Married to the Mob and the CIA
Was “Big Al” Carone a prominent Mafioso, CIA operative, NYPD detective, bagman for George Bush and Oliver North, drug dealer, assassin and a “man of honor?”
by Michael C. Ruppert, High Times, September 11, 2002
“The plaintiffs would have this court believe that Mr. Carone has played the role of Forrest Gump, popping up as a key player in virtually every government conspiracy theory promulgated over the last 50 years. This court simply cannot view any of the plaintiffs’ claims as plausible, especially in light of the complete lack of even a scintilla of evidence except for one patently forged document and self-serving declarations. Accordingly, the court dismisses the case pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1).” — Ricardo M. Urbina, United States District Judge, February 27, 2001
I first walked into this case in late 1983 when I got a call from former CIA case officer David MacMichael. As a matter of conscience, Dave had for many years been speaking out about illegal and inhumane operations being conducted by the CIA.
“Mike, there’s a woman in New Mexico named Dee Ferdinand. She says that her father, a guy named Albert Carone, was a high-level agency operative. He was also NYPD. She says that he was also in the Mafia. He’s been dead since ’90 and every record about him has apparently been sanitized. The family’s been denied benefits and had bank accounts stolen even though the daughter has records. She says her father knew Ollie North and George Bush personally. I think it’s something you might want to look into.”
It bit me like a pit bull. I had just started writing about CIA operations again after a disastrous and painful experience as the Los Angeles County press spokesman for the Ross Perot presidential campaign of 1992. That had proven to be yet another case of unmet expectations in my quest to find an honorable man. I had also just spent months putting together a conference in Indiana for the families of what was to ultimately become 109 US servicemen who had been “suicided” or died under suspicious circumstances. In almost every case where I could get information, I had discovered that there was a connection between the deaths and covert operations. Quite often there were links, reported by the dead serviceman to his family, of drug smuggling or criminal activity on or around military bases where they served.
My then fiancée, Mary, and I had brought many of these families together in a small town in Indiana in the fall of 1993. The ultimate pain for all of them was the discovery that there was no honor in their own government. The deaths of all of their sons, husbands and brothers had been dismissed as suicides or accidents. The cover-ups had been sloppy, arrogant and brutal in their apparent contempt for evidence. All of the families had vowed to do whatever it took to break the cases. None of them understood that they all would ultimately fail.
Now I was presented with a case where it had happened to someone on the inside–a bad guy. Would it be any different?
Mary and I packed our bags and flew to Albuquerque. My “cop instincts” had always served me well, and there was something about the demeanor of Desiree (Dee) Ferdinand, with her disarming Brooklyn accent reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob, that allowed me to instantly trust her. Her husband, Tommy Ferdinand, had struck me the same way. No b.s. and a sense of humor that I wish he still had today. I had told Dee up front where I was coming from. I didn’t like bad guys. She had been just as up-front that she knew that her father was a crook, a drug dealer, a CIA operative, a bagman, a killer and an all-around not-very-nice person. But for her it was a matter of honor.
That, I understood.
The Ferdinands rented a large ranch house in Corrales, just north of the city. On two acres Dee boarded and cared for six horses. She had a son, Vinnie, who was in his early twenties and going to college. Vinnie would soon become a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy. She had a younger daughter, Nikki, who was still living at home. Also living at the house was Tommy’s mother, Irene, and a not-too-friendly Rotweiler named Mikie which Mary instantly named “Cujo.”
The hospitality was genuine New York Italian and the food was just as authentic. Over two and a half days we talked. I asked questions and looked at documents and papers retained by Dee Carone Ferdinand after the death of her father, Albert Vincent Carone, in January 1990.
HONOR, YES: HONEST, NO
In a videotaped deposition made in September 1998 as she and a former Green Beret named Bill Tyree brought suit against the CIA, Dee Ferdinand was asked to describe what kind of a man her father was. “He was known as man of great respect, a man of honor. That is not to say that he was honest. He wasn’t. He did many bad things. But he lived by a code of honor. If he said something was so, you could take it to the bank.”
Over the years I have talked to almost every family member who knew Big Al, including Dee’s sister Carla and her husband John. Dee, Tommy, Carla, John, Irene and Vinnie had all seen Big Al in his Army uniform. Tommy and John told me how they had driven him at times to secure areas at LaGuardia or JFK airports, in full uniform, often with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. On other occasions he had been chauffeured in military vehicles. On one occasion Tommy had dropped him off at JFK inside a secure area, only to see the figure of Richard Nixon waiting for Carone in the open doorway of a nearby helicopter.
