, moved to Miami in 1986 to become a private investigator. In 1987 he applied to PBSO, writing in his application what would become his meal ticket: "I have information on gpysie [sic] con games, swindles, palm readers, etc.," he wrote. "I am a white collar crime expert -- on gypsies -- I speak and understand their Gypsie Romany Language."