I Think, Therefore I Scam
Franco Nicoletti's hair has gone salt-and-pepper, and he's shaved off his mustache. He doesn't look half the man he used to be. But maybe that's the point. Could this be the same man who spent the last decade engineering schemes to swell his offshore accounts? The man accused of defrauding countless friends and business partners, of attempting to launder $7 million in cash, of skimming a small fortune from his many enterprises in Boca Raton? For the last two years, this once flamboyant swindler, a man accustomed to the finest accouterments, has gone unadorned, forced to trade in designer threads for prison-issue, blue-green jumpsuits and a pair of modest brown sandals.
"I've made some pretty fundamental mistakes in my life," Nicoletti says. "But I have peace within me, even in a prison cell."
It's two weeks before a federal judge in West Palm Beach will lock him away for 16 years for attempted money-laundering, and Nicoletti is sitting in a plastic chair in the visiting room at the Federal Detention Center in Miami. "Look I didn't kill nobody," he says. "I'm not such a bad guy." Through tortoiseshell reading glasses he examines a slim volume he's typed up and bound in plastic, the tale of his last ten years in South Florida. It contains the details of the massive law-enforcement conspiracy of which he claims to be a victim.
"I'm sitting here because I stepped on the wrong feet," he offers. "If the system focuses on you, you're as good as gone. Sure I've done some bad things in my life, but I swear to you I did not do these things they accuse me of."
As Nicoletti speaks he looks you in the eye. He speaks with self-confidence, peppering his discourse with strategically placed outbursts -- a fist on the table, an arched eyebrow, a vehement sneer. You want to believe him. You feel yourself believing him, just as so many before believed him and, in believing, entrusted him with their most prized valuables, even their love.
Lillian Dinallo was taken in by Nicoletti the first time they met at his Boca restaurant, back when her second husband was still alive. Richard liked him too; they talked about cars, boats, Frank Sinatra. Nicoletti sang to the old couple in a rich baritone, towering above them on stage at Ciro's Pomodoro in a handmade Italian suit, the gold lizard pin on his lapel glimmering in the spotlight. To them he looked like an aristocrat, even though he would later share tales of humble beginnings on the Mediterranean coast below Rome. Nicoletti was a throwback, the kind of man who'd bow and kiss a woman's hand, then compliment her escort on the cut of his suit. He sparkled with gold; a Swiss watch dangled from his wrist, and gold chains framed the bright smile beneath his mustache.
When the Dinallos first visited Ciro's, it was an overbooked Saturday night. No table was available. They left with an impatient "humph" after the maitre d' told them they'd have to wait at the bar. "Don't you know who those people are?" Nicoletti scolded after they left. "The Dinallos do not wait for a table."
At the time Richard Dinallo was one of the wealthiest men in Boca Raton. His New Jersey construction company had built Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, and he owned the Bridge Hotel in Boca. But he was sick with cancer and knew he wouldn't be around to care for Lillian much longer. He died in his bed at Boca Raton Community Hospital on October 29, 1991, and a family fracas for his millions ensued. Nicoletti stepped in as Lillian's legal advisor and emotional crutch. Eighteen months later they married. She was 63 years old, he was 46. Franco was Lillian's third husband, Lillian his fifth wife.
Nicoletti moved into the house that Richard Dinallo built, a spectacular seaside mansion with wraparound balconies and a bronze mastiff just inside the wrought iron gates. He put his name on the deed but kept his condo on the golf course at Boca Pointe. He drove Richard's Ferrari and parked a Rolls in the driveway -- he'd always had a weakness for Rolls Royces. For a while Nicoletti and his new bride were the talk of Boca society, appearing regularly at charity fundraisers and in the local society pages. But the fairy tale wouldn't last long.
Just after the New Year in 1996, Nicoletti was arrested, charged with laundering $300,000 in cash, and held on a $2 million bond. Eager to prove her love, Lillian sprung him on Valentine's Day. After that, Nicoletti knew Lillian would always stick by him. She was the only one who would. All the others -- friends, business partners, ex-girlfriends -- had turned on him. They were rats who'd sell out their own mothers to save themselves. Nicoletti had been called many things -- swindler, grifter, con man -- but never a rat.