Over the course of two days I “debriefed” the family. Carone knew a great many people. He had served as an NYPD detective and bagman for the Genovese and Colombo families. He frequently took military leaves of absence to travel all over the world. The names of people he would later talk about, knowing of his imminent death, included Bill Casey, George Bush, Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, Richard Armitage (now deputy secretary of state to Colin Powell), Richard Secord, John Singlaub, Rafael “Chi Chi” Quintero, drug smuggler Barry Seal, Arkansas billionaire Jackson Stephens, Special Forces Colonel James “Bo” Gritz, General Richard Stillwell, Edwin Wilson, Robert Vesco and many more.
The paper exhibits were compelling and convincing. But I retained a healthy skepticism until I put Dee through a final test. I prepared list of names, some fake, some authentic. I asked Dee if her father had mentioned any of the names over the years. Without a single misstep she picked out almost every member of the board of directors of the Nugan Hand Bank, a legendary CIA drug bank that operated in Australia during the late 1970s and early ’80s. She didn’t fall for any of the falsified names. The real names included Edwin Black, General Leroy Manor and legendary CIA drug banker Paul Helliwell. [For an excellent history of the Nugan Hand affair, I recommend The Crime of Patriots by the late Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny.]
I had been thoroughly convinced that Al Carone was everything his daughter said he was. I told her that in my opinion, there was only one man who could help her. He had served as the CIA’s chief of station in Laos during the Vietnam War. He had risen to oversee the agency’s Western Hemisphere operations and the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende. He had been the most powerful operations executive at the CIA before Jimmy Carter took office in January 1977. He had stayed with CIA until about 1980, and had retired under a cloud caused by the escapades of Edwin Wilson, one of his protégés who had been convicted of selling plastic explosives to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
Throughout his career, especially from the days in Southeast Asia when he ran the largest CIA operation in history, his name had been linked to heroin. His name also turned up during the Iran-Contra investigations of the 1980s, which saw an explosion in cocaine use from which America has not yet recovered. From the moment that I had learned that CIA was dealing drugs and had begun the investigations that would nearly cost me my life, I had been obsessed with this man. He was the man who had been in charge of CIA’s covert operations when they had tried to recruit me in 1976.
“Dee, “I said. “As far as I know there is only one man who can help you. His name is Ted Shackley.
BIG AL’s SCHOOLING
Al Carone, or “Big Al” as he was known, had been a de facto orphan in Brooklyn in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. A street kid, left to roam while his mother “entertained” gentlemen at night, he had slept under stoops and in stairwells. He had been adopted by the legendary mobster Vito Genovese, who operated out of a nearby bar. Genovese fed the young street kid, sometimes let him sleep in the bar, and gave him quarters and dimes for running errands. It was here that Al Carone learned about loyalty and honor. There was no end to his love for “Don” Vito.
By the time World War II came around, little Al had become “Big Al,” a lifelong bodybuilder and a “made” member of the family. He entered the Army and was quickly assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps. Dee said that all of the paperwork she possessed covered the fact that her father really had spent the entire war working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. This made immediate sense to me, because I had seen US government reports that Vito Genovese and his boss, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, had been used by the OSS and the Office of Naval Intelligence throughout World War II, first to protect New York docks from sabotage, then to assist in the invasion of Italy and later to prevent Communists and Socialists from winning elections in postwar Italy. The latter activities, funded by Corsican heroin, were the genesis of the famed French Connection, which smuggled tons of heroin into New York City until the 1970s.
After the war in 1946, “Big Al” had joined the New York City police. Dee had photos of her father as a patrolman and later as a detective. Throughout his NYPD career, Carone had made the payoffs to make sure that the CIA’s dope hit the streets safely. She had cancelled pay stubs, copies of pension records, a copy of his graduation roster from the police academy. Big Al had retired as a detective first grade in 1966. Yet, after her father’s death, when she went to ask for death benefits, the NYPD had told her that Al Carone has never been a policeman.
I remember holding one of his passports in my hands and seeing the visa stamps for London, the Bahamas and New York City. I remember the travel records of one of his partners named James Strauss, showing massive expenditures for dozens of flights to all of the world’s financial capitals, sometimes every other day, that a former FBI agent once told me, “could only have come from a GTR government travel account, because an airline would never allow a private business to run up that kind of a tab.”
