Siobhan Browne adored her life as a stockbroker in Boca Raton. At 34 years old, she drove a new silver Mercedes, had a personal trainer, rented a 2000-square-foot apartment close to the beach, vacationed in Cancún and Aspen, and regularly visited her beloved beauty parlor. Such high living was a far cry from her youth as a farmer's daughter in the tiny Irish seaside town of Youghal, where she had grown up in a little house with 13 brothers and sisters.
During the spring of 1999, however, three revolutionaries, or "terrorists," as the United States government would later call them, moved into her fourth-floor apartment across the street from the posh Boca Raton Hotel and Resort. And Browne soon found that living with militant rebels could be a huge pain in the arse.
First came Anthony Smyth, a former volunteer for the Irish Republican Army. Browne was smitten with the 42-year-old Smyth, who'd left Ireland 21 years before they met. He worked as an independent used-car salesman but rarely made deals. Instead Smyth spent his days and nights carousing in bars and drinking copious quantities of beer, hard cider, and liquor. Browne and Smyth often argued, but Browne's love -- and fondness for partying -- helped her overlook Smyth's flaws.
Smyth brought in 26-year-old Conor Claxton, who had come from Belfast on a secret mission to buy guns for the Provisional IRA. Claxton ate Browne's food and had a habit of taking her Mercedes when she wasn't around, forcing her to drive his beat-up, $1500 Geo Prizm. Claxton also had a violent temper, which was a manifestation, she believes, of a Napoleon complex. When Smyth and Claxton got together, problems arose. They'd drink late into the night and loudly sing songs about the boys back home. Neighbors complained, and Browne's landlord threatened to evict them all. Claxton, despite all the talk of silence and honor among IRA soldiers, was as loud and obnoxious as could be.
He also constantly chased women. Belfast men, Claxton often said, need sex three times a day to relieve the tension caused by living under the thumb of the British. One of his many girlfriends was Idoia Elorriaga, a young and attractive Spaniard who also moved into Browne's apartment soon after arriving in South Florida. Elorriaga was a member of an IRA-aligned terrorist group called ETA, which is on a bloody campaign to create an independent Basque country. Elorriaga served as Claxton's "sex machine," says Browne, who nicknamed her "Annoya" and considered her just another fiery, idealistic freeloader. Elorriaga never paid for food or rent and always seemed to be on the Internet commiserating with her Basque brethren, forcing Browne to use her cell phone to call the beauty parlor.
Browne's memories of those times are laced with a bitterness that still spills out. She's not a violent person, she says, but if she were to bump into Smyth and Claxton on the street, she's not sure what she would do. She blames them for her miserable time behind bars and for ruining the Boca life she loved. Browne was sucked into Claxton's gunrunning mission and in July 1999 was indicted along with Smyth, Claxton, and another IRA volunteer, Martin Mullan, on charges of illegal exportation of weapons, terrorism, and conspiracy to maim and murder. The case of the "Florida Four," as their supporters called them, sent shock waves through Northern Ireland's fragile peace talks and threatened the 1997 Good Friday pact, which serves as the power-sharing plan between Protestants and Catholics.
While her codefendants were die-hard Provos, as IRA devotees are known, Browne was an unlikely accused terrorist, a seemingly apolitical and ambitious woman who'd suddenly leaped into the underground world of gunrunning and revolution. FBI agents suggested she was a "sleeper" and had likely been a secret IRA mole all along. Not true, says Browne, who is now out of prison and agreed to talk with New Times for her first-ever published interview. She insists she never cared a whit about the movement. "I'm devoted to my own cause -- getting my nails and hair done," she says in a light Irish accent. "I don't give a shit about the IRA and never have."
Browne asserts it was her alcohol-fueled romance with Smyth that led her to buy guns for the IRA, and her account brings to light a subterranean world of Provo operatives in South Florida led by Claxton. The mission, as she describes it, was a bumbling affair -- full of money lust, death threats, manicures, buffoonery, and betrayal. And while this low drama unfolded on South Florida's Gold Coast, President Clinton's administration was trying to unite Northern Ireland on the Emerald Isle. The White House disregarded clear evidence that the IRA was responsible for Claxton's mission, Browne believes, in an attempt to save a peace process that her regrettable adventures prove was a fraud all along.
