To Protect and Serve
Barry’s Own ‘Serpico’
When Vince Mazzara ’01 enrolled in Barry to get a bachelor’s degree at the age of 48, he already had an impressive résumé. The highlights included: ‘secured the arrests of 25 major drug dealers and associates, as well as the confiscation of 17 pounds of nearly pure heroin and cocaine valued at approximately $7 million (1974 street value),’ ‘served as lead undercover investigator…in order to infiltrate an organized crime/teamster/police corruption and racketeering ring…as a result, 42 individuals were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges ranging from extortion to solicitation to commit murder.’
So extraordinary was his nine-month undercover investigation into the drug underworld of 1970s Detroit that local newspapers dubbed him “Detroit’s Own Serpico.”
However, meeting Vince Mazzara ’01 for the first time it’s hard to make any connection to the abrasive, frenetic character Al Pacino portrayed in the 1973 movie “Serpico.” It’s equally hard to imagine that this is a man who’s spent a good chunk of his life with bullets literally flying over his head.
Describing his early career as a beat cop on the streets of the crime-ridden 1970s Detroit, Mazzara has the placid, almost serene demeanor of a pilot who has flown the same route many times.
“I remember one time we were called to a burglary in progress and there was a man shooting from the second floor with a rifle, which was typical of Detroit back in those days. People used to use [patrol cars] as target practice. I was hiding behind a tree, gun in hand, and bullets were flying over my head,” he says. “I remember in the middle of it, having this déjà vu moment, thinking this was just like playing cops and robbers as a kid; except now it was real.”
The son of Italian immigrants, a “cop” was the last thing Mazzara’s old-school parents wanted him to be.
Like all good Italian parents, he says, “they wanted me to go to barber college.”
Despite his traditional upbringing – his father received a gold watch for 40 years of service to Ford Motors – Mazzara was attracted to police work, more specifically undercover work, from an early age.
“I used to help my father hang drapes on the weekend, it was a business he had on the side, and I’d stand there and daydream about [doing police work].”
After graduation from high school in Redford Township, just outside Detroit, he applied to and was rejected by several suburban police departments. Back in those days most police forces had a height requirement, and at 5 feet 8 inches tall, Mazzara came up short.
“In those days, cops came one way, 6 feet tall and Irish,” he recalls. “I was a little Sicilian kid with a big nose. I just didn’t look like a cop.”
Determined to make it on to the force anyway he could, Mazzara offered to pass along information he picked up from the neighborhood about small-time drug dealing to the local police. It was, after all, the late 60s and the streets and suburbs of Detroit were brimming over with heroine, cocaine and other illegal drugs.
“Still, they were hesitant to take information from an 18-year-old kid,” Mazzara noted. “I basically had to build up credibility.”
Mazzara’s desire to get into the “drug-busting” trade was born out of personal experience. As a high school student, he watched a girlfriend’s sister’s drug use lead to “all kinds of problems” for herself and her family. “She was a really bright girl, very talented artistically. She had a lot of potential and I saw how the drugs affected her. She would get into trouble. Later on she got pregnant, and wasn’t married. It really hurt her family.”
The Big Seize
|The evidence of the $7 million seizure of heroin and cocaine, the result of Mazzara's nine-month undercover investigation, is displayed at a Detroit PD press conference in April of 1974.
Mazzara was soon accepted into the academy at the Detroit Police Department. Violent streets and a high-level of police corruption meant the Detroit PD was “desperate” to get officers back in those days, he says.
“In my first year as a Detroit Police officer, we had nine officers killed in the line of duty, and 802 citizens were killed,” he said. “I thought I would get in the Detroit Police, get some experience and then maybe a suburban department would hire me.”
After graduating from the police academy, Mazzara went on beat patrol, and could have easily begun the long climb up the ranks. But, due to pure chance, an extraordinary sense of timing, dogged initiative, or a combination of all three, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Only three years after he graduated from the academy, Mazzara was the key figure in what was then the largest drug seizure in the city’s history: $7 million worth of cocaine and heroine were confiscated and 25 people, including several Detroit police officers, were arrested. Several months after the arrest, when Mazzara’s role in the operation finally came to light, he was dubbed a “master of ruses,” “a gutsy cop’y’,” and “Detroit’s own Serpico” by the Detroit Free Press and other local papers. Legendary Ohio State Buckeyes’ Coach Woody Hayes sent him a letter thanking him for his “superb efforts” and inviting him to be his guest at the big game.
“I heard from people as far away as Alaska,” recalls Mazzara, who was a guest on local talks shows and was even invited out to the West Coast by Hollywood producers who had expressed interest in making a movie based on his experience.
