The Fidel Fixation
To get to the building the CIA used as the nerve center of its secret war against Fidel Castro, you head south on the Florida Turnpike to the Coral Reef Drive exit, just as if you were taking the kids to Metrozoo. Then you go west on Coral Reef about a mile, past the antenna fields of a Coast Guard communications station and the cookie-cutter townhouses of a development called Deerwood before you come to the zoo's main entrance.
Look carefully for the very next opportunity to turn left, onto a nameless road reached through an open gate marked with the unexplained acronym: RTAO-USAF. Ignoring the small, anonymous office buildings that appear from nowhere on your right, you follow the battered pavement south, toward a far more imposing landmark -- a bizarre, 200-foot-tall concrete monolith that looms above the hurricane-smashed pineland like a giant broken tooth, crowned with mysterious antennae. Your destination stands a few hundred yards from the base of this blimp-hangar remnant: a rambling, two-story wood-frame structure, obviously long abandoned, plastered with government-issue No Trespassing signs.
Fronted by tall white columns and topped with a gabled roof, plywood covering its windows and paint peeling from its clapboard exterior, it looks like nothing so much as the Fraternity House of Usher. More than twenty years after the last of the Agency's spooks cleared out, their old headquarters remains profoundly spooky, the passage of time having done little to dissipate the air of skullduggery that hangs over the place, hinting at ominous secrets buried just below its rotting floorboards.
Make no mistake about it -- such secrets are there in spirit if not in material fact. After all, this was the spy base the Company code-named JM/WAVE, the largest CIA field station in the world at the height of the Cold War and the dark heart of a thousand cloak-and-dagger conspiracies aimed at the communist menace to the south. This was the home office for Operation Mongoose, the global campaign of espionage, sabotage, propaganda, and assassination that the Kennedy administration launched in the wake of the Agency disaster at the Bay of Pigs, which marks its 36th anniversary today, Thursday, April 17.
Where one might expect a retreat from the covert arena after such a public embarrassment, Mongoose brazenly charged ahead. Involving thousands of people, annual budgets in excess of $50 million, more than 50 front companies in Dade County alone, and a secret navy that was estimated to be the third-largest military fleet in the hemisphere, the operation made the Company one of Florida's biggest employers. It also put an indelible stamp on the social and political landscape.
Mongoose was the culmination of a tragicomic drama that, for the space of a few years, put Dade County on the front lines of the Cold War and made Kennedy-era Miami -- like the Berlin of the Fifties or the Saigon of the late Sixties -- an international focus of intrigue and espionage. It began, as so many things have in Miami, with the rise of Fidel Castro's dictatorship, and it ended more with a whimper than a bang, overshadowed by the war in Southeast Asia.
In between, however, it featured a bumbling conspiracy between the CIA and the Mafia to poison Fidel, the even more ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion, the sacrifice of exile volunteers on commando missions of questionable import, regular violations of American and international law, and some of the looniest paramilitary capers ever mounted.
The characters involved -- Fidel himself, the Kennedy brothers, E. Howard Hunt, Johnny Rosselli, Santo Trafficante, Tony Varona, Rolando Martinez, Ted Shackley, Orlando Bosch, Gerry Patrick Hemming, and thousands of others -- played out larger-than-life and occasionally ridiculous roles, creating a kind of mythic background for modern-day, mondo-bizarro South Florida. Then (with the notable and lamentable exception of Castro), they vanished from the stage.
The Miami they left behind was a very different place from the sleepy Southern town of 1960. Thanks in no small part to the weapons and skills provided by the Company, Miami became a far more dangerous place. Men schooled in gun running, violence, and the tradecraft of espionage found high-paying employment during the cocaine boom of the Seventies and Eighties; and exile political factions began making their points not just rhetorically on talk-radio programs, but with CIA-surplus plastic explosives as well.
The Agency's legacy wasn't entirely negative, though. Mongoose pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy at a critical period in Dade's development. The CIA's influence over the transformation of Greater Miami into a center of international business and finance can probably never be determined, but it's clear that the Company and its numerous subsidiaries had a stake in almost every type of commercial endeavor: real estate, banking, shipping, air transport -- you name it. And JM/WAVE's reach was worldwide, coordinating everything from sabotage of Cuban-bought buses in West Germany to disruptions of student meetings in Finland, collecting and collating intelligence on Cuban activities from Japan to the Congo. It was, in a sense, a true forerunner of the freebooting information age corporations that have found Miami so conducive to their prosperity.