When he arrived in Boca Raton in 1989, he was like a character from a Scorsese film or a Mamet play -- a fast-talking, flashy Italian who claimed to be an international business tycoon and carried fistfuls of cash. He neglected to mention, however, the less savory aspects of his years in California, like the eight convictions for charges that included mail fraud, bank fraud, and arson. If pressed, though, he always had a good explanation for the charges. He had a good explanation for everything. He was the Harry Houdini of legal entanglements. Generously armed with charm and guile, Nicoletti had over the years dodged countless lawsuits and smooth-talked judges into handing him light sentences. He'd also accumulated mountains of cash, dozens of exotic cars, and women, always lots of women.
Nicoletti was a master of the long con, a financial wizard who constructed elaborate business deals that promised quick and generous returns. He culled potential investors from the clientele of the numerous restaurants he opened around Los Angeles and Boca. "If he thought he could get something out of you, he would treat you like royalty," his second wife, Judy Whitfield, recalls. For weeks, sometimes months, Nicoletti would work to gain trust, wooing the wealthy with expensive dinners or weekends at his home in Jamaica. All the while he'd let slip details of business deals in the works. He talked up impending financial windfalls to such a degree that people would come to him, begging, pleading, for a chance to come on board. "Well, there really are no guarantees," he'd tell them. "But to be completely honest with you, this really is a phenomenal opportunity."
Usually they'd bite. Many of the people Nicoletti bilked failed to realize they'd been scammed until months, even years, had elapsed. He was so likable that his victims sometimes came to his defense after he was arrested. In the words of one, "Franco could talk the Pope into giving him the Vatican jewels."
But by the mid-'80s Nicoletti's charms had begun to fail him, and he wound up serving a total of almost four years in West Coast prisons. At the California Institute For Men in Chino, a prison psychologist concluded that Nicoletti was a man devoid of the emotional backstops that make it difficult for others to lie, cheat, and steal without compunction. In other words, he was a sociopath -- fearless, impulsive, grandiose, and highly manipulative. Nicoletti dismissed the prognosis as psychobabble. To his friends and wives, even those he'd swindled, he was a larger-than-life figure who made everything seem possible.
"He always had a can-do attitude about everything," Judy Whitfield recalls. "If you said to him, 'Franco, let's go check out this island in the middle of the Pacific; I understand it's for sale,' he would say, 'Yeah, let's go do it.' For him all things had potential."
Nicoletti had begun to accumulate a small empire in Boca Raton that would eventually include three restaurants, a travel agency, and a series of medical clinics, when two local detectives latched on to him. Palm Beach Sheriff's Det. Robert Hawkins and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent George Vilardi spent almost eight years trying in vain to nail Nicoletti. They stumbled across him during a 1989 burglary investigation in which his nephew was a suspect. "Once I had run Franco's criminal history and had started calling people in California, I knew there had to be something to this guy who had just shown up in Boca Raton," Hawkins recalls. Over the years the detectives tracked Nicoletti at Ciro's, Zelda's, and Hoexter's, his trio of Boca restaurants. They interviewed ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, and former business partners and even flew to California and New Jersey to gather dirt on him. They could never make anything stick.
Nicoletti responded by mocking the two detectives on stage at Ciro's and, in 1994, filing a $5 million harassment suit against them. "He was one hell of a challenge," recalls Vilardi. "We had a lot of trouble getting anyone to come forward and talk to us about him. Who knows what he's really done the last ten years he's been in Boca." Don Youngbluth, an IRS agent who pursued Nicoletti in the late '90s, says the investigations did get personal at times. "You're dealing with such a despicable human being, it's easy to lose your objectivity," he adds. "In terms of white-collar crime, I think Nicoletti is one of the most corrupt human beings I've ever met, truly a man without a conscience."
Although he eluded them for many years, Nicoletti must have known that sooner or later the detectives would catch up with him. That may be why he needed $7 million so badly. That kind of money would be enough to set him up with a new life, in Argentina perhaps, if only everything hadn't gone so terribly wrong.
In November 1996 Nicoletti asked Frank Petillo, a well-connected bookie, for help in finding an investor who could front him a cash loan of $7 million, money he said he needed to finalize a $50 million business deal. As collateral he offered $12 million in bearer bonds, untraceable government bonds worth their face value. Petillo introduced Nicoletti to Rich Rendina, a disbarred lawyer and former state attorney from Fort Lauderdale, who in turn introduced him to Tom Ramos, a man claiming to be the private financial consultant to a wealthy investor who had amassed his fortune trafficking in drugs in the '70s and '80s. During the meeting at Ciao Bella, a new Italian restaurant in which Nicoletti was a silent partner, Rendina asked him if he had a problem doing business with a drug trafficker. He said he didn't.
