What A Differencea Year Makes

There is something cruel, and yet almost comical, about the case of Tommie Sikes, an ex-stunt man and cocaine deal maker. From his prison cell, Sikes is suing his former attorney, Alvin Entin, alleging that through a "typographical error," Entin failed to secure for his client a comprehensive immunity agreement with federal prosecutors.

"I was the middle man," Sikes says from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he is serving a 36-year term. "What I did was put groups of people together." If someone was interested in importing a few hundred kilos of cocaine, Sikes introduced that person to representatives of the Colombian drug cartels and let them work out the details. For his efforts, Sikes says, he customarily received a "broker's fee" of one percent of the value of the drugs imported.

Although Sikes attempted to keep his distance from the actual contraband, he was swept up in a massive federal indictment in 1981 that snared more than 80 people. Convicted on drug charges, he was sentenced to six years in prison but was able to remain free while appealing his conviction, and from 1981 until 1987, he admits, he continued brokering deals. In 1987, however, having exhausted the appeals process, Sikes decided it was time to get out of the drug business for good.

In order to protect himself against future trouble with the law, Sikes figured his best bet was to become a government informant. In exchange for information he could provide, he reasoned, the Drug Enforcement Administration would wipe his slate clean, so that when he finished serving his time for the 1981 drug charge, he'd never have to look over his shoulder again.

Sikes got in touch with Alvin Entin and asked the Miami attorney to negotiate an immunity agreement with prosecutors. In April 1987, Sikes, Entin, and a pair of DEA agents met, and Sikes agreed to help the government. In the weeks before he began his prison term, Sikes was to do what he was good at -- introduce people. But now he would be introducing federal undercover agents to Colombians. It was also agreed that if Sikes did an exceptional job for the DEA, prosecutors would recommend that his sentence be reduced.

Sikes says he went right to work the day after the meeting, at Entin's urging, even though the immunity agreement had not yet been put in writing. "I kept calling Alvin, asking, `Where's the agreement? How do I know I'm being covered?'" Sikes recalls. "And he always said, `I'll take care of it.' He said, `You keep doing what you're doing, and I'll get you immunity.'"

Sure enough, on April 20, 1987, Entin sent a proposed agreement to Neil Karadbil, a deputy chief in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida. Two weeks later Karadbil signed the agreement and a copy was mailed to Sikes. But when Sikes saw the agreement, he says, he knew something was terribly wrong: it stipulated immunity for any deals he might have brokered between 1981 and 1985. "Nineteen-eighty-six was the crucial year," he says.

Sikes called Entin in alarm, and the attorney sent a second letter to Karadbil, asking that immunity be extended to 1986. He never heard back from the federal prosecutor, but several weeks later Sikes was indicted on two counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and one count of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise.

Sikes and his current attorneys -- Atlanta lawyer Bruce Pashley, who is appealing Sikes's subsequent criminal convition, and Stephen Zukoff of Miami, who is handling the civil lawsuit against Entin -- say it is impossible to know how much of the information Sikes provided to DEA agents was eventually used to build a case against him. Entin disagrees. "They got nothing out of his cooperation that came back to haunt him," he asserts.

Entin maintains that the only thing that came back to sting his former client was Sikes's own attempt to manipulate the DEA and federal prosecutors. When DEA agents first agreed to work with Sikes, says Entin, they were under the impression that no federal agency was investigating his activities.

In fact, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Lauderdale had been building a case against Sikes for some time. When the assistant in Fort Lauderdale discovered that agents were working with Sikes, Entin says, she put a stop to the relationship and indicted Sikes on the information her own office had already gathered.

As far as the U.S. Attorney's Office was concerned, Entin continues, Sikes had tried to pull a fast one, attempting to make a deal because he knew about the impending indictment from Fort Lauderdale. (The assistant U.S. attorney who investigated in Fort Lauderdale, Eileen O'Connor, declined to comment for this story.) Karadbil, through poor communication in his own office, had been willing to grant immunity, completely unaware that one of his assistants was preparing to indict the potential informant.

Sikes nearly got away with it. Had the signed agreement included the year 1986, O'Connor's case would have dissolved. Instead, all because of the one-digit discrepancy, Sikes was convicted on the two conspiracy counts. And because the crimes had been committed while Sikes was free pending his appeals, the judge doubled the standard sentence to 36 years and fined him one million dollars. (Sikes was acquitted on the criminal-enterprise charge, which could have landed him a life sentence without the possibility of parole and allowed the government to seize all of his property and cash.)

Sikes, who says he paid Entin a total of $95,000 for his services, filed suit in July against his ex-attorney for legal malpractice, hoping to recoup the million dollars, and more. At issue: Did Entin make a mistake when he drew up the immunity agreement?

Sikes's current attorney Zukoff points to Entin's own sworn testimony before Judge Kenneth Ryskamp in June 1988, in which Entin stated, "The original discussion that Tommie had, covered the years '85 and '86...and what happened is, what was typed was '81 through '85, when it should have been '81 through '86.... The mistake I made in the letter by putting in the year 1985 was a legitimate typographical error."

But after Entin testified, the DEA supplied its own notes of the original meeting, which indicated that Sikes had only sought immunity through 1985, not 1986.

Entin now says he isn't sure exactly what happened. He believed at the time that he had made an error, he says, but only because Tommie Sikes was so adamant that he was wrong. "He pretty much convinced me I made a mistake," Entin says. As for the DEA's version of the meeting, Entin says, "I don't remember what was said. They had better notes than I did."

Regardless, Zukoff maintains, it was Entin's responsibility to protect his client, and he should have requested immunity right up until the day the agreement was signed, a practice Zukoff says is common in such matters.

Entin is willing to admit that it would have been better to have extended the agreement through 1986 and into 1987. But he couldn't have known it was necessary at the time, he explains, because Sikes had lied about his criminal activity. "He played everything close to the vest," Entin says. "He had indicated [to Entin and to the DEA] that he had brokered three small deals. And it turns out he was the principal player in about 2500 kilos of cocaine, which is huge by any standard."

Sikes is scheduled to remain in prison until 2015, when he'll be 77. "What can you do?" he says. "I don't think I'm capable of living that long. This is where I'm going to die." He contends that the feds would have been perfectly willing to grant him immunity for that extra year, a fact that haunts him to this day. What irks him just as much, Sikes complains, is that even during the years when Entin believed the foul-up was his fault, he never offered an apology. "He knew he made the error and never once said, `I'm sorry. I'll do what I can to make it up to you.' Instead it was always, `Give me more money.'


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