By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
After reading the article, Donna Weaver only thought, maybe.
Maybe her missing husband had been caught up in Operation Airlift, an FBI drug-smuggling investigation gone haywire. Maybe Airlift would supply clues about Gary, who had disappeared in the Bahamas the day before their first anniversary, in 1983. Maybe this was the answer.
It was pure happenstance that she ever learned of the FBI operation. While working as a bartender in a Fort Lauderdale drinking hole in May 1999, she happened to pick up a New Times newspaper that contained a lengthy article about Airlift. Gary Weaver wasn't mentioned in the story, but the time frame and place fit his disappearance. Some of those depicted were murderous -- and she'd become convinced her husband had been killed by drug runners. Donna also thought that the involvement of a corrupt FBI agent might explain why she'd been ignored by authorities for so many years.
So Donna did what she'd done hundreds of times over the years: She made a cold call, trying to find a snippet of information that might lead to the truth. She asked a New Times reporter if there were any names in the Airlift records that didn't appear in the article.
One of the first names mentioned was Randy Krugh.
"Oh my God," she said. "He was the best man at my wedding."
And with that, Donna had new hope of discovering what happened to her husband, and Airlift had a new mystery.
She scoured FBI, DEA, and court records on Airlift, and it became clear that some of the worst crimes committed during the operation were never prosecuted. She believes one of them was the murder of her husband. Donna also learned the truth about Krugh, Gary Weaver's boss and childhood friend from Ohio who'd sent him to the Bahamas ostensibly to work on boat and plane engines. During the early 1980s, Krugh was one of the most prolific drug-smuggling pilots in South Florida and a government informant who'd made many mortal enemies.
One of those enemies, she learned, was Daniel A. Mitrione Jr., the undercover FBI agent who'd become a high-rolling drug smuggler while orchestrating Airlift. Mitrione. The name haunts her. For Donna, it has come to symbolize not only her husband's terrible fate but the darkest part of her country's heart. The story begins not with the former agent but with his father, a man who has been both hailed as a national hero and accused of being one of the worst torturers in America's history.
Daniel A. Mitrione Sr. was never an FBI man; he was a small-town Indiana police chief who helped lead a covert war on leftist groups in Latin America.
In the late 1950s, Mitrione Sr. was officially employed by the U.S. State Department, though the CIA was deeply involved in his work. He was first sent to Brazil and then Uruguay to teach what the State Department termed "public safety" to police. Traveling with him were his wife, Henrietta, and nine children, including young Dan, who was born in 1947 and basically grew up in South America, learning Spanish and idolizing his father.
But in 1970, after more than a decade in foreign lands, disaster struck the Mitrione clan. Dan Sr. was kidnapped by the Tupamaro guerrilla group in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. As the family -- and America -- anxiously waited and watched the national news reports on the ordeal, he was held for 11 days. The group demanded the release of numerous political prisoners, but the Uruguayan government refused to negotiate. On August 10, Mitrione's bound and gagged body was discovered in the trunk of a stolen 1948 Buick convertible on a Montevideo street. He'd been shot twice in the head.
In the United States, the fallen father was hailed as a hero and martyr for freedom. President Richard Nixon sent his son-in-law, David Eisenhower; Secretary of State William Rogers; and a red, white, and blue commemorative wreath to the funeral in Mitrione's hometown of Richmond, Indiana.
"Mr. Mitrione's devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere," White House spokesman Ron Ziegler announced.
Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis flew to Richmond and put on a benefit concert that raised $20,000 for the family. "I never met Richmond's son, Dan Mitrione," Sinatra said to the crowd after Lewis warmed them up. "Yet he was my brother... as all of us in America are brothers."
What the general public didn't know was that Mitrione Sr. had been doing far more than teaching helpful police tactics in South America. Former Uruguayan police officials and CIA operatives claimed Mitrione had taught brutal, deadly techniques of torture in the cellar of his Montevideo home. They alleged he electrically shocked his victims' mouths and genitals. In one of the most disturbing revelations, reported by a CIA operative from Cuba named Manuel Hevia Conculluela, Mitrione Sr. was said to have practiced on beggars picked up from the capital's streets, four of whom reportedly died while serving as human guinea pigs.
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.
