By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Flush with cash, Valis bought a horse ranch in Bentonville, Virginia, while Hanks relocated to Ft. Myers, Florida, where the DEA assigned him a new partner who, he says, didn't let guilt or innocence get in the way of a good dope bust. Soon enough, Hanks rejoined his former partner up in Virginia. It was there, working out of the Baltimore DEA office, that they first ran afoul of the U.S. government. A guy they met in a bar there had a cousin in the Coast Guard in St. Petersburg, Florida, who had been supplying AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) schedules to drug dealers, who would then smuggle cocaine out of Belize into Miami in shrimp boats.
"We go and we tell our control agents in Baltimore," says Hanks. "A thousand kilos a week. And they give us this, 'Well, that's interesting, but what about this two-kilo deal we've got going in Baltimore?' I'm going, 'Are you listening to me? What the fuck is this?'"
Sensing a conflict of interest, they determined who controlled the purse strings and contacted the head counsel of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Hayden Gregory -- who, surprisingly, knew their story before they told it.
"He says, 'Yeah, we've been looking into that, and we haven't gotten anywhere with the DEA either,'" says Hanks. "'We think it's a CIA operation, in conjunction with the DEA.'"
"What they were doing," adds Valis, "is they were bringing the drugs into Florida, giving it to the 2506, the Cuban guys from the Bay of Pigs. They were selling it on the street, taking the cash, getting an end-user certificate out of Australia and buying guns from Interarms in England, and then taking them by Hasenfus Airways and dropping them in to the contras. They were using the drug money to buy the guns."
Deciding their best protection was media exposure, they put the word out that they had a story to tell. Eventually, they got a call from West 57th Street, a new CBS spinoff of 60 Minutes. Within days, they were attending meetings in the field wearing a DEA wire on one side and a CBS wire on the other. But before the story could run, the series was abruptly canceled. Three months later, the story broke in the press, and the world first heard the name Oliver North.
Foreseeing the inevitable day when they would be the first ones through the door and their backup would mysteriously disappear --Serpico-style -- the pair decided to sever their ties with the DEA. Soon after, Hanks got a call from an old friend in Victorville, California, offering him a job placing some wiretaps. He came out west to investigate. The client turned out to be Kale Kalustian, a Beverly Hills bookmaker suspicious of one of his underlings. Hanks was quickly kicked up the ladder to Ron "The Cigar" Sacco, who at the time controlled a billion-dollar-a-year California-based bookmaking operation affiliated with John Gotti's Gambino crime family. Soon he and Valis were double-dipping in the employee-benefits packages of both the mob and the FBI.
And once again, when the heat came down, they opted for the witness-protection program of prime-time television.
Although the FBI and DEA systematically decline comment on any of their paid undercover sources, a tape of 60 Minutes dated July 18, 1993, shows Ron Sacco himself, sporting a salt-and-pepper Godfather mustache and waving a hand-rolled cigar, his lawyer by his side, saying, "You really want me to tell you what they are? Two pieces of puke. How low is that?" And then there they are on camera -- Valis in a leather trench coat and slicked-back ponytail, Hanks in the horizontal stripes that gentlemen of ample girth should know better than to favor (but rarely do). The voice-over describes them as "trusted phone mechanics" and electronics "geniuses," whose undercover work brought down "the biggest and most successful bookmaking operation in history." And yet to us, they look like Robert De Niro Day at Disneyland -- walking cartoons, sitcom wise guys straight out of Central Casting -- proving that mobsters, like the rest of us, probably watch too much television.
"You were getting paid by the FBI, you were getting paid by the bookies, and you were stealing from the bookies," comes the offscreen query, the camera zooming in tight for the kill.
"No, that's part of the pay," says Valis. "We prefer to think of that as temporarily misdirecting funds."
Even veteran newsman Steve Kroft can't keep from smiling.
THE MAN WITH THE TAPE
AND AS OFTEN HAPPENS TO BUDDING HOPEFULS in bit television parts, soon enough they got the nod from a big Hollywood producer: Peter Brennan, one of the hard-boiled Australians who brought the tabloid gospel from Rupert Murdoch to the Fox network in the mid-'80s. With Valis still undercover in the Gambino family, Hanks approached A Current Affair, the show Brennan had only recently created, with a bootleg video of Willie Nelson's road crew holding a beauty contest in drag -- acquired during the team's brief tenure as on-the-road security for a number of San Francisco rock bands. Brennan responded by hiring Hanks as his personal investigator, and took him along when he left months later to join the staff at Hard Copy. After Valis testified before the grand jury as the star witness in the Sacco case, he signed on as well.