By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By David Minsky
By Michael E. Miller
"They murdered a guy in here a couple of days ago," Tony Galeota says.
Behind him, 12-foot-high fences topped with spools of barbed wire frame a muddy soccer field. Guards with machine guns man rusty metal towers. In the distance, La Cordillera de San Blas cuts through the Panamanian jungle like a serrated knife.
"They shot him in the middle of the night," Galeota continues quietly, "and buried his body behind the pavilion."
Anywhere other than La Joya, this news would be shocking. But killings are common in Panama's worst prison, where the smell of raw sewage wafts over the yard, metal shackles hang from moldy staircases, and overcrowded cells house nearly 3,500 of the Western Hemisphere's vilest murderers, rapists, and drug traffickers.
Galeota is one of several Americans locked up here. The 43-year-old is shaped like a mini refrigerator: short and squat, with a shaved head and wide-set emerald eyes. A tattoo of an Italian Mafioso emerges from an extra-large sleeveless T-shirt. Galeota's sheer size and mob connections are the only things keeping him from getting shivved in the dark.
His nightmare began in June of 2011, when police raided his Panama City strip club and arrested him and his Ukrainian partner for trafficking women and selling drugs. Sixteen months later, the two men have yet to appear in court. Instead, they eat rice for lunch and dinner, drink dirty river water, and use a hole in the ground for a toilet.
Here, Galeota is just one of 500 prisoners crammed into a filthy cell block designed to hold 200 people. But in South Florida, he was once a strip club king. "I lived it up in Miami," he says. "Now I'm living in hell."
For two decades, Galeota managed Porky's, a Hialeah dive notorious for drugs, prostitution, and violence, where he was part pimp, part bouncer, and completely untouchable. Police repeatedly raided the club, yet Galeota escaped unscathed every time.
When he left to open a bona fide brothel in Panama, Galeota thought the country's lax prostitution laws would make him rich. Instead, he's trapped in a labyrinthine legal system, alone and unable to speak Spanish.
Galeota's imprisonment abroad marks the end of one of Miami's most outrageous eras, when Russian and Colombian cartels stocked strip clubs with cheap prostitutes and cheaper cocaine. Miami's underworld may still be seedy, but it has outsourced much of its shadiness to nearby Third-World countries such as Panama.
Now the locals want to get rid of guys like Galeota too, as his case has drawn national attention to corruption and human rights abuses.
"This case has had a big impact here," says José Otero, a reporter for Panamanian newspaper La Prensa. "Whenever there is an American businessman involved in crime here in Panama, it becomes an important case. Moreover, trafficking prostitutes and drugs and involvement in organized crime are some serious charges."
Galeota's enemies say that a life of sin has finally caught up with the flesh-peddler. But he insists that, for once, he has done nothing wrong.
"I've done a lot of shady things in the States," he admits. "But I've always paid for everything, either with stitches in my head, concussions, or jail time. This time, I'm innocent."
Like a concert pianist, Tony Galeota has spent his life honing a single skill since he was a teenager. But instead of classical music, his specialty is sex. Controlling it. Facilitating it. And, above all, selling it.
Anthony Galeota was born October 17, 1968, on Long Island. His father, Arnold, was a strait-laced sales manager but a distant and disapproving dad. His mother, Bonnie Gellilti, was "a bit of a criminal," Tony remembers. "She would use shoe polish to change our driver's licenses so we could go to clubs and drink when we were 15. Then she'd charge my friends $50 each," he says. Bonnie also shoplifted booze to sustain her hard drinking habit. And she launched drunken tirades at Tony after baseball games, no matter how well the all-star shortstop performed.
With dark hair and pale, wide-set eyes, teenage Tony resembled a stocky Frank Sinatra. And like the Italian-American crooner, he loved women a little too much. When he was 16, he knocked up his 15-year-old girlfriend at Hauppauge High School. He paid for her to secretly get an abortion. "It was puppy love," he says. But Tony had darker secrets.
The year before, his father helped him land a job as a wedding DJ. "My father wasn't in the mob, but his friends were," Tony says. The gig introduced him to a lifelong vice. Prostitutes were everywhere at the weddings, and when Tony asked another employee where they came from, the older kid took him to Manhattan's infamous West End. He ogled the women standing on corners in their underwear and high heels.
