VVho is Sam?
That was the tantalizing question that emerged in the continuing investigation of Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini. For several weeks, New Times has been examining the business dealings of Capellini, leader of the seaside town of 67,000 people that has been in the grip of a raucous civic war. Small-town politics is often contentious, but the battling in Deerfield Beach has reached unusual heights, and the mayor has been at the center of it.
A civil engineer by trade, Capellini hasn't been shy about gaining employment with developers and architects who seek influence in his city. Previous articles have recounted numerous examples of Capellini's using his office as mayor to benefit his business interests. On at least two occasions, his private dealings have led to entire neighborhoods' becoming outraged over his seemingly unethical conduct. At times, he's also tried to hide those dealings with a curious maneuver: Rather than declare his conflict of interest, he conveniently slips off the dais for bathroom breaks when his projects come up for approval.
Mayor Al Capellini
Capellini recently took the unusual measure of hiring a public relations firm to counter this newspaper's findings. While the mayor scoffed, however, more of his questionable business dealings came to light. And one of them involved a mystery man.
His name is Sam.
The name first surfaced in relation to a land deal. In 2002, Capellini sold a little more than two acres of land in Deerfield Beach for $400,000. The sale was interesting not only because of the profit it represented (Capellini had paid $100,000 for the land four years earlier) but because of the identity of the buyer.
The parcel was purchased by Chicago businessman Bruce Wexler, a former attorney known to operate on the fringes of Chicago's underworld. In the late 1980s, Wexler was a defendant in Operation Greylord, a landmark federal investigation into Chicago's judicial system. Wexler pleaded guilty to cheating on his taxes in 1988 and never practiced law again.
When New Times asked him about the land sale last month, Wexler mentioned in passing the name of his "partner" in South Florida, a man named Sam who had introduced him to Capellini and helped consummate the sale. Wexler refused to elaborate.
But Sam's identity soon surfaced: Wexler was referring to Sam Frontera, a former Chicago nightclub owner known in law enforcement circles across the eastern United States.
Until 1991, Frontera was a leader of a vast cocaine cartel that, according to federal agents, brought at least 40 tons of cocaine into the country worth about $500 million. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in 1992 for his role in the operation and could have been sent to prison for life. After snitching on many of his cohorts, he wound up serving only about four years.
Today, the 50-year-old Frontera is out of prison and running another enterprise: Club Cinema, one of the biggest new rock clubs in South Florida. He spent six years building his new operation in Pompano Beach. And serving as Frontera's general contractor for the club's multimillion-dollar renovations: Al Capellini and his private engineering firm.
Because Florida law forbids Frontera from holding a liquor license, the club's true backers are obscured by shell companies and straw owners, including the ex-con's 79-year-old mother, who lives in Michigan. The real money behind the club appears to be coming from a company linked to Frontera's old partner in Chicago, notorious slumlord, twice-convicted felon, and multimillionaire Louis Wolf.
In Chicago, Wolf owned the buildings holding Frontera's nightclubs through which millions of dollars in cocaine money was laundered, according to law enforcement sources.
The renovation work that Capellini's company, Atlantis Environmental Engineering, oversaw at the club was fraught with code violations and unlicensed workers. But the mayor managed to navigate the club's permits through the Pompano Beach Building Department, where he is a personal friend of the building chief.
And Capellini isn't the only South Florida heavyweight in Frontera's corner. Well-known Fort Lauderdale attorney and developer Ron Mastriana handled the dubious liquor licensing process for Frontera.
Mastriana readily admits his friendship with Frontera and says he knew of his pal's crime-filled past. Capellini, however, says he had no idea that his business associate had a background steeped in boatloads of cocaine and tens of millions of dollars in illicit drug money.
"If I had knowledge of that, I wouldn't have been involved," the mayor says. "In my business, we don't ask those questions."
If Capellini had bothered to ask, it wouldn't have been hard for him to learn about Frontera, whose exploits in both the entertainment business and the cocaine underworld have been getting ink in major newspapers in Chicago and Florida since 1985.