Any organization that had so significant and interesting an influence on South Florida deserves some sort of lasting memorial, and any war so bitter (even a secret one) needs its monuments. But after the early Seventies shutdown of JM/WAVE, the Agency sold off its navy, locked up its safe houses, and vanished into the night, without offering a word about what it did in Dade County unless forced by congressional subpoena.
With the exception of Memorial Boulevard (SW Thirteenth Avenue) and the Brigade 2506 museum, there are no overt monuments to the covert anti-Castro war in South Florida. Veterans of the special missions keep their sea logs and charts stashed away in footlockers, or remember their gunboats with black-and-white photos on office walls. And so we decided to put together our own CIA anti-Castro tour of Dade County, taking in the high and low points of the secret war's home front. Our list is far from complete. For one thing, the total number of locations involved is staggering, and for another, memories have faded. But as a kind of historical smorgasbord, this is one outing we hope will whet your appetite for more.
A Guided Tour
1. Why not begin at the CIA's epicenter, easily accessible from Florida's Turnpike. For most of the Sixties, South Dade had its very own version of the Twilight Zone: the 1571 acres between Coral Reef and Eureka drives, just west of the entrance to Metrozoo. Formerly occupied by the Richmond Naval Air Station, and nominally under the control of the University of Miami (some contemporary maps show it as UM's "South Campus"), the property was leased in late 1961 to a mysterious outfit called Zenith Technical Enterprises, which sealed off the tract from its then-rural surroundings with high fences, gray-uniformed guards, and attack dogs. Zenith placed such a high value on its privacy for good reason -- it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Central Intelligence Agency, a dummy corporation set up as a cover for the biggest Agency spy base anywhere in the world outside of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Code-named JM/WAVE (the acronym, as far as anyone knows, was meaningless), the sprawling complex quickly grew to include everything a secret warrior could desire. Buildings that had survived the navy blimp base's 1945 destruction by hurricane and fire were refurbished and turned into offices for hundreds of CIA employees. A gas station was installed to service the Agency's large motor pool. (Vehicles were doled out according to rank: Low-level case officers got Chevies, higher-ups got Pontiacs, and station chief Ted Shackley drove a Cadillac.) Powerful radio systems were installed, enabling secure communications all over the Caribbean. And World War II-era bunkers and warehouses were stocked with all the paramilitary necessities: automatic weapons and ammunition, high explosives, Cuban army uniforms, even coffins. Nothing was overlooked -- with the possible exception of the CIA charter's injunction against covert operations on American soil.
2. Now we head south to Everglades National Park and its southernmost tip, the camping and boating outpost known as Flamingo. When the CIA launched Operation Mongoose, it soon ran into a problem with its plan to infiltrate hundreds of agents into Cuba by sea. Most of the Agency's exile recruits were young men from middle-class families, not sailors or fishermen, and they were sorely lacking in the skills needed to pilot a small boat at high speed under cover of darkness and possible machine-gun fire. What the Company required, in short, were smugglers. And since those were in short supply, it set out to create some of its own in the mangrove mazes of the coastal Everglades. Down at the end of the park's main road, at the Flamingo marina, the Agency kept a small number of Boston Whalers moored. Arriving from safe houses in Homestead or Miami and accompanied by a case officer, trainees would load the boats with gear (guns and other obvious military hardware were concealed in duffel bags) and roar off, bound for the watery hinterlands west of Cape Sable. There -- in a part of South Florida that real smugglers have always found hospitable -- they would practice boat handling, emergency outboard repairs, map reading, and navigating at night by dead reckoning or radio direction-finder. Taking advantage of their isolation, they often would also run live-fire exercises with automatic weapons. Park rangers based out of Flamingo were apparently not a concern, which led to speculation that the CIA had smoothed the way in advance. "That's funny, those things were going on, and I didn't give it a lot of thought, you know?" one of the men who trained in the park says, chuckling. "And we used to go practice there regularly, with the AR-15s and everything. There was always an officer with us, but there were never any questions or anything."
