The Bad Bet

Gambling tycoon Gus Boulis was loved by some and hated by others.
Miami Herald

Gangland-style murder.

That's how the 2001 slaying of gambling mogul Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis is remembered, and for good reason. That night, February 6, while driving in his black BMW on Miami Road near downtown Fort Lauderdale, Boulis pressed the brakes to avoid hitting another car traveling slowly on the two-lane street. Just then, witnesses told police, a black Mustang drove up in the opposite lane. One of its passengers opened fire, shooting five or six bullets into Boulis' vehicle.

Boulis screamed. The other two cars sped away.


Gus Boulis

For more than four years, this made-for-potboiler-fiction murder of one of South Florida's most prominent businessmen was an unsolved case. But now, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department has three suspects in custody: Anthony Moscatiello, Anthony Ferrari, and James Fiorillo. All three men have alleged ties to organized crime. Two of them — Moscatiello and Ferrari — are associates of Adam Kidan, the man who, along with influential Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, purchased Sun Cruz Casinos from Boulis three months before his murder. Federal prosecutors in Miami have since filed criminal charges against Kidan and Abramoff, alleging that they committed bank fraud in the purchase of Boulis' company.

A 51-year-old Greek-born business genius who was as fearless as he was Machiavellian, Boulis had long been thought of as a victim of organized crime figures who wanted control of the lucrative gambling empire he'd so painstakingly built.

But with the arrest of suspects in his death, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) has released records of its investigations of Boulis himself, which began as early as 1988 and suggest that Boulis was an even more complicated figure than has been portrayed.

Boulis was a man of duality.

He was charming, winning the love and affection of many of his employees. He was also violent, once beating his longtime girlfriend as two of his children watched.

He was sophisticated, a businessman who dressed well and negotiated deals over a fine meal and a finer bottle of wine. He was also known to associate with criminals, including a well-known bookmaker and an associate member of the Bonanno crime family.

He was a man steeped in the traditions of his homeland, believing that men should support their families no matter how difficult the circumstances. He was also a man who wanted total freedom, sending his children and wife to Greece so he could live the life of a tycoon in the Florida Keys.

He was a philanthropist in the Greek community, always known to give a hand or lend a dollar to any fellow countryman in need. He was also ruthless, a man who, according to one of his former attorneys, would exploit the trust of fellow Greeks to win unfair business deals.

Even a decade before Boulis was killed in Fort Lauderdale, he'd flirted with the type of high-stakes double-crossing that can lead to murder. So maybe, on that night in 2001, the arrival of two cars in the night caught Boulis less by surprise than previously thought.

Boulis was born in 1949 in Kavala, a small port town on Greece's western Mediterranean coast. A hard-working kid, Boulis knew that Kavala wasn't big enough to contain his ambition, and at age 16, with dreams of striking it rich in North America, he joined the Merchant Marines. Four years later, Boulis saw his life-changing opportunity: a freighter in Kavala bound for Nova Scotia. The young Greek, whose English was limited to yesterday and I love you, hid aboard the ship as it sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.

After making his way to Toronto, Boulis took a job as a cook at Mr. Submarine, a small chain of four sandwich stores. A five-foot-seven blond man with a thick accent, Boulis devoted himself to the job, memorizing the menu and learning how to do every job in the restaurant. Impressed, the owners promoted Boulis and eventually gave him his own restaurant to manage.

At the same time, Boulis was getting closer to a young Greek girl from Kavala named Efronsini. The 16-year-old, who went by the name Frances, worked as a receptionist at a dry cleaner in Toronto. Three years after landing in Canada, the 22-year-old Boulis married Frances. Since his wife was a Canadian citizen, Boulis also gained his citizenship. The next year, in 1972, they had their first child, Christos. Another boy, Panagiotis, followed in 1975.