Riots recently broke out in Belfast, and hopes of peace teeter on the edge of collapse, at least in small part due to the ragtag troop that lived in Browne's apartment. When asked her prediction for Northern Ireland, Browne says only one word: "War."
Striking was the most common adjective used to describe Browne during the international media whirlwind that followed her arrest. When she sat down at Starbucks on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale to tell her story, the description seemed apt. She is a large-framed and rather angular five foot eight, with a pleasant, pretty face perched over a long, thin neck. Fair-skinned, she has expressive blue eyes and a deeply felt laugh. Her graying brown hair has been colored a preternatural dark red. She wears a conservative gray pantsuit, indicative of her professional style. Her nails are immaculate. By looking at her, it's impossible to tell that her life is a shambles.
After serving 17 months in prison on a weapons conviction, she is tens of thousands of dollars in debt (including a $25,000 fine owed to Uncle Sam). No longer a stockbroker, she's now employed at a video store, earning $1200 a month. The Mercedes was repossessed. Even worse, she's been charged with violating her probation and may soon be headed back to prison.
Yet she says she has no intention of returning to Ireland, where she survived a tough, menial childhood. Growing up far from the Troubles in the north (she's never even set foot in Belfast), Browne had troubles of her own in Youghal, then a town of 700. Living in cramped quarters and working on her father's farm, she received little affection from her parents, she says, but doesn't fault them. "How can you give love and attention to 14 of us?" she asks, adding she and her siblings were constantly scraping for space and food. "One was out to get more from the rest; I mean it was impossible. You grow up quicker. I had to take more risks than other people by coming here and getting some kind of an education and making money."
Her girlhood dream of coming to the United States was realized at the age of 21 when she arrived in New York City, lived with a brother, and worked in a Brooklyn deli. In was in the deli that she met Meir "Mike" Rapaport, an Israeli-born businessman 18 years her senior. "I believe it was 1987, and I went in to get some food and I saw her," says Rapaport, who speaks with a thick Middle Eastern accent. "She was a pretty and nice, innocent, Irish-looking girl, and we started going out."
They married the next year in a most American wedding spot, Las Vegas, where Rapaport liked to gamble. Browne says she not only found love with Rapaport but also wealth and travel. She says he had received a $1 million inheritance. "We lived in Europe and traveled and lived really, really well," she says.
Rapaport also has something of a mysterious side. He jets around the globe conducting his import-export business, selling diamonds, electronic equipment, and other goods. When Browne was arrested, FBI agents held Rapaport in prison as a "material witness" in the gunrunning case. He says he had nothing to do with the weapons trade, and in the end investigators could find no evidence against him. Instead he pleaded guilty to traveling under a false identity and was incarcerated for six months. Rapaport concedes he usually operates his business under a fictional name. "I like to keep my name out because I don't know the sources of the selling and the buying," he explains. "It's the gray market."
The pair never had a traditional marriage -- Rapaport was usually away on business, and Browne spent months at a time on her own. She moved to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1990s and immersed herself in the sizable set of English and Irish expatriates, some of them wealthy. Rapaport never stopped sending money to her and served as something of a father figure, Browne says.
"I just liked to see her happy," explains Rapaport, who is now living in Israel and continues to travel the world.
Browne, anxious for success of her own, earned her Florida real-estate license shortly after arriving here and bought a British pub called the Royal Britannia in 1994 with an English partner named Rob Branson. Outside the Delray Beach bar, she flew the Union Jack. Browne never held a grudge against the British, saying Protestants and Catholics lived side by side in Youghal, free of tension or discrimination. Browne isn't about politics; she's about business.
In 1996 she moved into her Boca apartment, sold the bar, obtained her stockbroker's license, and was hired by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Browne says she also yearned for a family, but Rapaport, who had a grown son, wasn't interested in babies. So Browne went in search of her dream man, and on a Friday evening in October 1998, she found Anthony Smyth in Waxy O'Connor's, an Irish pub in Fort Lauderdale. "Anthony got up to give me a seat," she remembers. "He was with a couple of friends, just talking, and when I was leaving, he asked me for my number. I gave him my business card, and then he said, "No, I can't wait until Monday.'"
Soon they were dating. "I'd been married to an Israeli for years, and that was probably why I was infatuated with Anthony. [It] was just being with my own people again," she explains. "I went looking for a prize, and look what I wound up with."
