Daniel Mitrione traded the integrity of his FBI shield for a fast boat, fashionable clothes, luxury houses, expensive trips and 20 bars of silver.
His story is that of the erosion of principle by greed and corruption.
Mitrione’s partner in a nine-month FBI undercover operation was Hilmer B. Sandini, 60, of Coral Springs, a convicted con man and drug smuggler who moved with ease through the world of organized crime and Colombian cocaine suppliers.
And, when the FBI finally decided to end Mitrione’s case – dubbed “Operation Airlift” – in the spring of 1983, the embittered agent eventually admitted that he had destroyed valuable evidence, allowed huge shipments of cocaine to enter the country untouched, snorted cocaine, hired prostitutes for parties, embezzled $250,000 in government funds and earned another $850,000 from resale of cocaine shipments he didn’t report to authorities.
Last March, Mitrione, 38, pleaded guilty in Miami to federal charges of bribery, conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and is awaiting sentencing.
Sandini reportedly earned $1.7 million from the sale of drugs while working with Mitrione. Now the two men are pitted against each other – Mitrione as a key government witness and Sandini as a defendant – in a Pittsburgh federal courtroom.
Mitrione’s case made national headlines last week when it was disclosed that his reports to the FBI during Operation Airlift contained allegations that five Dallas Cowboys were shaving points during NFL games in exchange for cocaine.
The story of the FBI agent gone bad and the organized crime associate turned stoolie is detailed in confidential U.S. Justice Department documents obtained by the News and Sun-Sentinel.
The documents are the first-person accounts of Mitrione and Sandini as told to other FBI agents, prosecutors and a federal grand jury.
The story of Airlift and corruption began in February 1982 when Sandini, who had been sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison in Alabama for marijuana smuggling, sought out the FBI in a deal to reduce his prison sentence.
“The nature of Airlift was a combination of factors. We were set up as an electronic scanning company, at an airport, where we would solicit business from various drug traffickers, people we hoped were drug traffickers, so that we could scan their airplanes, cars, homes for bugs (police listening devices). And we actually became a debugging service for them (smugglers), to better identify them,” Mitrione explained to the grand jury.
The FBI had obtained jurisdiction to investigate narcotics from the Justice Department in January 1982, and Operation Airlift was one of the agency’s first attempts at running an undercover smuggling case.
“We were early on in the case. We were without guidelines. Things were happening in a fairly quick fashion,” Mitrione told the grand jury.
Mitrione and Sandini set up a front business at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Hangar 24. They ran the debugging service and also offered to transport cocaine from South America.
In a statement turned over to government prosecutors, Sandini described his FBI boss, Mitrione, as someone who “drank heavy and loved to chase women. But during the day, he seemed to be a hard worker.
“Dan and I became closer for some reason. He could speak Spanish and Italian. He claimed to be Italian and I guess that was the reason,” Sandini wrote.
From the outset, Sandini claimed, Mitrione spent FBI money lavishly.
“When Airlift was born, Dan went out and spent money for a new wardrobe and got an apartment on the ocean in Fort Lauderdale for his playpen,” Sandini said.
Mitrione also had an opinion about his new informant.
“You have to understand one thing about Mr. Sandini,” Mitrione said to the grand jury. “He was known in the narcotics business in South Florida and he had a very strong reputation. He was a very powerful individual. And anybody who met him tried to play up to him. He would encourage that.”
Operation Airlift’s first big score was to be a 2,000-kilo cocaine deal from Paraguay.
The plan was to let the first 1,000-kilo cocaine shipment “walk” untouched into the United States, obtain the names of those who received the drugs and then bust those involved in the second 1,000-kilo shipment that would follow.
But the plan collapsed when Justice Department officials refused at the 11th hour to allow the 1,000 kilos to pass into the country.
Mitrione was devastated, according to Sandini.
“It was at this point that Dan really changed,” Sandini said in his statement. “He became very hard to work with for about a week. He had severe moods of depression and cursed Washington for having people making decisions that knew absolutely nothing about the drug business and knew nothing about working undercover.”
Sandini said it was at this juncture that Mitrione said he didn’t want to “baby-sit” Sandini any longer.
“Mitrione said he had better things to do and he wanted in on the big money and, upon the completion of Airlift, he wanted out of the bureau,” Sandini said.
The pair’s next move in Operation Airlift was with two Miami cocaine suppliers named Gloria and Alex.
Mitrione and Sandini attended four meetings at which the FBI agent witnessed Sandini purchase a total of eight kilos of cocaine from Gloria and Alex. Mitrione never reported the drug transactions to the FBI and he allowed Sandini to sell the drugs.
