By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The terrorism and conspiracy to murder and maim charges, which could have sent her to prison for life, ultimately convinced her to plead guilty to a single felony weapons violation. After Browne entered her plea in March 2000, Noraid stopped filling her commissary account and reneged on the financial promises. When she was sentenced in August, Browne told U.S. District Court Judge Wilke Ferguson about Claxton's threat on her life, prompting Noraid to leap to the IRA operative's defense. Panaro denied Claxton threatened anyone, telling The Miami Herald Browne was living in a "fantasy world."
Browne never testified against Smyth, Claxton, or Mullan, who were tried together last summer and convicted on weapons charges. The jury dismissed the more serious counts of terrorism and conspiracy to murder and maim. Ferguson sentenced Smyth and Mullan to three years each. The judge sent Claxton away for 56 months. Browne, ever bitter, says the IRA should brutally punish Claxton when he's deported: "I think they should cut out his tongue. The IRA should make an example of him. You act like an idiot like that and say there's more of us and you didn't get all the guns? What kind of volunteer is that?"
Claxton's conviction ended the criminal case, but the political ramifications continue. Last September prosecutor Scruggs told an Ulster Television crew that he was certain Claxton had operated on orders from the "highest levels" of the IRA. According to The Daily Telegraph in London, Jane Fort, the American consul in Belfast, called an Ulster Television producer on behalf of Clinton and tried to convince producers not to air Scruggs's comments, saying they could do irreparable damage to the peace process. The White House and FBI Director Louis Freeh issued independent statements saying Scruggs's comments weren't substantiated. Browne believes Clinton was trying to protect the peace process -- at the expense of the truth.
Early this month Northern Ireland's prime minister, David Trimble, resigned in protest over the IRA's failure to disarm. Now British forces are lining the streets and battling rioters. The fledgling joint Protestant-Catholic government is in danger of crumbling. The Florida Four can't claim responsibility for the recent troubles, but their gunrunning mission added to the damage. Browne contends the Good Friday pact was always an illusion: As Couples told her, the IRA was running guns in South Florida before she became involved and is likely still doing it. The IRA will never decommission weapons, she says, because the Protestants will never give up their power and the Catholics have too many men like Conor Claxton among them, men who, as she puts it, "know only hate."
When Browne was released in January from a federal prison in Tallahassee, she began working not at a big-shot brokerage firm but at a video store where she started at $6 an hour. She has since worked her way up to assistant manager but says she still can't afford to pony up the $100 a month the government is demanding for her $25,000 fine. Her failure to pay is one reason federal probation officer Tony Gagliardi charged Browne in April with violating her probation, which could send her back to prison for three to nine months.
Gagliardi has also accused Browne of criminal association because she lived in a house in Weston belonging to the father-in-law of a cocaine smuggler named Yodelene Dessaints, whom Browne met in prison. An ex-convict acquaintance of Dessaints's, Liza Workman, also frequented the house. Browne swears she did everything possible to avoid contact with Workman, even obtaining a restraining order to keep her away, and adds that Dessaints only called her on the phone about rent. "What was I supposed to do?" she says. "I didn't contact them; they contacted me. It was involuntary."
Despite all her troubles, there is a bright side. She says she's given up alcohol and now sips on virgin drinks and O'Doul's nonalcoholic brew. Rapaport, ever a loyal husband, is still helping to support her, and they speak on the phone every day. And her "cause" is alive and well: In honor of her many years as a loyal customer, her beauty parlor does her nails and hair for free these days.