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
On July 26, 1999, at 5:01 p.m., 57-year-old Al Polito walked into Gold Coast Check Cashing, a squat, pink, concrete-block building on the corner of Margate Boulevard and U.S. 441, with an FBI microphone strapped to his body. He was there to meet John Mamone, a six-foot-two, 260-pound New Jersey native known as "Big John."
FBI agents believed that Mamone was a soldier in the Trafficante organized crime family and that he used the check-cashing business as a front for money laundering, loan sharking, and gambling. Polito's instructions were to lure Mamone into discussing Mob activity.
But that afternoon, Big John had more than the Mafia on his mind. "I want tickets for Ricky Martin," he told Polito, according to the FBI transcript. "That's what you got to get for me. Can you get me Ricky Martin?"
Polito was eager to please. He dialed his cell phone. "OK, listen," he said. "I already got tickets to Cher, but I may need to get some more tickets. And what about Ricky Martin?"
Then a pause. "He's putting them aside for me," Polito told Mamone.
"Backstage passes, OK?" Mamone said.
"Four to six for Ricky Martin, yeah," Polito said into the phone, then disconnected.
"And backstage passes?"
"Ah, I don't know about that," Polito answered. "I'm trying." They both laughed.
"And dinner with Ricky Martin after the show," Mamone said. They laughed again.
"You know, I did that with Bon Jovi."
"Yeah, Bon Jovi," Polito said.
By this point, the FBI operation had uncovered only a suburban dad hoping to fulfill his young daughter's desire to see Ricky Martin shake his bonbon. But then Polito's cell phone rang.
"Hello?" Polito said after answering.
The person on the line responded, and the voice was audible to Mamone. "Sounds like Fat Ralphie," Mamone said, referring to New York Luchese crime family member Ralph Lento. "You can hear his fucking voice right from here."
Polito handed the phone to Big John. "What do you like?" Fat Ralphie asked.
"Who do you like tonight?" Mamone then asked Polito, handing back the phone.
"Ah, Cubs. Oh, they should be about 150, 160," Polito answered.
"Favorite?" Fat Ralphie asked.
"Yeah," Polito said.
That's when Fat Ralphie, a convicted wise guy, talked about placing a bet for an unspecified amount on the night's Cubs- Expos game. Just like that, the FBI sting had implicated Big John in running an illegal sports-betting operation. But that was only the beginning. Seventeen months later, federal prosecutors would indict him and 18 other Trafficante soldiers and associates on racketeering charges alleging that the organized crime outfit pulled in millions through extortion and other illegal means.
Once pinched, Big John would violate the Mafia's secret code: He would flip, agreeing to provide the federal government with information on organized crime activity in exchange for a reduced sentence and protection from retribution. Now incarcerated under the federal Witness Security Program, Mamone has become one of a growing number of mobsters nationwide who have turned on their crime associates. In fact, Mamone was one of at least two Mob rats to provide information that led to a headline-grabbing federal indictment earlier this year of six up-and-coming Mafia associates who ran a South Florida marijuana smuggling ring that stretched from Mexico to the Northeast United States.
Yet there was more to Big John than organized crime. In many ways, he was the perfect example of the contemporary wise guy -- and his personal vulnerabilities reflect the decline of the once-powerful criminal organization. His neighbors in the gated subdivision of Eagle Point in Coral Springs, where he and his wife, Grace, owned a $413,000 house, describe him as a devoted husband and father to his sons, 11-year-old Francesco and 10-year-old Joseph Vincent. He coached his boys' peewee football team, and when federal authorities finally threw him in the slammer, 85 suburban parents petitioned a federal judge to release him temporarily so he could coach the playoff games -- alleged Mafia ties be damned.
"The people who know these guys always say they're really nice," said Scott M. Deitche, author of the recently published Cigar City Mafia, a history of the Trafficante crime family. "They'd see them in the neighborhood and wave."
