I Think, Therefore I Scam

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

Nicoletti was a master of the long con, a financial wizard who constructed elaborate business deals that promised quick and generous returns. He culled potential investors from the clientele of the numerous restaurants he opened around Los Angeles and Boca. "If he thought he could get something out of you, he would treat you like royalty," his second wife, Judy Whitfield, recalls. For weeks, sometimes months, Nicoletti would work to gain trust, wooing the wealthy with expensive dinners or weekends at his home in Jamaica. All the while he'd let slip details of business deals in the works. He talked up impending financial windfalls to such a degree that people would come to him, begging, pleading, for a chance to come on board. "Well, there really are no guarantees," he'd tell them. "But to be completely honest with you, this really is a phenomenal opportunity."

Usually they'd bite. Many of the people Nicoletti bilked failed to realize they'd been scammed until months, even years, had elapsed. He was so likable that his victims sometimes came to his defense after he was arrested. In the words of one, "Franco could talk the Pope into giving him the Vatican jewels."

But by the mid-'80s Nicoletti's charms had begun to fail him, and he wound up serving a total of almost four years in West Coast prisons. At the California Institute For Men in Chino, a prison psychologist concluded that Nicoletti was a man devoid of the emotional backstops that make it difficult for others to lie, cheat, and steal without compunction. In other words, he was a sociopath -- fearless, impulsive, grandiose, and highly manipulative. Nicoletti dismissed the prognosis as psychobabble. To his friends and wives, even those he'd swindled, he was a larger-than-life figure who made everything seem possible.

"He always had a can-do attitude about everything," Judy Whitfield recalls. "If you said to him, 'Franco, let's go check out this island in the middle of the Pacific; I understand it's for sale,' he would say, 'Yeah, let's go do it.' For him all things had potential."

Nicoletti had begun to accumulate a small empire in Boca Raton that would eventually include three restaurants, a travel agency, and a series of medical clinics, when two local detectives latched on to him. Palm Beach Sheriff's Det. Robert Hawkins and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent George Vilardi spent almost eight years trying in vain to nail Nicoletti. They stumbled across him during a 1989 burglary investigation in which his nephew was a suspect. "Once I had run Franco's criminal history and had started calling people in California, I knew there had to be something to this guy who had just shown up in Boca Raton," Hawkins recalls. Over the years the detectives tracked Nicoletti at Ciro's, Zelda's, and Hoexter's, his trio of Boca restaurants. They interviewed ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, and former business partners and even flew to California and New Jersey to gather dirt on him. They could never make anything stick.

Nicoletti responded by mocking the two detectives on stage at Ciro's and, in 1994, filing a $5 million harassment suit against them. "He was one hell of a challenge," recalls Vilardi. "We had a lot of trouble getting anyone to come forward and talk to us about him. Who knows what he's really done the last ten years he's been in Boca." Don Youngbluth, an IRS agent who pursued Nicoletti in the late '90s, says the investigations did get personal at times. "You're dealing with such a despicable human being, it's easy to lose your objectivity," he adds. "In terms of white-collar crime, I think Nicoletti is one of the most corrupt human beings I've ever met, truly a man without a conscience."

Although he eluded them for many years, Nicoletti must have known that sooner or later the detectives would catch up with him. That may be why he needed $7 million so badly. That kind of money would be enough to set him up with a new life, in Argentina perhaps, if only everything hadn't gone so terribly wrong.

In November 1996 Nicoletti asked Frank Petillo, a well-connected bookie, for help in finding an investor who could front him a cash loan of $7 million, money he said he needed to finalize a $50 million business deal. As collateral he offered $12 million in bearer bonds, untraceable government bonds worth their face value. Petillo introduced Nicoletti to Rich Rendina, a disbarred lawyer and former state attorney from Fort Lauderdale, who in turn introduced him to Tom Ramos, a man claiming to be the private financial consultant to a wealthy investor who had amassed his fortune trafficking in drugs in the '70s and '80s. During the meeting at Ciao Bella, a new Italian restaurant in which Nicoletti was a silent partner, Rendina asked him if he had a problem doing business with a drug trafficker. He said he didn't.

The men shared a bottle of wine and Nicoletti, feeling expansive, began to let down his usually guarded facade. "Are you telling me this guy is a bad guy because he sells marijuana?" he said to Rendina and Ramos, who, unbeknownst to Nicoletti, was wearing a recording device given to him by the DEA. "Well fuck you. You know why? Because your government sells marijuana, cocaine, heroin, all kinds of shit, every day on the street for your own convenience. So give me a break." Thirty years staving off government attempts to lock him away or deport him back to Italy had bred a stew of resentment that occasionally slipped out. Nicoletti's face reddened, the small lump in the upper right-hand corner of his forehead tensed, and he pounded the table with his fist. "I can pay for these meals and sit at the ocean the rest of my life," he continued. "I don't give a fuck. But I'm a player -- God forgive me, I'm a fuckin' player -- and I'll be a player until the day I die. You know why? I'm a rebel at heart. I don't like this society. I don't like this system. I don't like what it stands for. It screws up too many people's lives, and that's where I'm coming from." He cleared his throat. "You gotta trust me when I tell you this. I can go to my wife and say, 'Honey, I'm in trouble, I need a $10 million check right now.' But I don't do that. I'm on my own. I stand on my own, and I been standin' on my own all my life since I was a little kid."

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