Then the mayor might have discovered he was facilitating a former drug thug's reemergence into South Florida club life.
Sam Frontera's first big-time business associate was Alex DeCubas, a Miami-born former state wrestling champion who carried what looked like an official NHL hockey puck around with him everywhere he went.
The two men met sometime around 1980, when Frontera was a small-time street hood out of Detroit bent on making the big time and DeCubas was on the fast track to big money in the drug trade. Here's the way the Miami Herald, in a 1997 article, described the beginning of the partnership between the two men, who were both in their early 20s at the time:
"Sam Frontera had dabbled as a small-time pot peddler in Detroit. He'd come to South Florida looking for bigger scores, hooking up with a dope dealer who ran a jewelry shop.
"Frontera bought some equipment at a tool company and hit it off with the counter clerk, a guy named Alex. Soon they would develop a mutual interest... drug trafficking.
"Within months, they'd stolen 200,000 Quaaludes from somebody DeCubas knew a deal that netted each $100,000."
During the next decade, the two men established one of the largest cocaine distribution operations in the country, fueled by the gaudy exploits of Frontera and DeCubas, a wild and resourceful man who kept a personal supply of cocaine in that hockey puck. Their dangerous specialty was ripping off other drug dealers. The Herald article continues: "The high-risk occupation could turn huge profits. Their last rip-off in 1988 from a 56-foot yacht called the Dirty Dancing at the marina of the old Castaways resort near Sunny Isles netted nearly 1,000 pounds of cocaine worth at least $6 million."
Soon, they graduated from drug thefts to outright smuggling. While DeCubas, who spoke fluent Spanish, specialized in smuggling, Frontera distributed the cocaine throughout several major cities in the United States and Canada. He even bought a 50-acre ranch in Ocala to serve as a hub for moving the illicit product.
As their success in the drug trade grew, so did the amount of cash Frontera made. To launder his money, he got into the nightclub business and, in Frontera fashion, he did it in a big way.
He started with a joint called Shangri-La in Fort Lauderdale, which he opened in 1983. But soon, he branched into Chicago, where he converted the old Riviera Theater on Racine Avenue into a rock club. He called it the Riviera and opened it in 1985. Not long after, Frontera was featured in the Tribune and Sun-Times as the city's newest nightlife impresario. In one newspaper account, Frontera boasted that he'd spent $2 million to renovate the club, which attracted big-name acts like Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Robert Palmer.
His partner in the Riviera was Louis Wolf, an extremely wealthy property investor who in 1989 was featured on the cover of Chicago Magazine as the worst slumlord in the city. Wolf owned so many buildings that Chicago city attorneys once dubbed him the "de facto head of the Department of Planning," according to the Sun-Times. He was also a perpetual code violator, a convicted arsonist (he burned down one of his buildings for insurance purposes in 1969), and a tax cheat who did federal prison time on a racketeering conviction.
In 1987, Frontera and Wolf branched out from the Riviera. They transformed Chicago's old exposition hall, best-known as the site of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, into a giant nightclub called the International Amphitheater.
While Wolf owned the buildings, Frontera ran the clubs, channeling millions of dollars in drug profits through them, says Assistant Boca Raton Police Chief Richard Burke, who was a key investigator in the case.
"Frontera had a working relationship with Lou Wolf in Chicago," says Burke, now the department's assistant police chief. "Drug money was used to renovate the clubs."
Burke says Frontera also had reported ties to organized crime in both Chicago and his hometown of Detroit. In 1991, the giant enterprise blew up in Frontera's face. Drug agents found 13 kilograms of cocaine in steel drums buried at his Ocala ranch. They also discovered $6.3 million in cash at a Miami house connected to Frontera and DeCubas.
Shortly after those seizures, Burke personally arrested Frontera at an apartment building on North Lake Shore Drive. He was coming off an elevator when he was apprehended. "Sam was pretty surprised," Burke recalls of the July 1991 arrest.
Federal prosecutors charged Frontera with running what the Chicago Tribune called "a massive multimillion dollar drug trafficking operation."