The men shared a bottle of wine and Nicoletti, feeling expansive, began to let down his usually guarded facade. "Are you telling me this guy is a bad guy because he sells marijuana?" he said to Rendina and Ramos, who, unbeknownst to Nicoletti, was wearing a recording device given to him by the DEA. "Well fuck you. You know why? Because your government sells marijuana, cocaine, heroin, all kinds of shit, every day on the street for your own convenience. So give me a break." Thirty years staving off government attempts to lock him away or deport him back to Italy had bred a stew of resentment that occasionally slipped out. Nicoletti's face reddened, the small lump in the upper right-hand corner of his forehead tensed, and he pounded the table with his fist. "I can pay for these meals and sit at the ocean the rest of my life," he continued. "I don't give a fuck. But I'm a player -- God forgive me, I'm a fuckin' player -- and I'll be a player until the day I die. You know why? I'm a rebel at heart. I don't like this society. I don't like this system. I don't like what it stands for. It screws up too many people's lives, and that's where I'm coming from." He cleared his throat. "You gotta trust me when I tell you this. I can go to my wife and say, 'Honey, I'm in trouble, I need a $10 million check right now.' But I don't do that. I'm on my own. I stand on my own, and I been standin' on my own all my life since I was a little kid."
A rebel was born in the summer of 1959 when a 12-year-old Franco Nicoletti and some of his friends began hawking backrests and umbrellas to tourists along the Mediterranean. "Ombrello, signora?" they inquired in Italian, the sand between their toes. Earlier that summer Franco had asked his father to buy him a pair of shoes. "You want fancy shoes? Buy 'em yourself," his father had told him. So Franco came up with the idea to milk the tourist trade, recruiting his friends to help out. He collected handfuls of lire and got his first taste of the benefits of free enterprise. A young hustler had taken his baby steps.
Franco's family was not atypical among Southern Italian families. His father had been a World War II navy captain who, after the war, went to work for the provincial government. Nicolino Nicoletti was rarely around, splitting his time between his family and those of his mistresses. Franco's mother, who was overbearing and sometimes violent, bore her husband's indiscretions, though she took out her frustrations on Franco, his three brothers, and two sisters. Franco left home as soon he could and began training for the priesthood at a nearby seminary. After two years he dropped out and headed to Sicily to enroll in hotel school. By the time he was 17 years old, he and his friends had hustled together enough money to open a business in Rome, a lively supper club featuring live jazz and good food. But Franco had grown impatient with Italy and longed to travel to the land of opportunity, America.
He flew into Chicago in December 1965, in the frigid heart of winter, and moved in with his grandfather, who was living in Gary, Indiana. Within a few months, Nicoletti hooked up with an Italian businessman who was importing Volkswagens and Porsches to the Chicago area. By the time his visa expired in 1966, he was earning a good wage and driving nice cars and did not want to return to Italy. The following year he told the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Mary Ann Millet, a young midwestern woman he'd begun dating, was pregnant and that they intended to marry. Although Mary Ann wasn't pregnant, the couple were wed on April 29, 1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing. They then enlisted in the Air Force and were sent to March Air Force Base outside Riverside, California, where Mary Ann was assigned to the medical corps and Franco, who had requested service as an assistant chaplain, was assigned to clerk duty in the nuclear weapons compound. Although he was not a U.S. citizen (and never would become one), Nicoletti was granted a high-level security clearance.
In 1970, three months before he was discharged, he had his first run-in with California law enforcement. Nicoletti was accused of writing bad checks to employees of a Riverside body shop he had started while in the service and was given probation. Today he claims someone else wrote those checks. Whatever did transpire at the body shop, the incident marked the beginning of what would become an almost 25-year run of prison-free legal trouble. After Nicoletti's return to civilian life, he quickly sold the body shop, the first of many businesses he would unload over the years.
Nicoletti's corporate modus operandi was to start a legitimate business, though never in his own name, and then run it into the ground. Along the way, say law-enforcement officials, he was likely skimming the cash proceeds while driving the business deeper and deeper into debt. Because his name was not attached to any of the operations, Nicoletti's personal assets remained protected when the businesses were eventually sold or went bust. "It's what we call a 'classic bust-out,'" explains Vilardi. "Franco was a master at carrying them off."
