Oldfella

Battling cancer and investigating a botched federal investigation, mobster Vinnie Ciraolo is fighting to clear his name

A giant white poodle named Gucci sits tall on a blue cabana chair on the porch, peering suspiciously through the sliding-glass door into the sparkling Deerfield Beach kitchen. The dog seems to trust only the aging mobster sitting inside in his blue pajamas. Save a few loose, barely visible strands of gray hair, Vinnie Ciraolo is as bald as a newborn. The latest round of chemo destroyed the cancer in his lymph nodes, and he plans to be strong as a horse soon, fit enough to fight the government's justice system again, able to unleash some of the rock-hard bitterness that infects his bones and blood as deeply as cancer ever could.

"I'm worked up now," Ciraolo says in his deep and gravelly voice, eyes hardening behind his yellow-tinted glasses. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. I still got it all in my head like it was fuckin' yesterday."

Strewn haphazardly around Ciraolo, who has spent 10 of his 69 years in various prisons, are several boxes full of yellowing pages, some stapled, some loose, some in folders, some bent in the corners of the bottom of the box. The papers inside are the substance of his obsession. It concerns Operation Airlift, one of the darkest undercover investigations in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Fort Lauderdale-based Airlift involved two main players, both of them banes to Ciraolo's existence: Dan Mitrione, a tall, strapping, and moody FBI agent, and Hilmer Sandini, his wily, gray-haired informant. Ciraolo's own role in Airlift was a supporting but essential one, and it cost him nearly six years in prison on a conviction for conspiracy to sell cocaine, a crime he swears he never committed.

Mitrione and Sandini began working Airlift for the FBI and ended it as law-breaking smugglers themselves, bringing in hundreds of pounds of the purest cocaine ever seen in the southeastern United States at that time, not to mention a few planeloads of marijuana. The drugs wound up on the streets of Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Chicago, and South Florida. After he was finally caught, FBI reports show that Mitrione admitted he made about $1 million for his role in illegal drug sales.

Airlift was pure Fort Lauderdale vice, smacking of its time, the reckless and unbridled '80s, when smugglers ran rampant and arrogant through Broward County, flashing huge rolls of cash, which paid for their extravagant homes, cars, trips, planes, and nights on the town. Airlift was also the FBI's first-ever battle in the Reagan and Bush administrations' declared "War on Drugs." And it was an unmitigated disaster, rife with internal conflict and ending with indictments against both the agent and his paid informant.

For Ciraolo it all ended on a cold day in Pittsburgh in January 1986, when he stood defiantly before federal judge Gerald Weber and complained about his lawyer's failings in the Airlift trial.

"You know all about these things," Weber said sarcastically as Ciraolo spoke in legalisms.

"I know it all because you taught me," Ciraolo shot back.
"I didn't teach you. You come before me as a distinguished graduate of institutions, both Sing Sing and Atlanta."

"That's right."
"And Attica."
Then the conversation turned to Sandini, whom Ciraolo blamed for his predicament.

"I met him in jail, saved his life," Ciraolo told Weber, after trying to tell him that he didn't associate with Sandini during the months of Airlift. "That's the worst mistake I made, and found the bomb in his car besides. That's the other mistake I made."

"All right," said Weber, losing his patience.
"Now you got I belong to the Gambino Mob... all garbage."
"Since the defendant refuses --"
"I definitely refuse."
"-- to be cooperative at this time --"
"I want another lawyer."

"-- the sentence of the court is that the defendant is committed to the custody of the attorney general... for imprisonment for a period of 15 years. No fine. No costs."

"Right. I don't expect any less from you.... I don't expect any less from you."

As he was taken away, Ciraolo yelled curses at Judge Weber, and he had reason to be furious. He may have been a mobster and a crook, but he was no drug smuggler. The court records from the Airlift trial, in which Ciraolo was nothing but a footnote, clearly show that. Neither Mitrione nor Sandini mentioned Ciraolo as being involved in drugs -- and they snitched on everybody they possibly could. There was no physical evidence against Ciraolo, either. Just the word of a convicted killer and drug dealer named Ernest Rockwell, who testified that Ciraolo brokered a four-kilogram cocaine deal between Rockwell and Sandini. Sandini never corroborated this. Prosecutors charged Ciraolo with participating in the drug conspiracy anyway, and he did about as much time in prison as Rockwell -- who admitted to distributing hundreds of kilos of cocaine.

The truly big Fort Lauderdale smugglers and their Colombian suppliers involved in Airlift quietly escaped without conviction. Mitrione pleaded guilty to cocaine conspiracy and accepting bribes -- and wound up doing just three years in prison, two less than Ciraolo.

That's what's fueled Ciraolo's obsession, what he sees as the hypocrisy and failure of the justice system. Ciraolo, who has spent a good part of the past 13 years pouring over Airlift documents and writing judges and lawyers about it, is angry not so much about the crimes of which Mitrione and Sandini were found guilty but the crimes that were never mentioned at the trial -- like the attempted bombing he mentioned to Weber and an execution-style murder. Ciraolo himself played a vital role in both. He introduced Sandini to a man named Frank Esposito, who was gunned down at the beginning of Airlift; and it was Ciraolo who picked up a bomb from under Sandini's car at the very end of the operation.

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