Longform

Finding Gary, Part 2

Page 4 of 8

"Do you have any idea what your brother is involved in?" her birthday date asked her under the stars on the Zaca.

"No," she replied.

"Well, it's really bad."

And so it was. Krugh was routinely flying loads of marijuana from Jamaica and cocaine from Colombia for Sandy and Danny. All of it went through Andros Island in the Bahamas, where it was picked up in boats and brought to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. In charge of the boats were a couple of smugglers named Stanley Combs and Rex Foster, who today says he made $5 million smuggling drugs during a five-year period. "I partied all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," boasts the Georgia-born Foster, who is 66 years old and retired in Wilton Manors. "It was easy money."

Sandini and Mitrione put the deals together and arranged for distribution of the drugs, usually in Pittsburgh, a city where Sandini had contacts in organized crime. They conducted their business in Hangar 24 at the executive airport, where Mitrione usually sat in a front office while Sandini, playing the role of godfather, sat in back. For his undercover role, the FBI put up the married Mitrione in an oceanfront condo on Galt Ocean Mile that Sandini called the "playpen." They chased women and frequented prostitutes, and on at least one occasion, the agent snorted cocaine. Their favorite haunt was the Laughing Fish Pub, which was located in a since-closed Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale.

They were big tippers.

"On birthdays and Christmas, they were more than generous with me and the other girls," says Marie Locie, who was one of Sandini's favorite cocktail waitresses at the Laughing Fish. "Sandy gave me a thousand-dollar watch for my birthday, and he put my roommate through nursing school. He'd grab you by the arm and say, 'Marie, we need more drinks.' He was a big guy, a control freak. You could tell by his nature."

She found Danny, on the other hand, "mellow and nice." Locie says she didn't know what either of them did for a living, just that they always had lots of cash and always seemed ready to have a good time.

While Mitrione and Sandini lived like kings, their chief pilot, Krugh, was the courtier. In late 1982, the pair sent Krugh to Colombia to visit a drug lord, possibly Jorge Ochoa. There, he was taken to the jungle, where he was shown a cocaine production lab and familiarized himself with a remote airstrip by riding a mule on it.

Krugh's counterpart was Luis Bernardo Sanchez-Castro, a retired colonel in the Colombian Air Force. Sanchez, who went by the alias "Hernando," was so respected in his country that he served in the early 1980s as George H.W. Bush's escort during a fact-finding mission on cocaine production in Colombia, according to FBI records. Sanchez spent weeks at a time in South Florida, mostly with Mitrione and Krugh, helping to coordinate shipments and handle money.

Yet the smuggling operation was still a bungled mess. Loads of drugs were routinely lost and stolen, often by authorities in the Bahamas or the Colombian Army. At one point, three pilots were kidnapped (and later released) by Colombians who believed Sandini and Mitrione had stolen their cocaine.

The duo still managed to make millions on their illegal activities -- right under the bureau's nose. Internal FBI reports indicate that Mitrione received little to no supervision. Numerous signs that the agent had gone bad were either ignored or condoned. For instance, Mitrione rarely ever wore a wire, and he always seemed, mysteriously, to become unavailable when the FBI wanted to bug Hangar 24. He would also become sullen and refuse to speak with his case agents for days at a time.

In January 1983, almost a year after Airlift began, then-agent Christopher Mazzella, now Miami-Dade County's inspector general, reviewed the Airlift file and found that it was in "shambles," according to reports. Word reached Mitrione that headquarters was talking about shutting down his operation. On March 5, 1983, he and Sandini made a bold move to appease the FBI brass: They stole 200 kilograms of cocaine from a Colombian shipment in Memphis and delivered it to authorities as proof that they were getting the job done.

The bureau gave the cocaine to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, making it the largest seizure of that drug in that agency's history. It was the top news story of the day in Broward County; then-Chief Leo Callahan posed for pictures with the seized white bricks and fabricated a story for the media about how one of the department's drug dogs sniffed out the cocaine in a Fort Lauderdale parking lot.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman