Nine months had passed since the cash was seized from a Deerfield Beach check-cashing/loan-sharking joint run by Nicholas "The Little Man" Corozzo, reputed to be John Gotti's heir apparent as boss of the Gambino crime family. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's own rules dictate that confiscated money must be processed into evidence within ten days of the seizure. On the morning of May 30, 1997, as Sanchez, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Miami, peered across his desk at Sullivan, the money still hadn't arrived in the evidence room.
Sullivan, a 25-year FBI veteran who ran the organized crime unit, had been asked repeatedly by fellow agents to produce the money. Over and over again, he lied. Sanchez finally had enough of the subterfuge.
No problem, Sullivan replied. All he needed was an hour to get it.
He drove his government-issued car north to his west Plantation home and filled a bag with clothes, a hair dryer, a toothbrush, and toothpaste. He wrote a note to his wife, Catherine, telling her he loved her and drove off in his own 1990 white Lincoln Town Car. After withdrawing $400 from a nearby bank, he sped onto Alligator Alley, heading west across the Everglades. At some point he stopped and called home, leaving a message for Catherine, telling her again that he loved her. Agents in Miami, meanwhile, were frantically trying to call and page him with no luck. Agents, fearing Sullivan was going to kill himself, began a vast FBI manhunt.
Sullivan drove on toward the Gulf of Mexico and didn't stop until he reached the Marco Island Resort on Florida's southwest coast. The hotel is an unofficial refuge for federal crime-fighters, run by a former FBI agent, and frequented by agents in need of relaxation. Sullivan used his credit card to pay for the room, knowing the bureau would trace it and locate him within 24 hours. They'd find him sooner or later anyway.
The agent sat down at the resort bar and started knocking back beers, breaking his five-year sobriety streak. He knew how to drink. It was one of the things at which he'd become an expert while working undercover for the FBI. That night, he drank a case of beer and a few vodka tonics and waited for his years of thievery and deceit finally to catch up with him.
His treacherous endgame had failed, and now the deconstruction of Sullivan's strange and contradictory life was about to begin.
FBI agents flooded the resort the next day. After arresting Sullivan while he was on his way to buy more booze, agents grilled him in his room. The agents smelled the alcohol on him but didn't think he seemed drunk. Sullivan told them he'd stolen more than just Corozzo's money. He'd taken a grand total of $400,000 from the FBI and used it to gamble with the very same mobsters he was supposed to have been investigating.
Sullivan didn't admit to everything. He'd also lied to a judge to spring a Mafia associate from prison in hopes the well-heeled criminal would return the favor with cash. That and more would come out later. But the FBI had enough to charge him with theft and lying to fellow FBI agents and place him in jail, where he spent two nights before putting up his house to post $100,000 bond.
Sullivan soon became a national disgrace, his crimes of theft and lying to the FBI detailed in newspapers throughout the United States. A team of 19 agents would spend months going through every case he ever worked, every surveillance tape he ever made, every covertly recorded discussion he'd had with organized crime figures, every report and memo he'd ever submitted. The massive investigation was appropriately titled "Operation Lost Count."
Psychologists examined Sullivan's mind and found an alcoholic; a pathological gambler; a man stricken with obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and a number of other mental problems about which the FBI apparently knew nothing as he rose through the ranks and conducted countless sensitive investigations.
The unforgiving light of the FBI's Lost Count probe also reflected back upon the bureau itself. Suddenly, as in the undercover work that Sullivan claims hastened his demise, the truth became difficult to discern. This was more than the story of an agent gone bad. It was also the story, untold in the news media, of the FBI's own flaws, of its maddening mistakes, of its losing track not only of $400,000 but of a man once considered a prized agent.