From the sands of Morocco, to the concrete floors of a prison cage, Stephen Caputi's memoir, I Should Have Stayed In Morocco, is a documented journey that any one of us might not be able to avoid if we found ourselves seduced by the masterful manipulator and Ponzi-schemer, Scott Rothstein.
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I Should Have Stayed in Morocco
Amtrak Station, Deerfield Beach, FL
February 5, 2012 - Super Bowl Sunday
"You fucking idiot, you should have stayed in Morocco," I muttered under my breath to nobody in particular as I collapsed my forehead onto the headrest of the empty seat in front of me. I'd boarded the train at 7:04 a.m. yet still had my foot wedged intentionally in front of the door-closing mechanism to prevent the door from shutting-a feeble attempt to prolong an already excruciating goodbye scene. It had turned into a real-life enactment of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from Casablanca. Only it was playing in reverse.
It was me, the nightclub owner who was departing on a train, not Ingrid Bergman boarding a plane. It was my girl Elizabeth who was being left behind, not Humphrey Bogart's character Rick. She was crumpled up on a wooden bench just outside the train door, shedding the tears that can only be caused by separation or death of a loved one. A distinct, sickening anguish shared by both of us.
It was like being conscious during a nightmare, only in this case the nightmare was real. Watching it unfold as if it were on the big screen added a surreal element to what was already a disjointed, fragmented scene, like a living 3D Picasso. My actions felt animated and somehow rehearsed, but the pain was real. I withdrew my foot and watched her from the window. The reflection staring back at me in the dual-paned glass presented another distorted Picasso-like image. The final minutes on that platform dragged on in slow motion, yet my heart was racing. A lifelong movie aficionado, I could only hang my head in recognition of the ironic, film-noir quality that my departure-and my life-had taken.
The horn sounded and the train began its slow roll, creeping up the track. The last thing I recognized before my eyes glazed over completely was a blurry wave and a futile kiss goodbye blown in my direction. I was going directly to jail, without passing GO or collecting $200. As a matter of fact, my entire net worth couldn't even equal that figure. The $173 in my wallet and the shirt on my back were the only things I had left.
To make matters worse, I had manifested a blinding headache from fighting back the tears, resisting the urge to break down. I'd promised myself beforehand that I would stay strong and not crack. I was en route to FSC (Federal Satellite Camp) in Jesup, Georgia, a federal prison camp where I would self-surrender. After not working for three years, courtesy of the U.S. Marshals, my resources had dwindled, forcing me to sell my beautiful home in Forest Lake Estates to pay my huge legal fees. It had been my dream to gift my daughter the house where she'd been happily raised during her childhood. I was crushed. My destruction was now complete.
"I... I should have stayed... should have stayed... in Morocco," I whispered again in staccato, my voice fading as I began to choke on my own words. Not long ago I'd been lounging in a suite at the Golf Palace in Marrakesh, staring at $16 million in cash and over $4 million worth of designer watches sitting on the floor at my feet. When I left Morocco, my bank account at the Banco Popular held a cool one million U.S. dollars. But no... I had to do the right thing... my father's mantra ringing in my ears... and at least try to help recover the money stolen by my crooked partner, Scott Rothstein. People had been hurt, and I had been used and manipulated like a puppet in one of his colossal schemes. I was disgusted with myself. How could I have let that happen?
At the beginning of the government's inquisition, I was optimistic that they would uncover the truth; I had never stolen anything from anyone, EVER, and this incident was no exception. I planned and expected to be grilled by men of intelligence that cared about the truth, men who would understand that I'd been duped. I'd been tricked by a master manipulator, fooled into believing him the same way everyone else did - including high-ranking people in government: 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, Senator Arlen Specter, Governor Charlie Crist, Sheriff Nick Navarro, and even one of the most seasoned, intelligent and calculated businessmen on Earth: The Don.
