I Think, Therefore I Scam

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

After Barbara's release from prison, Nicoletti was picked up on the same charges. Shortly thereafter he was released on bail and Barbara went to see him at a warehouse he maintained in Hillsboro with his business partner Frank Guidotti. Nicoletti was there with his 12-year-old daughter. Barbara remembers him saying, "What are you doing here? I can't be seen with you. Part of the condition of my bail is that I don't make contact with you. You shouldn't be here." Nicoletti put out his hands as if to touch her. "Barbara, are you wearing a wire?" he asked, patting her down.

In September 1993 Barbara's condo was sold at auction on the courthouse steps. Nicoletti had signed over the condo to his sister, Maria Materazzi. After the mortgage payments stopped arriving, the bank foreclosed. Barbara fought eviction for three years but was eventually forced out. In the summer of 1996 she moved what she could into a smaller apartment downstairs and locked the rest of her possessions in storage. Six months later she declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Barbara says her bank accounts had also been drained. She had been laying out payments to cover various expenses for Franco that wound up exceeding $100,000. Although he wrote checks that appeared to compensate her for the loans, in reality, says Barbara, Franco was shortchanging her -- to the tune of more than $50,000. "I thought he was a good man," she recalled. "I was victimized and I was used. I didn't have anything to worry about when I met him, and now it's all gone, everything."

"Barbara is a liar," says Nicoletti with a venomous sneer. "I can't understand it, she was part of the family. I took her in, Lillian invited her for Christmas. You know what happened? She was in love with me, and after I got together with Lillian and told her I could never be with her, she grew mad with jealousy. That woman has lied everywhere."

Nicoletti flips through the slim biographical volume he imagines will vindicate him. The packet, entitled "Just About Everybody -vs- Franco Nicoletti," describes a convoluted conspiracy. "The Nicoletti nightmare," he writes, "exemplifies the absolute worst abuses of the American legal system and is comparable to the Ruby Ridge Incident and the Waco Massacre." Using a familiar tactic, he goes on to explain how Barbara's banking activities were connected with his brother Claudio and how the fiasco with her condo involved only Barbara and his sister Maria. Nicoletti, who was eventually charged with defrauding Barbara, is livid with indignation, reaching the end of his tether. Although a trial combining the fraud charges with the earlier money-laundering charges resulted in a hung jury, he knows they will still be a factor in his upcoming sentencing hearing on charges that he attempted to launder $7 million in drug money in 1996. "I did not need to do anything wrong," he says. "I'm appealing to your intelligence. These charges are stupid, absolutely stupid."

On November 20, 1996, shortly before Barbara declared bankruptcy, Nicoletti met with Tom Ramos and his secretary at the Ciao Bella restaurant on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, hoping to put the finishing touches on the deal he believed would secure him $7 million. Inside the restaurant the aroma of smoked ham and Parmigiano wafted from the kitchen. Nicoletti fingered the silverware on the table. Ramos shifted in his chair. His secretary, Laurel, smiled. "Are we going to do this deal or what?" asked Nicoletti. He grinned and laughed. "Let's do this," he thought. "Let's nail it. This deal will set me free."

But all day Nicoletti had been uneasy. Was it a setup, he wondered? Who was this Ramos character, and why did he always seem so nervous, so damn jittery? He had been cautious when they all met at the restaurant earlier that afternoon to nail down the details. At one point, threatening to break it off, he had started for the door, but Ramos talked him down. He felt better now. That afternoon Ramos had gone to the vault to count the bearer bonds with Frank Petillo, Frank Guidotti, and the secretary, Laurel. Nicoletti had stayed behind. If anything were going to go wrong, he thought for sure it would happen at the vault. "You just do your work," he had told them. They came back that evening, all of them, saying the bonds appeared to be legit. Nicoletti was relieved; nobody had been arrested. This deal will happen, he thought. I will get my $7 million.

"Tommy, to be honest with you, I really like you," Nicoletti said later that evening. Outside, thanks to a wire, the DEA listened. "I was totally paranoid. I don't know who the fuck you are, man. I mean, I figure the next thing I know I lose my bonds and have IRS problems." Ramos smiled uneasily. He knew what was coming.

Ramos and his secretary left the restaurant, having told Nicoletti they would all reconvene the following day to put the finishing touches on a done deal. Outside they peered over their shoulders at the warm glow emanating from the windows. A half-dozen shadows scurried toward the front door.

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