Recommended For You

The Double Life of Nick the Cop

On prime-time national TV, John Nicholas, Jr. steps proudly out of his Palm Beach Sheriff's Office patrol car and helps Dateline NBC reporter Chris Hansen decipher the "Sweetheart Swindle."

The scam is nothing new, just slick and slippery Gypsy women making old men fall in love with them before taking the victims for everything they have.

The television reporter introduces Nicholas as someone who intimately knows about Gypsy cons: He's a Gypsy, born into a crime family, who is now a detective investigating Gypsy crimes. In turn Nicholas supplies an on-camera explanation of the swindle and even translates for Hansen the secret Gypsy language.

Hansen was so impressed with Nicholas that he wrote a letter to Palm Beach County Sheriff Robert Neumann, letting Neumann know how "thoroughly professional and knowledgeable one of your detectives is... I have been an investigative reporter for fifteen years and have interviewed thousands of law enforcement officers. Nicholas is among the very best."

Another pin on Nicholas' chest, another letter in a stack of commendations so thick a separate folder had to be added to his personnel file. He has helped the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, and agencies throughout the United States solve Gypsy crimes. He's become something of a media star and a reliable source for South Florida TV stations, the Palm Beach Post, the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald.

It's an irresistible story: Here was a man who grew up as a Gypsy thief and left the "life" to become a cop. Determined to do right, he now exposes the criminal secrets of fortunetellers and other Gypsies. Nicholas adds delicious details, like his family disowning him and the entire Gypsy world viewing him as a turncoat rat.

But there was a telling inaccuracy in Dateline's report, one that was repeated in Hansen's letter -- John Nicholas is no detective.

Instead, he's a frustrated road deputy working in the outlands of Belle Glade who's applied for the detective bureau over and over again during his eleven years at Palm Beach Sheriff's Office (PBSO), only to be denied each time. He's not even allowed to work on a Gypsy case in his own county without special permission from a supervisor.

Nicholas didn't misrepresent himself to Dateline, Hansen says. It was the show's mistake. But it serves as a particularly appropriate lesson from a show regarding Gypsy swindles: All is not what it seems.

Take John Nicholas.
Even as the story was shown on TV screens across the country, Nicholas was under investigation by PBSO for his close associations with alleged Gypsy criminals.

Associations like the one he has with John Uwanawich, a smooth-talking Gypsy known to wear a diamond-studded, gold-faced Rolex watch and drive a Rolls-Royce he boasts was used in The Godfather. Those are quite some accomplishments for someone who doesn't really seem to have a job.

Uwanawich, who was jailed in 1983 for bribing a police officer, is a central Gypsy figure in South Florida, with family relations and associations reaching through the Gypsy culture, a culture Nicholas calls "organized crime in every sense of the word." There is no black or white in the way Nicholas describes it; either one is in the "life" and therefore is criminal or has left, as he claims he has done.

If Nicholas were to be taken at his word, then he and Uwanawich, a lifelong friend, should have broken ties a long time ago.

But Nicholas admits he still socializes with Uwanawich -- even went on a recent vacation with him to Costa Rica. The deputy also admits he went to Gypsy weddings and funerals with Uwanawich. He claims he didn't know Uwanawich was convicted for bribing a police officer. Of course, to acknowledge he knew about the conviction would be admitting he broke a cardinal rule. Associating with a known criminal not only could have cost him his job, but it could also have led to his decertification as a deputy by the State of Florida. A lenient PBSO internal affairs bureau decided not to punish him for it.

An even more serious accusation against Nicholas came from the Miami Beach Police Department after Nicholas took another Gypsy friend, Vine Miller of Fort Lauderdale, there for a meeting with police. According to Miami Beach police, Nicholas vouched for Uwanawich during the meeting, saying Uwanawich was investing $15,000 in a fortunetelling shop on Miami Beach, and they could trust and work with him in investigations of other Gypsies.