Local police notified the FBI a day later that they suspected Sandini in the killing. But Mitrione downplayed the homicide to his superiors. Internal reports reveal that the FBI higher-ups basically ignored the murder. When questioned by New Times in 1999, Mitrione admitted that he suspected Sandini had Esposito killed to keep Airlift going. "It was Sandini all the way," Mitrione declared.
(Mitrione didn't return phone calls from New Times placed to a family home in Virginia for this series.)
Soon, Mitrione and Sandini relocated to the smaller Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, a place rife with smugglers. Their first major targets were Paraguayan government officials who were working with the Medellin cocaine cartel. Mitrione told his superiors that, to build trust with his Colombian contacts, he would have to let 50 kilograms "walk" into the United States, according to FBI reports. But top bureau officials, fearing political fallout, refused his request.
"A lot of time and money went down the drain, and Dan seemed to be very disappointed and turned real sour on the whole deal...," Sandini later wrote in prison. "It was at this point that Dan really changed... [He] had severe moods of depression and cursed Washington for having people that knew absolutely nothing about the drug business and knew nothing about working undercover. Shortly after the turn-down, he let me understand that from this point... he wanted in on the big money."
Sandini also wrote that Mitrione told him "the only reason he went with the Bureau was to find out who had killed his father or who had ordered the killing."
"Dan asked me to secure several guns with silencers, including a machine gun," he wrote, adding that Mitrione had assembled an unofficial "assassination squad" of friends who would kill his father's murderers.
Operation Airlift, born of murder, hidden motives, and lies, was about to really take off. And Mitrione would soon discover what big money was all about.
Tammy Krugh had the night of her life. It was October 9, 1982, when her brother Randy chartered a 65-foot yacht called the Zaca, named for Errol Flynn's famous schooner. He loaded it with caviar, shrimp, champagne, and high-end liquor and hired a captain to run it up and down the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale.
All this was for her 30th birthday. She felt lucky to have a brother like Randy. He even set her up with a good-looking, dark-haired man he introduced as Danny Micelli. As if to suggest the possibilities, her brother bought a cake from a specialty store. It was decorated in the shape of male genitalia. Tammy thought that was gross but otherwise found the night to be magical: "I remember that night like it just happened: the dancing, the stars shining. We just went down the Intracoastal and enjoyed the view, you know, where all the nice houses are? And these people on the boat were dressed to the nines, and there was all kinds of gold jewelry. It was over-the-top, first-class."
Danny was charming, unlike his older, blustery friend, Sandy, who wore a huge gold medallion around his neck and acted like he owned everything. Danny was sweet and caring and asked lots of questions about Convoy, her hometown in Ohio. They hit it off so well that Krugh flew them to the Bahamas the following morning to go diving. While she and Mitrione swam, her brother went spearfishing.
"There was blood in the water, and that was weird," she recalls. "I kept thinking that sharks could come."
One exchange during her time with Mitrione really stuck in her memory.
"Do you have any idea what your brother is involved in?" her birthday date asked her under the stars on the Zaca.
"No," she replied.
"Well, it's really bad."
And so it was. Krugh was routinely flying loads of marijuana from Jamaica and cocaine from Colombia for Sandy and Danny. All of it went through Andros Island in the Bahamas, where it was picked up in boats and brought to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. In charge of the boats were a couple of smugglers named Stanley Combs and Rex Foster, who today says he made $5 million smuggling drugs during a five-year period. "I partied all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," boasts the Georgia-born Foster, who is 66 years old and retired in Wilton Manors. "It was easy money."
Sandini and Mitrione put the deals together and arranged for distribution of the drugs, usually in Pittsburgh, a city where Sandini had contacts in organized crime. They conducted their business in Hangar 24 at the executive airport, where Mitrione usually sat in a front office while Sandini, playing the role of godfather, sat in back. For his undercover role, the FBI put up the married Mitrione in an oceanfront condo on Galt Ocean Mile that Sandini called the "playpen." They chased women and frequented prostitutes, and on at least one occasion, the agent snorted cocaine. Their favorite haunt was the Laughing Fish Pub, which was located in a since-closed Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale.
They were big tippers.
