By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Mitrione Sr. reportedly had torture down to a cold science. "A premature death means a failure by the technician," Hevia quoted Mitrione as saying. "It's important to know in advance if we can permit ourselves the luxury of the subject's death."
Mitrione's nightmarish work was dramatized by filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who portrayed the former Indiana police chief in the 1973 film State of Seige as an amoral monster. Author A.J. Langguth, a former New York Times reporter, wrote a book in 1978 titled Hidden Terrors about the CIA's ties to Mitrione and the onetime police chief's torture methods. Though Langguth uncovered information about some of Mitrione's most heinous tactics, he doesn't consider the former police chief a sociopath -- just a regular if acutely ambitious guy who was carrying out his country's orders. "He's proof of Hannah Arendt's theory about the banality of evil," says Langguth, now a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.
The younger Mitrione also seemed ordinary and, like his father, quickly assembled an impressive résumé. With dark hair and an athletic build, he attended the University of Maryland, where he majored in international affairs and, after graduating, volunteered to serve in Vietnam. In 1972, two years after his father's assassination, he joined the FBI. But even as he began what might have seemed a promising career with the bureau, the agent harbored a disturbing secret. Mitrione, whom other agents found competent if moody and hot-tempered, believed that his father had been murdered by his own government. He joined the FBI for only one reason: to track down his father's killers in the U.S. State Department and terminate them.
It might seem the stuff of an overly imaginative suspense novel, but Mitrione admitted as much to New Times during a 1999 interview. He wouldn't elaborate on his pursuit, but he said he'd come very close to finding the real murderers.
After stints in the FBI's organized crime squad in Tampa, New York, and Puerto Rico, he was stationed in Miami in 1981. There, he made it known to his superiors that he wanted to work on international drug-smuggling cases. It was the heyday of cocaine cowboys, fast money, and rampant excess that inspired the hit TV show Miami Vice and countless movies, Scarface most notable among them.
In January 1982, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, with a giant publicity push, created the South Florida Drug Task Force, making Miami and Fort Lauderdale the official front lines in the Reagan administration's War on Drugs. That same month, Congress, at the administration's behest, gave the FBI jurisdiction over narcotics cases for the first time in its history.
And soon thereafter, Mitrione took the reins of Operation Airlift, the FBI's first foray into the drug war.
Airlift was built around an informant named Hilmer Sandini, a tall and charismatic fraud artist who offered his services to the feds to avoid drug-smuggling charges in Alabama and a fraud rap in Fort Lauderdale. At 56, the Philadelphia-born con man was old enough to be Mitrione's father -- and was said to bear a striking resemblance to the assassinated official. Mitrione and Sandini quickly formed a strong bond. Other agents noticed that Mitrione affectionately called his informant "the old man," while Sandini routinely addressed the agent as "son."
One of Mitrione's closest friends in the bureau, Hugh Cochran, who is now a successful private investigator in Miami, felt that the agent looked upon his informant as "the father he did not have," according to FBI reports. Sandini, however, was far from an ideal father figure. A brilliant white-collar grifter and seemingly conscienceless killer, he had a long rap sheet that began when he was a teenager in Chicago. Years before Airlift, the peripatetic Sandini worked as an informant for Arthur Nehrbass, then an agent in the bureau's New York office. And before Airlift ever took off, Nehrbass informed the FBI that Sandini was a good source of information but warned the bureau to "take proper precautions... since he was a suspect in a number of homicides," according to reports.
While FBI records don't specify the murders Sandini was suspected of committing, the bureau was aware that the informant was the top suspect in the Halloween 1981 disappearance of a Coral Springs restaurateur named Harold Shatz. He wouldn't be convicted of that crime until 1987, when he confessed to shooting Shatz over a drug deal in the living room of Sandini's Coral Springs home. The man called Sandy, who was known to keep guns strategically located behind furniture in his house, then rolled up Shatz in the carpet and buried him. Helping to discard the body was his 19-year-old daughter, Sandra. The body has never been found.
Knowing this, the FBI persuaded authorities in Broward County and Alabama to suspend Sandini's prison sentences. The agency then paid the informant $800 a week and paired him with Mitrione, whom Sandini introduced to the criminal underworld of South Florida as "Danny Micelli," a Chicago mobster.
The new crime-fighting duo set up headquarters in a rental car agency near the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. But just as Airlift seemed ready to take off, a major problem developed: The owner of Globe Rentals, Mafia associate Frank Esposito, didn't buy Mitrione's act. He confronted "Micelli" and accused him of being a cop. The problem was quickly solved; Esposito was gunned down in his office March 30, 1982.