Nine months had passed since the cash was seized from a Deerfield Beach check-cashing/loan-sharking joint run by Nicholas "The Little Man" Corozzo, reputed to be John Gotti's heir apparent as boss of the Gambino crime family. Federal Bureau of Investigation rules dictate that confiscated money must be processed into evidence within ten days of seizure. On the morning of May 30, 1997, as Sanchez, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Miami, peered across his desk at Sullivan, the money still hadn't arrived in the evidence room.
Fellow agents had repeatedly asked Sullivan, a 25-year FBI veteran who ran the organized crime unit, to produce the money. Over and over, he lied. Sanchez finally had enough of the subterfuge and made his demand. No problem, Sullivan replied. All he needed was an hour.
Sullivan went to his office for a moment before slipping out and driving his government-issue 1990 white Lincoln Town Car north to his Plantation home. He tossed some clothes, a hair dryer, a toothbrush, and toothpaste into a bag, and wrote a note telling his wife, Catherine, that he loved her. Then he drove off. After withdrawing $400 from a nearby bank, he sped onto Alligator Alley, heading west across the Everglades. At some point he stopped and called home, leaving a message for Catherine, telling her again that he loved her. Agents in Miami, meanwhile, were frantically trying to call and page him. Fearing Sullivan was going to kill himself, they began an intensive FBI manhunt.
Sullivan didn't stop until he reached the Marco Island Resort on Florida's southwest coast. The hotel is an unofficial refuge for federal crime-fighters, run by a former FBI agent and frequented by agents in need of relaxation. Sullivan used his credit card to pay for the room, knowing the bureau would trace it and locate him within 24 hours. They'd find him sooner or later anyway.
The agent sat down at the resort bar and started knocking back beers, breaking his five-year sobriety streak. He knew how to drink. He'd become an expert while working undercover for the FBI. That night he downed a case of beer and a few vodka tonics, then waited for his years of thievery and deceit finally to catch up with him.
His treacherous endgame had failed, and now the deconstruction of Sullivan's strange and contradictory life was about to begin.
FBI agents flooded the resort the next day. Agents arrested Sullivan while he was out buying more booze, then grilled him in his room. The agents smelled the alcohol, but didn't think he seemed drunk. Sullivan told them he'd stolen more than just Corozzo's money. He'd taken a grand total of $400,000 from the FBI and used it to gamble with the very mobsters he was supposed to have been investigating.
Sullivan didn't admit to everything. He'd also lied to a judge to spring a Mafia associate from prison in hopes the well-heeled criminal would return the favor with cash. That and more would come out later. But the FBI had enough to charge him with theft and lying to fellow FBI agents. A judge sent him to jail, where he spent two nights before putting up his house to post $100,000 bond.
Sullivan soon became a national disgrace, his crimes of theft and lying to the FBI detailed in newspapers throughout the United States. A team of nineteen agents spent months sifting through every case he ever worked, every surveillance tape he ever made, every covertly recorded discussion he had held with organized-crime figures, every report and memo he had ever submitted. The massive investigation was appropriately titled "Operation Lost Count."
Psychologists evaluated Sullivan's mental condition and found him to be an alcoholic; a pathological gambler; a man stricken with obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and a number of other mental problems. The bureau apparently failed to discover these problems as Sullivan rose through the ranks and conducted countless sensitive investigations.
The unforgiving light of Lost Count reflected on the bureau. Suddenly the truth became difficult to discern. This was more than the story of an agent gone bad. It was also the story, untold in the news media, of the FBI's own flaws, of its maddening mistakes, of its losing track not only of $400,000, but of a man once considered a prized agent.
Jerome Robert Sullivan spent his final Sunday of freedom working around his picturesque gray-brick and stucco house. It was January 3, just five days before he would begin serving his five-year prison term. The lawn was immaculate and the air smelled faintly of freshly cut grass.