That night, Maestrales ferried Siffin and several associates from Indiana to Fort Lauderdale. In South Florida, another team of agents watched Siffin place a suitcase in a waiting car and then use binoculars to scan nearby parking lots for several minutes before ordering the car to leave. The agents apparently let the vehicle depart unmolested, and Siffin headed back to Indiana.

The same pattern was repeated multiple times over the next two months. Sometimes, Maestrales left with a "money bag" packed full of bills after flying Siffin around. By August, after filing a half-dozen reports, the feds dropped the surveillance.

Why? Warmbier offered a theory during that interview in the hospital room: Bill Siffin's government connections.

Mark Siffin, in his Dilido Island home, says construction could begin in two years on City Square.
Michael McElroy
Mark Siffin, in his Dilido Island home, says construction could begin in two years on City Square.
Outdoor advertisers have given thousands to commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, City Square's biggest backer.
File Photo
Outdoor advertisers have given thousands to commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, City Square's biggest backer.

There's no evidence that Mark's father worked for the CIA, other than Warmbier and Hodge's claims in the court documents. (The agency does not respond to public requests for information about agents, even deceased ones.) But Morgan, his old colleague, says Bill Siffin certainly moved in intelligence circles thanks to his think tank. The center worked closely in international hot spots with USAID — an agency noted at the time for providing cover to spies.

Either way, on December 21, 1978, about three months after the surveillance of Mark Siffin ended, a small-time drug dealer — and the son of a local judge in Reno — named Richard Minor Jr. ended up dead after being stabbed 15 times in his living room.

Minor, Nevada police learned, was best friends with Douglas Warmbier, who police believed was in Reno the night of the murder. That's when they found surveillance records of the "suspected traffickers" Siffin and Warmbier.

Investigators noted that Siffin had started a California company called Mae Inc. They feared he was "funneling large amounts of money" through the company in order to "reinvest the funds in legitimate business areas," records show. Could the pair have whacked Minor in a drug dispute?

Agents searched for Siffin. But he had disappeared. Several weeks of attempts to find him led nowhere.

Police soon arrested another suspect, who was eventually charged with the crime and later convicted. The Siffin angle was forgotten — and never even provided to defense attorneys for the convicted man, John Mazzan. It would languish undiscovered for 20 years.

In the early '80s, Siffin re-emerged in Bloomington, where he'd married his girlfriend, Ellen, and had his first child, daughter Mae. They bought a farm stocked with corn. But he might not have shed his less savory connections.

In 1982, a federal grand jury in Illinois indicted Siffin, along with 11 others, on drug and money-laundering charges. The indictment said Siffin and the others had been using Danville, Illinois, as a distribution point in a five-state, multimillion-dollar marijuana-smuggling ring since 1976. The dealers allegedly traveled to Florida to pick up the drugs and then sold them throughout the Midwest. It was "probably the largest drug ring operating" in the region, a DEA official told Danville's Commercial-News.

The charges against Siffin were soon dropped, however.

Three years later, he was indicted again in Indiana after accusations of illegally owning firearms, his lawyer told the Herald. Again, prosecutors declined to press charges. His lawyer says authorities realized a key witness had in the past tried to extort money from Siffin.

Siffin soon gave up farming, and his marriage fell apart. After briefly flirting with derivatives trading and living a few years in Italy, he moved back to Bloomington and used his capital to found another company. Maefield Development, named for his daughter, was born in 1993. The firm started with small strip malls in the college town and then moved on to riskier ventures in Indianapolis.

"He was an eccentric character even back then," says Alec Petros, Siffin's first investor and a friend. "But you could tell he had a vision."

By 1997, Siffin had made a splash in local papers by optioning a hotly contested 41 acres in a developing suburb, rezoning it for commercial use — against a loud outcry from residents who wanted to preserve the quiet landscape — and flipping the land for $20 million.

At last, he had found his niche.

Barbara Bisno is wedged into a packed conference room inside the Arsht Center's opera house. It's this past May 6, and the gray-haired ex-federal prosecutor and former Venetian Causeway Neighborhood Association president is craning her neck to get a view of Mark Siffin. He's standing before hundreds of residents, waving his arms dramatically at a video screen like a maestro conducting a symphony. A slick artist's rendering shows digital billboards stretching 40 stories over downtown.

Bisno's jaw drops. "I had no idea this was coming," she says.

Most of the others packed into the meeting had no clue either. That is, except for the large cheering section Siffin has brought. This is his soft launch of an idea he has been cultivating for more than 15 years. And, as with his other projects, it begins and ends with money: Cold cash that bought the best lobbyists in South Florida might have also helped sway city commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff and purchased the support of condo boards and residents along Biscayne Bay.

"That shopping center is aesthetically a monster," Bisno says. "I don't know how anyone could argue otherwise."

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