3. Our next stop is north of the park entrance by a few miles, in an area near today's Fruit and Spice Park in the Redlands. Five teenage pranksters got more than they bargained for when they threw firecrackers up the driveway of a homestead at 26145 SW 195th Ave. on the night of August 25, 1960. The place was an Agency-sponsored anti-Castro training camp, and its Cuban-exile occupants had army-issue M-1 rifles. The recruits responded to what sounded like a sneak attack by opening fire into the darkness, grazing sixteen-year-old John Francis Keogh in the back of the head as he and his panic-stricken pals roared off in a pick-up truck. Keogh wasn't seriously hurt (conspiracy trivia buffs may want to note his initials, the location of his wound, and the fact that those responsible were CIA-trained Cubans), but his shooting brought Metro-Dade police down on the camp a few hours later. According to the Miami News, the cops "rounded up 15 toughened Cubans" who had been undergoing jungle-warfare training at the heavily wooded site, marching up and down what was then known as Comfort Road, brandishing machetes and conducting nightly rallies with a loudspeaker. The would-be commandos left behind a makeshift obstacle course and a man-shaped knife-fighting target scraped into the bark of a royal poinciana tree; the target survived until 1992, when Hurricane Andrew knocked down the tree. Alumni of the camp weren't so lucky. Bill Box, who bought the property just after the police raid, believes almost all were caught during pre-Bay of Pigs infiltrations. "They wiped that bunch out," Box says grimly. "One man showed up one Easter -- he said they'd made a vow to meet back here on Easter Sunday -- but he was the only one that came back alive."
4. Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay is next on the tour, and the only way to get there is by boat. If you don't own one, you can head for Biscayne National Park headquarters at the end of SW 328th Street, where a snorkel/scuba operator, with advance notice, will drop you off for an overnight adventure. Around the campfire you can reminisce about how, in 1960, Elliott Key and its neighbors were incorporated as the City of Islandia, a big-time real estate fantasy that was supposed to include an overseas highway from Key Biscayne all the way to Key Largo. But the dream fizzled and the largest island in what would later become Biscayne National Park remained a tropical no man's land, its dense vegetation and bloodthirsty mosquitoes discouraging all but the toughest visitors. In short, it was the perfect place for CIA-sponsored exile commandos and frogmen to practice for operations against Castro's Cuba. According to Bradley Earl Ayers, a U.S. Army Special Forces captain on loan to the CIA, operations were based out of an old house on the ocean side of the island's north end. In his book The War That Never Was: An Insider's Account of CIA Covert Operations Against Cuba, Ayers described spending six weeks in the fall of 1963 on Elliott Key, preparing a twelve-man team for an ambitious raid on a Cuban oil refinery. The training went as far as nighttime "attacks" on FPL's Cutler power plant across Biscayne Bay, which resembled the target; according to Ayers, the real thing was planned for December 1963 but was canceled after President Kennedy's assassination. "The Elliott Key safehouse proved to be an adequate, if somewhat austere dwelling," Ayers wrote, "a single-story wood-frame house set well back from the coast in a cluster of majestic pines." For the exiles, the house offered spiritual comfort as well as shelter; in one corner of the living room was a shrine in memory of commandos lost on earlier missions. For Ayers it had an additional amenity: a beautiful Cuban cook named Eleana, whose charms inspired some of the book's more purple prose.
5. Back to the mainland and north to that bastion of hyper-regulated primness, Coral Gables. Viewed from the street, 6312 Riviera Dr. looks innocent enough -- just another beautiful piece of Gables real estate, with a striking 60-year-old Mediterranean Revival mansion as its centerpiece. But according to legendary CIA boat captain (and later Watergate burglar) Rolando Martinez, the view from the street hides 6312 Riviera's most important feature: access to the Coral Gables Waterway, Biscayne Bay, and the open Atlantic. "You have to look from the other side of the channel and see -- they had a garage for the boats, a boathouse," says Martinez, who by the Agency's count ran more than 350 missions into Cuba during the Sixties, piloting 25- to 35-foot speedboats loaded with arms and exile infiltration teams. "It was good, the boathouse there -- you go in and no one could see you. They even had showers for when you came back." Departures from the Gables speedboat base were made at night, with all weapons -- particularly the big 57mm recoilless rifle Martinez brought along as emergency fire support -- secured well out of sight. Outbound for refueling points in the Keys or an offshore mother ship, the raiders would have looked like ordinary fishermen on their way to the Gulf Stream, except for one spooky detail: For security reasons, Cuban infiltrators wore hoods that completely covered their faces -- this to protect their identities from even the boat crew.