"On birthdays and Christmas, they were more than generous with me and the other girls," says Marie Locie, who was one of Sandini's favorite cocktail waitresses at the Laughing Fish. "Sandy gave me a thousand-dollar watch for my birthday, and he put my roommate through nursing school. He'd grab you by the arm and say, 'Marie, we need more drinks.' He was a big guy, a control freak. You could tell by his nature."
She found Danny, on the other hand, "mellow and nice." Locie says she didn't know what either of them did for a living, just that they always had lots of cash and always seemed ready to have a good time.
While Mitrione and Sandini lived like kings, their chief pilot, Krugh, was the courtier. In late 1982, the pair sent Krugh to Colombia to visit a drug lord, possibly Jorge Ochoa. There, he was taken to the jungle, where he was shown a cocaine production lab and familiarized himself with a remote airstrip by riding a mule on it.
Krugh's counterpart was Luis Bernardo Sanchez-Castro, a retired colonel in the Colombian Air Force. Sanchez, who went by the alias "Hernando," was so respected in his country that he served in the early 1980s as George H.W. Bush's escort during a fact-finding mission on cocaine production in Colombia, according to FBI records. Sanchez spent weeks at a time in South Florida, mostly with Mitrione and Krugh, helping to coordinate shipments and handle money.
Yet the smuggling operation was still a bungled mess. Loads of drugs were routinely lost and stolen, often by authorities in the Bahamas or the Colombian Army. At one point, three pilots were kidnapped (and later released) by Colombians who believed Sandini and Mitrione had stolen their cocaine.
The duo still managed to make millions on their illegal activities -- right under the bureau's nose. Internal FBI reports indicate that Mitrione received little to no supervision. Numerous signs that the agent had gone bad were either ignored or condoned. For instance, Mitrione rarely ever wore a wire, and he always seemed, mysteriously, to become unavailable when the FBI wanted to bug Hangar 24. He would also become sullen and refuse to speak with his case agents for days at a time.
In January 1983, almost a year after Airlift began, then-agent Christopher Mazzella, now Miami-Dade County's inspector general, reviewed the Airlift file and found that it was in "shambles," according to reports. Word reached Mitrione that headquarters was talking about shutting down his operation. On March 5, 1983, he and Sandini made a bold move to appease the FBI brass: They stole 200 kilograms of cocaine from a Colombian shipment in Memphis and delivered it to authorities as proof that they were getting the job done.
The bureau gave the cocaine to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, making it the largest seizure of that drug in that agency's history. It was the top news story of the day in Broward County; then-Chief Leo Callahan posed for pictures with the seized white bricks and fabricated a story for the media about how one of the department's drug dogs sniffed out the cocaine in a Fort Lauderdale parking lot.
What the FBI wouldn't learn until much later was that Sandini and Mitrione stole 42 kilos for themselves before handing over the cocaine to the bureau, a skim that netted the agent and his informant about $1 million each.
The seized shipment, however, wasn't enough to save Airlift. On April 20, 1983, the FBI terminated the operation. Two months later, Mitrione resigned to become a business partner with Sandini, who kept the drug-smuggling operation going.
Soon, Mitrione was buying property, boats, and cars. He also took his wife, Janet, on long vacations to Yellowstone Park, Maine, Rio de Janeiro, and London. Sandini stashed millions in offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.
And the greatest law enforcement agency in the world still apparently had no clue that its agent had gone astray.
Before Gary disappeared, Donna Weaver had several brushes with Airlift. She just didn't know it.
Donna was close to Krugh, her husband's boss and buddy. She regularly attended barbecues at Krugh's house and went to Tupperware parties thrown by his wife at the time, Liz. But Donna says it never occurred to her that Randy Krugh might be a drug smuggler; she just thought he ran a successful excavation company.
Krugh had invited Donna and Gary to his sister's birthday party on the Zaca. Two months pregnant with the twins at the time, she stayed home while her husband boarded the yacht, she recalls. Gary came home, happily drunk, she remembers, and told her the people on the boat were great -- rich but down-to-earth at the same time.
Donna also recalls a Colombian named Hernando, who she believes is the Colombian Air Force major named in FBI reports. Hernando accompanied Krugh around town, even bringing him to her daughter's christening. She recalls that her husband's boss treated Hernando like royalty. It was the same Hernando who would later meet her at the Hollywood Amtrak station and tell her to quit speaking with police about Gary's disappearance.