The love affair that would make international headlines started as nothing more than a good time. Browne and Smyth, whose wife had recently left him, partied together relentlessly in Irish bars. She looks back and wonders if all the high times didn't cloud their collective judgment. "There was a lot of drinking involved," she says. "His life was all party and women and doing drugs -- cocaine, and all that. I considered him a functional alcoholic. He would wake up in the morning, and he had to go to the bar. Everything was social, and everything was around the bar."
A Provo soldier in his youth, Smyth seemed to care deeply about only one thing: Northern Ireland, which he'd left in the early 1980s after he was held by British authorities on suspicion of IRA-related activity. His most cherished possession was a framed handkerchief that belonged to Bobby Sands, the famed IRA martyr who died in 1981 during a hunger strike in prison. Smyth told Browne he'd dated Sands's sister while he was with the IRA. In his wallet Smyth kept a laminated card commemorating a friend named Brendan O'Callahan, whom British soldiers had gunned down in Belfast. (Smyth is refusing interviews, says his close friend Cindy Paollela of Weston. "He just wants to put this nightmare behind him.")
A month after they started dating, Smyth phoned Browne from a bar and told her, "Make dinner for three." Claxton, a short, pale man of 26 years, was coming to eat. "Of course he charmed the birds off the trees," Browne recalls. She learned Claxton was with the IRA, but no mention was made of guns at that first supper. It would be weeks before she learned the real reason he was in town.
Smyth had met Claxton on one of the younger man's earlier visits to South Florida. Claxton was a world traveler who had made numerous trips to the United States and Europe as well as South Africa, Sierra Leone, and other exotic places. During his trial last year, Claxton claimed he'd gone to those places as a peace emissary for the IRA. Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Scruggs, who prosecuted the gunrunning case, argued in court that Claxton was buying illicit arms for the Provos all along. (Claxton declines to be interviewed in prison, according to his attorney, Fred Haddad.)
Claxton, however, told the jury that his last trip to South Florida wasn't about peace. He admitted he'd arrived on IRA orders to run guns in anticipation of a breakdown in the peace process. The IRA chose Florida, he testified, simply because "you don't have gun shows in Ireland." Even as Claxton was arming his comrades, Gerry Adams and other leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, were assuring everyone they would decommission weapons to fulfill their part of the peace agreement.
Upon arrival Claxton leaped into Browne and Smyth's social life, and he always seemed to have money in his pocket and a girl on his arm. He first lived in Boca Raton with wealthy Salomon Smith Barney stockbroker Michael Logan, who is a major Irish-American supporter of the IRA. Logan, who was later questioned by the FBI, let Claxton drive his Toyota 4Runner. (Logan, whom New Times reached by phone for comment, said he would call back. He didn't.)
After a brief trip to Belfast, Claxton returned to South Florida on January 22, 1999, using the name David Sangster. It was then that he bought the Geo from Smyth, and Browne agreed to let him move into her spare bedroom for $400 a month. Browne says Claxton's presence "opened up old wounds" in her boyfriend, and the two men would rail about Belfast into the night. "Slowly, slowly, he brought Anthony into his confidence" about the guns, she says.
As Smyth learned about the operation, he trickled some of the information down to Browne. Claxton offered Smyth a $100 profit on each firearm Smyth could supply to the cause. Browne says her boyfriend was consumed with the idea of becoming a gunrunner "like it was an addiction." She began to see something he hadn't exhibited before: ambition. "Anthony thought he could make a hundred grand," she says. "Anthony wanted to take over the whole South Florida operation. Idiots, you know. He was like, "I'm going to be a gunrunner.' This guy had no job, no profession. He was too lazy to sell cars. He had no finances. He was living on a wing and a prayer, and he was always in the bar, and now, all of a sudden, he was a big gunrunner for the IRA, a hero."
Browne, however, concedes she eventually agreed to buy guns for Smyth. She says she never discussed the mission with Claxton, who testified on the stand that he never dealt with Browne -- she was usually at the beauty parlor. Asked if she had moral misgivings about her role or realized the guns might be used to kill people, she answered: "I just didn't think about it. It wasn't like drugs. Guns were legal here. After I was arrested, my family was like, "Guns, how could you do that?' I was so stupid."
