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.
Her house in North Miami is a shrine to it all -- the politicians, the movie stars, the crooks she's known. There are a few seascapes by her old pal Murph the Surf. Numerous shoe boxes are stuffed with old photographs of Laurie posing with every notable who ever crossed her path at a function, from Al Gore to Martin Sheen to Jeb Bush. The walls of her office at Midtown Towing are similarly plastered with images of Laurie with her hair up, dressed nicely and smiling. This is evidence, to her, of a life that matters. "These people trust me," Laurie mumbles while flipping through a stack of photos. "That means something."
Laurie today is 55 years old and stands five feet four inches tall on reedy legs. She's got straight white-blond hair, appraising blue eyes, and bright red nails. When she lifts her small hands, to light a Marlboro or make a point, the dark stains of old track marks are revealed under the pale skin of her arms. "I prayed to God to remove the scars," she says. "But the scars are for a reason. They help me convince people of my past. They let me help other people."
The making of a thief Laurie Waters was eighteen when she first tried heroin. Her young husband, a no-account soldier she met in grade school, made the introduction. Within a year, the man was gone, but dope was a permanent fixture in her life.
Laurie grew up in wise-guy central, Fairview, New Jersey. She was a daddy's girl, but pop was a bad influence. Laurie remembers him as a charismatic man with a fine singing voice and exciting involvement in some of the shadier aspects of politics in Fairview. Ostensibly, he worked at the local A&P grocery store. But his real money came from bookmaking.
Joane Tufano, Laurie's mother, has no such fond remembrances. "He ran numbers," Tufano sighs. "He was a drunk, sometimes violent, would bring home women. He would teach her to steal things from the drugstore, things like that."
Tufano, age 75, looks a lot like her daughter, with blue eyes and fair skin, light blond hair in a puffy bob. She was just sixteen when she met and married Edward Waters, then a soldier stationed near London during World War II. He hit her once before the marriage, but Joane says she was too young and dumb to heed the warning. By age 20, she had two children and a new, miserable life in New Jersey. She left him the minute the children were out of the house.
The children were opposites. Clever, wild Laurie became a fearless stunt artist, always trying to get attention. Her older brother Eddy, the serious straight arrow, joined the Army as soon as he could, later becoming a U.S. Marshal. He lives in South Florida too.
While Laurie was on probation for drug charges, her father became ill. Laurie visited him in the hospital. He asked a friend to send his daughter to Florida, to get her away from the life. "But I found a connection the first day here," she remembers. Within days, Edward had died. Laurie wanted to come home for the funeral, but she was warned that she could be arrested since she had violated her parole by leaving New Jersey in the first place. Laurie showed up for the funeral, where she was promptly cuffed and carted off to jail. She was devastated and angry.
"And from that day on, I made up my mind," Laurie remembers with a throaty smoker's chuckle. "I was gonna be the biggest thief, and never trust the law again. The girls in the prison thought I was hard. I never shed a tear. But I cried by myself."
Through jail and failed rehab programs, Laurie's mom stuck by her. Her family's old mob friends tried to get her to go straight. "They used to say to my mother, öWhy the drugs? She's got such a good mind.'" When she got out of prison in 1969, at age 20, Joane convinced Laurie to move with her to Miami. A new location didn't help. Laurie just found new connections, new scams, and the welcoming arms of local criminal figures.
In a strange way, Joane introduced Laurie to her cat burglar mentor. A woman named Florrie Fisher was making the rounds of the national talk shows. Fisher was billed as a former heroin addict, prostitute, and thief who was on an anti-drug crusade. Fisher had written a book about the subject called The Lonely Trip Back. Joane thought the example of somebody who beat the addiction would inspire her daughter. Instead, the book gave Laurie ideas.
Laurie began robbing hotel rooms, which during the Seventies in Miami Beach wasn't all that difficult. One night, she crept into a room, only to be confronted by its occupants. Sitting there were none other than Florrie Fisher and her Filipino husband, who went by the name Phil. "Who knew who I was robbing," Laurie cackles rhetorically. "They invented the cat burglaring game. Florrie had a broken leg and she was getting old. She looks at me, then she looks at Phil. öPhil,' she said, öshe reminds me too much of us. Why don't you train her?'"
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.'"
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."
When Yem got out of prison she began working for Laurie at Midtown Towing. She's been there on and off for the last fourteen years. "I've seen her turn her life around. She don't have that devious side to her no more," Yem says of Laurie. She then pauses and cracks a wide smile. "Or, she does, but she uses it differently."