"I was 16 years old and amazed," he says. "There were beautiful girls, just walking the streets, giving blowjobs for $10 or $15."
His school friends didn't believe him, so a few days later he sneaked out, stole his mom's minivan, and drove around the neighborhood loading up with other teens. By the time they returned to Long Island later that night, a pimp was born.
"It was a real moneymaker. I got a piece of the action of every blowjob that my friends got," Galeota says. "I couldn't take all the people who wanted to come."
He was soon promoted from DJing weddings to robbing delivery trucks for the Paccione clan (which federal court records tie to the infamous Gambino crime family). The charismatic teenager sold the stolen suits or electronics at strip clubs or used-car lots.
Galeota already lived according to a gangster's code. He was a loan shark: generously offering money but punishing those who didn't pay back. When his younger brother was molested, he beat the suspected perpetrator to a pulp. And when his mother was distraught over a broken washing machine, he filled the house with new appliances.
"My family didn't care; they took it," Galeota says of the stolen goods. When his dad lost his job, Tony paid the bills. "I was always looking for their approval," he says, "but I never got that."
Instead, he found another, tighter-knit family: the mob. They taught him the rules, the most important of which Galeota took to heart: "You can have your girlfriends on the side," he remembers hearing, "but never leave your wife."
The lessons in crime didn't come fast enough for Galeota to stay out of trouble. By the time he was 18, he had been arrested seven times for armed robbery and assault, he says. (A New York Police Department spokesman says records from that far back aren't available.) Because of his age, he escaped with six months' probation.
The young mobster needed to lay low, so the Pacciones sent him south to a strip club called the Porthole Pub in Pompano Beach. It was 1990, and Galeota transformed the place by wiring in subwoofers and bringing in New York dancers. Nobody was impressed more than Kristy Sharpe, an 18-year-old waitress from Orlando with blond hair, blue eyes, and lightly freckled skin.
"He had that guido effect on me," she says. "He was a smooth-talker. He could convince you that the sky was green." Kristy was a self-described "firecracker" who had also escaped from an abusive home and wanted attention.
"We just meshed," she says. "Like me, he was a black sheep who could do nothing right."
He and Kristy struck up an unlikely romance. It continued at another local strip club, called Quarterbacks Playmates Lounge. But their courtship was cut short. On a Sunday night in July of 1991, a 29-year-old electrician named Phillip John Shea came into Quarterbacks shortly after Tony and Kristy left. When the bartender told Shea it was last call, he became enraged. He left, but returned with a gun.
Shea fatally blasted bouncer Richard Jimenez in the face and then opened fire on the dancers, shooting one in the chest and another in the head. The bartender hid in the bathroom and dialed 911. As Shea tried to pull the panties off one of the dancers, he heard police sirens in the distance and bolted. He turned himself in a few days later, but the lounge's owner decided to close the cursed club. Tony and Kristy were shocked — and out of a job.
Again, Tony's friends in New York told him where to go. "They knew some Russian guy named Tarzan who had just opened up a club in Miami called Porky's. He needed some help," he recalls.
As the couple drove south on I-95, they thought they were leaving the worst behind them. Indeed, Tony would turn Porky's into a moneymaking machine.
But bloodshed would follow them to Miami.
It was a weeknight, and Porky's was washed in pale-pink neon light. A deep bass line rattled customers' chests as they downed overpriced drinks. When a dancer clapped her ass cheeks like a maraca, a customer's hands instinctively rose to touch them.
"Keep your fucking hands off the girl!" Galeota yelled. But the man's paws were soon on her crotch again. In an instant, Galeota's meaty hand was around the customer's neck, shoving him outside.
Half an hour later, Galeota was guarding the door when a car rolled up with the window down. Gunshots flashed like fireworks in the darkness. When Galeota stood up, he checked his T-shirt for bullet holes, but found none.
"Another night at Porky's, another shooting," he remembers now from his prison cell in Panama.
For 18 years, Galeota ran Porky's with the same punishing justice he learned from the mob and transformed it into Miami's most notorious whorehouse, where Russian gangsters and Cuban criminals spent millions on sex and drugs. There was a spate of murders, several police raids, and a federal drug-trafficking trial. Like a real-life godfather, Galeota weathered it all.
