Tow Head

Junkie, jailbird, cat burglar, widow, bride, entrepreneur Laurie Lichtman keeps on truckin'.

The mob guys were leery of taking Laurie in on the big job, even though, at 28, she was one of the best cat burglars on Miami Beach. "They didn't want to bring me because I was a girl," Laurie Lichtman remembers. "Phil told them, öShe's better than any one of you.'" Phil knew. He had been throwing grappling hooks onto hotel balconies with Laurie for years. Phil had seen her walk into a swanky hotel, long blond hair swinging, all blue eyes and innocence, and back out again, pockets stuffed with jewelry and cash.

But this hit was bigger than most: cleaning out the safe-deposit boxes at the Seasons, on Collins Avenue at 50th Street. The take was promising because the place was frequented by a lot of European and South American tourists, who kept large stashes of valuables in the metal safes behind the desk. The crew, which ended up including Laurie and three men, rented a yellow van and parked it outside about 3:00 a.m. Laurie tied a red scarf over her hair and walked in the front door just in front of Phil, a slightly built Filipino with a face of aged leather and a gun in his waistband.

"I went to the guy at the front desk and I said to him, öI'm looking for Mrs. Niesolowski,'" she continues. "And with that, the guys came in and tied the people up. One couple was too nosy, so we had to lock them in the office. The bread man came. They knocked him down. There was one guy with us who froze. I was a woman and I didn't. Only thing was, I didn't like hurting people." They loaded the van with loot and took off.

Legendary crime writer Edna Buchanan wrote about the heist the next day in the Miami Herald, August 10, 1978 -- big robbery, seven people tied up, a parking attendant pistol-whipped. The lead read, "A blond woman and an escaped convict were arrested at shotgun-point Wednesday, less than thirteen hours after a robber gang tied up seven persons and took more than $200,000 from 59 safety-deposit boxes at an oceanfront Miami Beach apartment-hotel."

It was the rental that did them in. Phil had gotten the van under his real name, Manuel Bacolod. Employees at the Ryder rental place remembered him because there weren't many Asians in Miami back then. Phil had also used the actual address where he was staying, the Pied Piper Motel on Biscayne Boulevard. The cops caught up with Phil and Laurie there. Phil had escaped from a prison work release program a few months prior. He wanted to run, but outgunned, he stopped. Laurie was also arrested. Most of the money was already gone.

What didn't appear in news stories at the time was the apartment-hotel's spitting distance from aging mobster Meyer Lansky's condo at the Imperial House. The gang had heard he had some dealings at the Seasons, as did other crime figures. In fact, they figured if they got away with it, they'd get away clean because a lot of the money was dirty. "Lansky respected her for it," claims Laurie's mother, Joane Tufano. "I heard from some people who knew him. Who would dare to rob him?"

A year later, Laurie was sentenced to life in prison for her part in the crime. With good behavior, she got out in ten years. Ten years was also about the amount of time she'd spent as a thief, a scam artist, and a heroin addict in Miami. Concurrently she stole anything stealable, and ran a hooker house in Miami Shores. Outwardly fearless, she was a tough broad with two vulnerabilities -- dope and the sense of entitlement she derived from her associations with the Miami underworld.

South Florida is famous for its thieves. The criminal underworld has always lurked under the sun-blasted surface. In the heyday of Miami Beach, roughly the Forties through the early Sixties, the underworld was the barely disguised flip side of the tourism industry. This was true even later, as the glitter faded and was replaced with crumbling tenements filled with the elderly, the displaced, and the hopeless. In the Sixties and Seventies, Peter Salerno regularly led the Dinner-Set Gang into the homes of the wealthy while the owners entertained at dinner parties.

Another well-known local kleptomaniac was Jack Murphy, a.k.a. Murph the Surf, a Miami Beach surfing champ turned jewel thief. He gained fame for stealing the 563-carat Star of India diamond from a New York City museum in 1964, which he then stashed in a Miami bus station locker.

But no thief has had quite the trajectory of Lauraine Lichtman. By the time another ten years had passed from her last day in prison, she had become a minor luminary in the world of Miami politics and a thriving businesswoman in the first legitimate profession of her life, the towing industry. She won back her civil rights and those of her husband. She was championed by the likes of former state legislator Elaine Gordon, was a regular in the Tallahassee stomping grounds of Gov. Lawton Chiles, beloved by North Miami police chief Kenneth Each, and was present on the dais with Joe Carollo the day he was sworn in as mayor of Miami in 1998.

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