Jack Makler hadn't changed much. When he answered the door, his silver-streaked hair was still perfect. Even in his tube socks, he looked ready to roll in a jet-black shirt and dark blue jeans. No, it wasn't Makler who'd changed, just the circumstances. When I'd last met him about seven years ago in a trendy restaurant in Delray Beach, he was a police detective telling stories about how criminal Gypsies prey upon corrupt cops.
Today, the 64-year-old Makler is accused in federal court of corruptly using his official powers at the Delray Beach P.D. to protect a Gypsy con artist. Charged with mail fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy, the now-former detective could spend most of the rest of his life behind bars.
For the time being, he lives in his tidy suburban middle-class home in Boynton Beach, where I took a drive recently to see if he was still as loquacious as he used to be. When he saw me standing on his porch, he just looked at me quizzically.
Detective Jack Makler
"Hi, Jack," I began, "I'm Bob Norman with New Times. I talked to you a while back for an article I wrote about Nick the Cop."
His eyes showed he now remembered.
"I heard what happened and wanted to talk with you about it."
"I can't really do that," he said rather curtly before muttering something about his attorney. "All I can say is I'm innocent."
This didn't surprise me. Makler, who is out of jail after posting a quarter-million-dollar bond, stands accused of helping a Gypsy con artist called Linda Marks swindle millions of dollars from victims who believed her fortunetelling shtick and gave her their life savings in the hope that she could save them from disease and despair. Not something to get chatty about really.
After Makler closed his door, I stuck a business card by the knob. Later, when I checked my voice mail, the first one began, "This is Jack Makler..."
Maybe he was ready to talk. Again.
The last time he gave up information, it was on the aforementioned "Nick the Cop." That was the nickname for John Nicholas, who was a Palm Beach Sheriff's Office deputy when I first wrote about him back in 1998. Nicholas rather informally specialized in Gypsy crimes. Nicholas knew a lot about Gypsies, or, to use the proper moniker, the Rom. He was, after all, a Gypsy himself.
What makes somebody a Gypsy? Well, the Rom is a race of people, sanctioned as such by the United Nations. The band of vagabonds left India more than four centuries ago and has been pretty much on the move ever since. The culture is based on duping the hell out of gadjes, their name for non-Gypsies, with fortunetelling cons, roofing scams, automobile rip-offs, and other schemes perfected over the years. And any bunco cop in the country will tell you that Florida is their promised land. Most of those palm-reading shops along the roads of the Gold Coast there are 29 such establishments licensed in Broward County alone are filled with Rom dreaming up fiendish ways to get into your bank account.
Gypsies live in a rigid, ultrasecretive society complete with territories and arranged marriages. And they squabble. Oh, do they squabble. To settle their disputes, they have their own courts overseen by leaders called Rom Baros, or Big Men. Once born into this treasure- and trouble-strewn life, few leave it.
Nicholas, though, claimed that after a criminal childhood, he turned his back on the life and devoted himself to busting his own brethren. He became a national media expert on the subject of Gypsy crime, even landing starring roles on 48 Hours and Dateline shows.
It made for a good story. Good fiction, anyway.
A couple of law enforcement sources had told me that Nicholas was suspected of being a double agent, so I investigated him. It didn't take long to find a whole lot of evidence that Nick the Cop was still very much involved with a known Gypsy crime clan using the last name Uwanawich. (Get it? "You want a witch?").
With the power of PBSO, Nicholas propped up the Uwanawiches while at the same time helping to eliminate their rivals. The Sheriff's Office investigated and, rather than canning him, found Nick guilty of some minor rule infraction. He was suspended for two days.
As I was reporting the story, I came across a Delray Beach police detective named Jack Makler. He was adamant that Nicholas was a no-good cop playing both sides of the street. To prove it, he arranged an interview for me with a Gypsy couple that owned a fortunetelling shop in Delray. Their names: Jimmy and Linda Marks.
The Markses and Uwanawiches were battling each other for supremacy in South Florida. They also fought at a Denny's restaurant over an arranged marriage. A Uwanawich put Jimmy Marks in a headlock right there in the home of the Grand Slam breakfast.
Shortly after that spat, Nicholas arrived at the door of the Markses' shop on Federal Highway with a WPTV-Channel 5 television crew. Jimmy Marks called Makler to complain, and the detective zipped over to the place. The two cops argued in front of the Markses' shop. Makler told me this angered him because Nicholas was breaking into his jurisdiction without permission.