Nicoletti is in prison now, lost in the fond recollections of those early years. "I was on base, running a beautiful little business," he says, referring to the body shop. "I painted the place, made it spotless, it was great. I started with peanuts and worked hard. You know why I got into trouble?" His voice jumps several octaves, the click of his consonants quickens. "It was my ambition," he says. "It's always been my ambition, my ambition, my ambition." He spits out the words like poison and pounds the table with a clenched fist. "So some bad checks were written. It happened, nobody got screwed out of anything, life went on. Now when I'm the bad guy, they bring that up like its some big deal."
Nicoletti eases back into the chair, smoothes his fingers across the stack of legal documents on the Formica table, and smiles, acknowledging a fellow inmate. "I always think I'm doing the right thing and then something goes wrong."
One night in 1973, Nicoletti walked into the bar at the Holiday Inn in Riverside, smeared with grease and sweat and wearing a jumpsuit emblazoned with corporate logos. He and his team of Formula 7 racecar drivers had won a race earlier that day, and it was time to celebrate. The minute he walked in, Nicoletti noticed the beauty on stage with her rouged lips flush against the microphone. When the band took a break, he called her over. "Hey, gorgeous, come here and talk to me," he said, flashing a mischievous smile.
"Why are you such a pappagallo?" she replied. Judy Whitfield, a college girl raised on a farm, had picked up a few words of Italian during a recent trip through Europe. Pappagallo, which literally means "parrot," is slang for "pickup artist." "How do you know that word?" asked Nicoletti, laughing at the brazen young woman who had dared to call him at his game. Later that night, after Whitfield had returned to the stage, she noticed Nicoletti in a back corner, wrapping his arms around another woman.
A week later Nicoletti returned to the Holiday Inn, alone this time and with a plaster cast on his leg. A gearshift had punctured his thigh. He sat at a table near the stage and stared into his drink. Whitfield was intrigued by the change in his countenance and dedicated a song to him. "This is for the guy who looks so sad," she said. After a brief courtship, Franco and Judy were married, and they moved into a big house in Canyon Crest. Franco's days and nights were consumed with wheeling and dealing while Judy stayed at home, cooking and caring for their baby girl.
In the mid-'70s Nicoletti opened Via Veneto, his first restaurant, and shortly thereafter opened a second, more casual place. Over the next couple of years, he started a string of businesses (all of which would eventually vanish), including a jewelry store, an antiques store, a leather-goods business with his brother Marcello, and a private investment company. He even dabbled in movies, financing a few low-budget flops, including Last Foxtrot in Burbank, a spoof of Last Tango in Paris. He claims he considered the script for Easy Rider before Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper got hold of it but decided it was too "out there" to be commercially viable. Though Nicoletti didn't have much luck in the movie business, he was flush with cash and had begun to mingle with all sorts of high rollers -- movie stars, mobsters, and musicians he met at his restaurants and during forays to Hollywood. Nicoletti befriended Frank Sinatra's road manager, a man known as Jimmy the Hook, and became a regular at Sinatra's house in Palm Springs. He even claims to have shared the stage with Ol' Blue Eyes during a brief singing stint in Las Vegas.
In 1977 Nicoletti met Richard Compton, an ex-con who had married Dawn Roddenberry, the daughter of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Compton owned a 104-foot yacht called the Magnifico II, which he planned to turn into a floating recording studio. Nicoletti, who took the ship's deed as collateral on a loan, seized the yacht after he said Compton failed to pay up in time. Years later a judge ordered Nicoletti and two associates to pay Compton $9.7 million and return the yacht. Compton never was able to collect and lost an even larger potential fortune when his wife was excised from her father's will after she contested her cut, reported at 25 percent of all Star Trek proceeds.
Judy Whitfield met Compton before his relationship with Nicoletti fizzled. "Franco said he had given him $30,000 in return for the ship's deed," she recalls. "The thing is, he never loaned anyone money without some form of collateral. You have to ask yourself, though, 'Who is the stupid one, the person who took out the loan or the person who got the collateral that is worth far more than the loan?' Some of the things he did were highly manipulative, but then some of them you think to yourself, 'Good lord, how could anyone fall for that?'"