"It was a very violent atmosphere," he says. "Running a club in that neighborhood, win or lose, you've got to fight."
When Galeota arrived in Miami in the summer of 1991, the city was awash in coke, crack, and drug cash. But Porky's was just a Hialeah dive bar on the corner of SE 14th Street and Ninth Avenue, surrounded by cheap motels and buzzed by flights taking off from Miami International Airport. Ludwig Fainberg — a Russian-speaking Ukrainian nicknamed "Tarzan" for his flowing locks — had opened it a few months earlier but ran it like a private club for Eastern Europeans. Galeota saw an opportunity.
"I brought in music and women," Galeota says. "The first month, we had $15,000 in gross sales. A year later, it was $115,000 per month."
By the mid-'90s, Galeota had turned Porky's into a one-stop shop for strippers, sex, and serious drugs. Prostitution was so common at Porky's that the club had fixed places and prices, Galeota says. Johns paid $100 to rent a VIP room downstairs. Girls charged $150 or more for sex.
Running an underworld operation in Cocaine Cowboys-era Miami wasn't an easy gig. "I used to have to patch Tony up all the time," Kristy says. The two were married in 1994 at a wedding full of mobsters. "Many times, I worried about him getting killed. Tony was a tough, muscular little shit back then. But this was Hialeah."
Over the years, Galeota saw nearly a dozen shootings at Porky's, some of them fatal. Most of them were robberies gone wrong or simple revenge. None of them ever appeared in the newspapers, but Hialeah police records confirm there were at least ten shootings at Porky's during Galeota's tenure. More detailed reports on the crimes weren't available.
"There was probably a lot more fun going on at Porky's than we even knew of," says one Hialeah police officer who asked not to be identified. "It was home to a lot of shrewd and nefarious characters."
The Porky's party nearly came to a sudden end in early 1997. By then, the club's criminal clientele and Fainberg's increasingly lavish lifestyle had raised eyebrows.
"We were doing fantastic, but Tarzan got bored and started living the life," Galeota explains.
The FBI swooped in January 21, surrounding the club and arresting Fainberg. Prosecutors accused him of providing prostitutes for his Russian friends, trafficking drugs, selling stolen cigarettes and liquor, and setting up arms deals for Russian and Colombian cocaine smugglers.
The most audacious plot — allegedly hatched in the back of Porky's — was to purchase a former Soviet submarine for $5.5 million for a Colombian drug cartel so it could ship cocaine up the coast to California. Fainberg allegedly told undercover cops he had sent coke to Russia in a shipment of frozen shrimp and had bought six $1 million Russian military helicopters for the South Americans.
"These guys were into just about everything," Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Fernandez said at the time.
Galeota also found himself in the back of an unmarked FBI car. Two agents told him that they'd been tapping his phone for months. Then they pushed play on a cassette deck.
"I just watched Luis blow a guy away," Galeota heard himself say on tape. He was talking to Fainberg about a murder he'd witnessed in Porky's parking lot. "Luis pulled out a .38 and shot the guy in the chest."
"You hear that?" the agent said. "That's obstruction of justice."
But Galeota was convinced the cops were bluffing and refused to cooperate. As Fainberg and a wealthy Cuban-American named Juan Almeida sat in the Federal Detention Center downtown, and newspapers across the country splashed the sensational story of the drug submarine scheme, Galeota focused on staying out of court. When he discovered he was about to be subpoenaed, he withdrew $2,500 from the bank and boarded a two-week Caribbean cruise.
While Galeota avoided testifying, Fainberg faced 30 counts including racketeering and conspiracy to traffic cocaine and heroin. He faced nine years in prison, but because he provided evidence against Almeida, he served just three years before being deported to his adopted homeland of Israel.
With Fainberg locked up, Porky's was Galeota's plaything. He answered only to property owner William Seidle, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court trustee who ran a chain of car dealerships. The two ran Porky's for another decade after Fainberg's deportation.
"Bill was one of the most influential people in Miami," Galeota says. "He used to have a lot of his friends, even judges, come into Porky's for sexual favors... This is a guy that the FBI went after for years but could never get him. They tried to squeeze Fainberg to get Seidle. He was a big, big fish."