The Italian-American Mafia has declined steadily in power and influence over the past half-century. Zealous prosecution in the 1960s and '70s weakened the Mob nationwide, tearing it permanently from the wealth of money and power it enjoyed in the early 20th Century. Today, the Mafia is one of several ethnic criminal organizations operating in the United States; among the others are the Russians, Mexicans, and Cubans. In fact, during the '80s, as South Florida became a hub for South American cocaine, the Sicilian Mafia operating in the area reportedly established a loose alliance with the Colombian cartel.
It isn't Al Capone's gang anymore, but the Mafia remains intact and significant. It consists of 24 units, often referred to as families, that operate throughout the United States. Their structure is rigidly hierarchal. Among the best-known clans are the five that divide New York City: Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese. Each has operated in Florida, which has become something of the sixth borough of New York organized crime.
But in the Sunshine State, the five families must contend with another unit of the Mafia: the Trafficantes. Founded by Santo Trafficante Sr., a Sicilian immigrant who lived in Tampa, this organization gained influence by operating casinos in Cuba during the 1950s. After the Communist revolution in 1959, the Trafficantes were sent back to Tampa.
Yet Florida was always too large a market for the Trafficantes to operate in in isolation. In June 1980, a Bonanno capo met with Santo Trafficante's son to ask permission to operate in South Florida. The conversation was documented by the FBI in its famous Donnie Brasco investigation.
The Gambino and Philadelphia crime families quickly followed the Bonannos. Sunny Florida became a Mob destination. "Guys from all over the country, especially the Northeast, winter there," said Steve Lenehan, a former Mob associate from New Jersey. "They leave their families behind and fly solo. With them comes their attitudes and identity, which is always criminal. You can say it's a working vacation for most."
Lenehan, who spent 30 years as an associate to Mob families in New York and New Jersey, has become known as one of the most cooperative government witnesses in Mafia history. In August 1994, federal prosecutors popped him on racketeering charges. Faced with 20 to 50 years in the can, Lenehan flipped. Wearing an FBI wire for two years, he collected evidence that led to the conviction of 26 mobsters from the Bonanno, Bruno-Scarfo, Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese crime families.
He first met John Mamone in October 1989. Lenehan was then a driver for a Bonanno capo, while Mamone worked as an associate with the Genovese family. "We had mutual friends doing time at Danbury Federal Correctional Institute," Lenehan said. At the time, Mamone was in the construction business, and Lenehan was drumming up Mob action in New Jersey. "The idea was for Mamone and I to hook up and do some things together, a piece of which would go to [my friend] Marco [Minicchio]'s wife and kids," Lenehan explained. "I liked John right off, but nothing ever panned out. Later, when Paul 'Doc' Gaccione was released from prison, he and Mamone began to control much of the construction trade unions in Hudson County, New Jersey."
Gaccione was a large Italian-American with tanned skin and thinning brown hair streaked with gray. Indeed, Mamone and Gaccione -- whom Mafia members termed the Blues Brothers because they were inseparable -- lorded over the construction trade. In March 1990, according to an indictment that would not be filed for eight years, Gaccione and Mamone visited an Asbury Park, New Jersey, contractor to collect on kickbacks related to condo construction. Mamone punched out the business owner while Gaccione prevented the man's secretary from calling police. The pair later admitted to the crime.
The allegation came as part of a 56-count indictment in 1998 that claimed Mamone, purportedly working for a former police officer turned mobster named George Weingartner, was involved in the 1988 murder of a Genovese skipper.
Weingartner surprised prosecutors by committing suicide early in the trial; he ran a hose from the tailpipe of his car to the driver's-side window after making a videotaped statement in which he said he was happy to "screw up [the government's] case that's cost them millions and millions of dollars."
It worked. As a result of the suicide, Mamone was allowed to plead guilty to commercial bribery and Gaccione to attempted witness tampering. They cut deals for four and three years' probation, respectively.
