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.

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.

"[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.

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.

Regan, now a commander at the Coconut Creek Police Department, also says Mitrione was the only true suspect from the beginning of the bomb investigation. Regan says he found a lot of circumstantial evidence indicating Mitrione was the culprit, including a witness who said she saw Mitrione in his red Volvo near Allen J's lounge at about the time Ciraolo picked up the bomb, a statement that contradicts Mitrione's alibi that he was out of town at the time.

But Mitrione wasn't cooperating with Regan in the attempted bombing case, and neither was the FBI. "It was more than tense," says Regan of his dealings with FBI agents. "The FBI seemed to be involved only to protect Mitrione. They wanted all my information but wouldn't tell me anything. I believe if they had really investigated it the right way, there would have been an indictment."

While Regan's investigation stalled, the FBI finally got Mitrione to speak in detail about it, and his story proved full of holes, discrepancies, and bizarre actions. The night the bomb was found, Sandini called Janet Mitrione, screaming that her husband had planted a bomb on his car and demanding to know where he was.

After first refusing to go into detail about the bomb, Mitrione finally told the whole story.

He said he'd gone to his mother's house in Fort Myers that night and slept alone in another house he owned in the same town. Mitrione couldn't explain why a phone call was made with his calling card from a Fort Lauderdale convenience store to his Cooper City house at 12:53 a.m. -- precisely one minute after Sandini's call the night of the bombing. Janet Mitrione later said that the voice on the mysterious phone call was unrecognizable and incoherent. This was just one of the numerous discrepancies and contradictions in Mitrione's story, according to FBI reports.

While Mitrione was always the prime suspect in the bombing, there was another name that came up -- Vinnie Ciraolo, though he was never seriously regarded as a suspect. "I don't know shit about bombs," he says. "Guns, I know about."

Mitrione, after prodding, also admitted to the FBI that the attempted bombing had a profound impact on him. The day after the bomb was found, Mitrione drove for hours before stopping in the Everglades, where he pulled out his revolver and considered killing himself. Mitrione says he knew Sandini believed he'd planted the bomb and figured that Sandini would then surely blab about all their crimes.

"I laid down and put the gun in my mouth," says Mitrione, who has written an unsold book about Airlift titled, My Side, Their Side, Suicide.

"I think I passed out, out of fear maybe, and then I woke up and knew I was alive."

Then Mitrione drove home before checking into a mental hospital in Miami. He vehemently denies any involvement in the bombing. "I never would do anything like that," he says. "I said it then, and I'll say it again. My conscience is clear about that."

The FBI, however, came to the same conclusion that Regan came to: Mitrione likely was behind the bomb. Then Mitrione took a lie detector test and didn't pass the part about the attempted bombing, says Roy Kahn, a former Miami prosecutor assigned to the Airlift case. But Kahn also says he never felt there was enough evidence to prosecute Mitrione. "One problem was that it was the FBI investigating one of their own," he says. "It was incredibly sensitive."

Mitrione denies that he failed to pass the lie detector test.
Two days before Ciraolo was indicted in Pittsburgh, an internal FBI report was filed by Miami agents: "This investigation, which is being conducted by a special FBIHQ [headquarters] investigative team, has been severely hampered by recent developments indicating a strong likelihood that Mitrione is culpable in the attempted murder of Sandini. If Mitrione is not exculpated in this crime, the U.S. Attorney, Miami, will not use him as a witness, and without Mitrione, the prosecution will depend on the development of other participant witnesses."

This report -- which Ciraolo received after years of waiting for a Freedom of Information Act request on the case -- shows not only that the FBI thought Mitrione was guilty of planting the bomb but also that federal prosecutors in Miami refused to use Mitrione as a witness because of it.

The report wasn't made public, and Mitrione, who certainly was never "exculpated" in the attempted bombing, testified at the Pittsburgh trial. When defense attorneys tried to bring up the bombing, Judge Weber refused to allow it.

The lead Pittsburgh prosecutor, Bruce Teitelbaum, says that the damning FBI report was never forwarded to his office and he never knew about it. It wouldn't have made a difference anyway, he says, because Mitrione was never charged with planting the bomb. Teitelbaum says he personally doesn't think Mitrione is guilty of the attempted murder and leans to the idea, rejected by the FBI and Regan, that Sandini planted the bomb himself. Mitrione is also an advocate of this theory.

"Somebody in the FBI could say that Fidel Castro murdered the Pope, but that doesn't make it true," says Teitelbaum, who is still a prosecutor in the narcotics division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh.

Mitrione's former attorney in Miami, Dan Forman, says the investigation into the bomb simply "resolved in [Mitrione's] favor."

"It was inconclusive evidence..., and they gave him the benefit of the doubt," says Forman. "I never told anybody this, but I thought at the time that they were really being nice to Mitrione here. I mean, the prosecutors were incredibly nice to him. And [FBI Supervisor John] Morris, he was so nice to me -- it was over the top how accommodating he was with everything."

It was recently revealed that Morris, who headed a special investigation into Mitrione, also committed crimes of corruption with criminal informants. Morris admitted in a Boston trial that he accepted cases of wine from mobsters whom his unit was investigating and criminal informants testified that Morris gave them license to commit crimes, so long as they didn't "clip anybody." Morris admitted to corruption but wasn't charged because he was given immunity for his crimes.

Forman says he now wonders if Morris was so kind to Mitrione because he was sympathetic to Mitrione's criminality.

Ciraolo finds it bitterly amusing that the respected FBI man who investigated Mitrione was also a crook. It doesn't surprise him. But he thinks there were two simple reasons why Mitrione was coddled: to save the FBI any more embarrassment and to aid in the Pittsburgh trial that ultimately helped land Ciraolo in prison.

In the end, the indictments against Doppes, Suarez, and other suspected smugglers involved in Airlift were dropped. Forman says part of the reason the case went away was because it was discovered just how many "fucked-up problems" Mitrione had, including the bomb. "By the end [Mitrione] was considered worthless" to prosecutors, Forman says.

"They called me a rebel and turned their back on me," Mitrione says of the FBI. "Suddenly my word was no good."

For Ciraolo, it was too late. He was already in prison.
After Ciraolo's conviction, a hearing examiner for the parole commission wrote in an official document that "it is likely there is not sufficient information to tie [Ciraolo] to this entire conspiracy." In a report given to Judge Weber before sentencing, a probation officer wrote that Ciraolo's "culpability [in the drug conspiracy] is difficult to gauge."

With just one drug dealer's word and no evidence whatsoever, it certainly was. Ciraolo is roiled by the fact that the standard by which he was charged seemed to have been so much lower than the standard prosecutors set for Mitrione.

"On my jacket they stamped 'O.C.' [Organized Crime], and I was a trophy for them," he says. "They didn't care if I was involved or not."

Just last week Ciraolo found out that he has an unlikely man in his corner: Dan Mitrione, the FBI agent who, along with Sandini, created the entire mess, the man for whom Ciraolo feels nothing but a cold hatred.

"When I heard Weber's sentence, I couldn't believe it," Mitrione says. "Vinnie definitely got oversentenced.... He had nothing to do with Airlift that I knew of. He got lumped in with everybody else, and that's what the government does. It's a numbers game they play, to see how many they can bring into it. I don't like that either."

Ciraolo figures Sandini -- had he not died in prison in 1990 -- would be saying the same thing. But Mitrione's lip service isn't going to overturn Ciraolo's sentence, which is what Ciraolo ultimately wants. He'll accept having his name next to convictions he's had to swallow for grand larceny and counterfeiting and a few other felonies. Begrudgingly he'll take them. And he's not shy about having the word Mafia next to his name. Just not drugs.

"I never had a damn thing to do with drugs," he says. "It's easy for them to throw you into a conspiracy. When they don't have a hook to hang their hat on, they make the hook, and they'll make the hat, too, if they need to. That's the federal government for you. They put me in this and I haven't had a minute's peace since."

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com

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