If anything, the thing about Laurie that makes Yem crazy is her bottomless, almost masochistic capacity for forgiveness. Yem says that over the years, she's been robbed blind by former employees, towing company rivals, and even friends. Yet Laurie is always willing to give a person one more chance. "She always tries to help the underdog. People take advantage of her for that. Sometimes, you just want to shake her and say, öLaurie, what are you doing?' She's been that way forever."
Yem continues: "She's always trying to give something back. She always felt she had to pay for what she'd done. I think only in the last year, she is starting to realize, maybe her debts are paid."
An unlikely love story Howie Lichtman was a junkie and a crook when Laurie met him. They were two of kind, each robbing the unwary to support their habits. He'd started out a shy, smart Jewish youth from New York who joined the Army and went to Vietnam. There he filled his lungs with Agent Orange and his bloodstream with heroin and cocaine. Back stateside, Howie quickly descended into the circular hell of dependence and crime.
After he met Laurie at the jail, Howie saw her again at a local dope house. Their shared interests fostered a quick relationship. "He was a daytime burglar, I was a nighttime burglar," Laurie says. "But he was the first man who ever came into my life to take care of me." The relationship was rocky, but compelling, as each of them was facing several years of prison time for their respective crimes.
Not long before Laurie went to prison for ten years, she and Howie were married by their bail bondsman. Laurie says she's thankful Judge Lenore Nesbitt gave her a harsh sentence, because it probably saved her life. "Otherwise I'd be dying from AIDS, or I'd be dead from something else," she acknowledges. "I wouldn't have nothing today."
Prison did Howie good, too. When he was released after four years, he got clean. He worked two jobs and squirreled away enough money after a couple of years to buy a truck, with which he started a modest towing business. Laurie still had six more years in prison (including work release), but he stuck by her, hoping she'd change. "He told me, öI love her, but I'm never going back,'" says Tufano, who was at the time telling people Laurie was away at college. "If she comes out and hasn't changed, that's it."
Laurie was a different woman coming out. But soon she found out Howie was sick. Laurie says Howie had damage from exposure to Agent Orange, confirmed by the VA hospital where he was treated, and that he had lupus. She also says that he refused ever to have sex with her after she left prison because he believed he was HIV-positive. "When he got me out of prison, he got me to have a blood test and it came back negative," she says at one point. "He cried like a baby. And he would never have sex with me."
"He was a great man," opines Lynn Yem. "They were in love. He stuck by her in prison and she stuck by him in illness. She was the apple of his eye. He did everything for her." Laurie resolved to help him with the business and to do anything she could to fulfill his desire to get back his civil rights. He wanted clemency, and the right to carry a gun and repossess vehicles, necessary in his growing business. So she jumped into the only Miami scene that rivaled her old one for sheer seediness -- politics. She started small, going to Miami city commission meetings, attending North Miami Chamber of Commerce events. At the latter, she soon met Elaine Gordon, then a state representative. In her inimitable style, Laurie walked right up to her and said what she says to pretty much everybody she meets for the first time: "Hi, I'm Laurie Lichtman. I got life in prison, I was a drug addict, and I changed my life."
Like many people, Gordon was struck by Laurie's unapologetic honesty, desire for legitimacy, and stage presence. Gordon passed away in 2000, but her former aide Bonnie Michaels (currently the sassy right hand of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman) recalls that Laurie proved herself over the years by always being there, ready to help anyone who needed it. "You need something for a charity or anything, she's got her checkbook out," she says. "It got to the point you'd say, öLaurie, you don't have to sponsor everything.'"
Gordon took Laurie under her wing politically and helped her make the contacts she needed to get civil rights back for herself and Howie eventually. The Lichtmans also became respected local business people, known in particular for their support of anything involving police, children, or people in prison. They also poured several thousand dollars a year into campaign coffers. "She was my inspiration," Laurie sniffles. "Elaine taught me the right way to do politics. She gave me a chance when no one else would, but she made me work for it."
Joane Tufano watched her daughter morph from a fast-talking reprobate to a political insider welcomed in the offices of congressmen Bill Nelson, Bob Graham, William Lehman, Sherman Winn, Gov. Lawton Chiles, and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, as well as countless local officials, such as Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and Commissioner Tomas Regalado. "Elaine Gordon was a very honest politician," Tufano remarks. "I thanked her once for what she did for Laurie. She told me, öI didn't do it, she did.'" "Up until three or four years ago, nobody did anything without calling Laurie," avows Annette Eisenberg, a longtime political fixture who runs the monthly Downtown Bay Forum. "Even now, many of them call. They wanted the money, the support, the endorsement."