Weingartner's would prove to be the first of two suicides closely related to Mamone.
The problems with the law had come at an awkward time for Big John. He'd started a new life in Florida, having moved to Broward County in 1992 after it became clear that he was not in line for a promotion with the New Jersey Genoveses. "Florida," Lenehan said, "seemed like a good place to start over."
Florida has long been the Mafia's backyard. Since Al Capone first came to Miami Beach in 1928, gangsters have mixed fun and sun with business opportunities, ranging from beachside casinos to investment scams based in inconspicuous office spaces along Federal Highway. Until recently, the Mafiosi have generally lived on the stretch of sand between Miami Beach and Hollywood.
But South Florida's population gradually migrated north to the sprawling suburbs of western Broward County, and the Mafia followed. Indictments over the past decade illustrate that -- like the fictional Sopranos of New Jersey -- today's Mob is a suburban one, with members and associates living amid the subdivisions and strip malls that extend from Coral Springs to Margate to North Lauderdale.
"They're going where the money is," Deitche said. "There's a lot to be made in Palm Beach and Broward counties. It's just the natural progression. You don't see the Italians in Miami Beach any longer."
Big John, whose family on both sides is from Italy, and Grace chose Coral Springs to raise Francesco and Joseph, who were then babies. In April 1993, the couple purchased a house at 1960 Augusta Dr. for $375,000, paying $175,000 in cash and financing the balance. They settled into the family lifestyle, raising their two boys in a gated neighborhood with manicured lawns and good schools. Soon, they had a daughter to round out their family.
In Coral Springs, the Mamones were as anonymous and inconspicuous as anyone, living in a bland subdivision surrounded by six-foot concrete walls and protected by an unarmed security guard. Karen Kirsner, whose home is next door to the family, admitted that, though she never suspected her neighbor was a mobster, she never became close to the Mamones. "To be honest, I've lived here 13 years, and I think they've lived here 11 years," she said. "But I don't know. I really don't know much about them at all."
Those who knew the family, though, unabashedly praises them. Of course, given the Mob ties, some wanted to remain anonymous. "They were really nice, really nice people," recalled one neighbor who asked not to be named. "We were all shocked to hear about John. Nobody expected that."
"We knew him from the area," recalled another neighbor, Johnny Diaz. "He was a man of great character. I didn't know anybody that didn't like John. I found him to be an extremely intelligent person."
By most accounts, Mamone was a devoted family man who never let on to neighbors about his criminal dealings. His priorities were his children. "You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat kids," Diaz said. "My interactions, my dealings with John, do not exemplify the stereotype of people involved in organized crime."
Mamone's local court records seem to back up that assessment. No criminal charges, no major civil disputes. His legal run-ins in Broward were garden variety: a quarrel with an insurance company in which Mamone was plaintiff and an outstanding debt from New Jersey that Mamone settled.
But his reality is better reflected in FBI reports and federal indictments. After leaving the New Jersey Genoveses, Mamone began work for Trafficante capo "Uncle Steve" Raffa. Mamone was a star recruit. He had experience and could provide guidance to the Young Turks. With Raffa's help, Mamone was able to accomplish a goal that had eluded him as a Genovese associate. In the mid-'90s, he became amico nostra, a made man.
Mamone soon became Raffa's lieutenant and by the late '90s controlled much of the South Florida outfit's day-to-day operations, ensuring that bookmakers were working and that loan installments were being paid on time. According to an FBI report, he ran the crime enterprise from his check-cashing business, which was located near City Hall and police headquarters in Margate. Mamone laundered millions of dollars in Mafia proceeds, registering money as legitimate income or skimming it off the top. According to federal court documents, Mamone would regularly provide high-interest loans that referred to interest rates as "points." A $40,000 loan would receive one to one and a half points. That, according to an FBI report, meant that Mamone would charge one percent interest per week, or a 52 percent annual rate.