Browne insists she never requested any money and was never paid. Smyth "asked me to purchase a weapon, and I said, "I never bought a gun in my life,'" she recounts. "He said, "No, no, no, it's legal, it's legal.' He said he couldn't buy them because he didn't have his green card. So I thought about it, and I went to a gun store, and I read the law."
The plan seemed simple enough: Browne would purchase the guns legally, and Smyth would pass them to Claxton, who would file off the serial numbers in a nearby IRA safe house or motel. Then Claxton and other compatriots would conceal them in packages and ship them to Ireland. In early March 1999, Browne began frequenting pawn shops and attending gun shows in Broward County with Smyth, who would pick out the weapons and pay with cash from a credit line he'd obtained, using the Weston condo he owned with his wife as collateral. "It was so easy to buy them," she says. "Nobody asked me if I knew how to shoot, if I knew how to use it, if I knew how to hold it. I didn't even know how to hold the bloody things."
About the time she began buying the weapons, Browne quit her job at Dean Witter. Prosecutor Scruggs later contended that she had left the brokerage because she had intended to flee the country after completing her role in the operation. Browne says she really quit because Claxton's benefactor, Logan, had promised her a position at Salomon Smith Barney. Browne asserts Salomon Smith Barney hired her, but she never went to work at the firm.
Meanwhile Claxton arranged for Elorriaga to move into Browne's apartment, and soon the Basque-born revolutionary was partying with the rest. On Saint Patrick's Day, Smyth rented a limousine, and they hopped from bar to bar in style. For the Fort Lauderdale Air and Sea Show, they bought tickets to a party on a yacht commissioned by Waxy O'Connor's. And on March 15, 1999, they went to the Anglesea Pub in Pompano Beach, where an American pro-IRA group called Noraid was holding a fundraiser. Noraid has offices around the country and raises millions of dollars annually for the IRA. The keynote speaker at the Anglesea that day was a man known in Northern Ireland as "Uncle Joe" -- Joe Cahill, a founding member of the Provisional IRA and famed gunrunner. Cahill, now a high-ranking member of Sinn Fein who is close to Gerry Adams, earned notoriety in 1973 when the Republic of Ireland's army caught him smuggling five tons of weapons from Libya. Browne says Claxton had a 20-minute discussion with the old gunrunner at the Anglesea. "What do you think Uncle Joe thought Claxton was doing over here?" she asks rhetorically. "Coming to see Mickey Mouse?"
On April 25 Browne and her boyfriend hit what Smyth called "the jackpot" at a gun show in Fort Lauderdale's National Guard Armory. At the show Browne ordered two Ruger .357 magnums, two Smith and Wesson .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols, and a .38 revolver from Boynton Beach gun dealer Ed Bluestein. It was the largest purchase Browne would ever make -- and the last. On Browne's 34th birthday, April 27, Smyth happened to be given his green card, which allowed him to purchase the arms himself. But it was already too late -- Browne's final buy ultimately led to the arrests. (She bought a total of 27 handguns, according to prosecutors.) Unbeknownst to Browne, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms flags all purchases of four or more weapons. The agency was soon trying to figure out why an Irish stockbroker was buying so many guns.
On April 28 Smyth and Browne went to Bluestein's home to pick up the five pistols. The following day Smyth faxed Bluestein a handwritten copy of what came to be known as Claxton's "wish list" of weapons. It included powerful sniper rifles, large-caliber ammunition, "anything silenced .25 and up... any small concealable .25 and up... [and] any full auto submachine guns the smaller the better." Within a week Smyth had bought from Bluestein 26 handguns and 6 shotguns, many of them off the books.
But as the operation grew, so did tension within the group. Browne says she was growing to hate Claxton, whom she paints as a boastful, out-of-control con artist. With their mooching ways (the Mercedes was a particularly thorny issue), he and Elorriaga were outstaying their welcome in her apartment. And Claxton's womanizing repulsed her, as did the fact that he wasn't in Northern Ireland taking care of his two sons. "Conor says that every time he has another kid, that's just another Catholic for Ireland," she says. "He says, "I have children all over Ireland,' and every kid in Belfast grew up without their dad because they were all in prison.
"Everything with him came down to the Brits. He didn't work back home, drew unemployment. He never worked a day in his life. The British government supports his kids, and he wants to blow it out of there."