6. You can practically walk to the next stop: Poinciana Avenue between Le Jeune and Douglas, just inside Miami's city limits. Somewhere along this secluded stretch of Poinciana is the site of the safe house where veteran CIA agent E. Howard Hunt lived off and on in 1960 and 1961, and where he met with Cuban exile leaders such as Manuel Artime and Antonio "Tony" Varona -- a former prime minister of Cuba -- to develop the political structure that would take control of the island after the (expected) success at the Bay of Pigs. Hunt, who would later spend 32 months in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in scandal, is no longer sure of the house's exact location; the former Agency operative, now retired and living in Biscayne Park, remembers taking a CBS documentary crew looking for the place in the late Seventies and finding that it had been demolished. "It had a lot of big trees shading the entrance, and a high wooden fence," Hunt recalls. "It was a one-story ranch-style house with only one bedroom, but it had a big dining room and dining room table that we all sat around and jawed and cursed at each other." The only disadvantage of the safe house was the woman next door. "I had a neighbor there who thought I was a fag," Hunt relates. "She was kind of a nosy Nellie, and from her balcony she could overlook my place. Of course she saw all these men coming, night after night. She was alarmed, and she got me a date with her recently divorced daughter. Inasmuch as I was married, which of course I couldn't reveal to my neighbor, I guess the daughter -- when I didn't make any advances she confirmed her mother's suspicions. Which was fine. It was an additional layer of cover, you could say."
7. Now it's time for some R&R and a cool one, not unlike those hard-working Company men who, after a tough day at the office plotting Fidel's downfall, needed a place to unwind -- somewhere they could loosen their skinny ties and not have to worry about whether their shoulder holsters were showing, where they could toss back a few and shoot the bull without fear of spilling secrets into the wrong ear. Drinking -- with other CIA people, of course, for security's sake -- was one of the only social safety valves available to those sealed off in the high-pressure world of JM/WAVE, and certain bars were adopted as unofficial Agency hangouts. The Stuft Shirt Lounge in the former Holiday Inn on Brickell was one, as was Alabama Jack's on Card Sound Road, with its raffish clientele and convenient location on the way back from paramilitary bases in the Keys. But the greatest of all the spy dives may have been the Big Daddy's at SW 27th Avenue and Bird Avenue, widely known from its location as the "27 Birds." Agents liked the bar's cool, secret-code-sounding nickname, and they appreciated its anonymity and darkness-at-noon atmosphere. "It had no windows and it was pitch black inside, and they had live rock and roll," remembers Jimmy Flanigan, son of original "Big Daddy" Joe Flanigan and the man responsible for its current kinder, gentler incarnation as Flanigan's Laughing Loggerhead Seafood Bar and Grill. "There were these purple velvet couches -- people used to sink down in them. It was where the Grove-ites met the motorcycle gangs and the DEA met the smugglers. And somehow everybody got along." Flanigan's memories of the old 27 Birds come from his childhood, a few years after Miami's Sixties spook heyday; in his mind, the bar's CIA pioneers have ascended to the status of legend, up there with "the really notorious bad guys [who] are all dead now." His place is probably too respectable for them today -- unless, of course, they happen to be looking for somewhere to bring their grandchildren.
8. Next stop is Brickell Avenue near downtown. The building that once stood at 600 Brickell housed the offices of Paul Helliwell, a prominent Miami attorney and veteran of the OSS, the CIA's World War II predecessor. Helliwell's place of business was also where the phone rang if anyone dialed the number for "Red Sunset Enterprises" -- an Agency front company set up to recruit frogmen and other boom-and-bang experts for Operation Mongoose. Red Sunset was typical of the more than 50 dummy corporations created by the CIA in Dade to conceal its anti-Castro activities. "What the CIA did, in many cases, they would cut a deal with an attorney who would essentially serve as a point to receive phone calls and also mail drops," says Soldier of Fortune magazine editor Robert K. Brown, a sardonic observer of South Florida's early-Sixties cloak-and-dagger scene. "If some of their personnel got in trouble, there was an address they could give, and there would be a dedicated phone line so that if you called in on this number, the number would be answered with the corporate name of the cover." Brown and his buddy Marty Casey hung around the edges of the paramilitary circus, gathering material for a never-to-be-published book called Ripped Cloak, Rusted Dagger. Their research tended toward the mischievous, including a nighttime foray into the JM/WAVE compound and weekend raids on the trash cans of CIA front companies. One day, just for grins, they decided to check out Red Sunset. Walking into Helliwell's posh office suite without calling ahead, they announced that they were former members of a navy underwater demolition team looking for work. Without batting an eye, the receptionist handed them employment applications, which they proceeded to fill out using false identities. Casey remembers that Brown used the name "Ernst Blofeld" -- the fictional nemesis of superspy James Bond.