In the years since, numerous drug runners connected to the organization have been nabbed and huge amounts of cash have been seized, including more than $200 million from a Swiss bank account controlled by Julio Nasser David, the late Colombian cocaine kingpin who supplied the DeCubas-Frontera organization.
After Frontera's arrest, a federal judge refused to allow him to bond out of jail, ruling that he was a flight risk and a danger to society. DeCubas, meanwhile, fled the country. The Riviera and International Amphitheater dissolved into a morass of bankruptcies and monetary disputes.
In 1993, Wolf ran into troubles with the law himself and pleaded guilty to cheating on his real estate taxes. He was sentenced to a year in the federal penitentiary on December 22 of that year. The United Press International headline: "Scrooge landlord to spend new year in jail."
But even as his old empire crumbled, Frontera took care of business with the government. He cooperated with agents, giving up information on DeCubas and numerous lower-level drug thugs. Though he was facing life in prison, his cooperation won him leniency; after pleading guilty to the drug charges, Frontera was released from prison on November 22, 1995, according to federal records.
It didn't take long for Frontera to resurface in South Florida, where he began plotting his way back into the club business.
On August 9, 1999, a Chicago-based company called 1307 Wabash Building Corp. bought a shopping plaza that included the old Cinema 4 movie theater in Pompano Beach. The price of the strip mall, located on the southwest corner of Sample Road and Federal Highway and known as "Haven Plaza," was $3,575,000. The only name listed on the deed as a representative of the Chicago company was "Gregory Berkowitz."
Berkowitz, listed as a one-sixth owner of the property, is a longtime employee of Wolf's, though it's unknown how far back their association goes. In 1991, Berkowitz was named along with Wolf in a civil racketeering suit filed by the City of Chicago alleging tax fraud. Newspapers labeled Berkowitz a clerk of the slumlord. Apparently, he's been promoted. Now he was buying multimillion-dollar properties.
Just six weeks after the plaza was sold, a tenant officially settled into the old theater. It was one of Wolf's old partners, a man who ran millions in illicit drug profits through his properties in Chicago. And the man's plan was to build a Riviera-like nightclub inside the theater, to create a two-tiered, 70,000-square-foot palace that would hold 2,500 people. He would call it Club Cinema.
Sam Frontera was back.
If Frontera's rebirth proves anything, it's that, while it might not be easy for a convicted cocaine dealer to open a nightclub in Florida, it is possible.
So long as the truth is hidden and the right people are in his corner.
State law forbids anyone who has been convicted of a felony in the past 15 years to hold a liquor license, a category in which Frontera definitely falls. That's the apparent reason why the ex-con installed his mother and sister as owners of the business. His 79-year-old mother, Elaine Frontera, is the sole officer of a Florida corporation called Pompano Beach Music Cinema Inc. His sister, Marie Grace, runs another company called Club Cinema Inc.
Both live in Michigan and have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the club, according to sources close to Cinema. The women also have little or nothing to do with the millions of dollars that have gone into renovating the club.
You wouldn't know that, however, when looking at the club's official file at the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.
The state demands that any entity holding a liquor license disclose all individuals with a financial interest in the business. According to records submitted by Club Cinema to the state, the entire venture cost only about $60,000 and was financed by Elaine Frontera's $125,000 life insurance policy.
Jerry Sanzone, director of the Pompano Beach Building Department, says millions of dollars have gone into the club during the past several years.
However, based on the doubtful financial figures and questionable ownership information, the state granted Elaine Frontera a full liquor license in 2002.
The liquor license file also contains several letters bearing the name F. Ronald Mastriana, an attorney who represents Club Cinema. Mastriana, according to a biography published on his law firm's website, is a "preeminent real estate developer" and "one of the nation's most respected attorneys." He boasts of his charitable activities and work on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club, of his membership on the Fort Lauderdale Beach Development Board, and of the huge projects he's been involved with, including the giant Sawgrass Mills Mall and a pair of projects involving Donald Trump.
The bio also describes Mastriana as a "prodigy" of the DeBartolo family, whom he worked for as a young man. That shopping mall-building clan is best-known for its ownership of the San Francisco 49ers and notorious for its own business scandals and alleged Mafia ties.
