Oldfella

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

Ciraolo says he's known in his gut for years that Sandini -- while working for the FBI -- had Esposito murdered. And the bomb, Ciraolo is certain, was planted by Mitrione to silence Sandini about their crimes. Ciraolo's charges are unproven -- but the reports show that the FBI suspected the same thing. Yet prosecutors and Judge Weber were never interested in the murder or the bombing. They had a drug case to prosecute, not a homicide case. Making Airlift any murkier than it already was -- by tying the FBI to these violent crimes -- would have ruined Mitrione as a key witness and destroyed the trial in which Ciraolo and several other defendants were convicted.

The tangled, untold mysteries of Airlift were supposed to fade away and die. But Vinnie Ciraolo refuses to forget or forgive.

Finding a more unlikely crusader for justice than Ciraolo would prove difficult. He admits he was a bookmaker with the Mob and laughs about all the cops he's paid off in his lifetime. A self-proclaimed "degenerate," he's made hundreds of thousands of dollars in cold, illicit cash but blew most all of it at racetracks and on large legal fees while defending himself against numerous criminal charges.

Growing up in Brooklyn, he held out Mafia boss Carlo Gambino, who was a neighbor, as his role model. But police have scratched their heads trying to figure out exactly where Ciraolo himself fits in with the Mafia. Ciraolo wavers on whether he is a "made" member, sometimes refusing to say and other times saying he isn't. Law-enforcement agencies, from federal agents to cops in New York and Broward County, contradict each other about Ciraolo's place in the criminal hierarchy. He's been listed as a member of the Gambino crime family, the Luchese family, and the Gallo-Profaci faction of the Mob. And now, even in his pajamas, he cuts the classic figure of a mobster; the voice, the hard eyes, the toughness, the flashes of homicidal fury and callous vulgarity mingling with a sly, infectious charm.

"Nobody can figure me out, and nobody ever will," he says, pleased with his deception. "I been around the merry-go-round."

And around federal pens. It didn't take long for Ciraolo to wind up in a courtroom after he moved from New York to Florida in 1971. He was convicted of counterfeiting in Miami, and while in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Ciraolo first met Sandini. Soon, he made that "first mistake" -- saving Sandini from a knife-wielding attacker while both of them were sick in the prison hospital.

Ciraolo -- a grandfather who has been married to wife Joanna since he was 15 -- was paroled in 1975 and went back to building his trucking company in Broward County, where he had a contract to supply dirt to the Pompano harness track. One of his drivers was Esposito, a known Mafia associate.

Sandini, meanwhile, moved to Fort Lauderdale in the late '70s, where court records show he ran a drug-smuggling operation and was known to boast about his connection to Ciraolo. In 1980 or 1981, Ciraolo introduced Sandini to a restaurant owner named Harold Shatz. Soon Shatz was dealing drugs with Sandini, and one day Shatz came to Ciraolo complaining that Sandini had paid him in counterfeit bills.

"I told [Shatz], 'Get the fuck out of here,'" Ciraolo says. "You don't fuck with that shit [drugs]."

On Halloween in 1981, Shatz disappeared. It wasn't until 1987, well after Sandini was sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed during Airlift, that Sandini pleaded guilty to the Shatz murder. The killing was a family affair -- Sandini shot Shatz and rolled him up in a carpet, and his daughter brought out a sheet to help wrap up the corpse. Then they buried him. The body has never been found.

"I feel bad about that," Ciraolo says, his voice lowering. "I kind of feel responsible for his death. I never should've introduced Shatz to that motherfucker Sandini."

Ciraolo also regrets another introduction he made to Sandini, that of Esposito, who quit working for Ciraolo when he started his own car-rental business, called Globe Rentals, near the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. Ciraolo didn't know that Sandini was also being introduced to the FBI at about the same time.

While Sandini was being interviewed by Coral Springs police about the Shatz murder, he offered to help them solve the case if they could get him out of a 15-year prison sentence in Alabama on a marijuana-smuggling conviction. The police told the FBI about Sandini's eagerness to become a snitch, and the FBI set up a meeting. Sandini wowed them with a story about Paraguayan government officials who wanted to smuggle large amounts of cocaine and cash into the U.S. as a "nest egg" in case their regime were overthrown.

Despite the FBI's knowledge that Sandini was a swindler and suspected killer, they teamed up Mitrione, then a promising agent in his midthirties, with Sandini, who was put on the government payroll at $800 a week. Mitrione, who eagerly joined forces with Sandini, says nobody told him that Sandini was a suspected killer before he went on to persuade an Alabama judge to suspend Sandini's prison sentence. Mitrione also says he found out later that an FBI memo preceding Airlift stated that Sandini should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to work for the FBI again. Apparently Sandini had burned the FBI even before Airlift ever started, says Mitrione.

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