9. Walk a couple of blocks up the street to the Brickell Bridge and behold the murky Miami River. Not long after he started work at the Merrill Stevens boat yard in 1960, Fred Kirtland noticed a dramatic and unusual sales trend. "Almost any kind of vessel that was near seaworthy was being purchased by the Cubans with a hell of a lot of CIA money to go down there [to Cuba]," says Kirtland, who would later become president of Merrill Stevens. The months leading up to the Bay of Pigs marked the beginning of a wild and heady time for everybody along the Miami River, as obviously warlike craft with powerful engines, gun mounts, mysterious antennae, and battleship-gray paint proliferated. The crew of one patrol boat didn't even bother to conceal the 50-caliber machine guns mounted on its stern when they tied up under the Flagler Street bridge; reportedly, it and other vessels of the "Cuban Revolutionary Navy" were regularly pointed out to tourists on sightseeing boats. The Agency itself was constantly patrolling the downtown area with two radio-eavesdropping boats, the Dart and the Barb, in an effort to intercept signals from Castro agents in Miami. Meanwhile, according to Kirtland, riverside boat yards were experiencing a war boom. "To the best of my knowledge, any work done on any of the boats that they used was done by existing yards on the Miami River," he says. "There was Miami Ship, Tommy's Boatyard, Merrill Stevens, Jones Boatyard.... A lot of these yacht places that do some commercial work were involved." According to Kirtland, after the Bay of Pigs disaster, the CIA's operational presence along the river became much less visible but continued nonetheless. He remembers hearing about work being done for a company called Transworld Marine, linked to a man named Gordon Campbell. (Campbell was JM/WAVE's maritime operations chief and lived, appropriately enough, on a boat at the Dinner Key Marina.) "I think it was fairly common knowledge when you'd find people out to buy fast boats, what it was for," he says. "Transworld Marine purchased boats, new construction out of New Orleans, that were used for follow-up operations. Gordon Campbell, if my memory serves me correctly, purchased one out of New Orleans. Name of the boat was Cutlass. That boat stayed around well after the Bay of Pigs."
10. Hop back in the car for a short jaunt over to Little Havana and a specific address: 1925 SW Fourth St. Today five stories of pinkish-peach stucco apartments have completely obliterated the site of one of the neighborhood's weirdest landmarks -- Nelli Hamilton's paramilitary boardinghouse. What JM/WAVE was for the official CIA effort against Castro, the widow Hamilton's place was for the freelance fringe, the amateur adventurers and mercenaries manque who lurked around the edges of the early Sixties secret war, hoping to be let in on the CIA's action. Latter-day cowboys like Gerry Patrick Hemming, leader of the so-called "Intercontinental Penetration Force" (Interpen, for short), and his pals Little Joe Garman and Howard K. Davis used Nelli's as their bunkhouse, packing parachutes on the sidewalk, cleaning weapons in the back yard, and occasionally practicing close-order drills with their mascot, a midget known only as Pete. The Interpen boys' main income derived from training commando wannabes in the mangrove swamps of No-Name Key, southwest of Marathon. They shared the boardinghouse with others at a similar remove from reality, among them recently released mental patients easing their way back into society. Nelli -- a stout, motherly woman in her early sixties -- cooked for them all, asking only that they respect a few simple rules: no cussing, no drinking, and no guns at the dinner table.
11. No tour of the landmarks of Dade's CIA history -- or understanding of its human cost -- would be complete without a visit to the Brigade 2506 museum, a spooky shrine to the men who paid the price for the Agency's folly at the Bay of Pigs. Located at 1821 SW Ninth St., just a few blocks from Nelli Hamilton's boardinghouse, the museum is a modest one-story bungalow that somehow manages to feel like a church. Its holy of holies lies in a large room toward the rear of the building, where glass cases hold relics of the Brigade: photos from the beachhead and Guatemala's Base Trax, fading olive-drab uniforms and broken pieces of communications gear, even spoons used during the nineteen months the men spent in Castro's prisons. Despite its unavoidable kitschiness (the department-store mannequin in Brigade camos and an Australian bush hat is a bit much), the place does its job. Surrounded by images of the men condemned to fight that unwinnable battle, you can't help but ponder the stupidity of the people who put them there.