Most of all I remember holding his personal phone book, separated at the spine from years of use and finding entries for maybe a dozen known Mafia figures including “Boss of Bosses” Paul Castellano, Joe Perscillia, Matty “the Horse” Ianniello and many others. Also in the phone book, on a separate sheet of paper but in the same handwriting, was the Locust Valley, Long Island address and phone number for CIA Director William Casey.
Casey, said the entire Carone family, had been at the Ferdinand home for Vinnie’s christening in the early ‘70s. When Dee was growing up, Casey and his wife had been frequent guests for dinner and social events. So had, on different occasions, Santo Trafficante, mob boss of South Florida, known as Uncle Sonny; Sam Giancana, known as Uncle Momo; and the short-lived boss of bosses Aniello Delacroce had been known as “Uncle Neal.” Both Delacroce and Castellano died in New York mob hits.
There were photographs of Carone in Army uniforms: one as a major, one as a full colonel. There were telegrams and letters referring to him by his military rank. And yet, after his death–which, as I read from the death certificate, was caused by “chemical toxicity of unknown etiology”–the US Army had insisted that he had never served in the military after 1946 and had never attained a rank higher than staff sergeant. He had been buried in a New Mexico military cemetery with that rank on his tombstone. This, said Dee, was not honorable.
But what had been done to Al Carone and his family had been more ruthless, systematic and well executed than anything I have seen before or since. Immediately after his death, both his personal and joint bank accounts held with Dee had disappeared. Even though Dee held passbooks and cancelled checks, the banks had insisted that the accounts never existed. Life-insurance policies which Dee and Tommy had given to a local attorney named Robert Fuentes–later discovered to have intelligence connections–disappeared. Carone’s NYPD pension vanished. The state of New Mexico said that Al Carone had never had a driver’s license. He lived there for 10 years. Coin collections and the contents of several storage facilities evaporated. Even the registration on his personal vehicle, which had always been registered in his name, was altered in state computers. When Dee went to check about having it transferred to her daughter, she found that the New Mexico DMV records showed that Dee had originally purchased the car in the early ‘80s.
Carone’s death had been long, painful and expensive. He knew he was going to die after his own collision with a question of honor, yet he had said repeatedly to the entire family that when he died they all would be taken care of. For the Mafia there was no more important code of honor than taking care of the family. It was apparently different for the CIA, and Big Al Carone had planted his feet in too many worlds before his own death. And it seems, to this day, that the world of the CIA was the one that eliminated his life, and in them, and the interests they worked for, there was no honor at all.
Nobody ever doubted where Al Carone was coming from. “Civilians” were not to be hurt. People who got killed were players, and they knew that was part of the game. Although Carone taught torture and interrogation techniques and guerrilla warfare, he served mostly as a “paymaster,” especially for assassinations and executions in the dark world of clandestine warfare. One assassination that Dee and Tommy would later discuss in their videotaped depositions was John F. Kennedy. Carone had revealed, before his death, that he had been in Dallas on November 22, 1963, that he had been positioned on a rooftop at the Love Field airport but could not get a clean shot. He was grateful for that. He had also delivered a cash payoff to Jack Ruby before the assassination.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, when there were drug missions to be financed, Al Carone delivered both the money and the orders. When someone needed to be killed, it was the same thing. Before his death, he talked openly of working with Oliver North, Richard Secord, Richard Armitage, Barry Seal and Elliot Abrams. He told his family that North, Secord, Abrams and Armitage were “assholes.
SEALING HIS FATE
Throughout the years Carone had also shown signs of compassion and his own code of honor. He often lamented the fate of the POWs and MIAs in Vietnam and, in the years before his death, spoke openly about how “the boys” had been sold out. He spoke on several occasions of a Green Beret named “Sandy” whom he had worked with. He said Sandy had been sold out, betrayed and framed for a murder he didn’t commit because he had learned too much. Carone became obsessed with helping Sandy, and had spoken of delivering diaries to CIA headquarters that had been kept by his murdered wife that could have “brought down the government.” Both Dee and Tommy had seen the diaries in Carone’s briefcase before he had taken them to Langley, Virginia.
