With news headlines currently dominated by the National Security Agency, cellphone and Internet monitoring, Wikileaks and spies, it seems appropriate to recall the year that Hillsborough County law enforcement's greatest surveillance weapon was (drum roll please) an airplane.
It was 1958. Years earlier, Ellis Clifton was named head of Hillsborough County's vice squad, and his No. 1 charge was to bring down the criminal organizations that were making so much money off the illegal lottery known as bolita. In a way, he was enjoying some success. The mafia nicknamed him "The Rabbit" for his ability to pop up out of nowhere and break up a bolita game. But his busts were mostly small time.
It was one thing to stop a game in progress or arrest a numbers runner. What he wanted was to find a "drop house" for one of the major criminal organizations. A drop house was the final destination for all tickets or money spent in every bolita game run by a particular criminal organization. If Clifton could find a major drop house, he could arrest those sitting atop the criminal pyramid.
There was one problem - finding a major drop house was nearly impossible. Why? In Clifton's words: "Those guys weren't stupid."
According to Clifton, the tickets and money for major bolita rings were each run separately through a maze until they reached their final destinations.
Clifton and his former partners - Buddy Meisch and Charlie Whitt - once detailed the maze to me as follows:
It started with the street peddlers, also called "writers." Some of the street peddlers boldly sold numbers on the street corners, while others sold numbers from an establishment they owned or worked at, such as a restaurant, café or bar. Once a player made his bet, he was provided a ticket with his chosen number handwritten on it. The peddler then called a "call-in house" and read the call-in guy the numbers sold and to whom. The call-in guy would write up tickets for each sale for his records. The peddler rarely knew who the call-in guy was; he simply knew a phone number.
In 1958, the winning bolita numbers were that week's Cuban lottery numbers, which were drawn in Cuba at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Everyone involved in bolita in Tampa, from the players on up, listened to a Cuban radio station at 1 p.m. for the winning numbers. Following the drawing, the call-in guy would gather all of his bolita tickets, place them in an envelope, walk to a specific street and look for a specific car. When the car slowly drove by, the call-in guy nonchalantly handed the driver (we'll call him D1) his envelope. The call-in guy's job was done for the day and he had no idea where the driver was going.
D1 did this for every call-in guy in his territory, which could have encompassed an area as small as just a few city blocks on up. D1 then drove down a specific street and also looked for a specific car. When the two cars cruised by each other, D1 handed his envelopes to the driver (D2) in that car. D1's job was done for the day and he had no idea where D2 was going.
In the same manner, D2 would collect envelopes from multiple territories that made up his region, for instance all of Ybor City or South Tampa. He would then pass his collection to another driver (D3), who collected for multiple regions. Once again, D2 would have no idea where D3 was going.
The process could repeat itself another five to eight times, each driver handing his envelope to another, never knowing where the new driver was going. The maze wound through Tampa and its surrounding communities for miles and miles. The only person working the maze who knew the final destination was the last driver, who then took the envelope to the drop house. The money went through the exact same process, but was taken to another drop house. The tickets and money were always kept separate, so that if one was busted, the other was safe.
Following an entire bolita maze was tough. To remain inconspicuous, law enforcement had to follow from a distance, which made it easy to lose the drivers in traffic. As of 1958, law enforcement would always had have to settle on arresting just one driver involved in a major bolita ring. And, even if offered a deal, the driver could not say where the tickets ended up because he honestly had no idea.
In early 1958, an informant provided Clifton a tip on a bolita ring that encompassed Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties. The informant did not know who ran the ring, but considering it seemed to be the largest one in the area, it had to be a top guy. The informant knew of only one drop spot in the maze. To find the drop house, Clifton would need to follow the drivers beginning with that drop spot until he found the final destination.
But if it was difficult to follow a bolita maze through one city or county, how would Clifton follow one through four counties?
Clifton remembered that another sheriff's office in the state had recently used an airplane successfully for surveillance. He decided to mimic their tactic.
From a tiny airplane, Clifton hovered a few hundred feet above the drop point provided to him by his informant. It seems outrageous today for a criminal not to notice an airplane following him, but you have to remember this was 1958. It had been done only once prior in the history of Florida. There was absolutely no reason for anyone to think that an airplane would tail a car.
It worked perfectly.
From the air, Clifton detailed the maze, every twist, turn and exchange. When he found the drop house, even a stoic and hard-nosed law enforcement officer like Clifton had to admit he was giddy. The house belonged to Frank Diecidue. Clifton knew he was a major player in the gambling businesses, but up to that point Clifton never had anything worthwhile with which to charge him. He finally had him.
When the vice squad raided Diecidue's home a few days later, they found thousands of bolita tickets hidden throughout the house - the most Clifton had ever seen in one place, adding up to tens of thousands of dollars. The money, however, had been sent to another drop house.
Diecidue was convicted of running an illegal lottery. Just as importantly, Clifton found the names of 50 to 100 individuals involved in that particular bolita ring - a ring that was estimated to earn millions of dollars a year.
In the years that followed, he began picking these individuals off one by one.
And he owed it all to an airplane.