12. The next several stops are in Miami Beach, so head for the MacArthur Causeway, but slow down as you cross, just long enough to gaze over Government Cut to Dodge Island. There's a story here. Pediatrician-turned-terrorist Orlando Bosch finally went a bridge too far in the early morning hours of September 16, 1968. From a spot along the MacArthur opposite the docks of Dodge Island (when sheltering pine trees grew wild on the causeway), the former leader of the CIA-supported Movement for Revolutionary Recovery fired a homemade "bazooka" at the Polish freighter Polanica. The captain of the 400-foot "communist" ship had been warned that he might come under attack from anti-Castro zealots, so crew members and two U.S. Coast Guardsmen stood watch during the night but were startled by the attack. The damage done was minor -- a dent in the ship's hull seven feet above the water line -- but it proved enough to send Bosch to federal prison, where he passed the time going on hunger strikes to rally community support. Bosch went on to greater fame as a prime suspect in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that resulted in 73 deaths. While being held in a Venezuelan jail in connection with that terrorist act, the Miami City Commission saw fit to declare March 25, 1983, "Dr. Orlando Bosch Day" in honor of the boom-happy baby doc. In 1988 the U.S. government, which had once supported his activities through the CIA, arrested him on parole violation charges.
13. Now turn south on Alton Road and pull in at the Miami Beach Marina. Perhaps following the principle that the best place to hide is right out in plain sight, the Company chose to base part of its secret fleet here, one of South Florida's busiest pleasure-boat ports. For close to a year, the docks of the Miami Beach Marina were home to the Explorer II, a 150-foot mother ship supposedly engaged in "oceanographic research" for Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. A typical infiltration mission saw the Explorer rendezvousing at sea with a specially modified V-20 speedboat based in the Keys. Taking the V-20 in tow, the mother ship would approach to within a few miles of the Cuban coast. There the smaller, faster raider would begin the dangerous run in to the beach, its pilot doing his best to avoid being shot up by the Cuban coast guard. Despite the illegality of her missions under the Neutrality Act, the Explorer had no such problems with the American authorities, of course; one former crewman remembers regularly exchanging friendly waves with Coast Guardsmen at the base directly across from the ship's Miami Beach dock.
14. From the marina it's just a couple of blocks to Joe's Stone Crab restaurant. This venerable Miami Beach landmark has certainly seen its share of the famous and infamous over its 84-year history, but for sheer coincidental weirdness it would be hard to beat the clientele it hosted one night in early April 1961. It was the eve of the Bay of Pigs, and a nervous E. Howard Hunt was having dinner with exile leader Tony Varona after another evening spent wrangling with squabbling anti-Castro politicians. In the middle of the meal, Hunt recalls, Varona caught a glimpse of someone across the room and smiled conspiratorially. "Look, there's your boss," he whispered. "Aren't you going to say hello to him?" Hunt froze. He turned slowly to look, perhaps flashing back to another Miami Beach near-disaster seven years earlier, when he had taken conspirators in the CIA's pending Guatemala coup out for a wild and all-too-public night on the town. But instead of meeting the disapproving gaze of CIA director Allen Dulles, he saw the bullfrog-ugly features of J. Edgar Hoover. "That relieved me considerably," Hunt says today. "I thought, 'If [Varona] thinks I'm working for the FBI, so be it.'"
