I Think, Therefore I Scam

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

A rebel was born in the summer of 1959 when a 12-year-old Franco Nicoletti and some of his friends began hawking backrests and umbrellas to tourists along the Mediterranean. "Ombrello, signora?" they inquired in Italian, the sand between their toes. Earlier that summer Franco had asked his father to buy him a pair of shoes. "You want fancy shoes? Buy 'em yourself," his father had told him. So Franco came up with the idea to milk the tourist trade, recruiting his friends to help out. He collected handfuls of lire and got his first taste of the benefits of free enterprise. A young hustler had taken his baby steps.

Franco's family was not atypical among Southern Italian families. His father had been a World War II navy captain who, after the war, went to work for the provincial government. Nicolino Nicoletti was rarely around, splitting his time between his family and those of his mistresses. Franco's mother, who was overbearing and sometimes violent, bore her husband's indiscretions, though she took out her frustrations on Franco, his three brothers, and two sisters. Franco left home as soon he could and began training for the priesthood at a nearby seminary. After two years he dropped out and headed to Sicily to enroll in hotel school. By the time he was 17 years old, he and his friends had hustled together enough money to open a business in Rome, a lively supper club featuring live jazz and good food. But Franco had grown impatient with Italy and longed to travel to the land of opportunity, America.

He flew into Chicago in December 1965, in the frigid heart of winter, and moved in with his grandfather, who was living in Gary, Indiana. Within a few months, Nicoletti hooked up with an Italian businessman who was importing Volkswagens and Porsches to the Chicago area. By the time his visa expired in 1966, he was earning a good wage and driving nice cars and did not want to return to Italy. The following year he told the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Mary Ann Millet, a young midwestern woman he'd begun dating, was pregnant and that they intended to marry. Although Mary Ann wasn't pregnant, the couple were wed on April 29, 1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing. They then enlisted in the Air Force and were sent to March Air Force Base outside Riverside, California, where Mary Ann was assigned to the medical corps and Franco, who had requested service as an assistant chaplain, was assigned to clerk duty in the nuclear weapons compound. Although he was not a U.S. citizen (and never would become one), Nicoletti was granted a high-level security clearance.

In 1970, three months before he was discharged, he had his first run-in with California law enforcement. Nicoletti was accused of writing bad checks to employees of a Riverside body shop he had started while in the service and was given probation. Today he claims someone else wrote those checks. Whatever did transpire at the body shop, the incident marked the beginning of what would become an almost 25-year run of prison-free legal trouble. After Nicoletti's return to civilian life, he quickly sold the body shop, the first of many businesses he would unload over the years.

Nicoletti's corporate modus operandi was to start a legitimate business, though never in his own name, and then run it into the ground. Along the way, say law-enforcement officials, he was likely skimming the cash proceeds while driving the business deeper and deeper into debt. Because his name was not attached to any of the operations, Nicoletti's personal assets remained protected when the businesses were eventually sold or went bust. "It's what we call a 'classic bust-out,'" explains Vilardi. "Franco was a master at carrying them off."

Nicoletti is in prison now, lost in the fond recollections of those early years. "I was on base, running a beautiful little business," he says, referring to the body shop. "I painted the place, made it spotless, it was great. I started with peanuts and worked hard. You know why I got into trouble?" His voice jumps several octaves, the click of his consonants quickens. "It was my ambition," he says. "It's always been my ambition, my ambition, my ambition." He spits out the words like poison and pounds the table with a clenched fist. "So some bad checks were written. It happened, nobody got screwed out of anything, life went on. Now when I'm the bad guy, they bring that up like its some big deal."

Nicoletti eases back into the chair, smoothes his fingers across the stack of legal documents on the Formica table, and smiles, acknowledging a fellow inmate. "I always think I'm doing the right thing and then something goes wrong."

One night in 1973, Nicoletti walked into the bar at the Holiday Inn in Riverside, smeared with grease and sweat and wearing a jumpsuit emblazoned with corporate logos. He and his team of Formula 7 racecar drivers had won a race earlier that day, and it was time to celebrate. The minute he walked in, Nicoletti noticed the beauty on stage with her rouged lips flush against the microphone. When the band took a break, he called her over. "Hey, gorgeous, come here and talk to me," he said, flashing a mischievous smile.

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