When Vicki Met Syl, Part Two

The central courtroom of the George Whitehurst United States Courthouse in Fort Myers is an artless, modern box, set within an otherwise handsome old building faced with oolitic limestone. At a wooden table opposite the judge's bench on the morning of April 2, 1997, at 9:10 a.m., three men in dark suits sat watching a jury file in. Two of the men, Managing Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy and Brian Kelley, an investigator for the Lee County State Attorney's Office, wore black cowboy boots, a sartorial fillip that added to their already imposing stature. The third person at the prosecutor's table, 28-year FBI man James Trotter, was both older and shorter than his colleagues, and his choice of footwear matched his milder temperament: scuffed Hush Puppies. Trotter nonetheless had come to the courtroom for the same purpose as Kelly and Molloy -- to try to annihilate the two defendants sitting immediately to his left.

Sylvester Lukis, a Miami lobbyist, and his wife, former Lee County commissioner Vicki Lopez-Wolfe, stood accused of bribery, extortion, influence peddling, and mail fraud. According to government investigators, the couple had begun an illicit love affair in the spring of 1991 and soon after embarked on a complicated criminal conspiracy. Prosecutors claimed that Lukis, a married family man at the time, had seduced Lopez-Wolfe with the promise of higher office and bribed her with money and gifts; Lopez-Wolfe, then a controversial young political starlet, had allegedly sold her vote on multimillion dollar bond deals and construction contracts, and so deprived the citizens of Lee County of her "honest services" as an elected official. Along the way, the couple had lied to the press, deceived each other, and Lukis hired a Miami private eye to shadow their enemies. At one point they had used a surveillance videotape to try to blackmail a candidate into dropping out of a county commission race.

If convicted on all eleven charges in this public corruption trial, Sylvester Lukis and Vicki Lopez-Lukis, as she was now known, would each face a maximum penalty of 60 years in federal prison and $2.7 million in fines.

Sylvester Lukis could hardly afford a guilty verdict. He was 51, and broke. He had run out of money more than a year ago and was borrowing to pay alimony ($2000 per month), child support ($4000 per month) and legal fees ($450 per hour). In July 1993 Metro-Dade County had handed his $180,000 per year lobbying contract to Marvin Rosen, a well-connected Miami Democrat. And since the indictment in March 1995, Lukis's other government clients had dropped him one by one.

In the nights to come Lukis would find himself unable to sleep. Sometimes he would leave his room at the Sheraton Harbor Place, descend to the street, and walk to the Fort Myers Yacht Basin nearby. Other times he would amble north along Edwards Drive to an all-night convenience store and await the morning newspaper. He could count on the front page to carry the latest public installment of the private nightmare he was now living.

By day in the courtroom, Lukis appeared to be taking notes on a legal pad, but as often as not he was writing his children's names -- and praying.

Vicki Lopez-Lukis, now age 39, sat beside her husband at the defense table, always formally and immaculately dressed. In the four years since she had resigned her position as a Lee County commissioner and left Fort Myers, her face had lost the softness of youth; watching the arguments of prosecutors she would frown attentively, heightening a subtle impression of somberness. The two-year-old indictment and the task of trial preparation had taken their toll and occasionally led Lopez-Lukis down unusual pathways. At one point in the preceding months she had consulted a Miami psychic, who foretold a positive outcome to the legal proceedings. Another fortune teller in Philadelphia seemed less optimistic, warning that Lopez-Lukis would be "betrayed by a blonde."

Early on in the trial, jurors would be reminded that Lopez-Lukis had never before been accused of a crime, much less convicted of one. But they were never told that she had intimate prior experience with a scandalous court case, and that her return to Fort Myers to face justice was full of haunting echoes from a summer in Miami 30 years ago.

On a Sunday morning in July 1967, Dade County sheriff's deputies found a dead man in a burned-out car along northern Biscayne Boulevard. The man was identified as Joseph Nanney, a construction worker from Fort Myers. At first it seemed that Nanney had died in a car wreck, but an autopsy soon showed he had died of head injuries that weren't accidental.

Within hours homicide detectives had arrested Lopez-Lukis's father, Felix Lopez. Dade authorities said he had conspired with his secretary, Toni Kay Nanney, to beat her husband to death with a tire iron and to try to make the death look like a traffic accident by setting the car on fire. The motive: a lovers' triangle and a $48,000 life insurance policy.

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Sean Rowe