Nothing ever aired on television, but there was still plenty of bad blood between the Marks and Uwanawich clans and between Makler and Nicholas.
While investigating Nicholas, I visited the Markses' shop and met with Jimmy and Linda. I described the thin, dapper, and gold-bedecked Jimmy Marks as I saw him: "Over his bulging overbite is a pencil-thin mustache. His face is narrow, his nose and ears pointy. His eyebrows are darker than his silver and black hair, which is neatly trained straight back over his head. If he were an animal, he'd be a fox."
As for Linda Marks, she was mentioned only as a "sturdy woman" and convicted con artist, but I went into more detail about her fortunetelling area, which was little bigger than a walk-in closet. "The room is painted brownish gold and adorned with drawn angels, moons, and suns. It looks more like it was decorated by a kindergarten teacher than by a medium to the world of spirits."
Jimmy told me about how Nick was in cahoots with the Uwanawiches. "I want to see Nicholas out of the Sheriff's Office," he said.
Well, Jimmy Marks got his wish. Based on the New Times article ("The Double Life of Nick the Cop," May 21, 1998), PBSO opened a new investigation into Nicholas. The deputy resigned from the department and left South Florida before it was completed.
Even while I was taking down Nicholas, the thought lingered that Makler seemed a little closer than he should be to the Markses. Gypsies are renowned in law enforcement circles for getting their hooks into cops. It was almost comical two dirty cops fighting each other over their favorite Gypsy families.
But there was nothing funny about what Linda Marks was doing in that brownish-gold room. There, she was using sleight-of-hand tricks involving store-bought eggs, live snakes, and scorpions to dupe ill, desperate, and flat-out gullible people into believing she really was a medium to the world of spirits.
And, unbeknown to me, she was out of control, ripping off millions of dollars from her victims. One was Delores Hoffert, a Michigan retiree who found out in late 1999 that her cancer-stricken husband, Leroy, had given Marks their life savings of more than $330,000. Marks made it seem that snakes were coming from eggs that Leroy brought her. The snakes represented the devil, she told him. And she promised she'd get the devil out of him to save his life.
When Delores found out, she went to Delray police, who put Makler on the case. "A couple of days later [Makler] came over and gave me $28,000 in cash, really torn-up looking bills," Delores Hoffert says.
During the next two years, Makler brought her thousands more in cash from Marks, totaling about $86,000.
But Hoffert, whose husband died in 2002, told the detective she wanted Marks behind bars so she couldn't ruin more lives.
"He said, 'Well, you know I hated my first wife and I hated my second wife but the real culprit here is your husband,'" she recalls. "That's when I said, 'This man is not on my side. '"
Other people had similar horror stories they brought to the Delray P.D. and the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office. Both agencies investigated Makler and exonerated him.
It was Nick the Cop all over again.
Two years ago, the Internal Revenue Service took the case and finally came down with the indictments in late November. Not long after the news hit, investigator and Gypsy crimes expert Joe Livingston of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division contacted me.
"When I heard about Makler, I thought about our boy Nick," he told me in his almost melodic Southern accent. "As best we know, he's back in Florida somewhere, up in Sebring, I believe."
It may seem ludicrous, but I'm sure Makler justified in his mind everything he'd done. Most bad cops do. It goes like this: Linda Marks was an informant who helped make cases on other Gypsies. In return, Makler kept her in business and played middleman with her victims. A dozen narcs in South Florida have probably done worse things. (Though suspicions abound that he may have taken kickbacks from Marks, there's no proof that ever happened.)
Of course, the detective was really just abetting a stone-cold criminal to boost his own career. He should have arrested her instead of becoming her partner while she was destroying families.
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That last part stings me a little bit. I know that if I'd acted on my suspicions six years ago and exposed Makler, Hoffert and a lot of other people might have been spared their pain.
So I wanted to hear from him why he'd done it. In his own words. Which brings us back to that phone message.
"I hope you didn't think that I was trying to be rude to you when you came to the door," Makler said. "You have to understand my position: My attorney really advised me not to say anything... I would be happy to give you an interview once this thing is all over, and I'll give you an exclusive if that is what you want. I thought your article on Nicholas was pretty much exact, and I hope you don't think I'm in his same category."
Sorry, Jack, but you are in that category, and all the words in the world won't change that.