Knowing this, the FBI persuaded authorities in Broward County and Alabama to suspend Sandini's prison sentences. The agency then paid the informant $800 a week and paired him with Mitrione, whom Sandini introduced to the criminal underworld of South Florida as "Danny Micelli," a Chicago mobster.
The new crime-fighting duo set up headquarters in a rental car agency near the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. But just as Airlift seemed ready to take off, a major problem developed: The owner of Globe Rentals, Mafia associate Frank Esposito, didn't buy Mitrione's act. He confronted "Micelli" and accused him of being a cop. The problem was quickly solved; Esposito was gunned down in his office March 30, 1982.
Local police notified the FBI a day later that they suspected Sandini in the killing. But Mitrione downplayed the homicide to his superiors. Internal reports reveal that the FBI higher-ups basically ignored the murder. When questioned by New Times in 1999, Mitrione admitted that he suspected Sandini had Esposito killed to keep Airlift going. "It was Sandini all the way," Mitrione declared.
(Mitrione didn't return phone calls from New Times placed to a family home in Virginia for this series.)
Soon, Mitrione and Sandini relocated to the smaller Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, a place rife with smugglers. Their first major targets were Paraguayan government officials who were working with the Medellin cocaine cartel. Mitrione told his superiors that, to build trust with his Colombian contacts, he would have to let 50 kilograms "walk" into the United States, according to FBI reports. But top bureau officials, fearing political fallout, refused his request.
"A lot of time and money went down the drain, and Dan seemed to be very disappointed and turned real sour on the whole deal...," Sandini later wrote in prison. "It was at this point that Dan really changed... [He] had severe moods of depression and cursed Washington for having people that knew absolutely nothing about the drug business and knew nothing about working undercover. Shortly after the turn-down, he let me understand that from this point... he wanted in on the big money."
Sandini also wrote that Mitrione told him "the only reason he went with the Bureau was to find out who had killed his father or who had ordered the killing."
"Dan asked me to secure several guns with silencers, including a machine gun," he wrote, adding that Mitrione had assembled an unofficial "assassination squad" of friends who would kill his father's murderers.
Operation Airlift, born of murder, hidden motives, and lies, was about to really take off. And Mitrione would soon discover what big money was all about.
Tammy Krugh had the night of her life. It was October 9, 1982, when her brother Randy chartered a 65-foot yacht called the Zaca, named for Errol Flynn's famous schooner. He loaded it with caviar, shrimp, champagne, and high-end liquor and hired a captain to run it up and down the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale.
All this was for her 30th birthday. She felt lucky to have a brother like Randy. He even set her up with a good-looking, dark-haired man he introduced as Danny Micelli. As if to suggest the possibilities, her brother bought a cake from a specialty store. It was decorated in the shape of male genitalia. Tammy thought that was gross but otherwise found the night to be magical: "I remember that night like it just happened: the dancing, the stars shining. We just went down the Intracoastal and enjoyed the view, you know, where all the nice houses are? And these people on the boat were dressed to the nines, and there was all kinds of gold jewelry. It was over-the-top, first-class."
Danny was charming, unlike his older, blustery friend, Sandy, who wore a huge gold medallion around his neck and acted like he owned everything. Danny was sweet and caring and asked lots of questions about Convoy, her hometown in Ohio. They hit it off so well that Krugh flew them to the Bahamas the following morning to go diving. While she and Mitrione swam, her brother went spearfishing.
"There was blood in the water, and that was weird," she recalls. "I kept thinking that sharks could come."
One exchange during her time with Mitrione really stuck in her memory.