They trusted him, as I had. Most of the "big shots" that Rothstein associated with took money from him in some way, shape or form... but I didn't. Why was I held to a higher standard? I considered myself to be nothing more than an inadvertent participant. Little did I know that my lack of "knowledge and intent" to commit a crime was not a relevant defense. Only law enforcement was allowed the luxury of having the defense of non-intention when it came to committing a crime. The powerbrokers in their ivory towers protected their backsides when they changed the laws to facilitate more, quicker and easier convictions. In my case, the prosecutors' hands were tied by laws that precluded them from applying more than a cursory dose of discretion, intelligence and common sense. I knew they were just doing their jobs within the framework they'd been given, feeding a steady stream of bodies into the insatiable Perpetual Prisoner Money Machine. They were blindly carrying out the orders of the taskmasters, the sociopathic Suits on Top ("SOTs"), regardless of the inhumanity of it. Wasn't that what I did with Rothstein - follow his orders? The scary truth was that they had the power to punish me even more than they did. They could have destroyed me completely, but to their credit, they chose not to. Thank God! But in the moment, it provided no solace. The system was a beast.
This robotic process seemed to be no more than an unfortunate series of consequences resulting in the conscienceless destruction of people and families... by the millions. In practice, bona fide justice had been diminished, now relegated to being a random, inadvertent and often incidental byproduct of a perverse and calculated criminal justice system. Enforcement of written law had somehow become more important than the concept of law, and the concept of "equal application of justice" had been downgraded to a buzzword. I didn't have $300 million dollars to stroke a check to the Feds to get them off my back like others did. In other words, I was totally fucked.
In retrospect, I was incredibly stupid for having given the remotest consideration to the possibility that the government would care even one iota about anything other than my conviction. That's what I should have been convicted of, being naïve enough to think that doing the right thing would save me. Dumb-ass! I deserved a 60-month sentence just for that alone. By the end of eighteen-months of legal "processing," my frustration level had crescendoed to an all-time high-with myself, the system, and of course my ex-partner Rothstein.
Regardless, the unthinkable had just happened; my last day had finally arrived. Every day for the past two years I'd wake up thanking God for giving me one more day of freedom. Now it was over.
My nightmare had inauspiciously begun on Halloween night a little over two years ago in 2009, when Liz and I boarded the Air Marac flight to North Africa. I became numb just thinking about that day. My ears started ringing... tinnitus on steroids. My mind began to race, flitting from one thought to another every few seconds. My heart palpitating, I wondered if I was about to have a heart attack. The coffee had turned to acid in my empty stomach and I needed to throw up.
I SHOULD HAVE STAYED IN MOROCCO.
* * *
Two hours down the tracks I began to calm down. The train was approaching Orlando, which conjured up images of countless road trips that flickered like a slideshow in my mind's eye. Vivid recollections of dozens of softball tournaments, celebrations and award ceremonies, deep laughter that turned to tears, cheap motel rooms and lumpy beds. I envisioned a virtual collage of theme park adventures flashing before me. Sounds of children screaming on the thunderous rides, and the smell of cotton candy that had to be eaten quickly before it melted in the torrid, sopping central Florida heat. Every one of them a memorable clip in a long-running highlight film of experiences with the crown jewel of my life, my little girl Lucy.
For a few fleeting moments I was freed from my ragged emotional body, floating with her through Disney's magical It's a Small World Fantasyland boat ride. It was the ultimate kids' dream to see in real life what had previously only been imagined; to see the animated munchkins, toy soldiers drumming, talking lollipops and flowers, singing puppets and other characters come to life. She looked up at me in what may have been the first wave of realization of her young life and blurted, "Daddy, it's my birfday and we're at Disney World! Thank you, thank you, Daddy!"
She'd gazed up at me with her big, brown, loving eyes, a look that could only come from a three-year-old who adored her father, hugging me tight before beaming herself back into that Small World. Life had awarded me with a perfect moment. For fifteen seconds, everything had synchronized into a pure consciousness of love, appreciation and contentment shared between two connected souls. It was as close to perfection in this world as I'd ever felt, before or after, and I lived it again as if it had happened just earlier that morning.
As my reverie melded itself into the background of ambient train noises, I was pulled back into the real world. My solar plexus reflexively tightened as I unwillingly began to re-live the gut-wrenching departure scene that I suffered just a few hours ago. Wasn't once enough?
It was no wonder that countless men had been driven to madness over the ages. History taught us that every man, no matter how stalwart, had his own personal breaking point. I didn't want to think about it but couldn't stop replaying the morning's episode. As my old buddy Murph used to say, it was all over me like an eighty-pound fire ant. A scant few minutes ago I had been relishing moments from the highlight reel of my life, but I had become queasy again. Was there some kind of cosmic law governing the balance of energy that required a corresponding moment of negativity to countersink every moment of elation?
