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The truly big Fort Lauderdale smugglers and their Colombian suppliers involved in Airlift quietly escaped without conviction. Mitrione pleaded guilty to cocaine conspiracy and accepting bribes -- and wound up doing just three years in prison, two less than Ciraolo.

That's what's fueled Ciraolo's obsession, what he sees as the hypocrisy and failure of the justice system. Ciraolo, who has spent a good part of the past 13 years pouring over Airlift documents and writing judges and lawyers about it, is angry not so much about the crimes of which Mitrione and Sandini were found guilty but the crimes that were never mentioned at the trial -- like the attempted bombing he mentioned to Weber and an execution-style murder. Ciraolo himself played a vital role in both. He introduced Sandini to a man named Frank Esposito, who was gunned down at the beginning of Airlift; and it was Ciraolo who picked up a bomb from under Sandini's car at the very end of the operation.

Ciraolo says he's known in his gut for years that Sandini -- while working for the FBI -- had Esposito murdered. And the bomb, Ciraolo is certain, was planted by Mitrione to silence Sandini about their crimes. Ciraolo's charges are unproven -- but the reports show that the FBI suspected the same thing. Yet prosecutors and Judge Weber were never interested in the murder or the bombing. They had a drug case to prosecute, not a homicide case. Making Airlift any murkier than it already was -- by tying the FBI to these violent crimes -- would have ruined Mitrione as a key witness and destroyed the trial in which Ciraolo and several other defendants were convicted.

The tangled, untold mysteries of Airlift were supposed to fade away and die. But Vinnie Ciraolo refuses to forget or forgive.

Finding a more unlikely crusader for justice than Ciraolo would prove difficult. He admits he was a bookmaker with the Mob and laughs about all the cops he's paid off in his lifetime. A self-proclaimed "degenerate," he's made hundreds of thousands of dollars in cold, illicit cash but blew most all of it at racetracks and on large legal fees while defending himself against numerous criminal charges.

Growing up in Brooklyn, he held out Mafia boss Carlo Gambino, who was a neighbor, as his role model. But police have scratched their heads trying to figure out exactly where Ciraolo himself fits in with the Mafia. Ciraolo wavers on whether he is a "made" member, sometimes refusing to say and other times saying he isn't. Law-enforcement agencies, from federal agents to cops in New York and Broward County, contradict each other about Ciraolo's place in the criminal hierarchy. He's been listed as a member of the Gambino crime family, the Luchese family, and the Gallo-Profaci faction of the Mob. And now, even in his pajamas, he cuts the classic figure of a mobster; the voice, the hard eyes, the toughness, the flashes of homicidal fury and callous vulgarity mingling with a sly, infectious charm.

"Nobody can figure me out, and nobody ever will," he says, pleased with his deception. "I been around the merry-go-round."

And around federal pens. It didn't take long for Ciraolo to wind up in a courtroom after he moved from New York to Florida in 1971. He was convicted of counterfeiting in Miami, and while in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Ciraolo first met Sandini. Soon, he made that "first mistake" -- saving Sandini from a knife-wielding attacker while both of them were sick in the prison hospital.

Ciraolo -- a grandfather who has been married to wife Joanna since he was 15 -- was paroled in 1975 and went back to building his trucking company in Broward County, where he had a contract to supply dirt to the Pompano harness track. One of his drivers was Esposito, a known Mafia associate.

Sandini, meanwhile, moved to Fort Lauderdale in the late '70s, where court records show he ran a drug-smuggling operation and was known to boast about his connection to Ciraolo. In 1980 or 1981, Ciraolo introduced Sandini to a restaurant owner named Harold Shatz. Soon Shatz was dealing drugs with Sandini, and one day Shatz came to Ciraolo complaining that Sandini had paid him in counterfeit bills.

"I told [Shatz], 'Get the fuck out of here,'" Ciraolo says. "You don't fuck with that shit [drugs]."

On Halloween in 1981, Shatz disappeared. It wasn't until 1987, well after Sandini was sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed during Airlift, that Sandini pleaded guilty to the Shatz murder. The killing was a family affair -- Sandini shot Shatz and rolled him up in a carpet, and his daughter brought out a sheet to help wrap up the corpse. Then they buried him. The body has never been found.

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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