“I don’t remember getting much out of it except a steak dinner and a trip to California,” laughed Mazzara. “Of course, at the time I think ‘Serpico’ had already come out.”
Mazzara’s “big score” had humble beginnings at a local park where teenagers were known to buy hits of acid and nickel bags of pot. Saturday was the big day when hundreds of kids showed up to buy and sell drugs. Mazzara and some other undercover officers had been working the park for several weeks when he spotted an opportunity. He saw a girl he vaguely knew get arrested and something told him he should get himself “arrested” too. He asked a uniform officer to pretend to arrest him and throw him in the back of the squad car with her.
Mazzara befriended the girl, who was part of a ring that broke into doctors’ offices and stole prescriptions. She even gave him a hit of LSD to make his time in jail a little easier. He spit it out on the floor of the squad car when she turned her head – marking the first of many occasions when Mazzara would fake taking drugs, a skill which he became quite adept at.
Through his friendship with the girl, Mazzara began to make his way inside Detroit’s drug underworld. Going under the name Jimmy DeFelice, and sporting a bushy afro and ripped jeans with American flags “unpatriotically” sewn on the back pockets, Mazzara began to make fake drug buys. At the home of a drug connection, Mazzara eventually met Milton “Happy” Battle, a notorious figure in the drug world, known for the amount of drugs he allegedly moved (The Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that Battle supplied 30,000 to 50,000 heroine addicts in Detroit every day.), and his ability to avoid arrest and conviction.
“I was over at [this guy’s house] and he came out of the basement with this guy, who I had never seen before,” Mazzara said. “When I called my lieutenant later and told him about it, I could hear the excitement in his voice; he told me to hold on a minute, that’d he’d be right over.”
Battle quickly began to see Mazzara’s Jimmy DeFelice as another potential income stream, and for the next eight months, as Mazzara pretended to do bigger and bigger deals, he adopted his wardrobe accordingly --going from hippie-garb to expensive Italian suits in imitation of a drug dealer who was moving up in the world. Mazzara even borrowed a brand new orange Corvette from a friend at General Motors so he could really look the part.
Unfortunately, he all but totaled the car one night when, driving on icy roads, he failed to recognize one of the surveillance vehicles that regularly followed him when he made drug buys. While speeding away from what he thought was a strange car, the Corvette spun around several times, clipped several parked cars and hit the side of an overpass bridge before coming to a stop.
“You have to understand,” he said, “this was in the days before cell phones. If you didn’t see a surveillance team, you really felt alone out there.” In fact, on one occasion Mazzara had a signal with his surveillance team that if he threw something out the window, they were to get in there quick.
|Mazzara is shown here working undercover as 'Michael Ferrelli,' the operator of a numbers house in Detroit, Michigan. The 1978 investigation led to the arrest of several corrupt police officers, local politicians and teamster union officials.
“I told them if you see me coming out the window, then you know it’s too late.”
When asked what made him so good at this type of undercover work, Mazzara answers simply, “I learned to be a very good mimic,” he said. “You have to do your best to mimic the people that you’re with. If you’re with a street dealer you try to dress like him, talk like him; if you’re with an official from the teamsters, you wear the suits he’d wear, you use words that he would use.”
As far as fear goes, Mazzara says he’s lucky to have been born with a “calm” nature, and it is “something you learn to control.” However, old friends, and those who know him outside of the job, still have a hard time picturing Mazzara fitting in with the criminal element.
“He is a very unassuming type of individual,” said long-time friend Harvey Cohen, who knew Mazzara for several years before he told him about his undercover work. “I was really very, very surprised when he told me about it. He’s certainly not violent at all, not the type of person to carry a grudge. It just doesn’t fit with his demeanor at all.”
Still, the double-life was hard on his family, particularly his mother. “When I would go to have dinner with my parents on the weekend, they’d have the TV on in the kitchen. If something came on about a police officer being killed that day, my mother, who was your typical little old Italian lady, would start crying.”
Mrs. Mazzara wasn’t the only one to shed tears before it was over. In late April of 1974, when the $7 million shipment of cocaine and heroine arrived in Detroit, local and federal agents swooped in and confiscated the drugs and arrested people who had been “doing business” with Mazzara.
Mazzara, himself, was sent to arrest a heroine-dealing bar owner named Mike Delgado. He had become fairly close with Delgado in the past several months, and when he told him that he was a cop, Mazzara wasn’t sure what would happen, but he thought there was a very real possibility that Delgado could get violent. Instead, he had a very different reaction.
“I said my name wasn’t Jimmy DeFelice that I was Vince Mazzara and a Detroit Police officer; he broke down crying.”