And Claxton had a temper. On one of the roommates' nights out, Browne thinks it was in early May, they went to the Irish Cottage pub in Delray Beach, where Claxton attacked her friend and former business partner Rob Branson. The reason: Branson is British. "We were all friends having a drink, and then the religion came up and the problems back home, and Conor shook his fist," she recalls. "Conor started hitting Rob, and Anthony broke them up. Everybody was all fine and dandy until Conor got drink in him. Like the Incredible Hulk, you know. Conor lives in a world of illusion. There is no reality. It's so conflicted. Conor used to say there would be ethnic cleansing and bloodbaths in the north of Ireland."
He constantly boasted of his Provo connections, she says, asserting that people he didn't like would wind up ""floating in the Everglades....' He really thought he could snap his fingers and the IRA would come and take you out," she says. "He thought the IRA was his own private army. He thought he was so important that [Sinn Fein leader and current Northern Ireland education commissioner] Martin McGuinness would send over a private plane, and he could hop on the plane and go home."
Claxton, however, was about to run into some serious trouble, and the IRA wouldn't be there to save him.
When Claxton made a quick trip to Belfast to attend his son's First Communion in May, he returned with dire news. "He told Anthony that things were going badly with the peace process," Brown says. "That there was going to be ethnic cleansing in Northern Ireland, a bloodbath."
Claxton's mission in South Florida was also going awry. A growing source of tension was Browne's husband, Rapaport, who still called her regularly. Claxton hated Rapaport and habitually called him "the Jew." Browne says Claxton "was anti-Semitic, and he knew that [Rapaport] saw right through him.... Conor was always afraid I would tell my husband about the guns."
Fights over money also erupted; idealism began to give way to greed. Claxton, Browne says, began stiffing Smyth on payments for the guns. She says Claxton was instead spending his IRA money on lobster dinners and travel around the country to find other sources of weapons. (One of those trips, according to court records, was to San Francisco, where Claxton met with a convicted smuggler named Robert Flint. Suspected IRA higher-up Seamus Moley, who gained notoriety in Fort Lauderdale during the 1990s when he was convicted of trying to buy a Stinger missile, allegedly arranged the meeting.)
Instead of making $100,000, Smyth lost money. Borrowing from his credit line, he spent at least $18,000 for guns and was paid only about $15,500 in return (in bank drafts sent from Belfast). "Conor took his eye off the ball," Browne surmises. "He came over here and got sloppy. He spent the IRA money, and he ripped off Anthony. Anthony was up to his neck in [debt]. It was ridiculous. When Anthony complained, Conor told Anthony that Anthony was getting greedy and he should just do it for the cause."
By mid-May Claxton had moved out of Browne's apartment and into the Buccaneer Motel in Deerfield Beach. When Browne threatened to tell Rapaport, who was living in New York at the time, about the gunrunning, Claxton was infuriated. He arranged a meeting with Smyth in the parking lot of the East Side Pub, a Fort Lauderdale bar on Federal Highway. Browne says Smyth returned from the encounter in tears and told her Claxton had led him into a van in the parking lot, where three other men were waiting. Smyth recognized only one of them, Michael Brogan, a member of the Irish Nationalist Liberation Army, which is aligned with the IRA. "Conor told Anthony he had official orders from the IRA to execute me because I was a security leak in his gun-smuggling operation, where there was millions of dollars involved," Browne recounts. "He said that because I was Anthony's girlfriend, he would do it himself, he would break my two arms and break my two legs and all this shit. So Anthony came to me shaking, because Anthony is a baby. He's spineless. He's a woman that wants a mother. He never grew up. He came home and blamed it on me."
Smyth begged Browne to keep quiet about the operation, and the couple began arguing incessantly. One night their sparring spilled into the parking lot of her apartment building, where witnesses saw Smyth physically assault Browne, according to court records. Browne says it was their only physical altercation, and despite the violence, they stayed together and ultimately moved into Smyth's Weston condo, which had been vacated by his ex-wife.
Browne, still furious about Claxton's threat, issued one of her own: She would call the police if Claxton ever showed his face to her again. Rapaport remembers that his wife was terrified. "She started beeping me in the middle of the night, saying her life was in danger, and if anything happened to her, I should know who to turn to -- Claxton," says Rapaport.
Browne also tells of a chance meeting at Waxy O'Connor's with an IRA higher-up named Mickey Couples, whom Smyth knew from his days in Belfast. Browne says Couples told them he was in town to check on Claxton's gunrunning mission. Couples also said he oversaw his own "cell" of IRA operatives and was the best friend of Claxton's IRA "boss."
"He said Claxton was a problem. He said he wasn't doing the bare minimum with the guns," she recalls. "I told this guy how Claxton threatened my life, and he sat back and said, "Jesus Christ! I don't believe it.' He was horrified and very apologetic. He said they have a problem with volunteers when they come to America. They get into the good lifestyle, they come to the beach, and they forget about the cause."
Couples said the gunrunning mission had been going on for four years, there were 50 IRA volunteers involved, and it was financed with millions of dollars, Browne recalls. He also spoke of America's involvement in the peace process. "He said that Clinton told the IRA they could "do what they had to do' as long as they didn't embarrass him," Browne recalls. "And he said when I come to Northern Ireland I would get an official apology from the IRA."
Asked recently if he was aware of Couples's possible involvement in the gunrunning mission, FBI agent Mark Hastbacka, who led the probe into the Florida Four, says only that the investigation was continuing and adds, "I have no reason not to believe Browne."
In the midst of their gunrunning debacle, Browne and Smyth bought tickets for an August 4 flight to Belfast. She said they planned to wed there, even though both were still legally married to other people. ("Idiots," Browne repeats.) The trip never happened, though. A dozen agencies, including the FBI, the ATF, Scotland Yard, and the Irish Garda, were then busy investigating them. In July Claxton's guns, hidden in packages of toys and electronic equipment, had been intercepted in New York, England, and Ireland. Browne and Smyth, investigators determined, had bought a total of 123 firearms. On the morning of July 26, 1999, FBI and ATF agents rousted Smyth and Browne from bed in the Weston condo. "We'd been partying that day, as normal, and they woke us up at five in the morning," she recalls. "Guns, banging, you know, the FBI does everything in full force. Anthony got up, because I was fast asleep. Then they drove me to the FBI building in Miami."
That same morning FBI agents arrested Claxton at the Buccaneer Motel. He would soon admit to Hastbacka that he was working for the IRA and that the guns were to be used against British soldiers and police when the peace agreement failed. "You didn't get all of us," he told the FBI. Inside his room agents found revolutionary pamphlets and primers on topics like assassination and creating false identities. They also discovered a photograph of a naked young woman: Idoia Elorriaga.
When news of the arrest broke, the White House began its campaign of damage control. "We strongly condemn any effort to enhance the capacity for violence in Northern Ireland," said Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, on July 28. "We call upon Irish Republican leaders to disavow any links to these events."
Hard-line Ulster Unionists weren't so diplomatic. They called for the ouster of Republicans from the Northern Ireland government, saying the Florida arrests proved the IRA was flouting the peace accord. IRA leaders eventually issued a vague denial, saying their Army Council had not "sanctioned" the mission.
Browne, then in custody, refused to cooperate with the feds. She wouldn't testify against her codefendants and never blabbed to authorities about Cahill or Couples, even though she says agents told her that she could receive immunity from prosecution if she did so. Several factors kept her from cooperating, including fear for her family in Ireland, hope for the success of the peace process, a sense of loyalty to Smyth (who she says bought guns investigators never knew about), and behind-the-scenes efforts by Noraid, which she claims tried to coerce her into keeping quiet.
Noraid deposited hundreds of dollars into her prison commissary account at the Miami federal detention center in an effort, she now says, to buy her silence; a representative of the local Noraid branch named Caprice Sinclair served as her "sponsor" and often spoke with her on the phone. Browne contends Sinclair, a housewife from Fort Lauderdale, told her that Sinn Fein's Cahill was filling up "buckets" of money in Belfast for the Florida Four. Jim Panaro, who heads Noraid in South Florida, would later boast in newspaper reports that his group had raised $100,000 locally for the defendants. "Caprice said I would have no money worries when I got out of prison and not to worry about losing my Mercedes," says Browne. "That was all a lie. They kept telling me not to plea, not to plea. They were obstructing my justice."