Like Boulis' family, Mr. Submarine was also growing. The Greek immigrant was partially responsible for the rapid expansion, his wife would later say during court testimony in Broward. "When [the kids] were small, we had to ride with him at night in the car, checking the store or doing things like that," she later remembered in court testimony.  

In all, Boulis helped expand the company to a chain of 180 restaurants throughout Canada and reportedly earned a 27 percent stake in the company.

"They [Mr. Submarine] were in the beginning when we first met," Frances recalled in court testimony in a later civil case. "They had three or four stores — I don't remember. By the time we left, there were hundreds, and he was part owner... He's more than hard-working. Four stores to hundreds in five, six, seven years. It takes a lot of work, and he was the only one who was doing that."

But in 1977, nine years after stowing away on a ship to Canada, Boulis began to see his business sour.

"The relationship with the partners wasn't that good, because he had to do all the work and they were blocking him in so many ways to expand," Frances said in court. Boulis sold his assets in the company to his partners, claiming in later years that he received $30 million to $40 million in the sale. However, according to a 1988 FDLE report, an attorney close to Boulis told law enforcement agents that the businessman actually received far less: only about $300,000 to $400,000, plus the titles to several properties on which Mr. Submarine restaurants operated. Despite divesting himself from the company, Boulis continued to receive rent from Mr. Submarine.

Throughout Boulis' life, business problems seemed to parallel personal ones. As he was leaving his company, Boulis also ended his romantic relationship with Frances.

According to statements he would later give in court, Boulis felt that his wife held him back, comparing his career to that of a Hollywood actor.

"I couldn't be a movie star and a husband to Frances," he testified. "I had a problem, OK? I didn't want — I had a problem. You know, I met her very young."

He added callously: "It wasn't in my heart. I couldn't fit with her... I met her for my immigration papers. I did my immigration papers, and we weren't for each other."

But Boulis was a man steeped in the Old World. Divorce wasn't an option, and he'd never abandon his children. He sent Frances and his two boys to Greece, where he believed they would have a better childhood, and sent them $16,000 per month. In Greece, Frances became, as she called it, "Mrs. Boulis" — the wealthy woman of Kavala who made sure that her family was always comfortable.

"It doesn't feel good to me if I'm Mrs. Boulis and my sister works in a factory," she testified.

For his part, Boulis headed south to the Florida Keys. The arrangement he'd forced on his wife afforded him freedom despite matrimonial bonds. "I could have a girlfriend if I want," he said in court. "She could have a boyfriend if she wants."

And as business and personal problems paralleled in Boulis' life, so did triumphs.

In 1980, at 31 years of age, Boulis moved to Key West and met an 18-year-old waitress from Minnesota named Margaret Hren. She was pretty, hard-working, and intelligent. Boulis had no way of divining then that Hren was the female partner he needed to become that "movie star."

Hren had just taken a job at Perry's Seafood when she met Boulis. They clicked immediately, and Boulis invited Hren on a vacation. She quit her job after only five days and headed north with her new Greek boyfriend. "We drove up the East Coast and to Canada," Hren recalled in a court deposition.

They discussed not only their personal future but their business one as well. Boulis, as always, had a grand plan: buy Perry's Seafood, then build a chain of restaurants and hotels throughout the Keys. He wanted Hren to be a part of that plan.

"What's mine is yours from this point forward," Hren recalled in court testimony that Boulis told her. "I want you to feel very comfortable. We will live very frugally. We will... keep our expenses to minimum, and we [will] reinvest all the profits back into growing a business."

She added: "The business plan at that time... was that we would run that restaurant, that we would do whatever it took to make that restaurant successful, and from the profits we would reinvest them in other businesses. That was our business plan at the time."

It worked. Over the next decade, Boulis and Hren lived as if they were married and built a small empire in the Keys. They were both hard-working, and in Hren, Boulis found a woman who could match his intellect and drive. She was willing to do anything — perform any job, no matter how menial — to succeed.  