But she says she was completely clueless about Gary's involvement -- whatever it may have been -- in the drug trade. When Krugh sent Gary to the Bahamas in fall 1983, it never occurred to Donna that he might be working on the fringes of a Colombian cocaine cartel. "I was so dumb," says Donna, who was a 23-year-old mother of 6-month-old twin daughters when her husband vanished.
Krugh didn't seem the criminal type to Donna. She remembers him as a goofy bald guy, always joking and playing pranks. She agonizes over what Gary might have known when he went on those three trips. She's certain, however, that he couldn't have understood the kind of trouble Krugh was in or how dangerous that made it for Gary.
Gary's best man would later tell federal investigators that the biggest mistake he ever made was getting his pilot's license. But Krugh seemed born for the cockpit. His father, a livestock broker in Ohio, flew the family on vacations all over the country, from Maine to Florida to the Grand Canyon. Randy soloed for the first time while still in high school.
Then he attended Ohio State University and began working in the excavation business. When the economy dried up in the late 1970s, he moved to South Florida and started his own company, Terra Movers. It didn't take long for Krugh, who liked to hang out at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, to fall in with omnipresent smugglers. He first flew loads of pot for a mysterious man named Pat Hagerman and was arrested for it by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1980. After he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, authorities allowed him to roam free for three years before serving his time. It isn't clear why he wasn't immediately imprisoned, but one thing is certain: He continued to smuggle drugs at a dizzying pace.
By March 1983, Krugh's hazardous life began crashing down, quite literally. He wrecked a plane during a marijuana run near the Black River in Jamaica. The cause: a cow on the isolated airstrip. Compounding the problem, he'd taken the Cessna from Sandini and Mitrione without permission. An incensed Sandini forced Krugh to pay $40,000 cash for the wrecked plane. With a need to make more money, Krugh began trying to sell cocaine on the street, and the following month, he tried to peddle two kilos of cocaine to Broward Sheriff's Office Detective Joe Damiano. Then-Sgt. Thomas Brennan, who today is a colonel and one of Sheriff Ken Jenne's top deputies, recruited Krugh as a confidential informant.
As he awaited his prison sentence and worked for BSO, Krugh continued to criss-cross the southern skies, smuggling copious amounts of illegal drugs. On top of that, Mitrione and others began to notice that Krugh was freebasing cocaine. While trying to satisfy his bosses at BSO, the pilot went after a big fish in the smuggling world: Combs, a raw-boned Louisianan who ran drug boats to and from the Bahamas. Together, the two men would eventually take Airlift down.
And Krugh's actions may have helped seal Gary Weaver's fate.
Unbeknownst to Krugh, Combs was already working as an informant for DEA agent B.J. Church, who is now retired. Church remembers when Combs told him about Krugh and a couple of smugglers named Sandini and Micelli. The DEA agent quickly realized that Micelli was really Dan Mitrione. "We hit on Mitrione and then said, 'Oh my God, this guy's an FBI agent,'" Church recalls of the case.
He and other agents notified the FBI of their suspicions that Mitrione had gone bad, but the bureau ignored them. "There was some resistance from the FBI," Church puts it diplomatically.
When Combs and Krugh realized they were both working cases against each other for different law enforcement agencies, they got together and had a laugh. Then Combs persuaded Krugh to join him in ratting out Sandini and Mitrione. On December 6, 1983, Krugh met federal agents in Fort Lauderdale. He later said he knew when he did this that Sandini and Mitrione, who he still didn't know was an FBI agent, would "fry."
Church remembers Krugh as a shaky and deceitful witness who was terrified that Sandini would find out and have him killed. In an attempt to head off Sandy's anger, Krugh took a calculated risk: He told Sandini that he'd spoken with Church but said he'd told the DEA agent nothing to incriminate Sandini or Mitrione.
Apparently, the DEA was particularly porous when it came to sensitive information. The smuggler Hagerman also learned that Krugh had snitched to the DEA. A mysterious figure who was never indicted in the Airlift case, Hagerman set out to destroy Krugh by calling the BSO's Brennan and telling him about the illicit cocaine-hauling the pilot was doing.
Sandini, Mitrione, Hagerman -- the list of Krugh's enemies was growing. And that didn't even count the Colombians who'd been ripped off.