Mastriana readily admits that Frontera asked him to do the Club Cinema work. And he says Frontera is one of his oldest and dearest friends. "He's a straightforward, honest guy, just a good, decent guy," Mastriana says.
Did he know about Frontera's criminal history?
"I knew he was in trouble, and I know he's a good person who would give you the shirt off his back," Mastriana answers. "If I had a problem and I needed someone to talk to, I could call Sam."
When he is asked about the paperwork he filed on Frontera's behalf at the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, Mastriana stands behind his contention that Frontera's mother is the legitimate owner of the club.
"I believe she lives down here," he says. "And I don't think [Sam Frontera] is running the club. I believe it's a man named Greg Berkowitz from Chicago."
Mastriana distances himself from the paperwork his firm submitted to the state. "I never even saw the [liquor license] application," he says. "Somebody else in my office handled that. I don't even know if we got paid to do that. I don't think we did."
The name listed as the Club Cinema contact on the license application, however, is "Ron Mastriana." Mastriana's law firm also sent checks to the state when various payments were due for the club.
Pompano Beach's Sanzone says he knows full well who is operating Club Cinema and he says it has nothing to do with an elderly woman from Michigan. It's Sam Frontera.
"Sam was the go-guy," Sanzone says. "And the money was coming from Berkowitz out of Chicago."
Berkowitz, however, sold out of the land deal this past December for $600,000, according to land records. One month before that, Wolf paid a visit to Club Cinema from Chicago to check on his investment, club sources say. Efforts to reach both Berkowitz and Wolf were unsuccessful, but Chicago lawyer Michael Kralovec phoned New Times after getting wind that this article was going to be published. Kralovec is a longtime attorney for Wolf, but he said the phone call was solely on behalf of Berkowitz.
"Mr. Berkowitz has never had anything to do with any kind of drug operation at all, and if you are going to write that kind of article, you better have some real good sources," Kralovec said.
There is, indeed, no evidence that Berkowitz ever had anything to do with the drug trade. When asked about Wolf's involvement in the club, the lawyer refused to answer any questions.
"I'm only addressing allegations involving drugs," he said.
Attempts to interview Frontera, including numerous phone messages, were also unsuccessful. But attorney Andrew Schwartz, who made an unsuccessful run for city commissioner in Boca Raton in 2001, called on Frontera's behalf.
"This is a warning," Schwartz began. "If you publish anything false about Mr. Frontera or about Club Cinema, we will take aggressive legal action. Thank you, sir."
Ignoring the beginning of a question, the lawyer then immediately hung up the phone.
Although Mastriana handled the club's state licensure, Frontera needed more help to get construction permits from Pompano City Hall.
That's where Mayor Capellini enters the picture.
Capellini confirmed that he worked for Sam Frontera when New Times questioned him about Club Cinema recently. But he said he wasn't very close to Frontera and, other than for work-related matters, had been to the club only a couple of times to socialize, including once during last year's grand opening.
During an interview before the June 20 commission meeting, the mayor also admitted that the relationship went deeper than Club Cinema and extended to the land deal with Wexler.
"[Frontera] brought Bruce Wexler into the deal," the mayor said as he sat at the dais in Deerfield City Hall, gavel in hand. "He was looking for some property, and Sam told me about it. I didn't even know Bruce Wexler's name before Sam brought him in."
Frontera certainly owed Capellini. The mayor's influence in helping him get construction permits and Club Cinema's certificate of occupancy appears to have been priceless.
Pompano Beach Building Department records show that Capellini was working for Frontera as early as 2001. But even with the mayor's help, the club was violating numerous codes and doing unlicensed work. Sanzone says that after he took the job as the city's chief building inspector in 2002, he quickly became aware of the problematic Club Cinema project.
"It was in a shambles," he says. "They were bringing in unlicensed workers, there were lots of code violations, problems with landscaping, walls, everything. The city filed liens on the property."