Miami Beach Lt. Tom Skinner was convinced Nicholas was trying to use the police department to give Uwanawich power over their Gypsy rivals on the Beach. In the investigation that followed, Nicholas contended he was just trying to share information with Miami Beach investigators, not help his friend get a criminal stronghold there.

"Some think I am a plant of the Gypsy community in law enforcement," Nicholas says. "But I don't care what anybody thinks. This is the stigma of being a Gypsy. I know what I know, and that's all that counts."

Nicholas has walked a razor's edge, playing about in both the closed Gypsy society, where the double-cross is standard and the truth is hard to come by, and in the equally treacherous and closed world of law enforcement, where cynicism, distrust, and suspicion are tools of survival.

Now, he's largely considered a traitor in both.

To understand John Nicholas at all, you have to understand the world of Gypsies. They aren't people who randomly ragtagged together; they are a bonafide race, sanctioned as such by the United Nations. They wandered out of Northern India into Eastern Europe more than 400 years ago, and why they left isn't known. Initially, their dark complexions led to the false assumption they were Egyptian, giving them the nickname that stuck. Their true name is Rom, pronounced with a strong roll on the "R" in their language, Romany, which is made up of bits and pieces of other languages, especially French and Spanish.

In Europe the Rom people were made slaves, executed, or systematically banished from most countries. The persecution of Gypsies hit its zenith with Hitler attempting to eradicate them altogether. Hundreds of thousands of Gypsies were killed in Europe during the Holocaust, a systematic massacre that went all but unnoticed in light of other genocides.

The mistrusted Gypsies, though, did little to ingratiate themselves with the locales where they set up camp. Their culture has, as Nicholas teaches, always been based on thievery and swindles. Most everything they present to the outside world, to the gadjes, as non-Gypsies are called, is a sham. Their names -- and many of them have quite a few of them, along with a cache of social security numbers and driver's licenses -- are simply covers. They go by Marks, Johnson, Nicholas, Uwanawich, Miller, Williams, Mitchell, and other monikers, but their Rom names are kept a secret. While living behind a shroud of mystery, Gypsies have managed to keep their own ways alive and unchanged in the United States.

Gypsy weddings are still arranged by fathers, and brides fetch a price. After marriage, the wife opens a fortunetelling shop, or ofisa, where swindles are common. Gypsy women also often conduct store and home burglaries where the victims are distracted. Men specialize in home-improvement scams and in the buying and selling of used cars, among other ploys. Whole families engage in insurance swindles. Instead of going to school, Gypsy children are taught to be criminals. They learn that the Gypsy life accumulates treasures, the kind of booty that rarely fails to astonish police when they get lucky enough to seize it, like chests full of expensive jewelry and safe-deposit boxes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Gypsies conceal the origins of that treasure by trading it among clans on opposite ends of the country. Gypsies work in territories, each run by a Rom Baro, or "Big Man." Any Gypsy who comes to an area to swindle is supposed to pay the Rom Baro a tribute.

A council of Gypsy men settles disputes and tries to prevent turf wars -- like the one that rocked Palm Beach and Broward counties back in 1993 when three fortunetelling shops were firebombed in a 48-hour period. There is a council in South Florida, a popular place for Gypsies, mainly because of the warm weather and the hordes of their favorite targets: vulnerable retirees. A check of occupational listings shows no less than 25 Gypsy families with fortunetelling shops in Broward County alone. Every year new Gypsy scams pop up and new victims emerge, prompting press releases from police agencies and media warnings, many of them featuring the old standby, John Nicholas.

While police routinely investigate Gypsy crimes, they also often provide the main source of power for the Rom Baro. Gypsies constantly feed cops information on their rivals. If they're lucky enough to find cops who are dumb enough or dirty enough to become friends, they simply use them to enforce their command over rival Gypsies.

"Just like anything else, they are not going to tell the police anything unless it helps them," said Fort Lauderdale police Det. Mike Debilio, who is the department's Gypsy crime specialist.

