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
It was the last time the two men would talk. Two days later, a powerful plastic explosive device was found under Sandini's car after he drove away from the Pompano track. Had the bomb detonated -- and the lead BSO investigator on the case, Dennis Regan, said it was an incredible stroke of luck that it didn't -- hundreds of people might have been killed. Regan could find only one viable suspect: Mitrione.
The former FBI agent had an obvious motive, and his far-flung alibi didn't hold up. While Mitrione claimed he was staying alone in an empty house in Fort Myers when the bomb was discovered, a witness said she saw Mitrione near the Pompano track that night. Investigators also found that a call placed the same night from a Broward County convenience store had been charged to Mitrione's calling card.
The day after the bombing, the former agent claimed that he drove aimlessly through the Everglades, planning to commit suicide. Why? Because he believed the bombing would be pinned on him. He said he pulled over in the swamp and passed out after putting the end of a gun in his mouth. When he came to, he checked himself into a mental hospital.
Regan said making a case against Mitrione was made impossible by the fact that the FBI wouldn't cooperate with him. The bureau, he said, ignored his requests to share information and seemed intent only on protecting its former employee.
It wasn't until August 1984 that the FBI finally began to investigate Mitrione. And the bureau would ultimately come to the same conclusion about the bombing as Regan -- that Mitrione likely planted the device. Only it kept that a secret.
Donna remembers begging the FBI on a weekly basis to investigate her case. She was ignored until more than a year after Gary's disappearance. One day, she believes it was in early 1985, an FBI agent called and said he wanted to talk about her husband. She was ecstatic.
When two agents arrived at her apartment, Donna was met with grim faces. The lead agent, a tall black man, sat down at the kitchen table and started asking questions. A quiet white agent sat nearby. As she talked about Gary, the black agent accused her of holding back information. "You better tell us everything you found out or we're going to throw you in front of a grand jury so fast it'll make your head spin," she recalls him bellowing.
As the interview progressed, Donna's anger grew.
"What about Gary?" she asked the agents. "Do you want to find Gary?"
"I'm the one asking questions here!" the lead agent yelled at her.
"Oh, you're not going to tell me anything about my husband?" Donna asked. She could feel her voice rising. "You're not going to answer me? You should be looking for Gary!"
She stood up and pointed to the door.
"Get out of my house!" she demanded. "Get out now!"
At this bit of ferocity, the two FBI agents left.
Donna's face reddens with anger as she recalls that meeting, mostly because of what she's learned since. The FBI, at that very time, was investigating Operation Airlift. One of the lead agents in the case was James Brown, an African-American who usually worked with a white agent named Frank Buttino. Donna believes it was Brown and Buttino who visited her apartment that day, but, like so many things related to Airlift and her husband's disappearance, she can't be sure.
The best insider account of the FBI's special investigation of Mitrione's crimes comes from former agent Buttino, who was based in San Diego. In his 1993 book, A Special Agent: Gay and Inside the FBI, Buttino characterizes the Mitrione investigation as "one of the most important in FBI history." In the book, which details Buttino's ouster from the bureau after it was revealed he was gay, the former agent showers praise on the case's supervisory agent, John Morris, who came from Boston. Buttino recounts Morris' telling the team of eight agents: "Let's hope we don't have a scandal on our hands. But if we do, let's conduct the investigation thoroughly and not make the bureau look any worse."
Several months into the investigation, Mitrione finally confessed to participating in the drug-smuggling operation and was arrested on drug and bribery charges. Buttino described the rogue agent as twitching nervously in his chair as he confessed in a Miami hotel room. Later, the team of agents had a "final dinner," Buttino wrote. "I stood and looked over at John Morris. Raising my glass, I said, 'To one of the best supervisors I've ever worked for,'" Buttino recounted.
"We can be proud," Morris told the agents.
The celebration, however, proved to be premature; they'd overlooked the attempted bombing and the Esposito murder. Shortly after the dinner, the agents learned from then-U.S. Attorney Stanley Marcus that Mitrione had failed a portion of a lie detector test where he denied setting the bomb on Sandini's car. The news was devastating, Buttino wrote, and made him wonder: "Had we been taken in by Mitrione?"