By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
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By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
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"[The FBI] created that monster, and they didn't know what they were doing," Ciraolo says. "Sandini should have been rotting in jail, but they let him out. Sandini was the greatest at that. I used to call him 'Houdini.'"
Soon Sandini introduced Ciraolo to Mitrione, who was posing as a Chicago mobster and using the name Danny Micelli. But Ciraolo says he immediately picked out Mitrione as a possible cop. "He was wearing penny-loafer shoes," laughs Ciraolo about the shoes no Mob man would ever wear. "I asked him if he wanted two pennies."
Mitrione, who is now living in Kansas writing books, says it's true: Ciraolo obviously made him as an FBI agent. "He never trusted me at all," Mitrione recalls.
Mitrione and Sandini began meeting smugglers in the back office of Globe Rentals, Esposito's business. Esposito even pops up on some of the early recordings Mitrione made with smugglers. Then the Paraguayan deal was killed by FBI headquarters in D.C. because higher-ups refused to allow the first 50 kilograms of coke involved in the deal to "walk" into the country without seizure. Mitrione -- along with his supervisors in Miami -- argued that unless some drugs were allowed into street traffic, the highest levels of South American smuggling cartels could never be infiltrated. The conflict over drugs "walking" plagued Airlift throughout its existence, with Miami in favor and D.C. against.
But Airlift, which wasn't even an official operation yet, was allowed to proceed, and Mitrione and Sandini continued to use Globe Rentals as a headquarters. David Boner, an agent who was Mitrione's partner for the first few weeks, later told FBI investigators that it was "evident" that Sandini was "the boss and Esposito was in a subservient role."
Ciraolo remembers when a nervous and upset Esposito came to him complaining that he thought Sandini had brought an agent -- whom he knew as Danny -- into his business.
"I told him I didn't know what to say about the fuckin' guy [Sandini]," Ciraolo recalls. "Sandini's a flake, I told him, and you can't trust nothin' about him."
A week or two later, Esposito was gunned down by seven shots at close range behind the counter at Globe Rentals. Sandini was an immediate suspect, said Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO) Sgt. John Goulet, who investigated the murder for the now-defunct Dania Police Department. Mitrione's response to the murder was to ignore it and to lie about Esposito's role in Airlift to superiors, reports show.
Mitrione also hid the fact that he suspected Sandini might have played a part in the murder and used his status as an FBI agent to gain access to the Dania Police Department's murder file on Esposito, sharing the information he got with Sandini, the suspect.
In a memo Mitrione filed to superiors nearly a year after the murder, he acknowledged that Globe Rentals was utilized to "full advantage," but contended that any "business activities conducted by Esposito was completely separate and divorced from any activities involving [Sandini]." Then he notes that Esposito was "killed during an incident unrelated to this investigation. As a result, Globe Rentals was vacated and never again utilized."
Almost two years later, Mitrione -- then already in trouble for smuggling drugs and receiving bribes -- admitted that, rather than "vacate" Globe after the murder, he and Sandini went there the day after the killing to look for marijuana that Sandini believed was stashed there. Mitrione and Sandini continued holding meetings at the business as well.
Mitrione also admitted that he had his own suspicions that Sandini had murdered Esposito, but he says now that they didn't come until well after the murder. "I didn't want to believe that Sandini was capable of that," Mitrione says. "I was hoping he didn't do it, and as long as nobody came and said that he did do it, there was no reason for us to investigate the murder."
Now Mitrione, who says he never lied in those reports, says he's certain that Sandini did in fact hire assassins to murder Esposito. "It was Sandini all the way, absolutely," he says.
This infuriates Ciraolo: "They got away with murder," he claims.
The suspected motive: Esposito, like Ciraolo, had figured out that Mitrione was a federal agent. And, Mitrione explains, Sandini knew that if Esposito ruined Airlift before it achieved any success, Sandini would probably have to go back to Alabama and face his prison sentence.
"Esposito confronted me, telling me I was a cop," Mitrione recalls. "Esposito was making waves. And then Sandini had a hard-on for Frank [Esposito].
A couple years ago, the BSO cold-case squad received a tip about the Esposito murder. The investigation led Det. Mike Bole to identify two gunmen involved -- well-known mobsters Steven Cavano and Matthew Nocerino, who are both in federal prison. But Bole couldn't prove who ordered them to kill. Like every other investigator who has looked into the case, however, Bole says he has only one suspect, Sandini, and he has "no doubt" that Sandini was involved.
One of the many strange aspects about Airlift is that Ciraolo, who was supposed to have been involved in the overall "drug conspiracy," was hardly ever mentioned in FBI reports, and when he was, he wasn't smuggling drugs. Mitrione and Sandini, however, were smuggling plenty while using Hangar No. 24 at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport as their new base for the FBI operation.