Cops, in turn, rely on Gypsies for information -- just as they rely on drug dealers to break up drug rings. One difference is that Gypsies constantly invite police to weddings and funerals and Gypsy parties to build bonds with them. Befriending Gypsies can be hazardous to one's career, however, as two suburban Chicago detectives found out in December: Both resigned after a federal investigation alleged they were taking payoffs from Gypsies. In Orlando a detective was investigated after he was spotted giving a gift at a Gypsy wedding. He was later fired for accepting bribes.

John Nicholas has explained the relationship between Gypsies and cops this way: "I was first taught to trust the police, then to con them whenever possible."

It was into this strange, criminal, and complex Gypsy world that Nicholas was born on October 3, 1952.

The story goes that his mother, Rose Nicholas, went into labor while traveling through Georgia in a caravan of house trailers. She and her husband decided to go to the town's hospital, and after the birth the family quickly packed up and left town. As far as John Nicholas knows, the medical bill was never paid, making his birth the first swindle in which he was involved, though far from the last.

His mother ran a fortunetelling shop and orchestrated burglaries. His father bought and sold used cars that would "run great for a week or two -- and then totally break down." As a child Nicholas went on burglary missions in residential neighborhoods. He was boosted to second-floor balconies, where he'd scurry through unlocked sliding glass doors, run to a bedroom, and steal the valuables. Other times he'd pretend to be going to an unwitting stranger's bathroom, but instead would make a beeline to the bedroom for jewelry and cash on nightstands and dressers. "Gypsies don't ransack," he explains. "They scan and steal what they see."

Nicholas, who grew up in New York City and New Jersey, says his very first experience with cops was staking them out, rather than the other way around. As a little boy he'd go to the police department with his father and sit across the street for hours, memorizing the faces of the men who walked out in civilian clothes, the detectives. The guys in uniform didn't count. If he were to see one of these detectives while playing on the street, he was to warn his parents, who'd flee through the back door.

Nicholas also did something many Gypsy children don't do: He went to a public school in New York City. His parents had him go to school because keeping him at home would just bring more scrutiny from the police. School opened up the world of gadjes to him, where a kid could aspire to things he could never be, like a fireman or a cop. He already knew he'd be a swindler and his wife would be a fortuneteller. "I started not liking the idea of my set life," he explains. To join the Boy Scouts he had to forge his father's name. The uniform had to be kept at a friend's house. When his father found out, the boy was beaten.

He says he became rebellious against Gypsy ways, but it didn't stop him from marrying into the life as a teenager. His father bought his first bride for $6500, outbidding another family for the girl. The rival boy was a kid from Kansas City named Jimmy Marks. It wasn't the last time the paths of Nicholas and Marks would cross.

Nicholas says his father's buying him the fourteen-year-old bride was just a ploy to get him back into the fold of Gypsy life. Nicholas said the girl bore him his only child, a son, but the marriage still failed after only a year. "I broke my mother and father's heart and left the life," he said.

In a feature story on Nicholas that ran in the Palm Beach Post, Nicholas told a reporter that he was "not yet seventeen years old" when he "left the Gypsies forever."

That story, however romantic, doesn't quite jibe with reality. Court documents contained in his PBSO file show that Nicholas was married again, at the age of 22, to a Gypsy woman named Rachel Marks. It was she who gave birth to his son. They didn't separate until 1983, when Nicholas was 30 years old.

Nicholas' explanation for these contradictions isn't known: He quit talking to New Times after he found out his "integrity was being questioned."

Before he quit talking, Nicholas spoke of his early dream to be a detective. His personnel file at PBSO shows that he played informant to detectives on Gypsy cases long before he became a cop. He used to frequent the Paterson, New Jersey, police department, and met a detective named John Rafferty there back in 1972, when Nicholas was 20 years old.

"While John Nicholas, Jr. was living here," Rafferty wrote in a letter to PBSO in 1988, "I used him many times in cases where gypsy's [sic] were involved. His knowledge of Gypsy life and Gypsy language (Gypsy Romany) were of the best."

In 1981, before his 30th birthday, Nicholas became an officer for the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Even then he didn't lose his Gypsy friends, not even those who were getting in serious trouble with the law, like John Uwanawich.

