I Think, Therefore I Scam

America gave Franco Nicoletti opportunities and riches beyond belief. But it didn't give him a conscience.

Franco Nicoletti's hair has gone salt-and-pepper, and he's shaved off his mustache. He doesn't look half the man he used to be. But maybe that's the point. Could this be the same man who spent the last decade engineering schemes to swell his offshore accounts? The man accused of defrauding countless friends and business partners, of attempting to launder $7 million in cash, of skimming a small fortune from his many enterprises in Boca Raton? For the last two years, this once flamboyant swindler, a man accustomed to the finest accouterments, has gone unadorned, forced to trade in designer threads for prison-issue, blue-green jumpsuits and a pair of modest brown sandals.

"I've made some pretty fundamental mistakes in my life," Nicoletti says. "But I have peace within me, even in a prison cell."

It's two weeks before a federal judge in West Palm Beach will lock him away for 16 years for attempted money-laundering, and Nicoletti is sitting in a plastic chair in the visiting room at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. "Look I didn't kill nobody," he says. "I'm not such a bad guy." Through tortoiseshell reading glasses he examines a slim volume he's typed up and bound in plastic, the tale of his last ten years in South Florida. It contains the details of the massive law-enforcement conspiracy of which he claims to be a victim.

"I'm sitting here because I stepped on the wrong feet," he offers. "If the system focuses on you, you're as good as gone. Sure I've done some bad things in my life, but I swear to you I did not do these things they accuse me of."

As Nicoletti speaks he looks you in the eye. He speaks with self-confidence, peppering his discourse with strategically placed outbursts -- a fist on the table, an arched eyebrow, a vehement sneer. You want to believe him. You feel yourself believing him, just as so many before believed him and, in believing, entrusted him with their most prized valuables, even their love.

Lillian Dinallo was taken in by Nicoletti the first time they met at his Boca restaurant, back when her second husband was still alive. Richard liked him too; they talked about cars, boats, Frank Sinatra. Nicoletti sang to the old couple in a rich baritone, towering above them on stage at Ciro's Pomodoro in a handmade Italian suit, the gold lizard pin on his lapel glimmering in the spotlight. To them he looked like an aristocrat, even though he would later share tales of humble beginnings on the Mediterranean coast below Rome. Nicoletti was a throwback, the kind of man who'd bow and kiss a woman's hand, then compliment her escort on the cut of his suit. He sparkled with gold; a Swiss watch dangled from his wrist, and gold chains framed the bright smile beneath his mustache.

When the Dinallos first visited Ciro's, it was an overbooked Saturday night. No table was available. They left with an impatient "humph" after the maitre d' told them they'd have to wait at the bar. "Don't you know who those people are?" Nicoletti scolded after they left. "The Dinallos do not wait for a table."

At the time Richard Dinallo was one of the wealthiest men in Boca Raton. His New Jersey construction company had built Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, and he owned the Bridge Hotel in Boca. But he was sick with cancer and knew he wouldn't be around to care for Lillian much longer. He died in his bed at Boca Raton Community Hospital on October 29, 1991, and a family fracas for his millions ensued. Nicoletti stepped in as Lillian's legal advisor and emotional crutch. Eighteen months later they married. She was 63 years old, he was 46. Franco was Lillian's third husband, Lillian his fifth wife.

Nicoletti moved into the house that Richard Dinallo built, a spectacular seaside mansion with wraparound balconies and a bronze mastiff just inside the wrought iron gates. He put his name on the deed but kept his condo on the golf course at Boca Pointe. He drove Richard's Ferrari and parked a Rolls in the driveway -- he'd always had a weakness for Rolls Royces. For a while Nicoletti and his new bride were the talk of Boca society, appearing regularly at charity fundraisers and in the local society pages. But the fairy tale wouldn't last long.

Just after the New Year in 1996, Nicoletti was arrested, charged with laundering $300,000 in cash, and held on a $2 million bond. Eager to prove her love, Lillian sprung him on Valentine's Day. After that, Nicoletti knew Lillian would always stick by him. She was the only one who would. All the others -- friends, business partners, ex-girlfriends -- had turned on him. They were rats who'd sell out their own mothers to save themselves. Nicoletti had been called many things -- swindler, grifter, con man -- but never a rat.

When he arrived in Boca Raton in 1989, he was like a character from a Scorsese film or a Mamet play -- a fast-talking, flashy Italian who claimed to be an international business tycoon and carried fistfuls of cash. He neglected to mention, however, the less savory aspects of his years in California, like the eight convictions for charges that included mail fraud, bank fraud, and arson. If pressed, though, he always had a good explanation for the charges. He had a good explanation for everything. He was the Harry Houdini of legal entanglements. Generously armed with charm and guile, Nicoletti had over the years dodged countless lawsuits and smooth-talked judges into handing him light sentences. He'd also accumulated mountains of cash, dozens of exotic cars, and women, always lots of women.

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