Mayor Al's Shady Pal

When you're a politician helping out a felon, it's better not to ask questions.

"Sam Frontera had dabbled as a small-time pot peddler in Detroit. He'd come to South Florida looking for bigger scores, hooking up with a dope dealer who ran a jewelry shop.

"Frontera bought some equipment at a tool company and hit it off with the counter clerk, a guy named Alex. Soon they would develop a mutual interest... drug trafficking.

"Within months, they'd stolen 200,000 Quaaludes from somebody DeCubas knew — a deal that netted each $100,000."

Mayor Al Capellini says he never inquired about Sam Frontera's past before helping him develop Club Cinema.
Mayor Al Capellini says he never inquired about Sam Frontera's past before helping him develop Club Cinema.

During the next decade, the two men established one of the largest cocaine distribution operations in the country, fueled by the gaudy exploits of Frontera and DeCubas, a wild and resourceful man who kept a personal supply of cocaine in that hockey puck. Their dangerous specialty was ripping off other drug dealers. The Herald article continues: "The high-risk occupation could turn huge profits. Their last rip-off in 1988 — from a 56-foot yacht called the Dirty Dancing at the marina of the old Castaways resort near Sunny Isles — netted nearly 1,000 pounds of cocaine worth at least $6 million."

Soon, they graduated from drug thefts to outright smuggling. While DeCubas, who spoke fluent Spanish, specialized in smuggling, Frontera distributed the cocaine throughout several major cities in the United States and Canada. He even bought a 50-acre ranch in Ocala to serve as a hub for moving the illicit product.

As their success in the drug trade grew, so did the amount of cash Frontera made. To launder his money, he got into the nightclub business — and, in Frontera fashion, he did it in a big way.

He started with a joint called Shangri-La in Fort Lauderdale, which he opened in 1983. But soon, he branched into Chicago, where he converted the old Riviera Theater on Racine Avenue into a rock club. He called it the Riviera and opened it in 1985. Not long after, Frontera was featured in the Tribune and Sun-Times as the city's newest nightlife impresario. In one newspaper account, Frontera boasted that he'd spent $2 million to renovate the club, which attracted big-name acts like Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Robert Palmer.

His partner in the Riviera was Louis Wolf, an extremely wealthy property investor who in 1989 was featured on the cover of Chicago Magazine as the worst slumlord in the city. Wolf owned so many buildings that Chicago city attorneys once dubbed him the "de facto head of the Department of Planning," according to the Sun-Times. He was also a perpetual code violator, a convicted arsonist (he burned down one of his buildings for insurance purposes in 1969), and a tax cheat who did federal prison time on a racketeering conviction.

In 1987, Frontera and Wolf branched out from the Riviera. They transformed Chicago's old exposition hall, best-known as the site of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, into a giant nightclub called the International Amphitheater.

While Wolf owned the buildings, Frontera ran the clubs, channeling millions of dollars in drug profits through them, says Assistant Boca Raton Police Chief Richard Burke, who was a key investigator in the case.

"Frontera had a working relationship with Lou Wolf in Chicago," says Burke, now the department's assistant police chief. "Drug money was used to renovate the clubs."

Burke says Frontera also had reported ties to organized crime in both Chicago and his hometown of Detroit. In 1991, the giant enterprise blew up in Frontera's face. Drug agents found 13 kilograms of cocaine in steel drums buried at his Ocala ranch. They also discovered $6.3 million in cash at a Miami house connected to Frontera and DeCubas.

Shortly after those seizures, Burke personally arrested Frontera at an apartment building on North Lake Shore Drive. He was coming off an elevator when he was apprehended. "Sam was pretty surprised," Burke recalls of the July 1991 arrest.

Federal prosecutors charged Frontera with running what the Chicago Tribune called "a massive multimillion dollar drug trafficking operation."

In the years since, numerous drug runners connected to the organization have been nabbed and huge amounts of cash have been seized, including more than $200 million from a Swiss bank account controlled by Julio Nasser David, the late Colombian cocaine kingpin who supplied the DeCubas-Frontera organization.

After Frontera's arrest, a federal judge refused to allow him to bond out of jail, ruling that he was a flight risk and a danger to society. DeCubas, meanwhile, fled the country. The Riviera and International Amphitheater dissolved into a morass of bankruptcies and monetary disputes.

In 1993, Wolf ran into troubles with the law himself and pleaded guilty to cheating on his real estate taxes. He was sentenced to a year in the federal penitentiary on December 22 of that year. The United Press International headline: "Scrooge landlord to spend new year in jail."

But even as his old empire crumbled, Frontera took care of business with the government. He cooperated with agents, giving up information on DeCubas and numerous lower-level drug thugs. Though he was facing life in prison, his cooperation won him leniency; after pleading guilty to the drug charges, Frontera was released from prison on November 22, 1995, according to federal records.

It didn't take long for Frontera to resurface in South Florida, where he began plotting his way back into the club business.

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