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Almost two years later, Mitrione -- then already in trouble for smuggling drugs and receiving bribes -- admitted that, rather than "vacate" Globe after the murder, he and Sandini went there the day after the killing to look for marijuana that Sandini believed was stashed there. Mitrione and Sandini continued holding meetings at the business as well.

Mitrione also admitted that he had his own suspicions that Sandini had murdered Esposito, but he says now that they didn't come until well after the murder. "I didn't want to believe that Sandini was capable of that," Mitrione says. "I was hoping he didn't do it, and as long as nobody came and said that he did do it, there was no reason for us to investigate the murder."

Now Mitrione, who says he never lied in those reports, says he's certain that Sandini did in fact hire assassins to murder Esposito. "It was Sandini all the way, absolutely," he says.

This infuriates Ciraolo: "They got away with murder," he claims.
The suspected motive: Esposito, like Ciraolo, had figured out that Mitrione was a federal agent. And, Mitrione explains, Sandini knew that if Esposito ruined Airlift before it achieved any success, Sandini would probably have to go back to Alabama and face his prison sentence.

"Esposito confronted me, telling me I was a cop," Mitrione recalls. "Esposito was making waves. And then Sandini had a hard-on for Frank [Esposito].

A couple years ago, the BSO cold-case squad received a tip about the Esposito murder. The investigation led Det. Mike Bole to identify two gunmen involved -- well-known mobsters Steven Cavano and Matthew Nocerino, who are both in federal prison. But Bole couldn't prove who ordered them to kill. Like every other investigator who has looked into the case, however, Bole says he has only one suspect, Sandini, and he has "no doubt" that Sandini was involved.

One of the many strange aspects about Airlift is that Ciraolo, who was supposed to have been involved in the overall "drug conspiracy," was hardly ever mentioned in FBI reports, and when he was, he wasn't smuggling drugs. Mitrione and Sandini, however, were smuggling plenty while using Hangar No. 24 at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport as their new base for the FBI operation.

Even as FBI officials argued over whether or not to let drugs "walk," Mitrione and Sandini were smuggling in hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana from Colombia and simply didn't tell the FBI about it. Soon the two of them would be buying cars, houses, businesses, silver, expensive jewelry, and other extravagances with drug money they made and never reported to the FBI.

The partners shared the hangar with Gus Doppes, who was characterized in FBI and court reports as a shrewd, high-level, and daring drug smuggler. Doppes, who was indicted but never convicted in the aftermath of Airlift, now lives in California and says he never smuggled anything.

"Mitrione and Sandini were always together, always," he says. "They practically slept together," he says.

Hangar No. 24 attracted a strange brew of brazen smugglers. FBI reports show plane trips zigzagging between North and South America, for everything from hauling cocaine to snorkeling. There were sex-and-cocaine parties involving Mitrione, two women, and Colombian Air Force Maj. Bernardo Suarez, who was also indicted but never convicted in Airlift. Suarez, who worked for at least two huge cocaine producers in Colombia, also served as George Bush's pilot and guide to Colombia when the then-vice president went on fact-finding missions on cocaine production in Colombia. FBI reports document one Sandini-Mitrione smuggling mission in which Doppes' plane almost went down in the Gulf of Mexico. They had to dump hundreds of pounds of cocaine into the water to save themselves, which made the Colombians who owned the cocaine very unhappy. Two of Doppes' pilots were later kidnapped and held at gunpoint in Colombia. Doppes risked his life to save them, according to Mitrione. Doppes denies the story, but Mitrione says he admires Doppes to this day because of the rescue.

There was only one seizure during Airlift -- of nearly 200 kilograms of what the FBI reported was the most potent cocaine (95 percent pure) ever seen in the southeastern United States. It was the largest seizure in Fort Lauderdale history at the time. What no one knew until later was that Mitrione and Sandini skimmed 42 kilos from it, which would make them each $1 million. Then Mitrione resigned from the FBI, and he and Sandini began buying property, businesses, and other investments.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman