By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The drive from Brickell Key, in downtown Miami, to the federal prison in South Dade normally takes about 30 minutes. But for Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko the journey took a full year. This past Friday the West African millionaire entered the minimum-security facility, where he will serve 43 days for paying an "illegal gratuity" to a U.S. Customs agent so he could sneak a pair of helicopters from Miami to the tiny African nation of Gambia.
Sissoko spent more than one million dollars trying to avoid Friday afternoon's twenty-mile drive to prison. He retained nearly a dozen defense attorneys to fight the criminal charges, and hired a former United States senator to apply political pressure to Attorney General Janet Reno. In the process, Sissoko's defenders unleashed a vicious smear campaign against the prosecutor and the customs agent responsible for his indictment, accusing them of being unethical, corrupt, and racist.
In a last-minute maneuver, Sissoko's supporters argued he that couldn't be imprisoned because he was protected by diplomatic immunity, a claim struck down two weeks ago by a federal judge who promptly ordered Sissoko to report to prison -- thirteen months after he was arrested, eight months after pleading guilty, and six months after being sentenced.
Most people in Miami know Sissoko through tales of his extravagant generosity and lavish spending sprees. He gave Miami Central High School $300,000 so its marching band could attend the upcoming Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. He bought three of his attorneys brand-new $60,000 Mercedes, and doled out Jaguars to several others. He tipped a masseuse $10,000 and routinely handed out hundred-dollar bills to homeless people. When he overheard a woman at a car dealership haggling about the price of a Range Rover, Sissoko stepped in and simply bought it for her. Each bit of Sissoko munificence, dutifully chronicled by the local media, has added another brush stroke to the emerging portrait of a legend, a South Florida folk hero whose big heart has been matched by an even bigger bank account, and a man whose criminal case has become a cause celebre in Miami's black community.
Despite his instant renown, Baba Sissoko remains largely a mystery to the public, the source of his vast wealth a subject of conflicting speculation. As for his personal life, only a coterie of insiders has been privileged to glimpse that world. One of them is Ewa Adamek, a 47-year-old Polish immigrant who came to the United States in 1989. Upon first meeting Sissoko, Adamek believed he must be some sort of god.
Soon after her arrival in this county, Adamek found herself in upstate New York, where she met and fell in love with a man named Rene Dubois, a driving-school instructor from the African nation of Zaire (recently rechristened as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). They moved in together and Dubois, a pilot by training, began looking for business opportunities in aviation. Adamek eked out a living cleaning houses and baby-sitting.
Thanks to an African friend, Dubois in 1995 was introduced to Sissoko, who at that time was attempting to launch an ambitious new venture, a commercial airline to be called Air Dabia. Dubois traveled to Africa and met with Sissoko, who not only offered him a job but gave him a gold necklace and other jewelry as presents for Adamek. When Dubois returned to New York with a new job and luxurious gifts, Ewa Adamek thought her prayers had been answered.
In November 1995 Sissoko traveled to New York. Adamek and Dubois went to the airport to greet him. "I was driving an old Nissan, and when I took Baba from the airport to the Four Seasons, I could see that he did not like my car and was not very comfortable," Adamek recalls. "After we got to the hotel, he left for a couple of hours with Rene, and when they came back Baba gave me the keys to a new car. He went out and bought me a car! I couldn't believe it! I thought that God had come down from the sky and blessed me."
A few weeks later, on New Year's Eve, Sissoko chartered three private jets to take Adamek, Dubois, and a growing entourage of hangers-on to Atlantic City, where they spent the night gambling at Donald Trump's Castle casino. Adamek says Sissoko lost several hundred thousand dollars at the roulette table. "It was all very exciting," she recounts. "We'd walk through the casino and there would be security guards surrounding us and clearing a path. Everyone in the place would just stop what they were doing and stare at us, trying to figure out who we were."
It was the same when Sissoko went shopping in Manhattan. "He would only shop in Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany's," she says. "You could never take him somewhere where he might find the same item for a discount -- that was not the image he wanted people to see."
In Sissoko's roving entourage, which often included his brother, one or two of his four wives, several business agents, musicians, bodyguards, drivers, and a retinue of toadies, everyone seemed to have a role to play, including Adamek, who says she was instructed by one of Sissoko's wives to give up her cleaning and baby-sitting jobs. "Marie Louise told me that it would not be appropriate for the manager of Baba's airline to be with a cleaning lady," she recalls. Instead Adamek would put to use her talent for languages -- she speaks Polish, English, French, and Russian -- and act as an interpreter for Marie Louise, who spoke French. (Sissoko himself speaks a Malian dialect known as Bambara and some English, but reportedly he is more comfortable with French.)