By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
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
"Mike wasn't the type of guy who sat in the bleachers," recalls Jeunke, a stoic with piercing blue eyes and a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache, who is now the office manager for a Miami law firm, Hunton & Williams. "He was an aggressive, hard-working officer who put his heart and soul into the job. He worked the streets, day and night. Of course, I had to slap him around a few times, but in those days, U.S. Probation needed a Mike Pizzi."
Doug Hughes, director of the South Florida HIDTA from 1990 through 2000, remembers Pizzi as a tenacious lawman who commanded the respect of officers from other local, state, and federal agencies. Hughes, a retired eighteen-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department and former state drug czar, was enlisted by former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen to head up the task force and recruit agents who would be involved in bringing down drug traffickers, money launderers, and violent crime offenders. "This guy Pizzi would keep calling me," Hughes recalls. "He'd phone every week, telling me that U.S. Probation had to be in on the task force. I was so impressed."
Once he came on board, Hughes says, "Mike, because of his contacts around the country, became our clearinghouse of information. "
A federal agent who worked on the task force and asked to remain anonymous recalls Pizzi as a dogged investigator who would not sleep until the team nabbed the perp. One case involved an ex-con named Steven Jackson, a suspect in a number of drive-by drug-related shootings in Perrine, a predominantly black neighborhood. "He was on probation and serving time at a halfway house," the agent says. "He was released during the day to go to work. In fact, he was running a heroin operation with shipments to Tampa and other points north."
But Jackson proved a tough nut to crack. Agents could never catch him with drugs in his hands. "At one point it looked like we'd have to shut the case down," the agent says. "Mike went after Jackson's girlfriend, who was also on probation. He brought her into his office and flipped her. She told us about this submachine gun he kept at her house. Since we were having trouble nailing him on the drug trafficking and homicides, we decided to take him down on [this]."
The girlfriend arranged a meeting, in which she would hand the ex-con the gun. This meeting took place in the parking lot of Westland Mall in Hialeah. Jackson pulled up in a funeral home van (he was working for one as a cover). When Jackson took the gun, local, state, and federal agents rolled on him. But Jackson broke the perimeter, almost ran over a couple of Hialeah cops, and led the task force on a twenty-minute chase through West 49th Street, a main thoroughfare in Hialeah. Pizzi was in pursuit. "The next thing I remember is being hauled away in a fire rescue truck," Pizzi says. "I'd wrapped my car around a street pole. Jackson ended up crashing through the front of somebody's house. But we got him."
Meanwhile Pizzi was attending the UM law school at night. In 1994 he graduated first in his class and retired from U.S. Probie. He went to work as law clerk for federal magistrate Barry Garber for a year, then went to the Miami office of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a New York law firm, handling employee relations law for corporate clients. But Pizzi yearned for the wild side of the profession: trial. So in 1998, he joined Bierman, Shohat, Loewy & Klein, a Miami law firm highly regarded for its criminal defense work -- such as when Don Bierman and Ted Klein won acquittal of former port director Carmen Lunetta in the famous Port of Miami corruption trial. Since joining the firm, Pizzi has notched some noteworthy victories himself. He won acquittal for Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Cuban-American organization Movimiento Democracia, in federal court last year. The feds accused Sanchez and two others of entering Cuban waters without the permission of the U.S. government. Pizzi also won the appeal of former Hialeah Gardens Mayor Gilda "Miniskirt" Oliveros, who had been convicted of solicitation to commit first-degree murder on her ex-husband. On April 11, Rundle's office dropped the charges against Oliveros. However, the former mayor was sentenced to a 90-day work-release program and 18 months' probation on a separate insurance and voter fraud conviction.
"Mike is a work in progress," opines his law partner Ed Shohat, from his corner office above Brickell Avenue. "If there's any downside to Mike, it's that he's got his fingers in too many pies."
During his Eliot Ness days in Miami, Pizzi met Maria, who's stuck by him for thirteen years. She was also a parole officer at the time. "I didn't like him at first," she laughs now, from the Pizzis' Miami Lakes home. Their two children, Stefan, age thirteen, and Jennifer, age ten, are on the patio, pulling weeds. "He was very aloof. He was also very cocksure. But then I got to know him and I realized how smart he was. After a six-month courtship, we took our lunch break, went to the courthouse on Flagler Street, got our marriage license, and went back to work."