Not only had the city filed liens against the property but several subcontractors did as well, alleging nonpayment for services. Sanzone says that because Deerfield Beach's mayor was working on the club, it made his job more difficult. For one, Sanzone says, he considered Capellini a personal friend. The building official socialized with the mayor at All-American Cities conferences hosted by the National Civic League. And Capellini's firm had worked on several projects in Delray Beach, where Sanzone spent 13 years as building director.
So Sanzone, who says he had no knowledge of Frontera's criminal past, had a talk with Capellini.
"I told him to get out of the Cinema project because they were bringing in people who were unlicensed," the building official says. "He told me that he didn't know about that.
"I asked him, 'Are you managing the project or aren't you?'
"He said, 'I'm trying to. '
"I told him that he better get out of there. I didn't want anything published in the newspaper saying that the Deerfield mayor's place was being shut down by Pompano Beach."
On February 13, 2003, Capellini did withdraw from the job, according to records. In an official form notifying the city of the change, Sam Frontera signed as owner of the club. The city file, in fact, shows that Frontera signed numerous documents and permits listing himself as the club's owner.
But Capellini wasn't gone for long. Sanzone says the mayor later sat down with Frontera and Berkowitz and "set conditions on the job." And soon, Capellini was again working for Frontera.
"I thought that was a good thing because then the job started moving again," the building official says.
And the mayor was personally involved. The Pompano Beach building file shows that both Capellini and his partner and former campaign manager, Marty Lamia, wrote several letters on Frontera's behalf directly to building chief Sanzone. The mayor also personally signed company checks to pay the city for overtime inspection fees conducted at Club Cinema.
As Frontera made progress toward opening his nightclub, his former drug partner, Alex DeCubas, was nabbed by police in Medellin, Colombia. Captured on September 2, 2003, DeCubas was soon extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking and money-laundering. The following year, he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison, where he remains today.
Not long after the sentencing of his former friend, against whom he'd testified in federal court, Frontera had reason to celebrate. Sanzone signed off on a temporary certificate of occupancy for Club Cinema in early 2005. Soon, Cinema booked a number of second- and third-tier acts, including Eddie Money, Pennywise, and Hansen.
Frontera was back in the nightclub business and Mayor Al Capellini was one of the people he had to thank for it.
Asked about what he considers the case of his career, Assistant Boca Police Chief Burke doesn't sound entirely satisfied.
"Is Sam Frontera an entrepreneur or just a user?" he asks rhetorically, the hard edge of his voice betraying his own answer.
Burke says he had heard that Frontera had returned to the nightclub business, but he didn't know that the funding was coming from interests linked to Wolf in Chicago, and he certainly didn't know the mayor of Deerfield Beach was involved.
But he says the investigation into Frontera's old drug cartel remains open as agents continue to track down fugitives and drug assets. Burke says he is curious to know whether the money being funneled into Club Cinema dates back to the cocaine cartel heyday.
"I'd be interested in knowing the source of the money," he says.
Burke, who worked on a federal task force targeting DeCubas and Frontera while still a Boca police detective, says he intends to look into the matter which means the mayor could conceivably become entangled in the investigation.
The mayor's dealings with Frontera offer a stark contrast to the responsible image Capellini tries to convey as mayor of Deerfield Beach, where he serves as the face of the city, handing out proclamations to everyone from community leaders to firefighters.
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But there have been rumors for years at City Hall that he's mixed up with the underworld. At a recent meeting, however, Capellini brought it up himself, if in seeming jest. On June 6, when the commission met to suspend City Manager Larry Deetjen for making racist remarks, Capellini defended his friend. Sitting on the dais, he told the crowd gathered at City Hall that being Italian, he was used to ethnic slurs as well.
"There are times, you know, people see me and they say 'You dago' or 'You wop' or 'You're part of the Mafia,'" he said. "Unfortunately, I don't have an Italian organization that can help me fight that. If they did, according to what I've seen on TV, they'd be walking around with prostheses."
The statement was met with suspicion among his many critics in the audience, one of whom later remarked, "That means he's connected."
Only, until now, the people of Deerfield Beach didn't know to what.