“I did not report the narcotics transactions I had witnessed because I wanted the case to continue,” Mitrione told other FBI agents after he had resigned. “I also realized I was over a barrel and knew Sandini remained involved with Gloria’s organization, and I could not stop him.
“I also began to realize that it was very possible that FBI Miami would not receive permission from FBI headquarters to ‘walk’ drugs; however, the investigation was proceeding rapidly and I found it impossible to turn back,” he said.
In November 1982, Mitrione said, he and Sandini flew in a Learjet to Pittsburgh to meet with organized crime figures involved in the cocaine- smuggling network. That meeting resulted in Mitrione’s first use of cocaine.
“One of the men produced a vial of cocaine, a ‘coke spoon,’ and stated something to the effect, ‘We’re gonna do some coke.’ I did ingest some cocaine,” Mitrione told agents.
Sandini was not present during the cocaine incident, but Mitrione said they later talked about what had happened.
“We both agreed that I had been ‘tested’ to ensure that I was not a law enforcement officer. The way the situation developed, I had no choice but to use the cocaine. That was the first and only time that I used cocaine during Airlift, and I did not tell anyone in the FBI about the incident,” Mitrione said.
The next month, Mitrione turned from drugs to prostitutes.
With $600 furnished by Sandini, Mitrione said he was instructed to pay for the “party services” of several women. At the time, Mitrione was entertaining several of the pilots involved in the smuggling ring.
“The party took place at the Airlift undercover apartment,” Mitrione said. When Christmas 1982 arrived, Mitrione said, Sandini was in a generous spirit.
“Sandini handed me approximately $3,500 and stated something to the effect, ‘This will help you through the holidays,’ ” Mitrione said.
Along with the money, Mitrione told agents, Sandini handed him a gift-wrapped package containing a $9,000 Rolex watch.
“I spent the money within the next few weeks. That was the first time that I accepted money from Sandini,” Mitrione said later. “I presumed at the time that the cash and the watch I received was a portion of Sandini’s cut of the profits for the load of cocaine that I believed had been driven to Fort Lauderdale.”
In January 1983, Mitrione said he flew to Kokomo, Ind., to pick up 200 kilos of cocaine to be flown in by the smugglers.
“I recall lying in bed at the hotel in Kokomo that night, while waiting for Sandini’s telephone call with further instructions, and thinking about driving directly to the FBI office with the cocaine,” Mitrione said. “By doing so, I believed that I might put this activity behind me, regardless of the consequences, before it went beyond the point of no return.”
Mitrione was never faced with the decision of turning in the drugs or letting them “walk” into the country. The pilot flying the shipment from Colombia had engine trouble just off the coast near New Orleans and dumped the cargo into the bayous.
But what Mitrione said he didn’t know was that Sandini and the pilot had held back about 30 kilos of cocaine that had not been dumped from the plane.
“A few days following my return from Kokomo, hangar 24 was crawling with Colombians. They demanded to speak with the pilot and his mechanic, and they went over the plane with a fine-tooth comb,” Mitrione said.
“I repeatedly attempted to convince Sandini to return the cocaine, inasmuch as I genuinely was concerned about the possibility of being killed by the Colombians.”
It was at that point that he lost control of the undercover operation, Mitrione later told FBI agents.
“At this point in time, I had been totally compromised by Sandini and he was well aware of it,” Mitrione said. “In addition, Sandini was aware that I would be in trouble if I did not receive Department of Justice authorization to witness narcotic transactions. During this time frame, I lost leverage with Sandini and he had gained control of the situation.”
Without that control, Mitrione said he sought money.
“I accepted cash payments from Sandini from approximately February 1983 through the late fall of 1983. I received 12 payments ranging from a minimum of $10,000 to a maximum of $85,000,” Mitrione told agents. “Sandini generally made payments to me in public places or in Sandini’s vehicle or at his residence.
“There were many reasons why I accepted the money, including my frustration with Airlift,” he said.
With the money, plus the $250,000 he embezzled from the FBI, Mitrione said he spent $12,000 on a car, $35,000 on a boat and $25,000 on a gambling junket to Atlantic City and the Bahamas; lent $45,000 to his friends; and spent $75,000 for party expenses, $25,000 for 20 bars of silver, $150,000 for a house, and $210,000 for property in Fort Myers. He also kept $200,000 in a suitcase.
Mitrione’s biggest payday occurred in March 1983 when he and Sandini learned there was a “stranded” shipment of cocaine in Memphis, Tenn.
At the same time, Mitrione said, he found out someone at FBI headquarters had criticized the undercover operation because no cocaine had been seized.
With the stranded 250 kilos of cocaine, Mitrione said he saw a way to appease both sides of the fence he was working.
He and Sandini could skim 42 kilos from the shipment for later resale and give eight kilos to two other members of the ring, and he could have the remaining 200 kilos seized to satisfy the upper echelons of the FBI in Washington.