The pendulum was swinging heavily in the wrong direction. I wasn't cut out for this; this was not my life, it couldn't be! I'd been so happy for so long. Happiness was my natural condition, the default. How could that all be over for me now? What a wretched state; how could anything get any worse?
Oddly enough, a little voice inside my head whispered right back. "That's what you think!" What I'd said to myself was the cosmic equivalent of sticking one's tongue out at Satan himself, hissing, "I dare you!" Although I had no idea what powers governed forces like this, I did know that they were for real. Words do have power when they're linked to emotions, and I proved it the hard way. A lesson learned: never tempt fate.
* * *
Self-pity is an exasperating, exhausting activity. My mind was shot after a few hours of thrashing myself, second-guessing every choice I'd ever made-especially the ones that created the conditions that lead to my current predicament. The incalculable complexity of the intricacies and dynamics at play combined with my legal woes and huge personal issues, such as losing my home and going broke, were throwing me into another mind-spin; more self-recrimination, guilt, trauma and pain.
I hated being miserable-more than most people. I forced myself to draw the line right then and there, and to stop thinking, at least for the time being. I collected myself, giving myself assurance that I was indeed okay for that exact moment. I'd have to forget the past and the future and force myself to stay in the moment. I understood the concept, but convincing myself of it was another story.
Focus. I was taking a nice ride through rural Florida and everything was fine. I was safe, warm and comfortable. I forced myself to relax and appreciate my immediate conditions. Nothing else was relevant. Perhaps things would stabilize for me now that I'd already sunk to the bottom of life's apple barrel. I was just convicted of a white-collar felony, not as scathing as a convicted drug dealer or child molester. But, yes they were felons, too! Once inside we were all the same.
Perhaps I could actually survive this experience and someday emerge to join the normal rank and file of the community. Reality clawed back; it was too soon to begin plotting my comeback. I hadn't even arrived in prison yet. I silently mouthed my favorite all-time managerial quote: "One disaster at a time."
The soothing smell of comfort food wafted down from the dining car, so I jumped out of my seat and headed for the bar. I figured I could use a couple of Grey Goose Bloody Mary's right about then. Ordinarily, setting the Goose loose this early in the day would have been unthinkable. As a businessman I needed to be lucid during the day, but under the present circumstances, it would be forgivable... and just might help right the ship. At least for now.
One of my three lifelong college buddies from Cornell University would be picking me up at the train station in Jesup in seven hours. He insisted on treating me to one last supper before depositing me at Hell's doorstep. Certainly he wouldn't judge me for drinking all day, especially since he would have polished off at least a twelve-pack on his way from Atlanta. He was from an athletic fraternity whose primary focus was drinking and I belonged to a drinking fraternity whose primary focus was athletics. The perfect match both on the field and off.
I felt extremely fortunate to have a few real friends left in this world. I'd pretty much been abandoned by everyone I'd ever known as soon as I lost the ability to do something for them. I was suddenly persona non grata after I lost my business and my status as a nightclub owner. As soon as I was considered to be "in trouble with the law," my phone went dark-right when I needed support the most. On the bright side, at least I could tell who my friends were. My mind went temporarily blank as I threw back the first vodka.
I wondered what Elizabeth was doing and allowed my thoughts to revisit our last moments together once again... in more detail and even more emotion than before. Then twin daggers seared through my temples as my thoughts turned to my Lucy. Goddamn it!
Federal Camp - Jesup, Georgia
June 12, 2012
I was mindlessly dragging the softball field with a makeshift attachment I'd hitched onto the Gator that I had borrowed from landscaping in order to groom the field for that day's game. I wanted to be done before the four o'clock count began so the guys could just get out and play without waiting on me to finish. The "count" was a daily routine, forcing all the prisoners to report to a designated area for a total headcount. The results were reported to the warden and the Federal Bureau of Prisons data collection center at its headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas to ensure no one had gone over the fence. Which wouldn't have been a difficult thing to do... since there was no actual fence at the camp, just an invisible one that functioned as a psychological barrier. It was a lot like the census designed by our government to ensure they had an updated list the IRS could use to track down the poor bastards who didn't pay their taxes. But in this case, it was more like monitoring your employee headcount to assess potential revenues and profits.
I was already running behind. It had rained hard once already that day, and I didn't want to have to re-do the chalk lines if it rained again. I was cutting it too close. My biggest concern, besides not getting burned by the sun, was to not accidentally dig up another goddamn sprinkler head. The previous one took two hours to fix... a real pain in the ass.
In a short period of time I'd become the league administrator, coach, player, umpire and ground crew, all rolled into one. I loved it. Getting to play some ball while in prison was a God-send for me. It helped me forget where I was, how I got here, and what I'd left behind on the other side of the fence. It helped that I was also a great player. There were many good players, making it quite competitive. The game was keeping me alive.
The field was amazing, actually better than many of the college fields I'd played on years ago. To wit, Baker Field at Columbia in New York was a real shithole, but conversely some of the other Ivy League fields were pristine; as good as many major league facilities.
My daydreaming was suddenly interrupted by the approach of a brand new, white Ford F-150 truck, advancing rapidly towards me from a perimeter road... but surely not meant for me. It was probably one of the guards rushing to pick up another dumb-ass who broke one of the four sacred rules. Four months ago during my A&O (Admission & Orientation), it was emphasized over and over again that all would be okay as long as you didn't commit one of the deadly sins: don't use cell phones, don't leave the camp, don't drink alcohol, use drugs, or smoke, and don't possess or handle any money. Piece of cake. I sure as hell wasn't going to risk being moved to a low or medium security prison from "camp" at any cost. I'd even turned down a fat grilled steak once because I didn't want to be connected to any contraband inquisition. If all went well and I stayed out of trouble, I could easily be home in three years. I wasn't going to risk doing one day more than I had to and would do everything they'd ask of me, and then some. I loved my work at the camp greenhouse, took pride in it, respected the guards and the other inmates, kept my mouth shut, minded my own business, and played some ball.
Although surprised, I had little concern when the boss pulled up in the truck a minute later, bum-rushing through my freshly manicured field.
"Hey, what's up, Jack?" He was one of the more decent correctional officers at the camp, unlike the other wanna-be wardens who acted like they were prepping for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to show up. Jack was in charge of the landscaping department at the camp and graciously honored my request to be assigned to the greenhouse, where I spent every day tending to the produce. Our conversations were usually focused on the progress of the mustard greens, peppers, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and onions. He even allowed me to create a separate garden for habaneros, jalapenos and serrano chili peppers to provide some heat to our microwaved food creations. I had also started my own little apple orchard; I had nurtured dozens of seedlings that were almost ready for transplant.
"Get in, Steve." He was uncharacteristically short.
"I'm not quite finished here, be with ya in a minute. What's up?"
"Don't know. I was told to pick you up and go to the lobby. Now!"
"I don't know," he said curtly. I could tell he was agitated, getting impatient, fidgeting in his seat. There was something he wasn't telling me... or couldn't. Why?
"I said, get in."
"Okay, geez... I was almost done." Now what did they want? More stupid forms for me to fill out? I thought my monthly paperwork was completed.
The camp lobby was less than a minute away so there wasn't much time for small talk, but I tried my best to relax the atmosphere.
"How'd those zucchinis cook up last week?" I always tried to load him up with whatever the main harvest of the day might be, for the "Mrs." to add to her dinner that night.
"Ah, they were good. Thanks." He couldn't even look at me. I felt a little queasiness in my stomach.
Jack dropped me off unceremoniously at the front entrance and took off with the same sense of urgency. I'd been at the camp for four months and was fully acclimated, sleeping and eating well. I'd even made a few friends. The days of feeling badly about my misfortune and the disintegration of my life were behind me. I was already focused on re-centering myself and planning the next phase of my career as an ex-felon. It wasn't easy, but I'd also suppressed the anger and resentment of being betrayed by one of my best friends and my business partner of seventeen years. I would deal with him later... or not. Actually, I didn't give a fuck if I ever saw him again.
"Got your I.D. son?" the guard working the front desk asked in a most distinctive southern Georgian drawl.
"Nope, it's in my locker."
"Go get it!" What the fuck for?
"Yessir." I'd recently taken a urine test and breathe analyzer... all good. Maybe it was a routine hassle, to keep guys on their toes. I'd be okay with that. But there it was, that queasy feeling started churning in my gut as I hustled to my locker. Something was wrong, but what? I didn't do anything against the rules. Why couldn't they just leave me the fuck alone?
When I returned to the desk with my I.D. tag, there was another officer in a blue and white shirt waiting for me. I'd recognized the S.I.S. badge on his lapel, the equivalent of Internal Affairs in the police force.
"Come with me." Seeking some comfort, I caught the eye of the guard behind the desk, but he just shrugged his shoulders and looked the other way.
"What for?" I was getting anxious.
"Just shut up. Let's go." He grabbed me briskly by the arm and pushed me through the outer door. Lighten up man... if you didn't have that badge on, I'd put your face into the asphalt.
"What's this all about?" I made an effort to sound relaxed, unconcerned. This had to be some mistake.
"Hands behind your back."
You got to be fucking kidding me. My heart sank as he cuffed me, forcing my head down to my chest as he shoved me into the back seat arrest-style. I hated confinement of any kind, but cuffs were the worst. Did they all take the same class on how to put them on too tight?
"Where we going? What's this all about?"
"To the FCI - I told ya, shut the fuck up."
"Listen, I didn't do anything. I want to talk to someone. Who ordered this?"
"I don't know anything. Just doin' my job." He probably was telling the truth. Ignorance was something they all had in common. It was probably a way for them to maintain their own sanity.
I took in the view as we went through two layers of sixteen-foot-high fencing with three feet of curled razor wire on top. Boy, did this place suck! It was as intimidating as I'd remembered. Memories of that first torturous night in prison came flooding back.
It was the fifth of February. Sunday. Super Bowl Sunday. I was actually ordered to report to camp on Super Bowl fucking Sunday. I wasn't happy about it, but I would make due. I had envisioned a nice, relaxing evening at the camp, making some new friends, getting used to the facilities, and eating a little popcorn while watching the game-especially looking forward to the commercials as I did every year. They had become almost as legendary as the football games in recent years. How would GoDaddy top what they had done the previous year?
I wondered if the judge had scheduled it that way intentionally. Was it possible he didn't know that admissions was closed on Sundays? Or did he have some incentive to make a terrible situation even more miserable? Was Rothstein lurking behind the scenes, manipulating the prosecution and sentencing of those he'd ratted out? Ridiculous. I was just being cynical and paranoid because of the circumstances. The judge had been gracious enough to let me delay my entrance twice for personal and dental reasons, so probably it was just the way the calendar fell. My fuckin' luck!
As it turned out, there were no staffing provisions for admissions that day, so I got scuttled to the FCI Main to be held temporarily until the next day. I figured I'd be sent back to the camp the next day for processing after a good night's sleep. No big deal, right? Wrongo!
The guards were so interested in the game, the last thing they wanted to do was worry about babysitting some new inmate. They took me straight to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), otherwise known as the Hole. I'd spent my first night in prison in the Hole, and it was hands-down the worst night of my life. Some poor inmate didn't get his meds and literally went insane that night, screaming and pounding incessantly, as if he were being carved up with a butter knife. Some months later, I heard the real story about how they intentionally withheld his medicine. Regardless, I had barely survived the night in what I thought was an HBO Oz episode.
The familiarity of the dingy corridor and rank odors slapped me with the reality that I was headed back to the fucking HOLE! This couldn't be. I didn't do anything. I hate this fucking place.
The knot deep in my stomach continued to tighten as we passed through each security barrier. The cuffs seemed to be tightening with each step; my fingers were numb, and a feeling of impending doom started to smother me like a damp, rancid blanket. The Hole was my worst nightmare; it sparked my most primal fear. All the emotions and sensations of that first one-night stay in SHU swept over me again: claustrophobia, panic, abandonment, paranoia and hatred.
I somehow survived that night and surely I was stronger for it. I'd survive this night as well. Whatever the hell I was here for would be straightened out in the morning and I'd be back at camp, tending to my fields. This was all just a big mistake... and I looked forward to hearing an apology.