During the summer of 1983, according to PBSO reports, Uwanawich called a detective in Rockaway Borough, New Jersey. He asked the detective if he would file arrest warrants on some rival Gypsies who had moved into his territory, adding that there would be "something in it for him" if the officer filed the bogus warrants. The detective went to prosecutors, who gave him a wire to wear in the ensuing sting. The brazen Uwanawich paid the detective $300 for what he thought was going to be the detective's help on an upcoming insurance scam, and on August 2, 1983, Uwanawich offered $600 to arrest his Gypsy rivals on the phony warrants. He was arrested and sentenced to 100 days in jail, a fine of $10,000, and two years probation.

Nicholas, meanwhile, moved to Miami in 1986 to become a private investigator. In 1987 he applied to PBSO, writing in his application what would become his meal ticket: "I have information on gpysie [sic] con games, swindles, palm readers, etc.," he wrote. "I am a white collar crime expert -- on gypsies -- I speak and understand their Gypsie Romany Language."

While Nicholas began his career as a deputy, another Gypsy was also building ties in South Florida: John Uwanawich, who also goes by the name Johnny Gee and, according to PBSO investigators, has two social security numbers.

While calling himself a Gypsy turncoat, Nicholas called Uwanawich and other Gypsies still in the "life" his friends.

At PBSO, Nicholas immediately set out to use his knowledge of Gypsies as a way to get into the detective division. Soon he was in the papers and on TV and popping up in police departments around the country to help solve Gypsy crimes, generating headlines like "Be wary of scheming Gypsies," and "Deputy warns of scheming thieves."

At the same time, he would complain about the "stigma" of being a Gypsy, about persecution of Gypsies, about how Gypsies had gotten a bad name they couldn't shake. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he'd become a leading voice in stigmatizing Gypsies across the country. Take this line from an article Nicholas wrote for a national law enforcement publication called the John Cooke Insurance Fraud Report: "Little is known about the American Gypsy culture -- and that is because the less that is known about them, the more freedom they have to operate their cons and scams."

If that sounds conflicted, it's because it is. He admits that the reason he told secrets to law enforcement about Gypsy life is that it was the best way to make a name for himself.

"To be honest with you, detectives are a dime a dozen unless you have a specialty," he explains.

At least one time, though, he helped a Gypsy suspect instead of bringing him to justice. It was in 1991 and it was the first known conflict between John Nicholas and his two worlds.

His nephew, Stephen Nicholas, was wanted for questioning by police in Portland, Maine, for allegedly kidnapping his own son during a dispute with the boy's mother. He left Portland with his son and hid out in John Nicholas' home. While harboring his nephew, John Nicholas, identifying himself as a deputy, called Portland police and talked to Officer Bruce Chase. He told Chase that nobody would find his nephew. Chase asked Nicholas if he would arrange for Stephen Nicholas to return to Maine for questioning. Nicholas wouldn't agree to this, saying, "You do what you need to do, and I'll do what I need to do," Chase wrote in a report. "John Nicholas was attempting to gain whatever information I would provide to him so he could pass the information to Stephen Nicholas. John Nicholas' call was not in the interest of law enforcement or to assist this agency in any way."

Nicholas wasn't breaking any law -- a warrant hadn't been issued to arrest Stephen Nicholas. In the end the Portland police department contacted PBSO about it's deputy's questionable activities, and Nicholas was reminded by internal affairs investigators of the sheriff's rules and regulations, namely that deputies were forbidden to involve themselves in family disputes or interfere with investigations of other departments. PBSO files show Nicholas was also given a copy of the "accessory after the fact" state statute.

The media didn't pick up on that story. In fact, not long after the incident, a Sun-Sentinel article under the headline, "Sheriff's deputy rejects lure of Gypsy lifestyle," stated instead that he'd been "disowned" by his family.