Indeed, court records show that Seidle was a target of the federal wiretapping investigation. And multiple sources close to Fainberg say he was pressured to rat out Seidle but refused. Seidle was never charged with a crime.
If anything, Galeota's life got even more out of control after Fainberg's arrest. Kristy caught Tony cheating several times, she says. But not until she discovered he'd been dating a former Porky's stripper for more than two years did she threaten to divorce him in 2009. He broke it off with the woman, but his problems were only beginning.
When Seidle died in 2008, Porky's political protection followed the 82-year-old to the grave. State and local police launched an investigation in February 2009. Over the course of three months, undercover detectives made dozens of visits, tallying up a vivid snapshot of the club: "15 purchases of cocaine, four purchases of MDMA, one purchase of Xanax, one purchase of marijuana, 18 solicitations for prostitution, [and] 20 lewd acts."
Dancers with names like Baby Doll, Tipsie, Trixie, and Crème offered to have sex with the cops for as little as $150, court records show.
Police again surrounded Porky's in the early hours of May 9, 2009. They arrested 18 suspects, including Galeota, several strippers, and most employees. But all the cops found were five grams of weed, a bottle of Viagra, and some mysterious yellow pills. Galeota was hit with felony drug and prostitution charges.
Again, the charges were dropped. Galeota says the police had already gotten what they wanted: Porky's demise. Prosecutors say police never filed the necessary paperwork. This time, the feds took over the strip club before selling it to new owners, with one requirement: Neither Galeota nor anyone else from the old club could ever work there again.
Twice, American authorities had investigated Galeota. And twice they had given up. But the hassle had taken its toll on him.
If only there were a place where prostitution was legal, he thought, a city full of beautiful women like Miami, but no rules.
Santiago de Cali shone in the syrupy South American sunlight filling Colombia's Cauca River Valley. Through the airplane window, Tony Galeota could see the city's colonial churches glow like polished gold. But his mind was on another kind of riches.
It was February 2011, and he was preparing to open the Doll House, his own strip club in Panama. He'd already invested in seven apartments in Panama City and rented a storefront on the capital's seediest street, where prostitution was legal. All he needed now were the prostitutes.
He met with mobsters in Cali mansions full of women, and he knocked on random doors in search of dancers. Eventually, he moved two dozen ladies to Panama City. The Doll House couldn't expand fast enough to meet the influx of sex tourists.
But Galeota's plan would soon go catastrophically wrong. His government protection would evaporate, the Doll House would be raided, his investments would be stolen, and he would be arrested.
"When you go to prison, it's like dying, but you get to see your own funeral," Galeota says. "You see who wants to fuck your wife, who wants to rob you, and who your real friends are."
His Doll House dream began at Porky's. When Bill Seidle died, Galeota knew the club's days were numbered. Prostitution in Miami had become too risky, he decided, but overseas sex tourism was soaring. A friend suggested Panama.
"We went there and we couldn't believe what we saw," says Josh Weiss, a former DJ at Porky's and one of Galeota's closest friends. "It was cheaper than Costa Rica, and the women were gorgeous... So we met with a realtor, got high, and Tony got stupid with money. He bought seven properties pretty much sight unseen."
Galeota tried going straight, opening a coffee shop in downtown Panama City. But it bored him. "It was so slow I couldn't take it," he says.
He sold the shop and in 2010 opened Bongos, a restaurant serving wings and beer. Business was better, but it still wouldn't make him rich. Then an old friend showed up.
It had been ten years since U.S. Marshals deported Ludwig Fainberg from Miami. Somewhere between his native Ukraine, Israel, and Russia, he'd shed his trademark long hair and changed his name to Alon Bar. When he heard that his old partner in crime from Porky's had moved to Panama, he flew in to meet with Galeota.
But Fainberg wasn't in town to catch up. He knew that the owners of a local strip club called Moulin Rouge — David Fridman and Jake Lita (an Israeli wanted by German police on human-trafficking charges) — had a business offer for the duo. They'd use their connections with immigration officials to obtain visas and prostitution licenses and then give Tarzan and Tony 40 percent of the profits to run a new club, called the Doll House.