It took them the better part of an hour to find someone to get me the right size jumpsuit, slippers, underwear and socks. One guard bagged up my work clothes while the other did the obligatory body cavity search to see if I'd stashed anything inside my mouth, ears, arm pits, asshole, and what I'd learned was referred to as the "under balls locker."
Being in prison does something to the spirit of a man. I'd never prayed so often before, and this moment was no exception. It helped me tolerate the process and distracted me from the humiliation and pain. I was trembling-in part because it was freezing-but with my head up this time. I was finally fitted with an orange jumpsuit, and just two hours after my kidnapping from the baseball field, I was standing in the middle of a six-by-twelve cell. While I was busy putting on my new orange ensemble, I overheard several of the guards and an administrator type clamoring back and forth about where to put me. They were confused and seemed to have conflicting orders. A SNAFU. Do these people know anything? I wound up in a room labeled Segregation, the euphemism that the Bureau of Prisons used for solitary, as if it made it any less harsh.
The cell contained nothing more than a steel bed in the middle of the room, covered with a filthy two inch piece of foam rubber with no sheets or pillow. White painted brick walls were in contrast to the unpainted concrete ceiling. The entire tile floor had been hammered out, leaving only the ugly black adhesive that originally held it down. The heavy steel door contained a slit window, three inches wide and three feet tall, but it only faced another cold concrete wall. That was it. No toilet, no sink, no books, nothing. Again, I felt like I was trapped inside a bad movie scene from the HBO series OZ.
Then there it was, the sound of the steel door slamming shut, the deadbolt being thrown. As the keys jingled in unison with the echoing of the guard's footsteps disappearing into oblivion, I dropped the weight of my body onto the edge of the bed. With my elbows pressed into my knees, thoughts of my mother overcame me. I thanked God for taking her before she ever had to know I'd be in such a place. It would have killed her. My mind wandered aimlessly as if trying to distract itself from reality.
Images of my mom flipped to what was left to finish on the field back at the camp. So much for getting it done on time today. A far-off rapid sequence of thumps pulled my thoughts to my inmate friend Larry. The expression he'd chant every day during lunch resonated in my ears: "Stupid inbred backwoods redneck motherfuckers," he'd howl in cadence with his fists rhythmically drumming the cafeteria table while glaring at the guards.
I had to agree with him, most of them were flat-out imbeciles, but they had left me alone. I hadn't had a grievance with any of them... until now. Why? What the fuck am I doing here? Solitary confinement, wearing an orange jumpsuit. I was doing John Gotti time!
Three years ago, my girlfriend and I were sitting inside a submerged, tropical pool in Marrakesh, sipping a cocktail at the bar in three feet of warm water, watching the sun set. Marrakesh was a Moroccan oasis, a fabulous and contemporary town built in the middle of the desert, three hours southeast of Casablanca. It was magic. One minute we were riding through the desert, and the next minute we were surrounded by paradise. Paradise, my girl, and oh yes, money in the fucking bank. Life was good.
I felt like a Texas oil baron when checking into the fabulous Hotel Sofitel-a thousand dollar per night suite. I'd silently brought my personal escort, my newest love, Elizabeth, along with me on the mysterious business trip that was mandated by my business partner. It would be days before I'd learn why. It was too good to be true, an adventure I'd never forget. Unfortunately, I would be right on both counts.
The sound of another steel door clanging shut in the distance snapped me out of my momentary daydream. Heavy boots were thundering my way. Rushing from the edge of my bed, I pressed my face to the narrow strip of glass on the cold metal door. Surely, someone with half a brain had realized that a mistake had been made. They were coming to retrieve me and return me back to camp in time for dinner. I'd be polite about it... no harm done... really, I just missed a softball game... that was all. It had only been three hours, so I wouldn't even expect an apology. I'd get over it.
Whoever it was just walked by, quickly departing from view. Silence once again. I was alone with nothing by my now empty thoughts. Not a sound. Not even ambient noise, no hum or buzz. No movement, not even a shadow in the shadows. The coldness became colder. My neck was starting to hurt. What the fuck was I doing here?