Sandra Thompson Lewis, a waitress at one of the restaurants Boulis and Hren owned in Key West, admired Hren's dirt-under-the-nails dedication in a deposition: "She would wait tables. She would bartend. She would make the specials. She made our schedule. She was a hostess. She did the cash. She checked our tickets for accuracy. She met with the vendors that came in. She placed food and beverage orders... I saw her bus tables. I saw her pick up trash. I saw her do everything that it took to run a restaurant."

For vacations, Boulis and Hren traveled to Greece every year to visit his children. Sometimes, though, Frances and the kids came to the Keys. It was awkward, since Boulis hid his relationship with Hren from the children.

Yet Frances never gave up on a future with her husband. Late one night, she confronted him in the parking lot of the Quay, a restaurant Boulis and Hren operated in Key Largo.

"Can we move here?" Boulis remembered Frances asking, referring to herself and the children. "What is it — why do you live with Margaret?"

Boulis wouldn't entertain the questions. "I reminded her [of] our deal and our agreement, and I was very clear about it," he explained in court.

By 1988, Boulis and Hren ran several restaurants in the Keys and had launched the successful Miami Subs restaurant chain. That year, Boulis also began to move his business operations to Broward County, purchasing Martha's Restaurant, on Ocean Drive in Hollywood.

That's when FDLE first began to investigate Boulis. The agency discovered that the businessman was as cunning as he was ambitious. On October 5, 1988, Michael Halpren, one of Boulis' former attorneys, approached authorities after Boulis threatened Halpren's mother in an argument over a business deal.

Claiming that he was no longer bound by attorney-client privilege, Halpren told FDLE agents that one of Boulis' money-making schemes was to rip off fellow Greeks by selling restaurant businesses to them at inflated costs or under unfavorable terms. Boulis would advertise restaurants for sale in Greek publications in New York and New Jersey, Halpren told FDLE.

"Boulis would show a financial statement for the restaurant claiming a low gross income for his own tax purposes but telling prospective buyers the income was much higher to justify his price for the business," the FDLE report states.

What's more, Boulis was a master at exploiting Greek camaraderie. He encouraged fellow Greeks to do business without attorneys, making them easy marks. In some instances, Halpren said, Boulis would sell a restaurant without the liquor license or land, forcing the new owner to make monthly payments to him as high as $26,000 for use of the liquor license and building.

"If the buyer wanted an attorney rather than to trust his fellow Greek countryman, Boulis would usually [sell] the liquor license... with the business and lower payments for the property," the FDLE report states.

At the same time, according to the FDLE report, both the state Beverage Department and Broward Sheriff's Office were investigating Boulis' business practices. But neither agency brought charges, and Boulis' enterprises continued to expand after he and Margaret moved to Hollywood.

In Broward, Hren went from being a do-any-job restaurateur to a shrewd businesswoman who often served as the chief negotiator and project manager for Boulis' operations. "Gus had the notion, the ideas maybe," remembers Lewis, the former waitress who eventually became Hren's top assistant. "Margaret is definitely the voice and the one that made it happen."

As with Boulis, nothing stopped Hren. Kim Cooke, a former waitress who later worked with Boulis and Hren in their hotel businesses, remembered in court a day in 1993 when she and Hren traveled to Key Largo to oversee construction at a Marriott hotel they were building. Hren was pregnant with Boulis' child, and as she was conferring with the construction crew, morning sickness overcame her.

Recalled Cooke: "She started to get sick, and we had to run by the car, and I was hiding her in front of everybody because she was vomiting off the side of the — between the cars — and I was blocking her so the people, construction guys, wouldn't see her."

Still, pregnancy didn't slow her down. Hren was working at the Marriott Key Largo on the day she went into labor, Cooke remembered, and she calmly drove her car around to the front of the hotel and yelled: "Gus, let's go. I'm in labor."

One week later, Hren was back to work, baby Aristotle in her arms. "She came walking in, dressed in a white linen suit, looking gorgeous, with the baby," Cooke recalled.  

