The Canadian Quadruple Threat

I make it a point to not envy too many people. I make an exception for Lee Lamothe.

Lamothe, 60, leads a life that I aspire to: successful reporter, “investigative researcher,” nonfiction author and best-selling novelist. I had lunch with Lamothe today in San Francisco’s Richmond district. The Elmore Leonard-ish dude was in town to unwind and to visit SF-MOMA.

I met Lamothe many years ago when I was a crime reporter at the Sarasota (Fla) Herald-Tribune. I had reported on a rare strain of Italian organized crime, the ‘ndrangheta, that United States authorities were prosecuting. It was the first time that the group, also known as the Calabrian mafia, had been indicted in the U.S., alleged to be in cahoots with members of the Medellin cartel. Lamothe included the Florida case in his 1995 book “Global Mafia,” co-authored with Antonio Nicaso. (I still remember some of the names of the defendants: Paolo Barranca, Fausto Figliomeni and Vincenzo Lomabardo, Canadians all popped in Sarasota.)

Lamothe, who for many years reported for the Toronto Sun, lately has been hopscotching between genres. Two years ago he wrote The Sixth Family (The Collapse of The New York Mafia and the Rise of Vito Rizzuto) and he just finished another novel, The Finger’s Twist. His first novel, The Last Thief, came from researching a money laundering case in the Bahamas with ties to the Russian mob.

“We’ll fuck them all, the living and the dead!” and “Give me everything you got and then I want more,” lines in his Last Thief novel, came directly from wiretap transcripts in the real life Bahamian money laundering case. (Lamothe found the transcripts and other information in the federal courts in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.)

Lamothe has done some surveillance and other straight-up P.I. work in the private sector, though he keeps this part of his identity more compartmentalized.

His native Toronto is a crime reporter and crime writer’s paradise. Why? He explained that lax Canadian immigration policies allow mobsters from across the globe to come roost in the frozen north. “Canada is a haven for organized crime,” he says.

Lamothe knows his limitations as an investigator. He does not have a background with “numbers” or accounting but knows when someone is slimy. “I look at the guy who supplies the numbers,” he says. “If the guy is crooked, the numbers are crooked.”

Lamothe has probably been writing about mobsters and goons for the better part of 30 years. He still as a matter of fairness tries to get interviews with his subjects and have them tell their side of the story. “They tolerate me,” he says. “I can sit there all night with them.” Some things, like reporting about their family lives or children, are off-limits. He has had his share of threats over the years, such as this charming one:

“Fucking look in here and I will put a bullet in your head,” he recalls.

This thought from him rings in my head, music to my crime-reporting roots: “It is the true crime that feeds fiction or screen plays.”

Newspaper protected anchorman/dope smuggler: Part 1 of 2

(This is the first of two parts. I still have all my original notes for the reporting that I did while at the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune.)

I have held this story and accompanying grudge for 15 years. It’s about fundamental unfairness. Why did one pot smuggler rot and die in a federal prison and the other flourish and advance his “legit career”?

Hey, 1992 called. Whoa, it’s Mike Spencer, police reporter with a poker up his ass in Sarasota, Florida. Six months out of UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, I left my job with the Contra Costa Times to fulfill a fantasy of covering police and crime in Florida, at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. People had told me that if I wanted to get my crime-reporting freak on, then head to the sunny state for shady people.

In what should have been one of my biggest stories, an executive editor, Diane McFarlin, now publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, spiked it because she deemed the subject of my reporting “too popular.” I had dared to bring down a local television weather/anchorman. (I am a man! I am an ANCHORman! […] ) I learned that this pillar of the community, “Jim Jackson,” real name James Jackson Minard, had played a large role in one of Southwest Florida’s most notorious dope investigations, “Operation Cuisinart.” (A TV station poll once named him “Most Influential Person in Town.” )

Jim Jackson not only snitched off his own brother-in-law, a chef for whom the case was named, but helped set the massive investigation in motion.

I was a brash, ambitious punk unwise to corporate politics. In front of me I saw a gig at the Los Angeles Times or The Philadelphia Inquirer. I had replacedKaren Dillon, the reporter who covered the PeeWee Herman “bust” in Sarasota. (We all remember the infamous mug shot taken after he had watched Nancy Nurse at the South Trail Triple XXX theater.)

I broke stories with unconventioanal methods. I hung out at a few strip clubs from time to time and got tips (uh, and gave them too). I knew to check the court for returned search warrants. Police would forget that those warrants were public record. I rummaged in police personnel records snouting for tidbits of bad joo-joo and complaints about certain officers. I slept next to a scanner in my apartment. I rode my motorcyle through the swamps to get to car crashes before paramedics. I got off work at 11 at night and liked to shoot pool and drain pitchers at the 8-Ball Lounge or swill Mai-Tais at the Ba Hai Hut, aka the Bye Bye Hut.

I knew the lay of the land. I called out the Sheriff for trying to pass his golden retriever off as a legit campaign supporter in a newspaper ad. I cracked the Sheriff just before election time for a lie that his deputies had interdicted a boat full of cocaine in the Gulf. (The reality was that his deputies and informants had controlled the delivery and were on the vessel. ) I knew the DEA trucked with the sheriff’s office while Customs and the FBI swung with the more professional Sarasota Police Department.

Diane McFarlin could afford to go after PeeWee Herman. She said nyet to his attorney’s attempts to keep his client’s indiscretion out of the paper. Weather/anchorman Jim Jackson at Channel 40 WWSB was a different, protected class around the mid-sized city. Channel 40 used to run these schmaltzy Crime Stopper pieces stroking the local cops and never did any real reporting. Channel 40 might just as well have read police press reports verbatim. Channel 40 was all about perpretrating the Florida fun in the sun myth.

Jackson had an oily unctuous persona on TV, reminscent of Eddie Haskell. We knew that he was an Ohio native who “had fallen in love with the Gulf Coast.” We knew he liked boating. In those days Jim was a happy bachelor around town. Southwest Florida in the ’80s and early ’90s was awash in a lot of cocaine and weed. It was party central and Jim was a popular party boy, dealing cocaine not only out of his swinging condo in the late ’80s but down at the TV station, according to his former roommates.

Until 1993 I had no reason to associate Jim Jackson with anything unsavory, other than working at a mawkish TV station. It was my reporting on some new wrinkles in an old drug case and a bizarre incident involving Jackson and an old arrest warrant that made me realize Jim Jackson was a snitch and a fraud. I had on- the -record sources about Jackson’s role in the criminal enterprise but the Sarasota power structure, embodied by Ms. McFarlin, apparently did not want to hear the bad news.

(Check back in a few days for Part II, when, dear reader, I will reveal how the popular TV celebrity dodged media shame and went on with his life while others went to prison.)