“During our conversation regarding the shipment, I recall Sandini made a statement to me to the effect, ‘It would be nice if we could come out as millionaires.’ I recall responding to the effect, ‘You already have.’
“In my mind, I knew it would hit the fan. I was deep into it … caught up in it all and had made the leap across the line ethically.”
On March 6, 1983, Mitrione and Sandini flew to Memphis.
“Mitrione said that we should bring two or three big suitcases with us. He was going to rip off some of the load and then let the balance be busted. He felt that this would make things look good,” Sandini said in his statement.
At the Sheraton Hotel near the Memphis Airport, Mitrione said, the men were told the 250 kilos of cocaine were in a blue pickup truck with a white camper top, bearing Illinois license plates.
“At the truck, Sandini removed three suitcases from the rental car. Several green duffel bags were located in the bed of the camper. I removed 42 packages believed to be one kilo of cocaine each and packed the packages in the suitcases,” Mitrione said. “Sandini returned in the rental car and I gave him the filled suitcases.”
Mitrione said he then drove the pickup truck to the parking lot of a grocery store in Fort Lauderdale. There, the shipment was seized under an arrangement between the FBI and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
Sandini claims Mitrione made $1.6 million from the sale of the stolen 42 kilos of drugs.
Mitrione told the Pittsburgh grand jury that stealing the 42 kilos of cocaine was Sandini’s idea. Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Tietlebaum why he went along with the plan, Mitrione said:
“Oh, I was afraid primarily of compromise. Sandini had already had me in several situations, receipt of money, allowances of cocaine to go through traffic, etc., receipt of gifts, things which I in effect pleaded guilty to.
“I could either do one of two things, either balk at him and say, ‘No, we are not going to do it,’ and risk it all, or I could say, ‘Let’s do it,’ and hope that we never get caught.”
A troubled federal judge sentenced former FBI agent Daniel A. Mitrione Jr. to 10 years in prison Thursday on cocaine conspiracy and bribery charges after hearing testimony that the bureau had been negligent in directing one of its first undercover narcotics investigations.
“The lady holding the scales of justice may have a blindfold on, but she has a tear on her cheek today,” said U.S. District Judge Eugene Spellman before pronouncing the sentence. “If ever there was a day to damn the drug society, this is the case.”
Mitrione, 38, of Cooper City, had previously pleaded guilty to skimming 42 kilos of cocaine and earning $850,000 from the sale of drugs during a 1982-83 undercover investigation dubbed Operation Airlift.
Mitrione, an 11-year veteran of the agency, posed as a drug transporter at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport during the investigation – one of the first narcotics investigations undertaken by the FBI after being granted jurisdiction in drug cases in 1982. The FBI’s informant in the case, organized crime associate Hilmer B. Sandini of Coral Springs, was later indicted in Pittsburgh on federal drug-smuggling charges.
Mitrione’s attorney, Dan Forman of Miami, presented testimony of former and current FBI agents and a clinical psychologist who agreed that the bureau had mishandled the sensitive inquiry that at its apex had infiltrated a Colombian cocaine network capable of importing 500 pounds of cocaine every 10 days.
“I’m very disappointed. I felt we bared our soul to the judge and we told the truth. There is no doubt to me that the FBI is guilty of gross negligence,” Forman said.
Agent David Boner testified that he was teamed with Mitrione on Operation Airlift in early 1982 but was removed after a few months. Boner said Mitrione was then left alone in his undercover role with Sandini.
“Sandini was an overwhelming individual. Very domineering,” Boner said. “The bureau wasn’t making decisions. They were very tentative. That left us very frustrated not knowing where the case was going.”
Former agent Charles Vakian said the FBI Miami office had a reputation of not supporting undercover projects.
“Miami is the worst office in the bureau,” Vakian said in explaining why he left the FBI after 10 years in 1980 after an undercover investigation.
“I never got the same support in Miami that I got in the other offices,” he said.
Forman told Spellman that Mitrione had been a victim of FBI incompetence by the bureau’s failure to properly monitor his undercover activities. He said Mitrione was manipulated by Sandini, who has a criminal record dating to the late 1940s, into accepting gifts and stealing cocaine from shipments the FBI was supposed to seize.
The lawyer also said that Mitrione carried a pyschological scar from the 1970 assassination of his father by Uruguayan leftist terrorists and that he was not mentally capable of handling the pressures of an undercover assignment.
In addition to the prison term, Spellman sentenced Mitrione to 10 years’ probation for bribery, conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
During a 20-minute statement, Mitrione did not deny his guilt.
“It was day-to-day survival. Me, alone out there,” he said. “I am guilty. But I am also a victim.”