By the summer of 1999, the FBI was eager to collar Raffa and Mamone. According to a report, federal agents successfully lured three witnesses who had high-interest loans with Mamone to cooperate. They were all hoping to avoid prosecution -- and save their chins from Mafia knuckles. Of the three witnesses, only one is named in court documents: Al Polito, the snitch who tried to obtain Ricky Martin tickets for Mamone.
The FBI operation marked the first time authorities had infiltrated the Florida crime family without arousing suspicion. In 1994, the bureau had attempted to introduce two undercover agents into the Trafficante family's South Florida branch. Raffa, however, quickly sniffed them out.
Federal agents soon learned that among the bookmakers who worked for the Trafficantes' gambling operation was Frederick "Freddy" Scarola, then an olive-skinned 57-year-old with gray hair and bushy eyebrows. Like many Mob associates in South Florida, Scarola worked with multiple clans, doing business with both Mamone and the Bonanno clan. "Once you get down to South Florida, you can move from family to family," Deitche explained. "It's not like New York. The market is wide open down there."
Authorities soon determined that Scarola was an unreliable earner for Mamone, owing the Trafficante soldier at least $10,000. During Polito's July 26, 1999, visit to Gold Coast Check Cashing, after the discussion about concert tickets, Mamone turned the conversation to Scarola, who had recently renegged on a promise to make loan payments. "Where's this little motherfucking Freddy?" Mamone said. "That's what I want to know. Where's this little cocksucker?"
"Let me tell you what happened," said Polito, who also owed money to Mamone.
"I'm more fucking irritated at him than you," Mamone continued. "'Cause he lied to me. He was gonna meet me on Sunday before he left, and he never met with me, this motherfucker." Mamone then mentioned that he talked to Scarola on the phone. "Freddy wants to argue with me on the phone," he explained. "Freddy, I told Freddy to go buy a fucking plane ticket for Arizona, motherfucker, 'cause when I came back, you've, you've had it."
"You, you, you know what," Polito interrupted. "You -- "
"I can't find this little cocksucker right now."
"People tell you it's like -- "
"He'll show up when he has the money, I know," Mamone said, coughing. "He avoids everything, this small cocksucker."
"Yeah, he does," Polito agreed.
"You can call your fucking cousin, your uncles, your brother," Mamone said, recalling his conversation with Scarola. "Call anybody you fucking want. Buy a fucking plane ticket. Don't be there when I get back."
Yet the $10,000 Scarola owed Mamone was a small amount in the context of the operation. Not only was there the local business but federal authorities learned that the South Florida Trafficantes were using the check-cashing firm to launder money from a Ponzi scheme based in South Carolina. According to the FBI investigation, more than $30 million from scammed investors flowed through Gold Coast Check Cashing in 1999.
By the winter of that year, federal agents were steadily building a case against Raffa, Mamone, and the rest of the Trafficantes. Wiretaps had established solid evidence on the principals; next, the agents were working undercover, scoping out the storefront from parked cars and nearby businesses to collar others involved in the enterprise.
That's when Charles Clay, a 24-year veteran of the Margate Police Department, entered the picture. In December 1999, he noticed that a car near Gold Coast Check Cashing had a New Jersey plate but not the required windshield sticker. After Clay approached the vehicle, the driver identified himself as an FBI agent. Clay left, and surveillance continued. The next month, on January 7, 2000, the FBI executed a search warrant at Gold Coast.
In February, according to court records, Clay was drinking at Bobby Rubino's Place for Ribs, a restaurant in North Lauderdale owned by the sons of former Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano. He told the bartender about stopping the undercover FBI agent, and the bartender reportedly retold the story to Scarola (see "Charlie Numbers," New Times, March 3, 2004).
On February 4, 2000, at 8:27 p.m., Scarola, eager to please due to the $10,000 debt over his head, called Mamone on his cell phone. An FBI wiretap intercepted the call. "Um, I just, ah, found out something you got to know," he told Mamone. "Um, you know your, your place over there? On [U.S.] 441? You know it's still being watched?"