During the legal battle over the yacht, Compton had alleged that an associate of Nicoletti, Michael Rizzitello, had strong-armed him into signing over the boat. Rizzitello was one of the most notorious mobsters in Los Angeles, a reputed capo in the Milano organized crime family, who received a life sentence in 1991 for his involvement in a bloody execution-style murder in the parking lot of a Los Angeles strip club.
Nicoletti often surrounded himself with characters of questionable repute, and Rizzitello was not the last mobster with whose name he would be connected. Years later in Boca, Vilardi and Hawkins ran the license plates of cars parked at his restaurant and discovered that many of them were registered to known Mob figures. "Franco knew everybody," Vilardi explains. "At first we thought he was really tightly connected, and then we came to think otherwise. In any case he certainly liked to cultivate the illusion that he was." The detectives say Nicoletti liked to use the perception of Mob ties as leverage, sort of psychological muscle. An anonymous letter they say was sent to the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office alluded to the threat of a Mafia hit on the investigators, describing how black roses would be sprinkled over their graves. "We took it very seriously," says Hawkins. "My personal opinion is that he probably had the capability to do what he said he would."
The truth about Nicoletti's Mob ties remains fuzzy. What is evident is that he ran in the same circles as organized crime figures and was closely connected to men whose criminal histories were spotty at best. The original Ciro's in Los Angeles, where Nicoletti worked as a manager in the late '80s, was reported in the Los Angeles Times to be a Mob hangout, and Ciro Orsini, the restaurant's owner (and a good friend of Nicoletti) had his own legal troubles.
In the early '90s, Orsini's partner in the London branch of a restaurant empire that included establishments in London, Milan, and Los Angeles turned up dead, and Scotland Yard flew three detectives to Boca to question Tito Halabi, one of his business associates, about the murder. Halabi had moved to Boca in 1990, after Nicoletti opened his own restaurant using Ciro's name. He later split from Nicoletti after he ran into legal trouble over a failed cocaine deal and became one of Vilardi and Hawkins' most valuable informants. Orsini, who in the end became estranged from Nicoletti after he says he lost money in the Boca restaurant, never was implicated in his partner's murder. Neither was he implicated in the mysterious death last spring of his girlfriend, a California beauty queen named Jill Weatherwax, who turned up in a vacant lot in Fresno, stabbed in the back and bashed on the skull.
Nicoletti's world had begun to crumble years before the tumult at Ciro's. Unable to cope with his constant infidelity, Judy had left him in 1981. But Nicoletti was resilient and had a successor, an aspiring model named Dana Evans, waiting in the wings. His third marriage could not have come at a more inopportune time. In 1982, only weeks after vows had been exchanged, Franco and Dana were picked up on bank-fraud charges for a series of loans obtained from Empire Savings and Loan of Riverside. Prosecutors told the local press they believed Nicoletti was trying to accumulate as much cash as possible before fleeing the area.
He had used a tactic he would recycle in Boca Raton. At least one of the loans was secured under the name Giuseppe Gaudino, a cook at Via Veneto, Nicoletti's Riverside restaurant, who vanished to Greece around the same time Nicoletti and his wife were arrested. In Boca he secured loans and negotiated business deals under the names of his brother Claudio and sister Maria, both of whom would conveniently return to Italy after the deals had gone sour. In 1983 Nicoletti pleaded guilty to seven counts of fraud and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was later charged with arson after Gaudino doused Via Veneto with gasoline in order for Nicoletti to collect the insurance money, and that conviction was added to his conviction for fraud. He served a total of just under four years in prison.
In 1987 Nicoletti walked out of the low-security Federal Correctional Institute in Safford, Arizona, and into the arms of his fourth wife, Rosa. (Though they were never formally married, they considered themselves husband and wife.) Franco, who had known Rosa for years -- their parents were good friends -- began seeing her before his incarceration, while still married to Judy. After his release Rosa urged him to stay out of trouble and lobbied hard for a change of scenery. Two years later Nicoletti arrived in Boca Raton, an anonymous good-natured Italian with a refined taste in clothes and a can-do attitude. But Nicoletti the consummate swindler could not keep his hands out of the cookie jar.
"He gets bored," says Rosa. "That's what gets him in trouble. He's always looking for a new challenge. For Franco it's never really been about money. Sure he likes nice things, but what really gets him going is the challenge. He loves setting up deals, I don't care what kind of a deal it is as long as it's some kind of deal."
