Agent of Deception

Jerry Sullivan's descent into gambling, alcoholism, and crime began and ended with the FBI.

Jerry Sullivan says the only psychological screening he remembers was a multiple-choice test that was supposed to determine if he was stable or not. Apparently Sullivan passed that test.

After a stint in Los Angeles, where he worked in the fugitives unit, Sullivan was sent up the coast to a language school in Monterey to study Italian. Soon, he'd be watching and listening to real Don Vito Corleones.

After graduating from the school in March 1982, Sullivan was transferred to the FBI's Fort Lauderdale squad, which was run by the bureau's Miami office. Sullivan described the Fort Lauderdale office to his psychologist: "I was the youngest guy on the squad of about fourteen agents. About half were ready to retire, and the other half played golf a minimum of two days a week, including the supervisor," Sullivan said. "The supervisors in Miami wanted to shut down the [Fort Lauderdale office] because they knew what was going on. I kept my mouth shut because I was the young guy."

Paul Mallett, second-in-command of the Miami FBI office, which is the fifth largest in the country, told New Times that he doesn't remember the Fort Lauderdale office, which was shut down in 1987, as a "country club" for agents. He said "there are always criticisms of recalcitrant agents, lazy agents, agents who spend more time looking for bait and tackle than working cases." When such agents are discovered, he says, they are punished.

Former agent John Hanlon, who worked in the FBI's Fort Lauderdale office in the early 1980s, terms Sullivan's assessment of the operation substantially correct. It wasn't known for its productivity.

While Sullivan worked in South Florida, FBI agents in New York and New Jersey were slowly piecing together information about a massive heroin ring run out of Italian restaurants. Investigators learned the heroin was coming from the Mafia in Sicily, which also had members working in the United States. The case, dubbed the "Pizza Connection," became one of the greatest successes in FBI history, and it gave big career boosts to two federal prosecutors, Louis Freeh, now FBI director, and current New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

It involved the largest wiretapping operation in the FBI's history, one made to order for Sullivan, the language-school graduate. He was sent to New Jersey to translate the tapes and was stationed in a van in Menlo Park, near Roma Restaurant, which was a key heroin and money-laundering spot for the Sicilians.

There was a problem, however. Sullivan couldn't understand what the Sicilians were saying. The language school failed to account for Sicilian dialects and accents. During Sullivan's recent sentencing hearings, the FBI conceded that none of the Monterey graduates could translate Sicilian. The FBI had to rely on just two men, both native Sicilians, to decipher thousands of conversations.

Sullivan told psychologists he feared his inability to translate might cause him to miss something on the tapes that would endanger other agents. And there were more problems. He couldn't screen out irrelevant parts of conversations. Nor did he know when to turn off the recorder to avoid recording subjects' conferences with their attorneys: Listening to such talks constitutes a civil rights violation. Sullivan and other monitors simply taped everything.

"So now they couldn't afford to pay [the translator] all the time, so we taped all Sicilian conversations, and I would call [the translator] and play the tapes to him over the phone," Sullivan told Ryan. "This case would have been shit-canned if the defense knew about the bureau's procedures."

Sullivan, in just a few years as an agent, had already been assigned to an FBI office full of gold bricks, graduated from a failed language program, and, during a historic FBI case, participated in haphazard and possibly illegal wiretapping procedures. To Sullivan, who thrived on structure, it was a fearful and stressful environment. The breakdown of FBI procedure, argued psychiatrist Richard Seely, helped bring Sullivan's mental problems and addictions to the surface. His "alcohol dependence began to take off," said Seely, who testified for the defense.

During the Pizza Connection, Sullivan stayed mostly in a hotel, spending his nights drinking. He reported that he often drank a case of 24 beers in a night and regularly blacked out. He also made his first illegal sports bets in the hotel bar, losing a total of about $200.

When he returned to Fort Lauderdale after the Pizza Connection in late 1983, the FBI put Sullivan into one of the most unstructured environments imaginable: undercover, infiltrating the Mafia in South Florida.

Billy Breen was a certified lunatic and convicted felon who had, in late 1983, made a career as a professional rat for the FBI. Agents regularly worked with him and occasionally gave him a paycheck, which supplemented his income from illegal rackets. In return Breen, an ex-cop and ex-con who was on psychiatric disability, served as an informant. The FBI's relationship with Breen could be seen as a deal with the devil, but it was also extremely effective. Breen, who died in 1992, had an uncanny knack for getting inside criminal organizations. He helped crack numerous cases and jail hundreds of criminals.

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