"Yeah," Mamone responded. "I figured it would be."
Mamone would soon be swept up in a 70-count indictment that threatened to put him behind bars for the next 50 years.
The FBI closed the investigation in spring 2000. In October of that year, federal prosecutors indicted Raffa, Mamone, and 17 others, including Scarola and Clay, on racketeering charges. It was the fiercest blow the federal government had dealt to the Trafficantes, threatening to decapitate the crime family's entire South Florida operation.
Mamone found himself facing prison for the first time since New Jersey prosecutors tried to nail him. Yet Mamone's life had a mysterious way of following patterns. One month after the indictment, on November 16, 2000, Raffa hanged himself in his Pembroke Pines home. His suicide was the second -- after Weingartner's -- closely linked to Mamone. No evidence suggested foul play.
This time, the death did not prevent prosecutors from coming down hard on the Coral Springs mobster.
Granted bond, Mamone was placed under house arrest, with agents monitoring his two phone lines. His check-cashing business was shut down; his legal bills mounted.
Then once again, the contradictions of Mamone's life surfaced. When Mamone wasn't pinching Mob associates for money, he spent his time coaching his sons' championship football team. As it happened, Mamone's indictment and subsequent house arrest came at a bad time for the Rams. The team was about to enter the playoffs.
On November 5, 2000, Mamone gathered the players and their parents in his Augusta Drive home and tearfully explained that he could no longer lead them. A torrent of support followed. The players' parents petitioned U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz to allow Mamone to coach the playoff games. A letter, written by Assistant Coach Michael Noshay and signed by 85 parents, read in part:
"I do not wish to minimize the importance of the legal situation involved, but these children and their parents should not be punished for a scenario they could do nothing about. I can only respectfully implore Your Honor to think about the innocent young boys and girls involved, their months of hard work at practice and in games, and the unfair consequences of not having John Mamone as coach for these last few games.
"John loves these kids and they love him," the letter continued. "Coaching these children is something John does from his heart; you can see it in his face, his smile, and his full dedication to the team. You could see it last night through the tears as he brought everyone together to explain the situation and apologize for the circumstances."
Noshay didn't respond to interview requests. Neither would another of Mamone's friends in Coral Springs, Joseph Attenasio, return calls from New Times.But Attenasio wrote a letter in Mamone's defense. "I have known Mr. John Mamone for the past six years," he wrote. "We have gone to many social occasions together, including affairs with our children... In my opinion, John Mamone is the proverbial real family man."
Seitz chose to continue Mamone's house arrest, and one year later, in December 2001, Mamone violated the omertà, the Mafia's secret code. He flipped, agreeing to plead guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy and provide information about the Mafia in exchange for a reduced sentence. He received nine and a half years.
Mamone showed that his wife and children were more important to him than the Trafficante family, Deitche explained. "Not everybody can flip," Deitche said. "You have to have something to give up. I'm sure there are guys that want to flip but don't have anything to give. That leads me to believe, and this is speculation, that Mamone is up on the current goings-on."
But Mamone's decision to cooperate with law enforcement proved temporarily disastrous for his family. Once Mamone's plea became public, Grace and their three children fled to his attorney's office, fearful for their lives. Their panic was well-founded. The FBI had notified them that the Mafia had issued a contract on Mamone's life. "What may happen to a Mob informer is not in general dispute," Mamone's attorney, David Rothman, told the court.
With the exception of the imprisoned patriarch, the family eventually returned home and continues to live in Coral Springs. Going after wives and children is not something the Mafia is likely to do. "They're not going to touch the family," Deitche said.