His enduring friendship with Uwanawich, who supposedly had fortunetelling shops in Dade and Broward counties at various times, was also free from public scrutiny. But there were more Gypsy connections. Nicholas also calls Uwanawich's older brother, who has a fortunetelling shop in Palm Beach County, a friend. Throw in Uwanawich's nephew, who operates a fortunetelling shop in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Then there's Uwanawich's niece, who runs an ofisa in Fort Lauderdale. And his sister-in-law, who operates in Dania. And, of course, Vine Miller, his "confidential informant," who also runs a fortunetelling shop in Broward County.

All of these Gypsies count John Nicholas as a friend, and all of them are active in what Nicholas terms the "life," the one he supposedly left, the one he calls organized crime, the one he's supposed to be fighting against.

But one Delray Beach Gypsy calls John Nicholas his enemy and says Nicholas has been using his position as a deputy to help those friends for years. His name is Jimmy Marks, the rival who lost out in the battle for a bride many years ago.

It's a small room, like a renovated walk-in closet, where fortunes are told by Linda Marks, a sturdy Gypsy woman who is a convicted fraud artist, according to police. The room is painted brownish gold and adorned with drawn angels, moons, and suns. It looks more like it was decorated by a kindergarten teacher than by a medium to the world of spirits. Outside that room is a tidy, glass-tiled waiting room for customers, where Linda's husband, Jimmy, sits on a brown leather sofa. He explains a few things about John Nicholas, who is known as "Nick the Cop" in Gypsy circles. Behind him and to his right is a strange-looking man with a goatee, squinty eyes, and a scrunched-up face. Never introduced, he occasionally breaks into the conversation in Rom.

Jimmy Marks is thin and dapper in a black golf shirt and spotless white pants. He wears a gold bracelet and a gold-faced watch. Over his bulging overbite is a pencil-thin mustache. His face is narrow, his nose and his ears pointy. His eyebrows are darker than his silver-and-black hair, which is neatly trained straight back over his head. If he were an animal, he'd be a fox.

He was one of the first Gypsies to openly question the power of old Bob Johnson, a Gypsy who was the Rom Baro of Palm Beach County for decades. Marks boldly refused to pay Johnson a tribute. Bob Johnson recently died, setting up Marks as a possible heir, an ambition many Gypsies say he has, but one he denies. "It's been said, but it's not so," he claims. "I just run my own thing."

Another Gypsy who has opened up shop in Palm Beach County is John Uwanawich's brother, Miller Uwanawich, a 66-year-old Gypsy who drives a shiny Mercedes and whose wife tells fortunes. Miller Uwanawich and Jimmy Marks are, because of the proximity of their businesses, bitter rivals, who, as Delray Beach police detective Jack Makler puts it, "feud like the Hatfields and McCoys." When asked about his relationship with Marks, Miller Uwanawich's remarks were first evasive, then crystal clear.

"I know of Jimmy Marks, but I don't know him."
He was then told of Marks' allegation that Deputy Nicholas plays favorites.
"Listen," Miller Uwanawich said loudly. "Jimmy Marks is a motherfucker! You got that? He's a son of a bitch! And you can quote me on that." Click.

A battle between these enemies broke out at a Gypsy council meeting held in a Denny's restaurant, or so goes the story in Gypsy circles. The Gypsy council meets in parks and in restaurants, usually in Hollywood, a middle ground. The council has been described as something of a Democratic affair, where Gypsies gather and hash out problems and hopefully come to a solution.

At the Denny's meeting, John Uwanawich had a problem to settle: He wanted to get his money back for the daughter-in-law he'd bought. She apparently wasn't working out.

Also at the meeting, according to Marks, was Vine Uwanawich (no relation to Vine Miller), John Uwanawich's nephew, who's first name is pronounced three different ways, depending on who's doing the talking: the Italian "Vinnie," the Russian-sounding "Vanya," and just like the climbing plant.

Marks says the council voted against John Uwanawich's attempt to get his money back. Uwanawich blamed Marks, and a fight broke out during which Vine Uwanawich put Marks in a headlock, Marks claims. Just another Gypsy night at Denny's.