It took an effort to push my thoughts back to Morocco. The call came to me while Liz and I were lounging on the patio outside our room at the Pelican on Fort Lauderdale beach. The call that initiated my downward spiral that changed my life forever. I heard his every word as clearly as if he were sitting next to me in the dark cell. I'd initially placed him at the Capital Grille, the Galleria bar, swirling ice around in his double Ketel One, smelling like cigar smoke and aftershave, trying to figure out how to fit all three skewered olives into his mouth at one time. It was the voice of my ex-partner and once beloved friend, Scott Rothstein.
October 28, 2009 - Three Years Earlier
"You're a moron." It was always my instinctive response to Scott whenever he called me slurring his words.
"Pooter, guess where I am. Guess what I'm doin'." He laughed loudly. The festive background noise suggested he was at a happy hour somewhere.
"Let me take a wild guess, you're falling off a barstool somewhere tellin' fish stories. I bet you're with the other charter members of 'the-older-they-get-the-better-they-were-when-they-were-younger' club." The usual suspects.
"I'm smoking a cigar at the bar right now. Why don't you join me?"
"Sounds good," I said, although this wasn't particularly a good time. But it would provide an opportunity to spend some face time with him. I'd been trying to pin him down for months to explain a few things, not the least of which was his recent unusually erratic behavior. He'd been making some bizarre requests of me lately.
I was camped at the Pelican Resort on Highway A1A with Elizabeth and we were getting ready for another perfect afternoon on the sand-but I really needed to speak with him. This was actually nothing new. Anyone close to him seemed to have a reason to speak with him when the opportunity was made available. He had a habit of parceling out information as if feeding pigeons in Central Park-one piece of crust at a time. At times his ego was exceeded only by his lack of accessibility, even to his close friends and business partners. It was part of an aura of mystique that surrounded him... part of the mirage that made him seem invincible... an added component of his defense mechanism that he didn't really need.
Rothstein ran with the Governor, the Mayor, The Don, The Chief of Police, Senators and Congressmen, rock stars, President Elects, supermodels and other nameless people that never, ever showed their faces to anyone but him. Shadows in the dark. He jetted on his G-5 to Monte Carlo for weekends, hung out in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby with Pammy and Kid Rock. During the slower fall weekends in South Florida, he'd pop in and out of any one of his stadium skyboxes. On his first wedding anniversary, he and Kim made the scene at Sun Life Stadium for an Eagles concert, and Don Henley stopped the show for an impromptu shout out congratulating the happy couple... in exchange for a tidy one-hundred grand donation to his favorite charity. On Sundays he might be found brunching with friends and family at the Versace Mansion before ending up poolside at the Ritz Carlton. Sometimes his wife Kimmy would lounge with him, often times not. He'd warehouse several of the world's highest priced call girls in ocean view suites. Ballsy. Stupid, but ballsy. Amazing what you could do with a budget of $60,000 a month for escort services.
"You'll never guess where I am," he persisted with his infantile game.
"That's because I won't. Call me later if you sober up, if you're conscious."
"I'm in Casablanca!"
"You're a fuckin' asshole. Lucky me, I'm in Tangier this morning, what a coincidence."
"Join me! I'm serious. Come on over and have a drink." He lost some of his playful tone and sounded more coherent.
"What's going on? What are you up to now?" Since he was so unpredictable, I was weighing the possibility that he might actually be in Casablanca, and not in the bushes outside Capital Grille getting ready to throw up all over himself just before passing out. If that were the case, he'd be okay, since he had "people" on standby for that. He would be taken care of just fine.
"I can't tell you over the phone. Just come, will you?"
"Quit playing games with me. What's up?"
"I'll fill you in once you arrive. It's business."
"Is it big?" By this time he'd gotten my full attention. "I'm not flying to Africa to discuss the layout of Bova Smoke," I said. Bova Smoke was the new cigar bar that we were developing at the old Jackson's 450.
"Bigger than you can possibly imagine!"
"Okay, you don't have to oversell. How do I get there?" I resigned myself to giving actual consideration to his request. He gave me the airline info and the cliff notes of the trip logistics.
"Meet me at the Golf Palace in Marrakesh. That's where we're headed."
"I thought you were in Casablanca!"
"Calm down, it's like as far as Orlando is from our place in Boca. Got a meeting there."
"Alright, but I'll have to bring Liz. We're on the beach right now and she'll be pissed off at me for a month if I leave her behind to go global with you."