Now imprisoned in Marianna, Florida, near the Alabama border, Mamone is known simply as JAM #07803-0062. For his protection, the federal Bureau of Prisons keeps Mamone in solitary confinement. Rothman has argued that it's slowly pushing his client toward insanity. "Mamone suffered extraordinary psychological damage," Rothman told the court. "He paced his jail cell in prison-issued shoes without soles, scarring and callusing the bottom of his feet while he paced in his tiny cell in claustrophobic terror."
But insane or not, Mamone's information has led to additional charges against the Mafia, including a January indictment that alleges a group of South Floridians ran a multimillion-dollar marijuana smuggling operation that stretched from Mexico to the Northeastern United States.
As noon approaches on February 19, Robert Lewandowski, a 37-year-old with a square head, wide jaw, and a small bald spot on the apex of his scalp, sits in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale. Lewandowski, a thickly built man wearing a green V-neck shirt and faded jeans, is in the beginning stages of a trial that could put him behind bars for the next 30 years.
A young knee-breaker who appeared to have had a successful crime career ahead of him before he was popped, Lewandowski is learning a hard lesson about today's Mafia: Only fools live by omertà.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors indicted Lewandowski and five others for their involvement in a South Florida-based marijuana smuggling ring. The group was led by Joe Russo Jr., whose Mafia-associate father was indicted with Mamone in 2000. According to the indictment, Russo Jr.'s drug enterprise worked with the Trafficante crime family. Russo allegedly contracted with one of Mamone's dozen front companies, an interstate trucking concern called Gateway Transportation, to move freight loads of cannabis. In all, the federal government alleges, the organization raked in $80 million from the sale of 66,000 pounds of marijuana.
Russo's smuggling operation began modestly, the government claims, using U.S. Mail, Federal Express, personal vehicles, and motor homes to move drugs from stash houses in California and Arizona to the Northeast and Florida. But it would resort to any means, including murder and kidnapping, to ensure the safe delivery of drugs, prosecutors allege. The government had been pursuing the group since 1993, arresting some grunts and drivers through the years, but could never establish enough evidence to indict the principals and decapitate the organization.
Then the government found an apparent solution in Mamone and one of his indicted associates, David Bell. According to court records, the two men have provided information about the South Florida drug enterprise. Although officials will not discuss what the men have said, it's clear that they are at least partially responsible for the six-count indictment. At a hearing on January 16 for alleged drug-ring associate David Tobin, whose indicted older brother is still on the run, defense attorney Samuel I. Burstyn grilled FBI Special Agent Christopher Derrickson about who was providing the government with information on his client.
"Mr. Bell didn't ever tell you he saw David Tobin do anything wrong, did he?" Burstyn asked Derrickson. "Mr. Mamone never told you that he saw David Tobin do anything wrong, did he?"
"That information," Derrickson responded, "I am not going to answer..."
"Indeed, Mr. Mamone doesn't even know David Tobin, does he, sir?"
"... We have information... that individuals that you have named do, in fact, know who David Tobin is."
Prosecutors may be strong-arming Mamone to stick to the story. That could explain why the indictment not only charges Big John with facilitating large shipments of marijuana but also alleges that Grace tampered with a witness, though it does not specify how or whom. If convicted, she could receive ten years in prison. Her attorney would say only, "We have no comment for you people."
Steve Lenehan understands why Mamone flipped. He wore an FBI wire for two years. Lenehan says he knew that if he didn't become a government witness, someone else would have brought him down anyway. Big John Mamone, he says, was no fool. He has a wife, three kids, a realfamily. In 2012, Mamone will be a free man -- a 61-year-old, still young enough to coach his grandchildren's football team.
"I was shocked when I read Mamone flipped but not that shocked," Lenehan said. "John Mamone was always very sharp and respectful, definitely not a thug. A very bright guy and a tough guy."
There will be more John Mamones. In the next two years, several South Florida Trafficante associates indicted in 2000 will be released from prison. "As long as there is vice, greed, and excess wanted by the buying public," Lenehan said, "you'll have organized crime."