Tow Head

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

You've probably seen Florrie Fisher yourself. Comedian and writer Amy Sedaris based her Strangers with Candy character Jerri Blank (an aging former junkie/prostitute who returns to high school) directly on footage of Fisher's motivational speaking engagements in the Seventies. Despite her crusade, Fisher was still in the game. She was charged with narcotics possession in Miami in 1971 and with forgery and possession of stolen property in 1972.

When Sedaris heard the story of this meeting, her first reaction was laughter. "Oh my god, that story is ridiculous!" she remarked, then reflected on her druggy muse. "I just love the idea of that," Sedaris says. "She was doomed from the beginning. I believe she would say let's train her right." (The movie Strangers with Candy is set for release this year.)

Phil had a new partner: Laurie. Sometimes the pair would scale buildings using ropes. Laurie recalls several times meeting a gentleman burglar from West Palm Beach, scaling the building as she was coming down. "He said, öWhat are you doing here?'" she relates. "I said, öForget about it. I started from the top and worked my way down.'"

photos by Jonathan Postal
Outwardly fearless, Laurie was a tough broad with two vulnerabilities -- dope and the sense of entitlement she derived from her associations with the Miami underworld.
Outwardly fearless, Laurie was a tough broad with two vulnerabilities -- dope and the sense of entitlement she derived from her associations with the Miami underworld.

The approach was often more simple. Laurie would make friends with maintenance people and steal the master keys, or she'd just walk in and try doors. "I remember when the mob called me and told me I couldn't touch the Beach," she says. "They had keys to every hotel. I could use lockpicks. But the whole secret was I would shake down the doors. People were dumb enough to leave their doors open for me. You notice I got very small hands? I would sometimes put my arm through a window and open the door. So when cops came and I got stopped, there was no tools. They always believed my story because I never had nothing on me and I looked so innocent."

Even when she got caught, Laurie often managed to talk her way out of a jam. If a couple woke up as she entered a room, she'd just put her hand on her hip and stare daggers at the man. "I'd say, öHow dare you. You meet me at the bar and invite me here and you've got another bitch in your bed?'" she divulges. "And I would still rob öem."

Nowadays, Laurie says she feels the most guilt about all the irreplaceable personal items, wedding rings and heirlooms, she took to finance her habit. Speedballs, a combination of heroin and cocaine, were expensive. "I keep eating myself up, trying to make it up, make it better," she confesses. "öCause the drugs, you know, they talk to you. We'd get ten, twenty thousand dollars a night sometimes. All gone the next day, into my arm."

Besides the thieving, Laurie also forged checks, ran up stolen credit cards, and, for a time, kept the books at a whorehouse on NE Tenth Avenue in Miami Shores. She also served as secretary to and minder of an attorney who owed local mobsters money, until he squealed to the feds. "I used drugs, but my word was good," she explains. "I wasn't a rat. I wasn't a snitch. That's why the mob took a liking to me. They needed somebody to watch the house. The cops tried to break the customer code a thousand times and they never did it. A thousand times. Oh, what the cops went through with me. They'd always tell me that when they got me, I was gonna get mine."

By age 28, Laurie's bravado was wearing thin. A few weeks before the hotel job that ended her criminal career, she stood in front of a bathroom mirror, applying lipstick, when she had one of the minor epiphanies she'd had before and ignored. "I looked in the mirror and went to my knees," she says. "I said öGod, if you're there and you're real, you have to do something with my life because I can't.' Then I got up, got my dope and went on my merry way. Three weeks later, bam, the big robbery."

After Laurie and Phil were arrested, the cops got the rest of the gang. Unbeknownst to her, the boys were cooperating with the feds. Laurie was out on bond, but she'd go visit Phil every Thursday. There she met Howard Lichtman, who was in jail on a breaking and entering charge. "And he saw me, liked me," she purrs. "I said, öI got a man.' He thought I was being used. I didn't know they'd turned state. Here these guys are ratting out and I'm a woman and being stand-up."

Change of heart Lynn Yem, 43, met Laurie at Broward Correctional Institution, a maximum security women's prison, when she was 18. For a couple of years, the pair shared a cell.

At some point in the early Eighties, the two began attending services at the prison chapel. "At first it was just for the food," Yem admits. "Then after awhile, she really got into it." Laurie claims that religion filled a void previously sated by drugs and crime. "We always thought it was just jailhouse religion," remarks Laurie's mother Joane Tufano. "She was raised Catholic, but I said I don't care if she worships Buddha, as long as she stays away from the drugs."

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