Galeota jumped at the deal. He decked out the Doll House with five upstairs rooms equipped with king-size beds, mirrors, lube, condoms, and showers, and brought in dozens of Colombian women, who could earn $120 — split with the club — for an hour of sex. Within weeks of its April 2011 opening, the club was raking in $6,000 on good nights.
Panama became Galeota's personal paradise. Between the restaurant and the Doll House, he was making enough to retire in five years. While Kristy was still in the States, he lived with five of his Colombian prostitutes. "If you like to eat chocolate and you live in a chocolate factory, you're going to eat chocolate," he says.
When Kristy and their three sons finally arrived in June, the business became a family affair: His wife took over at Bongos, while Galeota concentrated on turning the club into a cash machine.
The domestic bliss lasted only a couple of weeks. On June 19, 2011, Tony and his oldest son, 15-year-old Anthony Jr., had just sat down to eat wings in the Doll House office around 11 p.m. when the gold-painted doors burst open. A dozen plainclothes cops poured in with pistols drawn.
Panamanian police had been casing the Doll House, Moulin Rouge, and another joint, called Havana Club, for weeks. Cops had made several controlled buys of drugs. During the Doll House raid, they found marked bills in the register and several grams of pot on a promoter.
They also discovered the club was registered as a massage parlor, not a brothel. Its Colombian dancers were in Panama on six-month tourist visas, weren't licensed as prostitutes, and weren't getting required weekly health checkups. Prosecutors charged Galeota and Fainberg with not only drug dealing but also human trafficking.
Galeota was crammed into a sweltering holding cell with 150 others. Anthony Jr. was taken to a juvenile detention center that wasn't much better. Kristy was able to pay a lawyer $500 to get her son released, but there was no bond for Galeota's drug offense. Two days later, he was transferred to La Joya — a hellish cinder-block complex an hour outside of Panama City.
As he sweated in jail, Galeota's Panamanian empire crumbled. Three weeks after the Doll House raid, Kristy was working the bar at Bongos when three teenagers walked into the restaurant. The last one locked the door.
"Everybody give me your money!" one of the kids shouted as he pulled a handkerchief over his face and wildly swung a revolver. After that, Kristy closed Bongos.
The nightmare deepened for Galeota. Panamanian newspapers put "Operation Fiesta" on the front page as prosecutors alleged Galeota was part of an international crime ring. Banks seized all seven of his apartments. Kristy and his sons hid in a shabby, poorly protected office. They finally fled the country this past July, leaving Tony alone. Inside La Joya, he had paid a guard to smuggle in a BlackBerry to talk to his wife, but strangers kept calling with threats to kill his kids unless he paid them.
"They would describe what they looked like," Galeota says. "Then they'd tell me: 'They are as good as dead.' "
Panama had gone from paradise to purgatory.
At the entrance to La Joya, ant hills and wasp nests surround a wooden sign. In hand-painted white lettering, it reads, "Dear visitors. All the services here are free. If any official asks you to pay for anything, please report them."
Inside the prison, the sign is a running joke. La Joya is flush with contraband, from cell phones and cigarettes to marijuana and handguns — all of it brought in with the complicity of corrupt guards. During a visit last month, a New Times reporter witnessed one police official receive a $20 bill in a barely disguised handshake.
"That clean, business-friendly, postcard-Panama bullshit is just a façade," Galeota says. "This country is corrupt. Everything here has a cost."
For a while, Panama's pay-to-play culture suited Galeota just fine. He and Fainberg were on their way to riches thanks to powerful friends and legalized prostitution. But then the country's corrupt system turned on them. The irony is not lost on Galeota that after a life of crime in Miami, he was arrested in Panama just as he was going legit.
"The worst part of being in here is being in here for nothing. Prostitution is legal in Panama," he complains. "Maybe we didn't have the permits we were supposed to have, but we're foreigners who didn't understand the rules."
On a crowded balcony overlooking La Joya, Galeota describes the past 16 months as a nightmare. Prisoners eat stale bread and a slice of cheese for breakfast; rice — and sometimes beans — is their lunch and dinner. Days go by without water, and when it does arrive, it's turbid sludge from a nearby river. Rats, roaches, and beetles the size of Chihuahuas crawl over inmates at night.
It could be worse. When Galeota arrived, his mobster reputation preceded him. While another new prisoner was beaten and robbed, Galeota was untouched. Luckier still, a powerful Colombian inmate named Mauricio Ramírez recognized Galeota from his restaurant. He offered protection and gave Galeota $200.