Soon after, Marks says, a cameraman with WPTV-TV (Channel 5) knocked on the door of his house and fortunetelling shop. Standing back by the driveway was John Nicholas, PBSO deputy. Nicholas, apparently off-duty, was just taking some of his media friends on a tour of criminal Gypsy places. Marks went haywire and called Detective Makler, who didn't like the visit either: He didn't mind that Nicholas was there, but he felt he should have been notified before Nicholas came into his juridisdiction.

"What are you doing here?" Makler said he asked Nicholas after driving to Marks' fortunetelling shop.

"I'm here with the task force," Nicholas responded, referring to an informal group of detectives who used to meet and share information on Gypsies in South Florida. Because they weren't sanctioned by the state or bestowed with statewide jurisdiction, the task force had no power -- officially, it didn't exist.

"There is no task force," Makler fired back.
Nicholas and the cameraman left and apparently nothing ever aired on TV.
Marks claims Nicholas was flexing his muscles for Uwanawich. Nicholas' explanation for the trip to Marks' door isn't known, but he roamed South Florida with the media quite a bit, surprising some Gypsies in their shops.

Marks' admitted goal in granting an interview with New Times was to get revenge: "I want to see John Nicholas out of the sheriff's office." He says Nicholas is abusing the badge by playing power games in the Gypsy world, by helping certain Gypsy factions while trying to destroy others. He believes that Nicholas is conflicted in his job, that "He no longer knows whether he's coming or going."

But what Marks, a Gypsy with an ax to grind, claims against Nicholas doesn't hold much weight. He might want Nicholas out of the picture simply so he can go about his business unimpeded by a man with a badge who knows him too well.

His allegations gain a little more credibility, however, in light of the trip Nicholas took to Miami Beach.

The trip, on August 28, 1997, was supposed to be about sharing information on Gypsy criminals, but Miami Beach's Lt. Tom Skinner believes it was a ploy by Nicholas to give his Gypsy friends the power of the badge in an area much coveted by Gypsies, who have squabbled over it for years.

With Vine Miller in tow, Nicholas met at the police department with Skinner, Sgt. James Hyde, and Det. Robert Hundevadt. Nicholas told the trio of lawmen that Miller knew about criminal Gypsy activity in their jurisdiction and could help them make some arrests.

The problem was, Miller was obviously giving information on rivals there, and Skinner knew it. Then came the kicker: Nicholas told them that a Gypsy named John Uwanawich was investing $15,000 in a shop on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Uwanawich could help them, too, Detective Hundevadt remembers Nicholas telling them. Nicholas said John Uwanawich was a Gypsy who Miami Beach police could trust, Hundevadt says.

Skinner didn't know who John Uwanawich was, didn't know he was a briber of cops, but he did know the whole thing stank.

"I felt Nicholas and the other guy were trying to use us, and I didn't want anything to do with it," Skinner says. "I didn't want anybody to be able to say they had me in their pocket."

Skinner called PBSO to ask about Nicholas and told internal affairs investigator John Connor that he thought Nicholas was trying to help set Miller up in the fortunetelling business in Miami Beach. An investigation ensued.

On September 23, 1997, Connor asked Nicholas a crucial question for the first time. "Who is John Uwanawich?"

"Rumor has it," Nicholas responded, "that he's investing a lot of money to open a business in Miami Beach."

There was no mention of a lifelong friendship between the two and certainly no mention that Uwanawich was a convicted felon. Connor gathered more information about Nicholas' relationship with Uwanawich and went back to question him again on October 23, suspecting that Nicholas was being less than truthful with him.

"Do you know John Uwanawich, and did you leave the country with him?" Connor asked him.

Nicholas admitted that he not only knows Uwanawich but also considers both Uwanawich and his wife personal friends. And yes, Nicholas told Connor, he recently went to Costa Rica on vacation with Uwanawich. He said he paid his own way on that trip.

Connor would later ask Nicholas why he didn't offer that information the first time he asked him about Uwanawich.

"You weren't trying to be evasive? You didn't want to open a can of worms?" Connor asked him.

