I Think, Therefore I Scam

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

"Why are you such a pappagallo?" she replied. Judy Whitfield, a college girl raised on a farm, had picked up a few words of Italian during a recent trip through Europe. Pappagallo, which literally means "parrot," is slang for "pickup artist." "How do you know that word?" asked Nicoletti, laughing at the brazen young woman who had dared to call him at his game. Later that night, after Whitfield had returned to the stage, she noticed Nicoletti in a back corner, wrapping his arms around another woman.

A week later Nicoletti returned to the Holiday Inn, alone this time and with a plaster cast on his leg. A gearshift had punctured his thigh. He sat at a table near the stage and stared into his drink. Whitfield was intrigued by the change in his countenance and dedicated a song to him. "This is for the guy who looks so sad," she said. After a brief courtship, Franco and Judy were married, and they moved into a big house in Canyon Crest. Franco's days and nights were consumed with wheeling and dealing while Judy stayed at home, cooking and caring for their baby girl.

In the mid-'70s Nicoletti opened Via Veneto, his first restaurant, and shortly thereafter opened a second, more casual place. Over the next couple of years, he started a string of businesses (all of which would eventually vanish), including a jewelry store, an antiques store, a leather-goods business with his brother Marcello, and a private investment company. He even dabbled in movies, financing a few low-budget flops, including Last Foxtrot in Burbank, a spoof of Last Tango in Paris. He claims he considered the script for Easy Rider before Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper got hold of it but decided it was too "out there" to be commercially viable. Though Nicoletti didn't have much luck in the movie business, he was flush with cash and had begun to mingle with all sorts of high rollers -- movie stars, mobsters, and musicians he met at his restaurants and during forays to Hollywood. Nicoletti befriended Frank Sinatra's road manager, a man known as Jimmy the Hook, and became a regular at Sinatra's house in Palm Springs. He even claims to have shared the stage with Ol' Blue Eyes during a brief singing stint in Las Vegas.

In 1977 Nicoletti met Richard Compton, an ex-con who had married Dawn Roddenberry, the daughter of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Compton owned a 104-foot yacht called the Magnifico II, which he planned to turn into a floating recording studio. Nicoletti, who took the ship's deed as collateral on a loan, seized the yacht after he said Compton failed to pay up in time. Years later a judge ordered Nicoletti and two associates to pay Compton $9.7 million and return the yacht. Compton never was able to collect and lost an even larger potential fortune when his wife was excised from her father's will after she contested her cut, reported at 25 percent of all Star Trek proceeds.

Judy Whitfield met Compton before his relationship with Nicoletti fizzled. "Franco said he had given him $30,000 in return for the ship's deed," she recalls. "The thing is, he never loaned anyone money without some form of collateral. You have to ask yourself, though, 'Who is the stupid one, the person who took out the loan or the person who got the collateral that is worth far more than the loan?' Some of the things he did were highly manipulative, but then some of them you think to yourself, 'Good lord, how could anyone fall for that?'"

During the legal battle over the yacht, Compton had alleged that an associate of Nicoletti, Michael Rizzitello, had strong-armed him into signing over the boat. Rizzitello was one of the most notorious mobsters in Los Angeles, a reputed capo in the Milano organized crime family, who received a life sentence in 1991 for his involvement in a bloody execution-style murder in the parking lot of a Los Angeles strip club.

Nicoletti often surrounded himself with characters of questionable repute, and Rizzitello was not the last mobster with whose name he would be connected. Years later in Boca, Vilardi and Hawkins ran the license plates of cars parked at his restaurant and discovered that many of them were registered to known Mob figures. "Franco knew everybody," Vilardi explains. "At first we thought he was really tightly connected, and then we came to think otherwise. In any case he certainly liked to cultivate the illusion that he was." The detectives say Nicoletti liked to use the perception of Mob ties as leverage, sort of psychological muscle. An anonymous letter they say was sent to the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office alluded to the threat of a Mafia hit on the investigators, describing how black roses would be sprinkled over their graves. "We took it very seriously," says Hawkins. "My personal opinion is that he probably had the capability to do what he said he would."

The truth about Nicoletti's Mob ties remains fuzzy. What is evident is that he ran in the same circles as organized crime figures and was closely connected to men whose criminal histories were spotty at best. The original Ciro's in Los Angeles, where Nicoletti worked as a manager in the late '80s, was reported in the Los Angeles Times to be a Mob hangout, and Ciro Orsini, the restaurant's owner (and a good friend of Nicoletti) had his own legal troubles.

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