Mafia Takedown - The Untold Story
Organized crime has a long and colorful history in South Florida.
Going back to the 1920s, the archives are filled with stories on which mobsters lived or vacationed here, where they chose their homes, what restaurants they favored and with whom they associated. But one of the most interesting stories about the wise guys in South Florida is one that never happened. It is how police prevented one of the most violent mob families from setting up their deadly business in Broward County.
If it remains a largely untold story today, it is because it got very little publicity when it happened more than 30 years ago. That lack of public knowledge goes to the essence of the tale. The investigation that has a unique place in American law enforcement - resulting in the take down of an entire Mafia family - succeeded largely because of its secrecy.
It began in 1983. Police agencies were aware of a growing organized crime presence in South Florida. A number of Mafia families were active here, but their activity was largely non-violent and there were no territorial disputes which periodically bred violence in northern markets. Florida was considered open territory. Mobsters came here for the same reason as everybody else - sun and fun. They did not choose to bring attention to themselves by killing each other here.
Local police departments wanted to keep it that way and were concerned that they needed a better method to monitor the various Mafia families who had a presence here. One of the problems is that local forces did not communicate well, either with each other or northern jurisdictions, whose organized crime units sometimes knew more about what was going on in Florida than local police. Thus, the Metropolitan Intelligence Unit was born.
It consisted of representatives of four local police agencies, plus the State Attorney, Justice Department, the Broward Sheriff. It had close contacts with several departments from northern states. The man who headed it was Douglas Haas, who had been a Fort Lauderdale homicide detective. The affable, articulate Haas was better known for the few years he had done off-duty security work at the popular Bahia Cabana Hotel than he ever was as MIU head. But that was no accident. He wanted it that way. A rare Sun-Sentinel story about MIU in 1987 quoted former Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Ron Cochran:
"It's not a glamor group going out to make arrests," says Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Ron Cochran, a member of MIU's board of directors. "It has always been behind-the-scenes work. The arrests go to other agencies."
That story was written by Michael Connelly, who had a fascination with police work. That interest shortly led to his move into writing crime story fiction, at which he has become a widely known best seller. Connelly also wrote one of only two stories about MIU's biggest score - the investigation which brought down the dangerous crime family.
In 1985, MIU was just getting its bearings when Doug Haas picked up a tip from a Pennsylvania organized crime source that the Nicky Scarfo was setting up business in Fort Lauderdale. That was not just news; it was alarming information. Scarfo headed the Philadelphia/South Jersey crime family, which had built a reputation as one of the most violent in Mafia history.
For decades, Philadelphia's Cosa Nostra had been conspicuously low key. Philadelphia magazine called the organization headed by Angelo Bruno "the nicest family." Bruno, unlike gang leaders elsewhere, lived modestly and there was little violence in his family. That ended when he was murdered in 1980.
A new generation of Mafios had taken him out and replaced him with men exactly the opposite. In just a few years, there were 17 murders associated with the leadership of Nicky Scarfo, whose small size led to the nickname "Little Nicky." Most of the victims were fellow mobsters. Scarfo would kill on a whim. He seemed to take pride in his ruthlessness. When Doug Haas heard Scarfo's name associated with Fort Lauderdale, he knew big trouble could be coming.
Scarfo was expansion-minded. He had taken his Philadelphia organization to Atlantic City when gambling was approved. Through strong arm tactics, including killings, he worked his way into various businesses, including casino ownership. He imposed a tax on anyone who had a business his organization could influence. That history suggested his move to Florida would break the long-standing open territory tradition, and that would lead to mob warfare. It was a situation made to order for MIU.
Although the Pennsylvania source knew Scarfo was becoming active in Fort Lauderdale, he had no further information, including where he was living. There was no record of his name on any real estate. Haas, through an Atlantic City connection, discovered that Scarfo had a house in Coral Ridge listed in a local businessman's name, and it was already a hotbed of Mafia activity. Thus began a surveillance that has gone down as an historic intelligence coup.
MIU rented a unit in a condominium across the canal from Scarfo's house. For almost two years it had a birds eye view of constant mob activity, whose openness amazed both local and out of state authorities, including the FBI, who had a squad assigned to the investigation. Scarfo assumed he was free from the scrutiny he experienced in the north.
In fact, every move he made, along with numerous associates, was closely followed. Haas was quoted in a 1990 piece we wrote for the Sun Sentinel's Sunday magazine, Sunshine. It was rare publicity for the secretive MIU.
"At times we had so many people on the case that Scarfo's car was the only car on the road that wasn't one of ours," says Haas. "We had cars behind him, in front of him and beside him. We were the traffic."
Chuck Drago, the lead detective of some 20 MIU agents assigned to the case, was in the same 1990 article.
"One time Scarfo had 29 people at the house for a party," Drago recalls. "They were all men, all documented mobsters. And they did things they would never do up north. For instance, we got pictures of them lining up to kiss Nicky. Usually they do those rituals in the clubs where they meet. But they did this right out on his patio. You had to kiss Nicky, because you were in deep s--- if you didn't."
Drago actually sat beside Scarfo's breakfast table at a oceanfront hotel and heard him plan to knock off one of his supposed Mafia rivals.
MIU supplied Pennsylvania authorities with that dramatic information, along with numerous photos and tape recordings, for Scarfo's eventual trial. The evidence was so compelling that several of his mob flipped and testified against their leader. Drago was one of several MIU agents who were star witnesses at the trial. The trial was one reason MIU got so little ink. It was held in Philadelphia, and Scarfo and 16 mob associates were convicted. It represented the heart of the Philadelphia/South Jersey mob, dismantling an entire organization in a way unmatched by anything before or since.
Nicky Scarfo, sentenced to life, died in prison in 2017. By then Doug Haas, who rose from sergeant to captain during his MIU service, was long retired from the Fort Lauderdale PD, and had worked a few years heading organized crime units for the Broward Sheriff and State Attorney's office. He now lives in New Hampshire where he continues a 20-year career as a private investigator.
MIU was always tricky to hold together with different entities and their changing leadership. It was dissolved when Ken Jenne became Broward County Sheriff in the mid-90s.
This memoir is occasioned by a visit recently from Doug Haas. He reminisced with understandable pride about the MIU era 35 years ago, especially the Scarfo investigation.
"It's the only time an entire organized crime family went down," says Haas. "MIU got them before they could become entrenched down here. And if it hadn't happened, it would have been a blood bath."