Life was good. Boulis and Hren operated restaurants and hotels throughout South Florida, and Boulis owned a majority stake in a chain of more than 100 Miami Subs restaurants. By 1993, according to court records, the Greek-born businessman was worth $79 million. Two years later, in 1995, Hren gave birth to their second child, Alexander.

But over the next few years, Boulis' business and personal lives would begin to collapse again as state law enforcement officials slowly learned of Boulis' ties to organized crime.

Boulis possessed a virtually flawless talent for identifying businesses that could turn handsome profits. In 1996, he jumped into the burgeoning cruise-to-nowhere industry — casino boats that sailed three miles to international waters to allow patrons to gamble without regulation. At the time, several boats operated throughout South Florida, with news reports suggesting that even H. Wayne Huizenga wanted a piece of the action.

Starting with a purchase of the 650-passenger Paradise Three, which docked on the Intracoastal Waterway behind Martha's Restaurant, Boulis quickly expanded into the gambling-boat company that would become Sun Cruz Casinos.

Boulis concealed his ownership of the business using a variety of corporations. A federal law prohibits foreign nationals from operating vessels registered in the United States. What's more, the large Sun Cruz boats docked in Hollywood clearly violated zoning ordinances in the city. But the City Commission never bothered Boulis, raising unfounded allegations, which FDLE nevertheless documented through a confidential source, that the gambling mogul was greasing palms at City Hall.

Although FDLE agents could never substantiate wrongdoing, the allegations sparked what would become a nearly three-year investigation into Boulis' life, murder, and their connections to organized crime.

Through an FBI-documented confidential informant, FDLE discovered that Boulis was using the Mafia to protect and expand his gambling operation. The confidential source told FDLE that Boulis "was very friendly" with two men named Huey Steinhart and Joseph Defazzio. The FDLE report indicates that Steinhart was a known bookmaker and gambler, while Defazzio was an associate member of the Bonanno crime family.

Law enforcement also discovered that Boulis tried to leverage his Mob connections to expand Sun Cruz into New York State. He had no such luck. He "met with opposition from traditional organized crime members there," FDLE states.

"Boulis went back to Florida with his tail between his legs," the confidential source told FDLE.

Despite the failure, Boulis' gambling enterprise continued to flourish. He expanded from Hollywood to Key Largo, Port Canaveral, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, the Tampa Bay area, and South Carolina. And as Boulis' business grew wider, so did the state investigation. In 1998, in feeble attempts to shut down Boulis' enterprise, FDLE used confidential informants and undercover agents to document violations that, in hindsight, appear minor. Among Boulis' alleged crimes were sailing his gambling boats overcapacity to boost profits, starting gambling operations before entering international waters, and in some cases continuing gambling operations all the way into the Fort Lauderdale port jetty.

At the time, Boulis' personal life was in trouble. He and Hren were separating, and in court papers, his longtime girlfriend said that she feared Boulis might kill her. He had become increasingly violent, she alleged. On October 27, 1997, that violence peaked. Following an argument, Boulis grabbed Hren outside her Hollywood home.

"He punched me in the leg and then knocked me down and started hitting me in the head and upper body," she told the court. "My kids were standing there watching this. He then sat on top of me, holding my hair and ear and screaming at me [and] made me agree to his sick ideas about how he saw things. I told the kids to go inside, which they did for a while. My youngest son came out, and Gus told him to go and get Aris too because this was the last time they were going to see me. He told me he was going to smash my head into the ground so that all [the] blood would come out and then he was going to shoot himself... He has also told me on several occasions that he was going to kill him and the kids so I would suffer for the rest of my life."

Hren filed a restraining order against Boulis and eventually took him to court for child custody and assets of the businesses she helped build. His personal life was crumbling, and not surprisingly, so was his professional one.

In 1998, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Boulis, alleging that he attempted to conceal the true ownership of Sun Cruz. By owning the boats registered in the United States, the government alleged, the noncitizen Boulis violated the 1916 Shipping Act. As part of a settlement agreement, the government ordered Boulis to divest himself from the gambling-boat business.  

Among the suitors to buy Sun Cruz were Adam Kidan and Jack Abramoff. Kidan is a disbarred lawyer who founded the Dial-A-Mattress company, and Abramoff is an influential lobbyist in Washington, D.C., who earned the nickname "Casino Jack" for representing the interests of casinos on Native American reservations. Abramoff is a longtime friend and associate of Tom DeLay's. The former Republican House majority leader, DeLay has been indicted on charges of money laundering and conspiracy in a case that alleges he helped funnel corporate contributions to state political candidates in Texas.

To be sure, Kidan and Abramoff had powerful friends in Washington. During a point in the Sun Cruz negotiations, when Boulis was being particularly difficult, the pair seemed to leverage one of those friends.

In March 2000, U.S. Rep. Robert Ney, a Republican from Ohio who is closely associated with Abramoff and DeLay, used the Congressional Record to attack Boulis. "I don't want to see the actions of one bad apple in Florida, or anywhere else, to affect the business aspect of this [gambling] industry or hurt any innocent casino patron in our country," Ney told Congress in March 2000, referring to Boulis. (A congressional probe is now investigating Ney's connections to Abramoff as part of a larger investigation of the prominent lobbyist.)

Finally, in September 2000, Boulis agreed to sell Sun Cruz to Kidan and Abramoff for $147.5 million. Not long after, Kidan and Abramoff failed to make good on a $23 million payment. According to a recent indictment, Kidan and Abramoff never had the money. Federal prosecutors allege that the pair committed bank fraud in purchasing Sun Cruz.

How much Boulis knew about the alleged fraud is unknown. But soon after selling Sun Cruz to Kidan and Abramoff, Boulis' relationship with the new owners deteriorated. In one widely reported incident, Boulis stabbed Kidan with a pen at a business meeting on December 5, 2000.

Two months later, Boulis was murdered on Miami Road.

Last month, Fort Lauderdale police arrested alleged Mafia associates Anthony Moscatiello, Anthony Ferrari, and James Fiorillo and charged them with Boulis' murder. Two of them have documented ties to Kidan.

It's the stuff of Edna Buchanan stories: Kidan's mother was killed by mobsters in Miami Beach during a botched 1993 robbery. Despite the murder, Kidan befriended Moscatiello, who had an association with organized crime figures. Moscatiello worked as a caterer for Sun Cruz after Kidan took control of the company.

Kidan paid Moscatiello's daughter, Jennifer, $30,000 around the time of Boulis' murder. Boulis' attorneys have questioned the purpose of the payment.

Local media have focused on the Mob implications of Boulis' murder. FDLE reports, however, suggest that Boulis was playing with fire long before. In fact, having previously documented that Boulis was friendly with a well-known gambler and Bonanno associate, FDLE targeted the Mafia in its investigation of Boulis' murder. The recently released FDLE reports provide a remarkable look at the leads law enforcement pursued and the people who claimed to have information about Boulis' murder. They also provide a theory for one of the case's most infamous questions: Whose black Mustang was on Miami Road the night of February 6, 2001?

Five weeks after Boulis' murder, on March 14, 2001, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department received an anonymous Crime Stoppers tip that detectives forwarded to FDLE. The tipster claimed that a man named Ilia Scott Nicholas, a 26-year-old who FBI records indicated had ties to the Russian Mafia, had killed Boulis. Giving the information credibility was the fact that state records indicated that Nicholas owned a black 1989 Ford Mustang GT, the type of car reportedly used in the shooting. What's more, Nicholas had sold the car several days after the shooting to an unsuspecting South Bay man named Ozelle Merritt Jr.

FDLE agents in Palm Beach County traced the car registration to a migrant camp 60 miles west of West Palm Beach but could not locate the Mustang. Agents later located Merritt, and on March 20, 2001, he brought them to a body shop in Okeechobee where he was having work done on the car.