"No way, it's not that kind of trip." What that meant I had no clue. We'd been on all kinds of trips and he never seemed to care if I brought some company.
"Okay, I'll call ya back." Shit. Liz was going to have a cow, but I had no choice. Not only was Scott my attorney and friend, he was the majority shareholder of Café Iguana, making him my boss. It was impossible to explain to those who weren't in his service that you just didn't say no to the man. He never took no for an answer, and he knew just how to apply the right kind and amount of pressure to get his way, all the time. It was his special gift. Telling him that I wasn't willing to travel to Morocco was out of the question-not a consideration even for a fleeting second. Saying no to Scott when you were on his payroll was self-abusive and futile. He would eventually get his way. The only thing you would have accomplished by resisting him in the first place would be pissing him off. I had to go.
I thought of Humphrey Bogart and Rick's Cafe, the epicenter of the action in the classic movie Casablanca. Now that was a bar I would have liked, although I realized it was just a movie set. "Play it, Sam," I said under my breath as I went inside the hotel to give Liz the bad news about leaving her alone for a week.
Even though she would be poolside and able to enjoy the hotel's fine amenities, she would miss me-she enjoyed my company, and who could blame her for that? Besides, she had just gotten back to South Florida from our little apartment in Manhattan... and in her mind this was a reunion of sorts. It's not as if she'd been gone for a year-she was visiting some friends for two weeks. Women! I was trying to make light of it in my mind, since I knew I was about to catch an earful. I would be MIA for at least a week, considering it would take the better part of a day to get there and another one to get back. God only knew what we'd be doing in the interim. Maybe I needed to buy flowers before I headed back to the room.
Prior to fielding Scott's call, I'd been sitting outside the hotel in my truck, waffling between making a run to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts to stock up for our afternoon of leisure on the beach. Less than twenty minutes later I was surfing the internet for flights to Morocco for two. Just like Rothstein, Elizabeth would not take no for an answer; it was just that simple. She was going... period.
We had a small, 750 square-foot studio apartment in Manhattan, on the 16th floor of a nice high-rise on the Upper East Side. We'd hop up there from time to time, but Liz was thinking about moving to the city permanently. It helped that I had a little business there. Some months prior, I'd been commissioned to research cigar bars in New York in anticipation of building a super chic cigar bar/nightclub of our own. I was leading the Bova Smoke project along with Tony Bova and Scott's wife, Kim. Scott was toying with the idea of making a deal with Davidoff for use of the name, as they were one of the biggest dogs in the cigar business. Like everything else he touched, he had some kind of inside connection.
Unfortunately, we had left our passports in the apartment the last time we were in the City, violating the first rule of life in the fast lane: Never leave home without your passport! It created our first time challenge, forcing us to stop there en route to get them. That time of day it would be at least forty-five minutes from JFK to the apartment. The connections were already pretty tight, providing only two-and-a-half hours to make the flight to Morocco. Of course, like all women, Liz had to repack. It was also an international flight, so we were required to check in an hour before boarding. I could feel the pressure tightening my neck already and we weren't even scheduled to leave for three days yet. In retrospect, it was appropriate that we were going to depart on Halloween; this trip would turn out to be the freakiest ever. I should have known it would be hexed.
I phoned Scott twice more before we departed, in the hopes of squirreling some more info out of him. I needed to figure out what he was plotting, but I was unsuccessful. In seventy-two hours we would land in an unexpected hornets' nest and an entangled web that would lead to my arrest and journey to Federal Prison. "Clueless was I," as the Jedi knight Yoda would have expressed it.
About the author
Steve Caputi is best known for his involvement in the creation, building and management of successful nightclubs; including the Houston Club, Solid Gold, Thee Doll House, Pure Platinum and Café Iguana. Over the decades, businesses under his direct control amassed nearly a billion dollars in revenue.
He was blessed with everything a man could want until he got tangled up in Scott Rothstein's Ponzi scheme in 2009. All was lost... including his freedom. His riveting story is captured in his memoir by Twilight Times Books, I Should Have Stayed in Morocco.
TTB title: I Should Have Stayed in Morocco
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I Should Have Stayed in Morocco Copyright © 2015. Stephen Caputi. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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Format: Trade Paperback
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Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2015. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 09-19-15.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.
Cover art © 2015 by Tamian Wood.