"I was not feeling well," Nicholas explained. "I wasn't understanding correctly at the time. I was very mixed up."

"Why were you mixed up?"
"I'm not feeling well, not feeling good, and I was nervous. I've been not feeling well for quite a while."

During the investigation Nicholas defended his taking Miller to Miami Beach, saying he was there to help nab Gypsy criminals.

"Nicholas told me that out of all this, he has learned a lesson," Connor wrote in his report. "The lesson is that whenever he learns of something within the Gypsy community he will keep it to himself. He believes it is not worth it, if [law enforcement officers] don't trust him."

On November 10, Connor handed down his assessment that the allegation of Nicholas using his power as a deputy to help his Gypsy friends gain sway with Miami Beach police was unfounded. "The allegations lack credible factual information," he wrote. "They are based on perception."

PBSO Assistant Director Richard Virgadamo wrote a memo back to Connor disagreeing with the finding. Connor reevaluated the case and on November 21 found Nicholas guilty of "Misdirected Action or Interfering With a Official Investigations," and gave him a two-day suspension, which Nicholas was allowed to substitute for two vacation days.

Skinner laughed out loud at the punishment.
"Unbelievable," he said. "It's serious what he did. Very serious."
Three days after Connor signed off on that decision, PBSO got a phone call from Lt. Wyatt Walker of the Lee County Sheriff's Office. Walker had some information on the relationship between John Nicholas and John Uwanawich -- and Walker knows a little something about relationships between Gypsies and cops.

The Lee County Sheriff's Office was embarrassed back in 1994 when it became known that undercover agents in Orange and Seminole counties had videotaped Sheriff John McDougall and some of his top officers paying their respects at the Orlando funeral of the Rom Baro of Lee County, one Jimmy Johnson. An ensuing investigation showed that Johnson had died at a party thrown by McDougall's highest-ranking deputy at the time and that the Johnson family had contributed hundreds of dollars to McDougall's campaigns. A state investigation led to the arrest of one of Johnson's sons on several counts of fraud.

Walker told Connor that he'd heard from his own Gypsy sources that Nicholas was associating with a Gypsy named John Uwanawich. Walker didn't add anything new, except one fact: Walker filled Connor in on Uwanawich's record as a convicted felon. Walker isn't shy about his contempt for Nicholas.

"He said he's left that lifestyle and became what they call an 'American,'" he says. "He said he has nothing to do with the Gypsies any longer except to solve Gypsy crimes. Well, I know that he and John Uwanawich are best buddies."

Connor opened another investigation, which he began by confirming Uwanawich's cop-bribing conviction.

On December 11, 1997 -- less than a month after the Dateline show aired -- Connor again questioned Nicholas about Uwawanich. Connor established that Uwanawich and Nicholas were practically lifelong friends. He also brought up the Costa Rica vacation and confirmed that Nicholas was going to Gypsy weddings and funerals, something self-respecting detectives just don't do.

"You're telling me you didn't know John Uwanawich was a convicted felon?" Connor asked.

Nicholas said he didn't.
"Isn't that strange?" Connor asked later.
"No, it is not strange for me, because I have an understanding, as I told you. I know a lot of Gypsies. I know that sometimes through life, they may do something that is construed as illegal. It is my understanding, is, you stay on your side and I'll stay on my side, and we can have a friendly relationship. I don't want to know anything that you are doing because that way, I'm not involved.... I don't inquire, 'Have you committed a crime today? Have you committed a crime in the past? Are you planning a crime?'"

In short, he apparently hears no evil -- when it comes to his friends.
Connor also brought up suspicions that Nicholas was spreading the untruth that Gypsies, when caught in a swindle, are willing to give back to victims as restitution only half of what they stole.

"That's the way it operates, the traditional Gypsy way," Nicholas explained to Connor.

It was a strange statement, considering that in the John Cooke Insurance Fraud Report article, he wrote: "A Gypsy will do anything to avoid jail -- agree to a conviction, pay a fine, pay court costs and restitution (and will always pay in full) and will always repay the victim."