Lobbyist Bob Levy says one of Laurie's charms is her talent for malapropism. He recalls that once Gordon was supposed to get an honorary doctorate from Barry University at the same moment she was to be honored by the North Miami Chamber. "She asks Laurie to accept for her and explain she can't be there because she's been inducted into the school," Levy relates. "Laurie gets up and says, öI'm here on behalf of Elaine Gordon, who can't be here because she's being indicted.'"
Levy was introduced to Laurie by Gordon, who asked him to help her break into the towing contracts at the county. For years, the majority of the contracts had been locked up by the appropriately named Johnny Dollar. Levy helped break the lock and Midtown Towing got a contract. "Bob is special," Laurie opines. "You know Johnny Dollar tried to give him $25,000 to walk away from me? He didn't take it."
Similarly, Laurie fought for years to get a contract in the city of Miami's good ol' boy system, a process made more difficult by her and Howie's past. To that end she supported the campaigns of both Carollo and Regalado, among others. Laurie is "a character," Regalado says. "She was not shy to say something about her past," he says. "She is very humble. She's always giving and giving."
She made fast friends with former commissioner Miller Dawkins, even speaking in support of him at his corruption trial. "When they got him, he called me and said, öYou're gonna hear something. I wanted you to hear from me first.' I went to court for him. He was always honest with me." Carollo proclaimed June 9, 1997, Howard Lichtman Memorial Day. Laurie gave a little speech that included her promise to help the city fight community activists seeking to abolish it altogether. "The City of Miami and the commissioners are not going nowhere," she vowed.
Becoming a widow In May 1997, Howie Lichtman's long illness finally consumed him. Laurie says he was in and out of the hospital and clearly weakening. One day she says they came home from the hospital and talked about things they'd never talked about before. Howie had a man come and cut his hair and nails. Laurie went to the grocery store. When she returned, he didn't answer her call. "I went running in the bedroom and I saw him there and thought he had a heart attack like he did a few weeks prior," she explains. "I called 911."
Then she saw the gun. "I guess being in the service, the way he did it, there was no blood. I called my mother. I was hysterical. I didn't know what to do." Laurie was shocked and hurt. She says she hadn't noticed signs that Howie had been suicidal. "I remember that night he told me to watch for the rainbow and the birds. öWhen you see a bird, think of me,' he said.
"I didn't know nothing," she maintains. "I didn't comprehend. I'm just mad at him (her voice chokes and she stops for a minute), 'cause he never said goodbye. He promised he would never, never do that. And he never lied to me. He never lied to me. And that's why I guess I haven't gotten rid of this house, because I hope to open a drawer someday and find a note, or find something."
The manner of Howie's death was kept quiet. His funeral, however, was a grand affair. Just about everybody who was anybody, and plenty of people who weren't, were there at the Levitt-Weinstein funeral parlor, a crowd estimated at about 1500. Howie was dressed in a Midtown shirt and part of his old Army uniform. There was a 21-gun salute. "My husband's funeral was the biggest ever," Laurie boasts. "Everybody came. All the things I did up in Tallahassee was for him. Every wish he had, I fulfilled before he died. And I can say I was faithful to him the whole time. My whole world was him. You ever hear of an unconditional love? That was it."
Gustown After Howie died, some of Laurie's motivation to traffic in politics faded. She withdrew bit by bit from that realm and concentrated more on the business end of Midtown, which had been Howie's forte. There is no quarter given in the towing industry. Some competitors worked to chisel off chunks of her business. Some employees, typically ex-cons with pasts similar to her own, stole money.
Then Gus came back. Gustavo Marino was a truck driver she'd fired a few years before because of conflicts with other employees. Marino says it's because the then-manager was afraid he'd tell Laurie about all the theft going on. Marino, age 48, is a ruggedly attractive Ecuadorian with a broad, distinctly Mezo-American face and an easy laugh. He comes across as a little bit of a hustler, in the sense that he's a hard worker and streetwise, possibly not unaccustomed to the shadier aspects of Miami.
He saw Laurie in a North Miami club sometime after Howie died and they struck up a friendship. "I said, öI'm pissed at you,'" he recounts. "öYou fired me for no reason.'" He thought they'd just be friends, but a stray kiss at an Aretha Franklin concert in downtown Miami became an on-again, off-again relationship that spanned several years. In August, the two married, somewhat to the trepidation of Laurie's mother, who worried that Marino might be in it for the Midtown money.
Then again, Tufano gives her daughter a lot of credit for being savvy.
"She's my miracle," Tufano says. "I used to walk around holding my pocketbook because she'd steal money and forge my checks. One day, I remember she said, öMommy, I'm so sorry for what I done to you.'" Her eyes water a little at the memory.
Laurie remembers Howie and his talk about looking for the rainbow. "I know he would want me to be happy," she says.