Wrongly imprisoned. Reborn behind bars. It's not quite Shawshank Redemption, but when Tony Galeota walked out of a Panama City jail cell May 23, it was still a small serving of justice.
Galeota is no angelic Andy Dufresne, the main character in Shawshank who serves two decades behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Instead, Galeota admits he's done bad things, such as running Miami's most infamous strip club, Porky's, for years before moving to Panama and opening a brothel. But when Galeota was arrested June 19, 2011, and charged with trafficking drugs and women, he was just as innocent as Stephen King's saintly inmate.
"Thank God I'm out," he tells New Times in his first interview since his release. "It was a nightmare in there."
New Times wrote about Galeota's plight last year ("From Porky's to Hell," October 4, 2012), even visiting him in La Joya prison, a crumbling concrete complex in the jungle where inmates kill each other with impunity.
A judge eventually dropped the human trafficking charge, but Galeota still rotted in his sordid cell alongside insects the size of small dogs.
On Friday, May 17, Galeota got word that the judge had also dismissed the drug charge because of lack of evidence. The heavy-set Italian even signed a release. But Monday morning, when it came time to walk out of La Joya, there was no vehicle waiting.
"There was no transportation, no cops, no nothing," he says. "We were like: 'We want to get the fuck out of here. We've been here for two years!' "
After bribing half the guards at La Joya, Galeota was taken to an immigration holding center in Panama City where he and four codefendants were kept for four more days. Finally, on May 23, the gate on Galeota's cramped cell swung open, and he was free to go. But he was too shell-shocked to take up his attorney's offer for a ride to a nice hotel. "I thought I would kick up my heels together like 'Oh my God, I'm finally out,'" he says. "I was just numb."
Instead of celebrating, he walked through the scuzzy neighborhood until he found a shabby motel. Even then, however, he couldn't sleep.
"When you're in La Joya for two years, you get used to that environment," Galeota says. "I'm used to getting my water from a rain bucket, not hot from the tap." It wasn't until he ordered some Italian food and a cold Guinness that he finally felt like he was free.
But Galeota's problems aren't completely behind him. His attorney has warned him that prosecutors will likely appeal, so he plans to stay in Panama until his case is resolved. In the meantime, he's spending time with his wife and kids. And he hopes to open a place in Fort Lauderdale when he's back. Just not a strip club. "A family type thing, like an ale house with wings and beer," he says.
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More than anything, Galeota is grateful that his family kept faith in him.
"I'm not a religious person, but I believe I went to jail because I was living like a rock star -- running around with all these women, drinking a bottle of vodka every day for two years," he says.
"My wife could have left me. She's forgiven me, for the most part. We have a lot of laughs about it now," he says. "But she's never going to forget. And I'm not asking her to."