Instances like these have led investigators around the country to wonder about Nicholas.

"I know from dealing with these people that if you got them, they will pay you every dadgum dime you want just to get out of it," Lieutenant Walker said. "So, that's not right. Now, what his angle is, I don't know."

The suspicion, Connor said, is that Nicholas was a "fixer," or someone who travels the country to help Gypsies in their disputes with the law, rather than see to it they pay for their crimes to the fullest. That suspicion, however, has never been substantiated.

One of Connor's final questions seemed to come out of nowhere.
"You're not the Rom Baro of Palm Beach County are you?"
"No sir," Nicholas answered with a laugh.

"People have asked me that believe it or not," Connor said, "and they are all from up north."

After concluding his investigation, Connor bafflingly ruled on February 17 that the charge of associating with a criminal was unfounded.

"To prove this there needs to be evidence to show that the employee knew or should of [sic] known that person had a criminal reputation," Connor wrote in his explanation. "In this regard Deputy Sheriff John Nicholas stated he was unaware that Uwanawich was a felon, even after admitting they have known each other 'almost all their lives.' Therefore the allegation of association with a convicted felon cannot be sustained."

Virgadamo said he's not sure if he believes Nicholas or not -- it's just that they couldn't "prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that he did know of Uwanawich's past.

While Nicholas walked away from the investigation, John Uwanawich left town. According to law enforcement and Gypsy sources, he's now back in New Jersey or New York. A phone call to a fortunetelling shop in Dania where his sister-in-law lives was answered with a promise that Uwanawich would get a message to call New Times. He never called.

Before Nicholas himself went silent, he agreed to an interview in his modest one-story stucco home in a strictly middle-class part of Royal Palm Beach Village. He lives there with his non-Gypsy wife, who is a secretary at the sheriff's office, and her two children. He said his own son now works as a security guard and "knows of the Gypsy life, but he doesn't care for it." Nicholas is going on 46 years old and says he's been having heart problems. He seems tired, but he says he's still on his crusade against Gypsies, still calls himself the rat, the turncoat, the man who shamed his own father.

Only now, he's also viewed as a turncoat by many in his chosen career.
"If somebody wants his help, I'll preface it by saying, 'He's a Gypsy and he's a cop,'" says investigator Joe Livingston of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. "I tell them to be careful with the information you give him."

While many investigators view Nicholas with disdain, some remain in his corner, like Fort Lauderdale's Det. Mike Debilio and Broward County Deputy Bill Loos, who also specializes in Gypsy cases.

"The guy's got to put up with a lot of crap," Debilio said. "There's people who just don't trust him because he's a Gypsy. I would defend Nick. If I needed some help with a case, he'd be there in the drop of a hat."

Nicholas now gives seminars on Gypsy crime at a price, instead of as a direct representative of the PBSO. He still helps out other agencies when they ask for it, and when he has permission to do so. Most recently, in January, Sheriff Robert Neumann got a letter from the Coral Gables Police Department commending Nicholas, adding another letter to the stack in the personnel file. The police chief wrote to Neumann: "You are fortunate to have an individual such as John Nicholas, Jr. representing your agency and who is well respected among the law enforcement community."

Despite the praise, Nicholas has been passed over for the detective's division year after year. A supervisor wrote in one of Nicholas' evaluations that he feels Nicholas' "talents are being wasted" at PBSO, adding in capital letters that his career is "STAGNANT."

Nicholas says he's proud of at least one thing: surviving the investigations, which he said were simply failed attempts by his enemies to destroy him.

"I hold my respect very high in professional life," he says.
He blames the investigations on Gypsies who hate him, ignoring the fact that it was fellow law enforcement officers who complained about him.

He says he doesn't have much respect for the "Gypsy specialists" in law enforcement, anyway.

"A lot of cops pass themselves off as quote 'a gypsy expert,' but, to be quite frank, they don't know shit about the life. They know what they know from informants and what Gypsies want to tell them. This is bull."

Yet, in the end, they are the real detectives, and Nicholas only plays one on


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >