By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Striking was the most common adjective used to describe Browne during the international media whirlwind that followed her arrest. When she sat down at Starbucks on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale to tell her story, the description seemed apt. She is a large-framed and rather angular five foot eight, with a pleasant, pretty face perched over a long, thin neck. Fair-skinned, she has expressive blue eyes and a deeply felt laugh. Her graying brown hair has been colored a preternatural dark red. She wears a conservative gray pantsuit, indicative of her professional style. Her nails are immaculate. By looking at her, it's impossible to tell that her life is a shambles.
After serving 17 months in prison on a weapons conviction, she is tens of thousands of dollars in debt (including a $25,000 fine owed to Uncle Sam). No longer a stockbroker, she's now employed at a video store, earning $1200 a month. The Mercedes was repossessed. Even worse, she's been charged with violating her probation and may soon be headed back to prison.
Yet she says she has no intention of returning to Ireland, where she survived a tough, menial childhood. Growing up far from the Troubles in the north (she's never even set foot in Belfast), Browne had troubles of her own in Youghal, then a town of 700. Living in cramped quarters and working on her father's farm, she received little affection from her parents, she says, but doesn't fault them. "How can you give love and attention to 14 of us?" she asks, adding she and her siblings were constantly scraping for space and food. "One was out to get more from the rest; I mean it was impossible. You grow up quicker. I had to take more risks than other people by coming here and getting some kind of an education and making money."
Her girlhood dream of coming to the United States was realized at the age of 21 when she arrived in New York City, lived with a brother, and worked in a Brooklyn deli. In was in the deli that she met Meir "Mike" Rapaport, an Israeli-born businessman 18 years her senior. "I believe it was 1987, and I went in to get some food and I saw her," says Rapaport, who speaks with a thick Middle Eastern accent. "She was a pretty and nice, innocent, Irish-looking girl, and we started going out."
They married the next year in a most American wedding spot, Las Vegas, where Rapaport liked to gamble. Browne says she not only found love with Rapaport but also wealth and travel. She says he had received a $1 million inheritance. "We lived in Europe and traveled and lived really, really well," she says.
Rapaport also has something of a mysterious side. He jets around the globe conducting his import-export business, selling diamonds, electronic equipment, and other goods. When Browne was arrested, FBI agents held Rapaport in prison as a "material witness" in the gunrunning case. He says he had nothing to do with the weapons trade, and in the end investigators could find no evidence against him. Instead he pleaded guilty to traveling under a false identity and was incarcerated for six months. Rapaport concedes he usually operates his business under a fictional name. "I like to keep my name out because I don't know the sources of the selling and the buying," he explains. "It's the gray market."
The pair never had a traditional marriage -- Rapaport was usually away on business, and Browne spent months at a time on her own. She moved to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1990s and immersed herself in the sizable set of English and Irish expatriates, some of them wealthy. Rapaport never stopped sending money to her and served as something of a father figure, Browne says.
"I just liked to see her happy," explains Rapaport, who is now living in Israel and continues to travel the world.
Browne, anxious for success of her own, earned her Florida real-estate license shortly after arriving here and bought a British pub called the Royal Britannia in 1994 with an English partner named Rob Branson. Outside the Delray Beach bar, she flew the Union Jack. Browne never held a grudge against the British, saying Protestants and Catholics lived side by side in Youghal, free of tension or discrimination. Browne isn't about politics; she's about business.
In 1996 she moved into her Boca apartment, sold the bar, obtained her stockbroker's license, and was hired by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Browne says she also yearned for a family, but Rapaport, who had a grown son, wasn't interested in babies. So Browne went in search of her dream man, and on a Friday evening in October 1998, she found Anthony Smyth in Waxy O'Connor's, an Irish pub in Fort Lauderdale. "Anthony got up to give me a seat," she remembers. "He was with a couple of friends, just talking, and when I was leaving, he asked me for my number. I gave him my business card, and then he said, "No, I can't wait until Monday.'"
Soon they were dating. "I'd been married to an Israeli for years, and that was probably why I was infatuated with Anthony. [It] was just being with my own people again," she explains. "I went looking for a prize, and look what I wound up with."