In South Florida Nicoletti set his sights on an abundant vulnerable population -- wealthy old widows. In 1990 he met a distraught 52-year-old woman named Barbara Lifschultz, whose husband was near death, confined to a wheelchair and connected to an iron lung. As a young man, Herb Lifschultz had played the saxophone professionally under the name Herb Larson. Nicoletti befriended the old man, regaling him with tales of the time he played Vegas with Frank Sinatra. Ciro's had just opened, and the Lifschultzes quickly became regulars at the restaurant.
Nicoletti told the couple how much he cared for them and that he wanted to look out for their financial interests. He suggested they transfer him the deed on their beachfront condo in order to free up the equity in case of a medical emergency. He said he would keep the cash in a trust account, from which he would make the mortgage payments. Herb knew he was dying and hoped Franco would keep an eye on Barbara for him. He died just after the New Year in 1993. By that time Barbara had begun helping out at Franco's restaurant, running errands, answering phones, doing whatever she could to help.
Seven months after Herb's death, Special Agent George Vilardi came looking for Barbara. He entered her apartment one summer day, handcuffed her, and transported her to a holding cell, where she was thrown in with junkies, drug dealers, and street hustlers. Lying on a creaky cot under a tattered blanket, she cried all night. A federal prosecutor charged Barbara with money-laundering. She had made 96 deposits, each for less than $10,000, in ten different bank accounts over a five-month period in 1992. She appeared to be using a tactic popular among money launderers who exploit banking laws that require financial institutions only to report deposits of more than $10,000. Unreported deposits -- believed in this case to be skimmed cash proceeds from Nicoletti's restaurants -- can be funneled out of the country without setting off alarms. Barbara insisted she'd made the deposits for Nicoletti, whom she believed to be a legitimate international businessman. "I thought maybe he was opening a bunch of new restaurants or something," she recalls. "I didn't question anything. I just did what he told me to do." She turned down a plea-bargain offer and was later acquitted of all charges. Nicoletti never came to her aid and vociferously denies ever having anything to do with the deposits.
After Barbara's release from prison, Nicoletti was picked up on the same charges. Shortly thereafter he was released on bail and Barbara went to see him at a warehouse he maintained in Hillsboro with his business partner Frank Guidotti. Nicoletti was there with his 12-year-old daughter. Barbara remembers him saying, "What are you doing here? I can't be seen with you. Part of the condition of my bail is that I don't make contact with you. You shouldn't be here." Nicoletti put out his hands as if to touch her. "Barbara, are you wearing a wire?" he asked, patting her down.
In September 1993 Barbara's condo was sold at auction on the courthouse steps. Nicoletti had signed over the condo to his sister, Maria Materazzi. After the mortgage payments stopped arriving, the bank foreclosed. Barbara fought eviction for three years but was eventually forced out. In the summer of 1996 she moved what she could into a smaller apartment downstairs and locked the rest of her possessions in storage. Six months later she declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Barbara says her bank accounts had also been drained. She had been laying out payments to cover various expenses for Franco that wound up exceeding $100,000. Although he wrote checks that appeared to compensate her for the loans, in reality, says Barbara, Franco was shortchanging her -- to the tune of more than $50,000. "I thought he was a good man," she recalled. "I was victimized and I was used. I didn't have anything to worry about when I met him, and now it's all gone, everything."
"Barbara is a liar," says Nicoletti with a venomous sneer. "I can't understand it, she was part of the family. I took her in, Lillian invited her for Christmas. You know what happened? She was in love with me, and after I got together with Lillian and told her I could never be with her, she grew mad with jealousy. That woman has lied everywhere."
Nicoletti flips through the slim biographical volume he imagines will vindicate him. The packet, entitled "Just About Everybody -vs- Franco Nicoletti," describes a convoluted conspiracy. "The Nicoletti nightmare," he writes, "exemplifies the absolute worst abuses of the American legal system and is comparable to the Ruby Ridge Incident and the Waco Massacre." Using a familiar tactic, he goes on to explain how Barbara's banking activities were connected with his brother Claudio and how the fiasco with her condo involved only Barbara and his sister Maria. Nicoletti, who was eventually charged with defrauding Barbara, is livid with indignation, reaching the end of his tether. Although a trial combining the fraud charges with the earlier money-laundering charges resulted in a hung jury, he knows they will still be a factor in his upcoming sentencing hearing on charges that he attempted to launder $7 million in drug money in 1996. "I did not need to do anything wrong," he says. "I'm appealing to your intelligence. These charges are stupid, absolutely stupid."
