I Think, Therefore I Scam

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

In the early '90s, Orsini's partner in the London branch of a restaurant empire that included establishments in London, Milan, and Los Angeles turned up dead, and Scotland Yard flew three detectives to Boca to question Tito Halabi, one of his business associates, about the murder. Halabi had moved to Boca in 1990, after Nicoletti opened his own restaurant using Ciro's name. He later split from Nicoletti after he ran into legal trouble over a failed cocaine deal and became one of Vilardi and Hawkins' most valuable informants. Orsini, who in the end became estranged from Nicoletti after he says he lost money in the Boca restaurant, never was implicated in his partner's murder. Neither was he implicated in the mysterious death last spring of his girlfriend, a California beauty queen named Jill Weatherwax, who turned up in a vacant lot in Fresno, stabbed in the back and bashed on the skull.

Nicoletti's world had begun to crumble years before the tumult at Ciro's. Unable to cope with his constant infidelity, Judy had left him in 1981. But Nicoletti was resilient and had a successor, an aspiring model named Dana Evans, waiting in the wings. His third marriage could not have come at a more inopportune time. In 1982, only weeks after vows had been exchanged, Franco and Dana were picked up on bank-fraud charges for a series of loans obtained from Empire Savings and Loan of Riverside. Prosecutors told the local press they believed Nicoletti was trying to accumulate as much cash as possible before fleeing the area.

He had used a tactic he would recycle in Boca Raton. At least one of the loans was secured under the name Giuseppe Gaudino, a cook at Via Veneto, Nicoletti's Riverside restaurant, who vanished to Greece around the same time Nicoletti and his wife were arrested. In Boca he secured loans and negotiated business deals under the names of his brother Claudio and sister Maria, both of whom would conveniently return to Italy after the deals had gone sour. In 1983 Nicoletti pleaded guilty to seven counts of fraud and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was later charged with arson after Gaudino doused Via Veneto with gasoline in order for Nicoletti to collect the insurance money, and that conviction was added to his conviction for fraud. He served a total of just under four years in prison.

In 1987 Nicoletti walked out of the low-security Federal Correctional Institute in Safford, Arizona, and into the arms of his fourth wife, Rosa. (Though they were never formally married, they considered themselves husband and wife.) Franco, who had known Rosa for years -- their parents were good friends -- began seeing her before his incarceration, while still married to Judy. After his release Rosa urged him to stay out of trouble and lobbied hard for a change of scenery. Two years later Nicoletti arrived in Boca Raton, an anonymous good-natured Italian with a refined taste in clothes and a can-do attitude. But Nicoletti the consummate swindler could not keep his hands out of the cookie jar.

"He gets bored," says Rosa. "That's what gets him in trouble. He's always looking for a new challenge. For Franco it's never really been about money. Sure he likes nice things, but what really gets him going is the challenge. He loves setting up deals, I don't care what kind of a deal it is as long as it's some kind of deal."

In South Florida Nicoletti set his sights on an abundant vulnerable population -- wealthy old widows. In 1990 he met a distraught 52-year-old woman named Barbara Lifschultz, whose husband was near death, confined to a wheelchair and connected to an iron lung. As a young man, Herb Lifschultz had played the saxophone professionally under the name Herb Larson. Nicoletti befriended the old man, regaling him with tales of the time he played Vegas with Frank Sinatra. Ciro's had just opened, and the Lifschultzes quickly became regulars at the restaurant.

Nicoletti told the couple how much he cared for them and that he wanted to look out for their financial interests. He suggested they transfer him the deed on their beachfront condo in order to free up the equity in case of a medical emergency. He said he would keep the cash in a trust account, from which he would make the mortgage payments. Herb knew he was dying and hoped Franco would keep an eye on Barbara for him. He died just after the New Year in 1993. By that time Barbara had begun helping out at Franco's restaurant, running errands, answering phones, doing whatever she could to help.

Seven months after Herb's death, Special Agent George Vilardi came looking for Barbara. He entered her apartment one summer day, handcuffed her, and transported her to a holding cell, where she was thrown in with junkies, drug dealers, and street hustlers. Lying on a creaky cot under a tattered blanket, she cried all night. A federal prosecutor charged Barbara with money-laundering. She had made 96 deposits, each for less than $10,000, in ten different bank accounts over a five-month period in 1992. She appeared to be using a tactic popular among money launderers who exploit banking laws that require financial institutions only to report deposits of more than $10,000. Unreported deposits -- believed in this case to be skimmed cash proceeds from Nicoletti's restaurants -- can be funneled out of the country without setting off alarms. Barbara insisted she'd made the deposits for Nicoletti, whom she believed to be a legitimate international businessman. "I thought maybe he was opening a bunch of new restaurants or something," she recalls. "I didn't question anything. I just did what he told me to do." She turned down a plea-bargain offer and was later acquitted of all charges. Nicoletti never came to her aid and vociferously denies ever having anything to do with the deposits.

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