Oldfella

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

Even as FBI officials argued over whether or not to let drugs "walk," Mitrione and Sandini were smuggling in hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana from Colombia and simply didn't tell the FBI about it. Soon the two of them would be buying cars, houses, businesses, silver, expensive jewelry, and other extravagances with drug money they made and never reported to the FBI.

The partners shared the hangar with Gus Doppes, who was characterized in FBI and court reports as a shrewd, high-level, and daring drug smuggler. Doppes, who was indicted but never convicted in the aftermath of Airlift, now lives in California and says he never smuggled anything.

"Mitrione and Sandini were always together, always," he says. "They practically slept together," he says.

Hangar No. 24 attracted a strange brew of brazen smugglers. FBI reports show plane trips zigzagging between North and South America, for everything from hauling cocaine to snorkeling. There were sex-and-cocaine parties involving Mitrione, two women, and Colombian Air Force Maj. Bernardo Suarez, who was also indicted but never convicted in Airlift. Suarez, who worked for at least two huge cocaine producers in Colombia, also served as George Bush's pilot and guide to Colombia when the then-vice president went on fact-finding missions on cocaine production in Colombia. FBI reports document one Sandini-Mitrione smuggling mission in which Doppes' plane almost went down in the Gulf of Mexico. They had to dump hundreds of pounds of cocaine into the water to save themselves, which made the Colombians who owned the cocaine very unhappy. Two of Doppes' pilots were later kidnapped and held at gunpoint in Colombia. Doppes risked his life to save them, according to Mitrione. Doppes denies the story, but Mitrione says he admires Doppes to this day because of the rescue.

There was only one seizure during Airlift -- of nearly 200 kilograms of what the FBI reported was the most potent cocaine (95 percent pure) ever seen in the southeastern United States. It was the largest seizure in Fort Lauderdale history at the time. What no one knew until later was that Mitrione and Sandini skimmed 42 kilos from it, which would make them each $1 million. Then Mitrione resigned from the FBI, and he and Sandini began buying property, businesses, and other investments.

Airlift, meanwhile, was shut down after an administrative investigation showed it was in "shambles." The disastrous operation may have remained a secret had it not been for a Drug Enforcement Administration plan in Pittsburgh called Operation Screamer, which led DEA agents from western Pennsylvania to Hangar No. 24. There the DEA learned that bigtime smugglers named Sandini and "Danny" were flooding Pittsburgh with cocaine.

It would take the DEA several months before they realized that Danny was Dan Mitrione, FBI agent. And soon thereafter, tension would be running high between Mitrione and Sandini as Pittsburgh prosecutors began interviewing Sandini.

The treacherous relationship between Sandini and Mitrione ended with a bomb, but fortunately for Ciraolo, not with a bang.

It was just another night at the Pompano harness track's clubhouse, where Ciraolo all but lived during the '80s, at least when he wasn't in prison. He noticed Sandini, Mitrione, and their wives sitting at a table, eating, and drinking, but he didn't immediately go to the table, mainly because he still suspected Mitrione was an agent. Sandini, who was drinking heavily that night, came over to Ciraolo and dragged him over to the table.

"This is my best friend, Vinnie," Sandini told Mitrione's wife, Janet, who remembered Ciraolo as "good-looking."

Ciraolo declined an invitation to join them. And he's glad he did. The air at the table was thick with paranoia and distrust. Operation Screamer was closing in on Mitrione, who'd already resigned from the FBI. Mitrione knew that Sandini had made a trip to Pittsburgh to talk with prosecutors and agents, and he was afraid Sandini -- a renowned double-crosser -- was going to sell him out.

Sandini acted especially strange that night. Usually discreet about their business dealings, he counted out 35 hundred-dollar bills at the table and pushed them over to Mitrione in sight of everyone. An embarrassed Mitrione quickly stuffed the money into his breast pocket. Then Sandini made it worse. He drunkenly exclaimed: "You have nothing to worry about." Then his voice changed from protector to cold-hearted con: "That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee."

Janet Mitrione later told the FBI that she interpreted it as two "contrasting statements meaning, 'Trust me, do not trust me.'" The night ended with the Mitriones not showing up at an after-hours club where they were supposed to meet the Sandinis. Mitrione and Sandini never spoke to each other again.

Two days later at midnight, Ciraolo was following Sandini from the racetrack to their regular drinking hangout, Allen J's on Powerline Road, when Ciraolo noticed something dangling from the rear of Sandini's car.

"I thought it was some electrical shit, but the car's lights were all working," Ciraolo says. "I picked up that damn sausage and held it out. I had no fuckin' idea what it was."

Dennis Regan, who headed the BSO bomb squad, says the "sausage" was one of the more dangerous bombs he's ever dealt with. It could have been detonated by a cell phone, a CB radio, or even a garage-door opener. A spark or undue friction could have caused the plastic explosive -- called Flex-X -- to blow up on its own. He says anyone within 100 yards of it would have been in danger of injury or death had it blown.

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