Carone was a good soldier. He did his job for years and kept his grumblings close to his vest. But things were falling apart. They had gotten out of hand. There were too many drugs, too much killing; too much corruption in Al Carone’s scheme of things. It no longer served any greater purpose. There was no compass except greed.
In the summer of 1985 Al Carone and his buddy Jim Strauss—whose company had the voluminous airline bills—went on a mission to Mexico. That mission, as were many of the other activities of Al Carone, fell under the umbrella code name of Amadeus. Dee and Tommy had heard the name many times before, when answering phones or taking messages for Big Al. It was name that always made him jump. It was a name that they said connected directly to George Herbert Walker Bush.
Carone was gone for weeks. And when he returned from Mexico he was never the same. His heart was broken. He said that he and Strauss and the men who were with them had wiped out entire village which Dee and Tommy can only remember as Chiapatulla or Tapachulla. “We killed everything there,” said Big Al, “men, women children, everything.” It was wrong. He also spoke of how a narc and a pilot had been tortured and buried alive. He was referring to DEA Agent Kiki Camarena. It was shortly after that he started to get violently ill. Within 18 months or so, he had kidney failure. The doctors, and there were many, could not pinpoint the cause. He would tell Dee and Tommy, “I’m not long for this world. The suits are coming to get me.”
He talked more openly in his last years. He voiced his concerns and became obsessed with the POWs, with Sandy and the “assholes” who had taken over the government. Before he died in 1990, he made his daughter promise not to bury him in his Army uniform. He was ashamed. “Burn it,” he said.
THE BIGGEST BATTLES AND HEAVY LOSSES
Shortly after I left New Mexico, Dee Ferdinand went to a luncheon of former intelligence officers. There she met former Howard Hughes aide and lifelong CIA operative Robert Maheu. Maheu gave her Shackley’s phone number.
Dee’s first conversation with Shackley was not thrilling. Keeping his standard noncommittal posture, he denied knowing Al Carone. This was a position he changed in subsequent conversations with Dee over the years. He asked her what she wanted. The first thing she wanted was her father’s headstone changed to reflect his rank of colonel.
It was changed within 10 days, and Dee took photographs of the new marker. She also “appropriated” a copy of the change order. The Army still—to this day—denies the rank.
After returning to Los Angeles, I wrote up a report of what I had learned. I sent it to a good friend, a retired Army Criminal Investigation Division warrant officer named Bill McCoy who lived in Alexandria, Virginia. McCoy was impressed and got Dee’s phone number from me. That was the beginning of a tightly woven friendship that involved phone calls, sometimes five times a week, until McCoy’s death in October 1997. “Mac,” as we all called him, was a loveable giant, prone to wearing berets, who had his investigative fingers in almost every covert operation I had ever heard of.
There were many mysteries about McCoy that remain unsolved to this day. Not the least of which was why he spent two years keeping Dee from learning the identity of Bill Tyree, the former Green Beret who had been framed for his own wife’s murder. Tyree, on the other hand, had only been told Dee’s married name rather than her maiden name. In the meantime I, familiar with both cases, never knew what Mac was doing.
Mac was a father-like figure, a great cook and raconteur. I visited his home in Virginia many times in 1994 and 1995. While coordinating information on a number of investigations, he managed to keep Bill and Dee from connecting. In the meantime, as the Carone family were threatened, intimidated and plagued by all manner of terrifying events, Dee’s resolve only deepened. She told me, with a conviction I still remember, “This is about honor. This is becoming a vendetta. All I want is what rightfully belonged to my father, nothing more.”
Her brother-in-law was shot at. Her son Vinnie narrowly escaped death in what appeared to be a staged traffic accident. Her fences were cut a half-dozen times and her horses scattered over the New Mexico countryside. Tommy, who held a civilian job at Kirtland Air Force Base, was shuffled to lower-paying assignments and eventually laid off. In 1997 Vinnie, then a sheriff’s deputy working extradition cases, was sent on dangerous and solitary assignments. He was photographed in secure areas of government facilities.
Dee would talk to McCoy four or five times a week. I would talk to McCoy or Dee at least twice a week. Still, none of us knew that Sandy and Tyree were one and the same, even though McCoy was doing investigations on Tyree’s case and he held all the pieces.
