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Hornsby, on the other hand, argues that Sissoko used the Gambian military as if it were his own private police force. "If you have a complaint, you file a lawsuit and you take it to court," he says. "You don't take people hostage. We are a law-abiding society. Mr. Sissoko put himself above the courts."
The criminal case that brought Sissoko to Miami began in late July 1996 with the bumbling misadventures of a pair of Sissoko's employees named Serge Comminges and Moumouni Dieguimde, who had been sent to Miami from New York to buy helicopters. "It was wacky, weird shit," recalls Jim Robinson, whose Opa-locka firm, South Florida Aviation Investments, sold Comminges and Dieguimde (pronounced ko-ming-ess and dah-goom-day) two Vietnam War-era Bell helicopters for $270,000. "They were in an incredible hurry and they wanted the helicopters shipped to Gambia right away. I told them I didn't handle the shipping. They'd have to talk to someone else." For the next several days, Robinson says, he watched with amusement as the pair raced from one shipping company to another trying to find someone who would transport the helicopters to Africa immediately.
Opa-locka is a small airport, so it's not surprising that Comminges's and Dieguimde's frenetic activity quickly caught the attention of U.S. Customs officials, who began monitoring their movements. "The problem was that they were also being smart-mouths and calling attention to themselves," Robinson adds. "In addition to acting strange, they were making jokes about how they were going to overthrow various governments in Africa and shit like that."
The helicopters the two purchased required a special export license from the U.S. Department of State before they could be shipped out of the country. The license was necessary because the aircraft, though converted from military to civilian use, could easily be refitted as gunships.
Comminges and Dieguimde were told they needed the export license before the helicopters could be shipped, but they refused to wait. (The reason for the rush has been variously attributed to urgent humanitarian needs and political opportunism.) Without realizing that customs agents were watching their every move, Comminges and Dieguimde transferred the helicopters to Miami International Airport and had them loaded onto a cargo plane. Just before midnight on August 16, as the plane sat on the tarmac preparing for takeoff, customs agents swooped in and seized the helicopters.
Still more puzzled than anything else, customs officials did not arrest either Comminges or Dieguimde. According to sources familiar with the investigation, the agents had no intention of bringing criminal charges against the men, preferring instead to handle the matter administratively, such as imposing a fine for not obtaining the licenses. That strategy would soon take a dramatic turn.
The night the helicopters were seized, Dieguimde was introduced to the customs officer in charge of the case, Special Agent Jeffrey Outlaw. The next day Dieguimde began leaving telephone messages for Outlaw. When he finally spoke to the agent (a call customs officials secretly tape-recorded), Dieguimde began bragging about how he worked for a very rich and powerful man who had connections to the White House and friends in the U.S. Senate.
Dieguimde told Outlaw that his boss, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, would reward him if he could find a way to release the helicopters. He even offered to fly the agent to Sissoko's oceanfront hotel and casino in Gambia, where he would stay as Sissoko's guest. "What I am trying to tell you," Dieguimde explained, "is he will be very grateful toward you."
Within a matter of days, Comminges, Dieguimde, and another Sissoko employee, Miriama Darboe, agreed to pay Outlaw $30,000 if he would quickly release the helicopters. On August 23, in the parking lot of the Miami Airport Hilton hotel, Comminges and Dieguimde handed him $5000 in cash as a down payment.
Like his astonishing largess, Sissoko's personal history has become the stuff of legend. Reportedly he was born 52 years ago in a thatched hut in the tiny Malian village of Dabia, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. He claims to have left Africa as a stowaway on a cargo ship bound for China, where he worked for a man who made him a sideshow attraction, charging people for their first glimpse of a black man. Next stop was India, where he supposedly lived with a holy man near Bombay before returning to Africa as a house servant. He may or may not have sold soup in a train station.
So how did Sissoko make his millions? The New York Times reported that he began his entrepreneurial career in India as a textile trader. His Miami attorneys distributed a biography in which he became wealthy when oil was discovered on land he owned. But Sissoko tripped up that claim by later telling an Associated Press reporter that he has never owned a piece of land that contained oil; rather, he was an oil middleman.
Last year, according to the Miami Herald, he told a French-language magazine that he made his fortune in Gabon -- largely in the wood trade. And earlier this year the Herald reported what it described as "prevalent rumors" that Sissoko's fortune was the result of his having looted archaeological treasures from Mali.