On November 20, 1996, shortly before Barbara declared bankruptcy, Nicoletti met with Tom Ramos and his secretary at the Ciao Bella restaurant on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, hoping to put the finishing touches on the deal he believed would secure him $7 million. Inside the restaurant the aroma of smoked ham and Parmigiano wafted from the kitchen. Nicoletti fingered the silverware on the table. Ramos shifted in his chair. His secretary, Laurel, smiled. "Are we going to do this deal or what?" asked Nicoletti. He grinned and laughed. "Let's do this," he thought. "Let's nail it. This deal will set me free."
But all day Nicoletti had been uneasy. Was it a setup, he wondered? Who was this Ramos character, and why did he always seem so nervous, so damn jittery? He had been cautious when they all met at the restaurant earlier that afternoon to nail down the details. At one point, threatening to break it off, he had started for the door, but Ramos talked him down. He felt better now. That afternoon Ramos had gone to the vault to count the bearer bonds with Frank Petillo, Frank Guidotti, and the secretary, Laurel. Nicoletti had stayed behind. If anything were going to go wrong, he thought for sure it would happen at the vault. "You just do your work," he had told them. They came back that evening, all of them, saying the bonds appeared to be legit. Nicoletti was relieved; nobody had been arrested. This deal will happen, he thought. I will get my $7 million.
"Tommy, to be honest with you, I really like you," Nicoletti said later that evening. Outside, thanks to a wire, the DEA listened. "I was totally paranoid. I don't know who the fuck you are, man. I mean, I figure the next thing I know I lose my bonds and have IRS problems." Ramos smiled uneasily. He knew what was coming.
Ramos and his secretary left the restaurant, having told Nicoletti they would all reconvene the following day to put the finishing touches on a done deal. Outside they peered over their shoulders at the warm glow emanating from the windows. A half-dozen shadows scurried toward the front door.
"What's happening?" said Ramos, whose real name is Angel Cruz. "Are they going to take them down right now?"
"That's the plan," replied the secretary, really an undercover cop named Laura Medley.
"Let's get the hell outta here."
Ciao Bella had started to fill up. Guidotti was enjoying a bowl of penne a la vodka when the detectives burst through the front door. They grabbed Nicoletti, twisted him around, tightened handcuffs on his wrists, and hauled him outside. Some of the men wore shirts emblazoned with the letters DEA. "I know I'm screwed this time," Nicoletti told an agent en route to the DEA's Fort Lauderdale office. "But why is the DEA here? This don't have anything to do with cocaine."
After his arrest Nicoletti was held without bail in the Federal Detention Center, a menacing bunker in downtown Miami. Shortly thereafter the government went after Lillian's mansion, and Nicoletti and she were divorced to protect her assets. Last May he was convicted of attempting to launder $7 million in drug money and just last week was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison. Federal prosecutors had discovered upon close inspection that the bearer bonds seized from a safe-deposit box on Galt Ocean Mile were counterfeit. The entire deal had been a sham. Prosecutors believe Nicoletti never intended to pay back the loan. Instead, they say, he intended to skip town with his millions, leaving the banker and his drug-trafficking client with a handful of worthless paper. But the drug trafficker never existed and neither did the $7 million. It was all a fiction concocted as part of a federal sting.
It's a few minutes before afternoon roll call, and soon Nicoletti will gather with the other inmates and be counted. He grows increasingly exasperated as holes are punched in his story. Why has no one come forward to defend his good name? And how can he explain the lavish lifestyle he's led these past 30 years? Why have all his businesses gone bust? Where is the evidence he ever was a legitimate businessman?
Nicoletti squirms and, slowly and cautiously, gives an inch, but even now, with no apparent way out, he will only admit so much.
"It might not be incorrect to say that maybe I've done some deals where I've come out ahead and somebody else has come out behind," he says. "Sure, maybe that's happened. But does that mean I should spend so many years in prison? Does that mean they can hound me like I'm some big gangster? They want to bury me. I swear to you, I have never maliciously tried to harm anyone. Just ask my wife Lillian.
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