LACK OF HONOR
Things were complicated further in April 1995, when the Murrah Building was destroyed by a bomb blast in Oklahoma City. I was living near DC at the time, and Dee had called me within hours of the blast. She had called Shackley almost immediately. Then she called me. I gave her my word that I would not repeat what Shackley had said. According to Dee, Shackley said the act would be placed squarely at the feet of domestic terrorists. This, even as news reports were reporting only that Islamic terrorists were suspects.
Shortly thereafter, a journalist named David Hoffman, whom I had put in touch with Dee, got the same story from her on the strict condition that the conversation was off the record and confidential. Less than a year later he published a book in which he reported all of Dee’s conversation with Shackley, and even embellished to the point of placing himself in Shackley’s living room and describing him smoking a pipe, sitting in an overstuffed chair and “chortling” in satisfaction.
Dee, as a matter of honor, called Shackley as soon as she heard about the book. Because of that action or responsibility her relationship with him continued and, in fact, deepened.
BREAKTHROUGH TO DEFEAT
Bill McCoy died suddenly in October 1997. He was found sitting in his favorite easy chair, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Questions still linger among those of us who knew him.
It was around the time of Mac’s death that Dee and Tyree connected. Dee learned that Billy was “Sandy” and Billy learned that Dee was the daughter of Big Al. Facilitated by Massachusetts attorney Ray Kohlman, who came to represent both of them, first Billy and then Dee filed suits against the government. Over the years, Billy placed collect calls from the Walpole state prison in Massachusetts that sometimes added between $500-800 a month to the Ferdinands’ phone bills. This wore heavily on Tommy and his temper frequently got the better of him, especially as his hours were being cut back.
Dee was obsessed, and now she had a court case and searing documents that helped both her and Tyree. Affidavits long buried came to the surface, including one purportedly written by Bill Casey. Though filled with grammatical errors and misspellings, I was inclined to believe the document’s authenticity. My reasons were simple and based upon my years of experience, I knew that intelligence agencies often wrote completely accurate documents and deliberately salted them with errors to later discredit them. The 1986 document had more credibility because, while completely vindicating Dee’s assertions, it carefully laid all the blame in the CIA at the feet of people who were then or would soon be dead. It never once mentioned George Bush, and the document followed the long-cultivated CIA fallback position that drug dealing was all done to fight communism, and never once mentioned the billions of dollars that had flowed into American financial markets.
From 1998 until her case was finally dismissed, there were endless, draining, expensive, time-consuming legal moves, the kind I have witnessed in dozens of cases over the years. As time progressed, first Tyree’s suit and then Dee’s were dismissed. All of this happened and Dee and Bill Tyree spent more time talking to each other than any other living souls. They have never seen each other in person. For Tyree, locked up on a life sentence, this was not an issue. For Dee’s family, especially Tommy, who was paying the phone bills, it was; especially as the family teetered from month to month, on the edge of eviction.
I have both and seen and lived this hellish existence in the search for justice and the redemption of honor. It eats everything.
Dee and Tommy were divorced last year, as the suit was finally thrown out by a court system that seemingly wouldn’t know the rule of law, or honor, if it smacked it in the face. Dee now lives in a modest Albuquerque apartment and Tommy spends a lot of time riding his motorcycle. Tommy’s mother will no longer speak to Dee. Vinnie, still a sheriff, has at times estranged himself from his mother in recent years. All of Dee’s horses are gone and she holds down a job to pay the rent.
“It’s over,” she says with the same conviction I heard in 1993. “I will have nothing more to do with my father’s case. They won. I have nothing more to give.”
Dee has had a number of conversations with Ted Shackley over the years and refuses to discuss details of any of them except to say that he was always helpful, always sympathetic and that he gave her advice that helped as she prepared and fought her case. “Of all the people I have spoken to who had something to do with this case, he’s the only one who never lied to me.”
When I asked how she could trust Shackley, she refused to discuss the matter any further. The conversations were private. It was a matter of honor.
One time, in tears, she recounted how Shackley had told her how proud he was of her as Big Al’s daughter, and that she had fought as hard as possible to honor her father. He had told her that she had behaved as he would have wanted his own daughter to behave, and maybe that is what this story is all about.
Having lost all of her material possessions and her marriage, and having suffered for years in a losing and futile battle—the way all of these battles always end—Dee Carone Ferdinand has no doubt in her heart that she gave all she had to give. She sleeps soundly at night and there is something in her still that remains defiantly unbroken, as Al Carone’s visions of total, unprincipled corruption come to full flower in the American government.
It was, after all, a matter of honor.