During the trial of Happy Battle and other defendants, Mazzara went into hiding in northern Michigan.
A $10,000 bounty had been put on the 24-year-old officer’s head by those connected with the case and it was too dangerous for him to be out in the open. After the trial, Mazzara tried to go undercover again. However, several police officers were on trial for corruption and other crimes they had committed at the behest of Battle, and “no one could find a way for [him] to get back in the department safely.”
“My case started a snowball of drug and murder arrests. It didn’t cool down for me and I was in and out of the city hiding. I had married and it wasn’t a good situation,” he said.
So, in the spring of 1976, Mazzara decided to accept a position with the private security firm Wackenhut Corporation and relocate to Florida.
The Ice Cream Man
|Mazzara (third from left) acts as a stand-in an FBI lineup to identify a suspected organized crime member at the Wayne County jail in Detroit, Michigan, in 1979.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Oakland County, Michigan, prosecutor’s office to make Mazzara an offer he couldn’t refuse. However, instead of drug pushers, “Detroit’s own Serpico” was going after mobsters and corrupt teamster officials. He spent about 14 months posing as a shady numbers operator based out of Pontiac, Michigan. Instead of ripped jeans and tie-died T-shirts, he sported tight polyester pants and very wide lapels a la Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. He carried a lot of cash -- courtesy of the prosecutor’s office -- hung out with mid-level mobsters, ate at their restaurants, frequented their night spots and, in time, gained their confidence.
According to reports in the Detroit Free Press, Mazzara became involved in numerous deals including a contract to break the legs of a local attorney for a $4,000 payment and the ribs and arms of a Michigan Bell Telephone Co. supervisor. In the end, the Free Press reported, he was able to provide prosecutors with information that led to the arrest of 40 people, including four officials from the Teamsters Union, a Pontiac city commissioner, a Pontiac police officer, and an Oakland County court official.
“In organized crime work, the crimes tend to be more involved; you need to build more of a relationship,” Mazzara said. “I got to know the teamsters local president, for example, and be his friend.”
At barely 30 years old and with two headline-grabbing investigations under his belt, Mazzara made another surprising career move: ice cream. By this time Mazzara had a young son and he had decided it was time he “chose a new line of work.” So he left his job in Oakland, Michigan, and moved back to Florida and, as the owner of a Dairy Queen franchise in Cape Coral, immersed himself in selling banana splits, ice cream sundaes and freezes. He even went to Dairy Queen U, as the training center for new franchise owners was commonly called.
“You learn all the products, the importance of product appearance (the cone with the curl on top), how to wait on customers, etc. Then at lunchtime, management, including the CEO, would come in for lunch,” Mazzara explained. “Tell me you’re not nervous when the CEO asks for a cone and you’re still learning the technique for making the proper curl on top.”
Mazzara’s Dairy Queen soon became a gathering place for local officers who encouraged him to get back into the “business” -- a business that he readily admits he missed. However, as usual, Mazzara’s career trajectory was unpredictable, and when he did get back into police work, it wasn’t as an undercover narcotics agent or member of an organized crime task force; it was to take on an issue much closer to home: domestic violence.
In 1993, after nine years managing the Dairy Queen franchise, Mazzara went back into law enforcement as a neighborhood resource officer for the Cape Coral Police Department. There, he worked to find long-term solutions to disputes and difficulties among residents. The idea was to work with social service and government agencies so that officers did not have to keep responding to a call from the same location over and over again. For example, he helped a mentally unstable young man, who had been panhandling at a local mall, get medical and psychiatric care.
Although he had a reputation for being tireless when working a case, any case, domestic violence and its effects on the family, particularly children, really struck a chord with Mazzara. Perhaps, he explains, this empathy can be partly attributed to his childhood, growing up in an excessively patriarchal household with a father who was prone to episodes of rage.
“My father didn’t hit my mother, but he would get started where he would scream at her for hours and hours about inconsequential things that happened back in Italy, things she didn’t even know about,” Mazzara said. “When it would get really bad, we’d have to take the bus across town and go stay at my uncle’s until he cooled off.”
Those early experiences left him with an intuitive understanding of how easy it is for domestic arguments to escalate.
“My father kept a gun in the drawer right by his bed. He never brought it out, but it just made you think about what can happen.”
Mazzara served as the Cape Coral PD’s representative on the Domestic Violence Committee for Lee County and the department’s instructor on domestic violence. He also founded the KIDS (Kids in Domestic Situations) program to bring one-on-one personal education “to every child touched in some fashion by domestic violence.” Mazzara also personally trained counselors throughout the school system to help children deal with the emotional effects of domestic violence.