Noraid urged her not to cooperate with the feds because of the damage she could do to Claxton and the IRA, Browne believes. "They wanted to protect their precious Conor," she fumes. Noraid hired and paid Fort Lauderdale attorney Fred Haddad to represent Claxton. Sinclair admits that she told Browne to keep quiet and not to plead guilty but says she did so because she believed Browne would be found not guilty at trial. Sinclair also says she made it clear the decision was ultimately Browne's, and the Noraid representative claims she can't remember mentioning Cahill. "I never tried to coerce her," Sinclair insists.
Browne says she was also concerned about the peace process. "What about the children of Ireland? For the first time in hundreds of years, they could have peace," Browne says. "And then a girl from the south of Ireland that doesn't give a shit is going to come out and say, "Sorry guys, but the Good Friday Agreement is a fraud'? President Clinton had [former U.S. senator George] Mitchell over there, and I was going to blow all that out of the water?"
The terrorism and conspiracy to murder and maim charges, which could have sent her to prison for life, ultimately convinced her to plead guilty to a single felony weapons violation. After Browne entered her plea in March 2000, Noraid stopped filling her commissary account and reneged on the financial promises. When she was sentenced in August, Browne told U.S. District Court Judge Wilke Ferguson about Claxton's threat on her life, prompting Noraid to leap to the IRA operative's defense. Panaro denied Claxton threatened anyone, telling The Miami Herald Browne was living in a "fantasy world."
Browne never testified against Smyth, Claxton, or Mullan, who were tried together last summer and convicted on weapons charges. The jury dismissed the more serious counts of terrorism and conspiracy to murder and maim. Ferguson sentenced Smyth and Mullan to three years each. The judge sent Claxton away for 56 months. Browne, ever bitter, says the IRA should brutally punish Claxton when he's deported: "I think they should cut out his tongue. The IRA should make an example of him. You act like an idiot like that and say there's more of us and you didn't get all the guns? What kind of volunteer is that?"
Claxton's conviction ended the criminal case, but the political ramifications continue. Last September prosecutor Scruggs told an Ulster Television crew that he was certain Claxton had operated on orders from the "highest levels" of the IRA. According to The Daily Telegraph in London, Jane Fort, the American consul in Belfast, called an Ulster Television producer on behalf of Clinton and tried to convince producers not to air Scruggs's comments, saying they could do irreparable damage to the peace process. The White House and FBI Director Louis Freeh issued independent statements saying Scruggs's comments weren't substantiated. Browne believes Clinton was trying to protect the peace process -- at the expense of the truth.
Early this month Northern Ireland's prime minister, David Trimble, resigned in protest over the IRA's failure to disarm. Now British forces are lining the streets and battling rioters. The fledgling joint Protestant-Catholic government is in danger of crumbling. The Florida Four can't claim responsibility for the recent troubles, but their gunrunning mission added to the damage. Browne contends the Good Friday pact was always an illusion: As Couples told her, the IRA was running guns in South Florida before she became involved and is likely still doing it. The IRA will never decommission weapons, she says, because the Protestants will never give up their power and the Catholics have too many men like Conor Claxton among them, men who, as she puts it, "know only hate."
When Browne was released in January from a federal prison in Tallahassee, she began working not at a big-shot brokerage firm but at a video store where she started at $6 an hour. She has since worked her way up to assistant manager but says she still can't afford to pony up the $100 a month the government is demanding for her $25,000 fine. Her failure to pay is one reason federal probation officer Tony Gagliardi charged Browne in April with violating her probation, which could send her back to prison for three to nine months.
Gagliardi has also accused Browne of criminal association because she lived in a house in Weston belonging to the father-in-law of a cocaine smuggler named Yodelene Dessaints, whom Browne met in prison. An ex-convict acquaintance of Dessaints's, Liza Workman, also frequented the house. Browne swears she did everything possible to avoid contact with Workman, even obtaining a restraining order to keep her away, and adds that Dessaints only called her on the phone about rent. "What was I supposed to do?" she says. "I didn't contact them; they contacted me. It was involuntary."
Despite all her troubles, there is a bright side. She says she's given up alcohol and now sips on virgin drinks and O'Doul's nonalcoholic brew. Rapaport, ever a loyal husband, is still helping to support her, and they speak on the phone every day. And her "cause" is alive and well: In honor of her many years as a loyal customer, her beauty parlor does her nails and hair for free these days.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.