15. Now drive up Collins Avenue to the fabulously flamboyant Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel. At the dawn of the Sixties the Fontainebleau was more than just the biggest of the big hotels on fun-in-the-sun, cha-cha-cha Miami Beach. It was where the action was -- where headliners like Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, and Jackie Gleason could sell out two shows a night for weeks at a time; where Hollywood came to shoot movies like Goldfinger and The Bellboy, where the most beautiful women on Earth were brought every year for the Miss Universe pageant. But while celebrities, spectacle, and publicity were the lifeblood of the Fontainebleau, the giant hotel also had room for important events unsuited to the glare of the spotlight -- notably, "contract negotiations" between Mafia chieftains and representatives of the CIA meant to produce a cooperative final solution to their mutual Fidel Castro problem. According to testimony given to Sen. Frank Church's select committee a decade and a half later, in October 1960 the hotel's faux-French finery served as the backdrop for discussions of a Castro hit among CIA personnel and mobsters Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante, and Johnny Rosselli, all of whom had been heavily involved in pre-revolutionary Havana's thriving underworld. Witnesses testified that the meeting led to a later operational rendezvous at the Fontainebleau aimed at killing Castro with poison. While carrying deadly Agency-created botulin capsules, Rosselli and CIA contract agent Bob Maheu (a private eye who did most of his work for Howard Hughes) allegedly made contact with a Cuban exile leader outside the Fontainebleau's famed basement-level Boom Boom Room. Castro, of course, dodged the botulin bullet and other CIA schemes involving poisoned cigars, hallucinogenic drugs, chemicals to make his beard fall out, and a Paper-Mate pen equipped with a poison hypodermic needle. But one has to wonder whether those dining that night on the Boom Boom's exotic cuisine didn't feel just a twinge of sympathetic indigestion.
16. From the Fontainebleau it's back to the mainland via the Julia Tuttle Causeway, site of yet another harebrained scheme. Two months before the Bay of Pigs, five soldiers of misfortune -- four Americans and a Cuban -- decided to stage their own freelance invasion of Castro's Cuba. Lacking the naval resources of the CIA, this band of would-be revolutionaries -- led by a male nurse named Kenneth Proctor, who had the words "Cut on dotted line" tattooed around his throat -- set out to steal a seaworthy vessel from the waters near the Tuttle Causeway, which was then under construction. On the night of February 5, 1961, they boarded the tugboat Gil Rocke, held its chief engineer at gunpoint, and set off on what was to be a voyage to Cuba's Escambray Province to hook up with Cuban rebels. Unfortunately for the pirates, their navigational incompetence drastically shortened their voyage. Pursued by a police boat, ducking bullets, and veering wildly around the bay, they wound up hard aground in the shallows off the exclusive Bay Point neighborhood, less than a mile north of where they had originally hijacked the tug.
17. Take Biscayne Boulevard north to 163rd Street and head east toward Sunny Isles. On the north side of the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway lies Dumfoundling Bay, a special sort of place for Johnny Rosselli, one of the thugs who met with the CIA at the Fontainebleau. Gangster-turned-congressional informant Rosselli laughed when his lawyer told him he should hire a bodyguard. Rosselli's former mob associate and Castro assassination co-conspirator Sam Giancana had just been shot before he could testify before the Senator Church's select committee. Rosselli was scheduled to appear before the same committee in a few days, but he didn't seem concerned that somebody might try to permanently silence him. "If anybody wants to kill me at my age, what difference does it make?" the 69-year-old racketeer observed. He might have had second thoughts if he had known that he would die by asphyxiation while crammed inside a 55-gallon drum headed for the bottom of the Intracoastal. Rosselli's body was found when the drum bobbed back up in Dumfoundling Bay on August 7, 1976 -- a year after his testimony concerning CIA plots to kill Castro and ten days after he had left his sister's house in Plantation, promising he would be back for dinner.
18. For the last stop you'll need to get on the Palmetto heading west from I-95. Your destination: the Opa-locka airport. The former naval air base has a long history of Company operations, beginning in 1954 with the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. The same two-story former barracks building used as headquarters for that successful cloak-and-dagger excursion was reactivated during preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion, when Opa-locka served as the point of departure for Brigade 2506 recruits bound for the Agency's secret training base in Guatemala. Arriving at night by a circuitous route in canvas-covered trucks, Brigade members got only a glimpse of the blacked-out airport before being loaded on to C-54 cargo planes with painted-over windows. (Despite the elaborate security precautions, word of suspicious goings-on at Opa-locka got out; the airport's suburban neighbors knew something was up when they were awakened by late-night takeoffs from unlighted runways.) Later, as the invasion itself got under way, the CIA sequestered leaders of the cobbled-together Cuban Revolutionary Council in its Opa-locka facility under armed guard. Issued uniforms and told to be ready for a sudden departure (presumably on a flight to an airstrip near the Bay of Pigs landing area to declare a provisional government), they instead were confined in one small room for three days and given only the barest hints that the "revolution" they were purportedly leading had turned into a disaster.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.