At night, the guards lock the gate and leave, turning over control of each cell block to prisoners. Galeota has seen several murders. One man stabbed someone over a $10 debt. When one inmate killed another, the dead man's gang on the outside murdered the inmate's entire family, Galeota says. The dead and dying are piled into wheelbarrows and left by the front gate until guards arrive in the morning.
"I'm in survival mode now," Galeota says, adding that he agonizes over being imprisoned for what he believes are unjust charges. "We treated the women well."
For the most part, Doll House dancers agree. In court statements and interviews with New Times, they said Galeota gave them contracts to sign, cell phones and computers to use, and apartments in which to live.
"He never forced us to do anything. We didn't even have to have sex unless we wanted to," says a Colombian stripper named Catherine. She is cute and curvy with dark hair and a button nose. Catherine says she slept with customers because she needed the money to support her family. "It's not an easy choice," she says. "But I did it for my child."
Unfortunately, Galeota's defense isn't as simple as quoting strippers, says his lawyer, Guillermina McDonald. She is a high-powered attorney who has defended two former presidents in corruption cases, but even she hasn't been able to get Galeota out of jail yet. Panama's judicial system is outdated and overburdened, she says.
"Anthony has been in jail for more than 15 months, and a judge hasn't even heard his case yet!" she scoffs. "Last week we were supposed to have a hearing, but there was no running water in Panama City. So the translator said she couldn't take a shower, didn't show up, and the case was delayed."
McDonald has succeeded, however, in chipping away at the case, persuading a judge three weeks ago to drop the trafficking charge on a technicality. (Panama passed harsher penalties for human trafficking during Galeota's incarceration, but Galeota can't be prosecuted under laws that weren't in place when he was arrested.)
The narcotics charge, however, still stands despite little evidence linking Galeota to the drugs. McDonald expects those will be dismissed as well, but not for months. "No one can tell us how long he will be in there," she says. "That's the problem."
If Galeota is freed, it will be a major blow for Panama's prostitution crackdown. New laws effectively outlaw brothels such as the Doll House, permit or not — but if Galeota walks with no convictions, it will surely embarrass officials trying to make it look like they're cleaning up the industry.
"The investigation was so poorly handled and rushed," says Otero, the journalist. "They had what seemed like a dynamite case, but it has ended up in pieces."
Galeota believes that his arrest has little to do with a renewed commitment to the law in Panama. Instead, he says competitors pulled government strings to screw him.
"Their connections were bigger than ours," he says.
Indeed, Havana Club has already reopened. But the Doll House and Moulin Rouge remain closed. A sign on the latter reads, "District Attorney for Drugs: Do Not Enter." Inside, the bar is still littered with half-empty bottles of Chivas Regal. A poster on the wall advertises "Lesby Show: 2 Girls per Person" for $350.
Back in South Florida, Kristy Galeota vacillates between outrage and empathy for her husband. By now, she knows of his many infidelities, including that he lived and slept with some of the girls at the Doll House.
"I don't care how strong you are; that's going to affect your marriage," she says. But she insists that her husband's imprisonment has brought them closer. "I wouldn't leave a dog in that prison, let alone my husband."
Galeota is not exactly repentant. Although he admits that "running around whoring and casinoing wasn't worth it," he can't promise to be faithful to the woman who has stood beside him. "That's the goal," is all he'll offer.
"My wife can say she has regrets, but that's bullshit," he says. "She hasn't worked for 15 years. We had a $500,000 house, cars, and motorcycles. We traveled all the time. I gave each of my kids a Rolex when they were 5 years old. This business has been very good to me."
Has a stint in Panamanian prison reformed Miami's most notorious strip club manager? As he contemplates the question, Galeota watches his fellow inmates kick a soccer ball across La Joya's putrid playground.
Galeota may not be a good man, but he is brutally honest.
"There is no rehabilitation here," he says. "My wife is never going to completely trust me. We both understand that."
As for his career, his only oath is that he won't let his sons follow his example.
"I want to go legit when I get out, but if the economy is bad, I might go back to the industry," he says. "I've been in this business my whole life. I'm kind of stuck with it."