When Krugh made his fateful visit to Church, Gary was in the Bahamas living in the home of a mysterious man named Jeff Fisher. There, Gary was a sitting duck. On December 9, 1983, just three days after Krugh snitched to the DEA, Gary vanished.
On April Fool's Day 1984, Sandini looked at Mitrione at the Pompano Harness Track and shoved a stack of 35 hundred-dollar bills across the table. The air was thick with paranoia.
"You got nothing to worry about," said Sandini, who was drinking heavily that night.
Mitrione, sitting next to his wife, hurriedly picked up the cash and put it in the breast pocket of his jacket. The former FBI agent believed his partner was making reference to the DEA case. Both men were afraid the other was going to snitch. Sandini's voice turned cold: "That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee."
To Mitrione, the words signaled that his partner was turning against him, that he couldn't be trusted.
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?"
Only then did the FBI investigate the attempted bombing. An internal memo from the time reveals the self-protective mindset of the agency as it came to realize the extent of the former agent's crimes: "This investigation, which is being conducted by a special FBIHQ [headquarters] investigative team, has been severely hampered by recent developments indicating a strong likelihood that Mitrione is culpable in the attempted murder of Sandini."
The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office hid those suspicions from the public and never prosecuted Mitrione for the attempted bombing. On March 14, 1985, he pleaded guilty to narcotics and bribery charges and was sentenced to six years in prison (though he would serve only three). The plea bargain made national news. On the front page of the New York Times, then-FBI Director William Webster described the agent's downfall this way: "The corrupting power of drug money is one of the obvious reasons why this number one crime problem must be conquered in our country... This sad case illustrates our relentless determination to police our own ranks."
And that, in the end, was what the American populace was left with -- a vacuous story that kept the FBI from having to deal with an even bigger scandal. Many of Airlift's most prolific smugglers, including Krugh and Combs, were spared time in prison for cooperating with the feds. Sandini met the end he most feared: He was convicted of drug charges and died in prison in 1990.
During the following decade, more corruption would be exposed -- this time among those assigned to investigate Mitrione. Morris admitted to accepting bribes of wine and cash from murderous Boston mobster Whitey Bulger in exchange for ignoring the now-infamous fugitive's crimes. He was taking gifts even as he was in Miami heading the Mitrione investigation. In the end, Morris was spared prosecution for testifying against a lower-level agent named John Connolly, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for taking bribes.
Attempts to reach Buttino -- who received a commendation and a cash award for his work on Airlift -- failed. But a call was answered by Lou Buttino, the former agent's brother and co-author of A Special Agent. The professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington had startling news. "The book was a lie, and my brother is in hiding," he explained.
The lie, Lou Buttino said, wasn't about Airlift. Rather, it involved the central theme of the book, that the agent was drummed out of the agency because it was discovered by his superiors that he was gay. Though it made the former agent a hero in the gay community, Lou Buttino said that the book was full of fabrications designed to help his brother win a settlement from the Justice Department. When he realized A Special Agent was fiction, he says he sued his brother, whom he now is convinced is a "sociopath," for fraud and won a judgment of $300,000. "[Frank Buttino] went underground, I guess to avoid paying me, and nobody knows where he is today," the professor explained. "It broke my heart and destroyed my family."
Of the bureau, he added: "The FBI is almost like the Mafia. They adhere to omerta, the code of silence. They don't reveal the things that are going on."
Donna Weaver suffered in that silence for years. But the cover-up of the attempted bombing, the widespread corruption within the FBI, and the criminal nature of Mitrione convinced her that someone at the bureau knew what had happened to her husband. Particularly terrifying to her was the revelation that Mitrione's father had been accused of torturing people in the family's basement. She wondered if Gary had been tortured before he was killed, and the thought of it was almost too much to bear.
"They are supposed to help me, but they won't," she says of the FBI. "And all I can wonder is, 'Why? Why won't they do their jobs? Why won't they help me?'"
The stone wall extends to BSO as well. Donna tried for weeks to contact Brennan to glean some clues about Krugh. He ignored her calls. When contacted by New Times, BSO officials refused to discuss the case.
Without the help of the authorities, Donna was forced to conduct her own investigation, which led to a chief suspect and, ultimately, to the Bahamas, the place where her husband had disappeared.
Next week: Will Donna's case stand?