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John Wile will probably sue us for saying this, but residents of Fort Lauderdale know that Sunday afternoon at Shooters means one thing: the poolside hot-bod contest.
Why would Wile, who owns Shooters, take us to court for pointing out that his Intracoastal fixture is the place to be for a weekly parade of babes in bikinis made from dental floss?
Well, because John Wile seems awfully quick with a court summons.
New Times discovered this after learning that Wile is in some hot water with the Broward Sheriff's Office. Last year, Wile was arrested as part of a BSO investigation of a gambling ring run from Atlantic City. The betting racket, composed of 18 people, allegedly took bets on college and professional sports, police say, and was involved in selling stolen liquor and Viagra. Besides Wile -- whom a prosecutor acknowledges was only a minor figure in the scheme -- bigger fish were landed, such as Michael "Mike Chester" Casolaro, who testified to his Mob ties in the trial of Philadelphia boss Joseph "Skinny Joe" Merlino in 2001.
Wile tells New Times that he's in no way mixed up with mobsters or gamblers. "My knowledge of these people is so minimal," he says. "Not only have I never placed a bet; I've never acted as a bookmaker in my entire life."
The sheriff's office and state prosecutors believe otherwise, but before we present their evidence (and put a big target on our backs), let's fill in a little background on Fort Lauderdale's hot-bod king:
Born in Chicago, Wile moved to Texas 25 years ago to open a business that sold vacation packages to corporate clients. It was there that he began to build a reputation for litigiousness. He made use of a legal concept, qui tams, that allowed him to sue a crooked lake marina owner on behalf of the government. He won, proving that the marina owner was shorting the IRS. But in reporting Wile's victory, D Magazine, a Dallas monthly, portrayed Wile as a vengeful shithead who would not rest until he had put the sexagenarian marina owner and his wife in jail.
So Wile sued the magazine for libel. As part of the settlement agreement in the lawsuit, neither party can discuss the outcome. But Wile insists that the law was on his side. "The woman who wrote the article," Wile says, "never once went to me or anybody on my side to get any information about my side of the story."
After moving to Florida in the early 1980s, Wile bought Shooters on an impulse. "I walked off my boat," Wile says, "and I went into Shooters, and I liked the place."
He called the owner and told him he would be buying his restaurant. "It's not for sale," Wile recalls the owner saying. "Then that's why I want it," Wile replied.
Shortly after purchasing the place, in December 2002, Wile sued two of the restaurant's longtime employees, bookkeeper Mindy Thaler and Chef Irving Perrone. According to court documents, Wile accused Thaler and Perrone of stealing money from Shooters by writing checks to a sham corporation that the pair created. According to Thaler's attorney, the corporation had been created with the consent of the previous owner as a means of providing for Perrone's retirement. Perrone was an older man who suffered from various illnesses.
Wile is adamant that the pair was stealing from him, and he says he would have won the case except that Thaler declared bankruptcy. "At that point," Wile said, "it would have been futile for me to throw good money after bad."
The same month that Wile filed suit against Thaler and Perrone, he also sued Patrick Mascola, editor and owner of Around Town Publications, which publishes Around Town, a small circulation bi-weekly with restaurant reviews. Mascola's rag had the temerity to give the cuisine at Shooters a thumbs-down. When Wile withdrew Shooters advertisements from the magazine, Mascola republished the D Magazine article that Wile had sued over previously. Wile responded by suing Mascola for libel. But he ended up dropping that suit because Mascola was in his late 70s, and as Wile says, "[He] doesn't have two nickels to rub together."
Last year, Wile filed another lawsuit against a former employee, accusing previous Shooters Manager Steve Borger of mismanagement, accepting kickbacks from vendors, and failing to install proper fire prevention equipment (among other things). Borger didn't return phone calls from New Times, and with the suit still pending, Wile wouldn't comment except to say, "If you had 25 people and every one of them stole from you... would you not sue all 25 of them?"
Hey, John, relax. We're just reporting the news here. In person, Wile is gregarious but intense. His friends, customers, neighbors, and employees gush about him. But he's a serious man who acts according to what he describes as a strong sense of principle. As one of his many former attorneys warned when he heard that a story on Wile was in the works, "crossing John Wile can be a life-changing experience."
But the BSO and State Attorney's Office are willing to take that risk, charging Wile with bookmaking and conspiracy to commit bookmaking. The strongest evidence against Wile, they say, is a taped conversation between Wile and a man named Rocco Dipierro, who was also indicted.
According to BSO documents, Dipierro was the local coordinator of the gambling operation, taking bets in South Florida and placing them in Atlantic City. The BSO recorded hundreds of phone conversations from his cell phone. On at least half a dozen occasions in the phone-tap transcripts, Dipierro suggested meeting at Shooters to conduct some form of business related to the alleged criminal enterprise, whether it was a cash exchange or just kicking back to watch Sunday football outcomes that could potentially net the operation hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Wile contends that he had nothing to do with illegal gambling. "Just because they watch football games in my restaurant," he says, "doesn't mean that I've committed a crime."
But in a November 2003 wiretap recording, Wile appears to demand that Dipierro pay him a commission on losses incurred by a gambler named Tommy Billante, another South Florida restaurateur who owned South Beach's former mainstay, Mezzanotte, and today operates Bella Luna, Carpaccio, and Sugo. (Billante has not been charged with wrongdoing, and he did not respond to calls from New Times.)
"I don't think you've been shooting 100 percent with me according to Tom Billante...," Wile says on a transcript from the BSO's investigative file.
"He won two weeks in a row, John," Dipierro replies. "Then he lost Monday night a ton. Soon as I get paid this week, you're going to get your commission..."
Wile: "What he told me is he's down fifty grand, and he'd have no reason to make that number up, Rocky."
Dipierro: "Well, I gave you the commission on that much the first time."
Wile: "You gave me a commission on twenty..."
Dipierro: "Well, John, as soon as I get paid $24,000 this week, I'm going to give you your five percent. You understand what I'm saying? I had to get paid before I could give you a commission..."
Dipierro later signs off with "I love you, buddy," and Wile sends his regards to Barbara, Rocco's wife -- who is also under indictment in the state's RICO prosecution of the gambling ring.
This conversation led to Wile's being charged with bookmaking and conspiracy to commit bookmaking, according to Carlos Rebollo, the state attorney who is prosecuting the case. Wile denies having done anything wrong or having ever bought so much as a lottery ticket, much less serving as a middleman for a gambling operation.
Rebollo says that given the evidence, Wile's role in the gambling operation was minor. But a conviction on the charges could bring him as much as five years in prison for each charge.
Encountered at Shooters on a recent Sunday, Wile seemed relaxed. With a double-wide personality and shoulders to match, he appears to know most of his customers by name, and if he doesn't, he introduces himself with plainspoken Midwestern charm. He claims to never have had a drink in his life, though the customers who come by to greet him with hugs and handshakes have clearly had more than a few.
After being asked about his legal troubles, he offered a not-so-subtle warning to New Times. "I'm not going to tell you what to do or not do. All I'm going to tell you is that if you do write an article about me, be very careful, because the last group that did that about me, it cost them. Big time."