From the Ground Up
An opportunity to take his work with domestic violence to a whole new level came in 1998 when he accepted the newly created position of domestic violence coordinator at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. At the time, Palm Beach -- like many counties around the state -- didn’t have many internal resources – no separate unit, no special training -- devoted to domestic violence.
“You would have an officer going to the same house again and again with nothing being done,” he said. “The officer on the scene would usually just ask the man to leave the home and go some place to cool off for the night. Most of the time he’d just go down the street and when he saw the officer leave, he’d go back home and really beat the he-- out of his wife. He’d tell her that if she ever called the police again she’d be dead. Because you were there and you didn’t resolve it, you did a disservice to that woman, those kids and those pets [in the house].”
So Mazzara’s job was basically to create a domestic violence program from the ground up that covered the 400,000 residents living in the PBC Sheriff’s jurisdiction. “Within an office as big as the Sheriff’s Department, there’s a lot of work that goes into establishing something like this,” said Sgt. Scott Shoemaker, who was Mazzara’s supervisor at the time. “Vince had a lot of great ideas. He basically laid the ground work to start a lot of the programs that are fully implemented today.”
Those initiatives, according to Shoemaker, included training an initial crop of about 50 DART (Domestic Abuse Response Team) officers, who are specially trained to deal with domestic violence, (today, there are approximately 300 of them.) and recruiting volunteer social workers who are available 24 hours a day to assist domestic violence victims “make a safety plan, get a restraining order or whatever they need.”
The sheriff’s department also instituted a program that provided digital cameras to DART officers so they could download photographed evidence to a DV Internet Web site where it would be readily available to attorneys, counselors and judges.
When asked what he said to skeptics who wondered why he expended so much blood, sweat and tears on a problem that many say has no real solution, part of a cycle which is next to impossible to break, Mazzara points to the numbers. “In 1997 there were 10 domestic homicides, in 2000 there was zero, and the overall average was reduced to one or two a year,” Mazzara said. “That one or two was still too many, but we’re proud of how much we did it get it down.”
During this time, Mazzara also took advantage of classes that were being offered by Barry’s School of Adult and Continuing Education to get a bachelor’s degree in professional administration. Although he had taken a few classes at a community college back in Michigan, undercover work didn’t leave much time for pursuing a degree, yet Mazzara realized he needed a degree in order to advance in his career.
“A significant step was the portfolio program, which allowed students to display their life experiences/education for credit,” he said. “I found the attitude very accommodating to working adults.”
Following the money trail
Mazzara wasn’t done yet. After taking on drugs, domestic violence and going back to school, he decided to tackle fraud. Mazzara worked as investigator in the state’s Fraud Division, first as an investigator in Plantation, Florida, and then as a regional commander for Central Services region. There he spent his days investigating all types of insurance scams and white collar crime.
During his tenure as regional commander from 2001-2006, Mazzara says he probably saw almost every type of fraud you could imagine from individuals filing false workmen’s compensation claims to companies underreporting payrolls to criminal rings staging fake auto accidents – many who “really knew the ins and outs of the medical billing and insurance world.”
“In the late 1990s, there was an absolute epidemic of phantom provider cases,” explains retired Lt. Ira Warder, who worked with Mazzara in the fraud division both in Plantation and Tampa. Phantom providers, he explains, is a type of insurance fraud in which an individual or group of individuals, gains access to someone’s social security number and other information and uses it to bill health insurance providers for services that were never actually rendered – costing the companies and ultimately consumers millions of dollars a year.
Mazzara, who knew little about investigating fraud when he first joined the division, had little trouble adapting to the work. Warder credits not only Mazzara’s “keen eye for surveillance” but his natural communications skills for his success as an investigator.
“Vince is able to communicate on many different levels. He’s very sincere about what he’s talking about [at the time] that helps him as an investigator,” Warder said.
Plus, he’s a damn good driver
“There were times we were following guys in Porsches and we were driving a 10-year-old Ford Taurus, and Vince was still able to keep up with them,” Warder said.
Although he retired from the Fraud Division in 2006, Mazzara still lives in the Tampa Bay area and works as a private security consultant and investigator. Although he’s had a career that most people can only watch on TV or in movie theaters, Mazzara says he may not be done quite yet.
“I still continue investigations and my domestic violence work,” Mazzara said. “I also adopted a rescued golden retriever and trained him to become a certified therapy dog. I’ve gone on several cruises, traveled, bought a boat, caught hundreds of bass, built a new home and, proudest of all, watched my son become an attorney in a prestigious Florida law firm.
But I still miss being on the force, going undercover, you never know I may still go back to it.”