Although investigators could not find any evidence linking the Mustang to the murder, the condition of the car itself was suspicious. "The vehicle appeared to be wiped clean of any latent prints," the FDLE report states. And because more than a month had passed since Boulis' shooting, any leftover gunshot residue would have been undetectable.

Whether this was the car used in the shooting is unknown. Even today, four years after Boulis' murder, police have not identified another Mustang as the automobile used in the crime. They claim that Fiorillo once owned a black Mustang but so far have not recovered the vehicle.  

In spring 2001, leads continued to trickle in to FDLE, records show. One tip came from a confidential source who alleged that a Greek man who purchased one of Boulis' restaurants in Key West had reason to kill him. The confidential informant told FDLE that Boulis acted like a Mob boss, using bloody knuckles to collect gambling debts.

"He stated that the restaurant owner was a big gambler and owed Boulis a substantial amount of money," the report states. "The CS stated that the restaurant owner and Boulis had recently argued about the debt owed to Boulis."

Among other tips that FDLE agents pursued was one from a Tampa Bay-area woman named Maria Castellano, whom FDLE contacted regarding secondhand information about Boulis' killer.

Castellano told investigators that a 70-year-old mechanic she and her husband knew told them that a man named Bruce Jones was a Bonanno associate who wanted Boulis dead in hopes of acquiring parts of the Sun Cruz empire. In fact, Castellano claimed, Jones registered a company, G.B.D. Holdings, to acquire Sun Cruz assets. It stood for "Gus Boulis Dead," she said.

"Castellano related that the mechanic told her that Jones had indicated to numerous individuals that he was responsible for having Gus Boulis killed and that Jones often bragged about his connections with the Bonanno crime family," the report states. Numerous attempts to reach Castellano were unsuccessful.

In correspondence with New Times, Jones denies the allegations in the FDLE report. Jones says his company's name, G.B.D. Holdings, stands for the first names of its founders: Glen, Bruce, and Dutch. "Neither my company nor I have any direct or indirect connections with the Bonanno crime family," he adds.

What relationship the people FDLE investigated and interviewed might have with the three alleged mobsters that the Fort Lauderdale police recently arrested is unknown. Lt. Bill Schwartz, a spokesman for the department, said he could not comment on what roles, if any, FDLE's information played in closing the murder case.

In the end, the reports might tell more about Boulis' secret life than they do about his murder. He was a man of two sides: the sharp businessman who appeared before the Hollywood City Commission and the cunning huckster who reportedly ripped off fellow Greeks and befriended Mafia associates to expand his gambling empire.

If indeed Boulis was killed by the Mafia, it clearly wasn't his first run-in with organized crime.

Walking through the lush lobby of the Fort Lauderdale Embassy Suites, on the 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale, John Lundin is still shell-shocked by the recent news of arrests in Boulis' murder case.

A tall man with disheveled brown hair, Lundin has been a community activist in Hollywood for more than a decade. He was among those who spoke at City Commission meetings trying to convince the mayor and commissioners to kick Boulis' Sun Cruz out of town. Like the confidential source who went to FDLE in February 1998, Lundin speculated that Boulis was bribing members of the Hollywood City Commission. But he could never prove it.

"The funny thing is that I respected Gus Boulis," Lundin says. "He was a powerful Greek man who came from nothing — a fascinating character."

Last year, Lundin self-published a screenplay, Hollywood Gambler: The Gus Boulis Story, which portrays Boulis' life in South Florida and theorizes that the gambling mogul was murdered by a crooked mayor and two slimy lobbyists.

"But it looks like I got it wrong," Lundin admits. "They didn't murder Boulis."

He pauses.

"There are always stories about the Mob being involved whenever you have gambling, especially unregulated gambling," Lundin says. "Maybe Boulis was closer to the Mob than anyone has realized."

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