Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend?

Fifteen years ago Johnny Oceans disappeared off the coast of East Africa. His body was never recovered. Accident or conspiracy? Why did it take so long for the courts to declare him dead? A champion sport fisherman, keen diver, smuggler, and casino impresario, he had many friends and a few enemies. Investigating Ocean’s hidden story, Hew van Grit spent a year on two continents following the enigmatic trail of a man who led more than a double life. 

By Hew van Grit

n 1998, while scuba diving in Kenya, casino manager Johnny Oceans vanished off the face of the Earth. In a manhunt costing more than two million dollars, deploying four helicopters, six planes, and a fleet of boats, and lasting six months, the FBI and Kenyan coast guard searched the entire coastal region of Kenya.

In the end, Oceans status - alive or dead - was never confirmed. His location and fate remain unknown.

Seven years later, in September 2005, the Devini family took legal action to have Oceans declared dead, presenting petitions, good-faith evidence and affidavits that he could not be located. The judicial proceedings at Miami-Dade County were conducted sub rosa. In the end the court refused to issue a death certificate.

Only last year did the court finally declare ‘death in absentia’ for Mr Oceans. Fifteen years seems an awful long time to wait. In Miami people disappear all the time. At sea it’s even more common. Usually, after seven years, the law assumes a missing person has died. Why then did the courts refuse to assent the death Johnny Oceans?

Transcripts reveal nothing. All sensitive material has been censored with a large black felt tip pen. Still, Miami-Dade must have seen convincing evidence that Oceans was still alive.

octors only issue death certificates for dead bodies,” says Chris Devini, smoking a vapor cigarette. “If they can’t find your body, you’re not legally dead, that is until a court says you are. It’s a loophole the mob’s been taking advantage of for years.” Although Miami born and bred, he speaks in the Brooklyn lexicon, with dental D’s and T’s.

It’s 9 p.m. and we’re in the Bleau Bar, the centerpiece of the Fontainebleau hotel’s recent one billion dollar renovation. Outside the South Floridian humidity hangs heavy like bad blood in the air, inside it’s polar. The floor glows ultramarine. 

Devini’s wearing a turquoise Hawaiian rayon shirt several sizes too large, cream silk pants, and tan Gucci loafers. Bronzed, well built, and of medium height, with short-cropped curly black hair and just a few flecks of grey around the ears, he displays a cultivated charm, polished by years of welcoming big spenders into his casino.

I order another drink, an NFL margarita (no fucking lime). Like a witchdoctor the bartender prepares the ingredients, infusing the air with lime juice and latin spirits. A tower of bottles rises above him, four glass tiers wrapped around a wide circular pillar lighted by rose coloured spotlights and pink backlighting: post-modern drug money chic. 

Adding to the flavour of fun and danger, voodoo music plays over a high-end stereo: syncopated timbales, cowbells, and an acid jazz horn section. Celia Cruz, the great Cuban diva is singing, “Quimbara, quimbara, quimba-quimba-ra.”  It’s not Spanish, but an African incantation to the Orixas. 

I get straight to the point, “When Miami-Dade finally issued a death certificate for your cousin, why did you tweet, ‘Johnny Oceans is always with you’?” 

“Seemed like a good thing to say at the time,” says Chris.

I smile and nod slowly while sipping my cocktail. “A strange choice of words though, don’t you think? Convention would have you say ‘Johnny Oceans is always with us.’ But the way you put it made it sound more threatening.”

“What difference does it make?” he laughs with unsmiling eyes. “Johnny’s with me, Johnny’s with you. What happens in Miami, never happened.” 

lorida’s foremost gaming tycoon is not giving anything away. Toying with a fortune in jewellery draped around his wrists and neck, he sidesteps all my questions about Johnny Oceans, regailing me instead with fishing tales and casino stories from the four corners of the Earth.

Finally, after his fourth blueberry mojito, he offers a brief glimpse into his cousin’s backstory. “For a couple of years Johnny piloted go-fast boats for the Black Tuna gang, who actually ran their operations from a suite in this hotel. Can you believe that?

“After that he was mostly involved in inconspicuous import/export - all along the Florida coast. Strictly marijuana, though, he never got involved in cocaine smuggling.”

“Tell me what happened in 1987,” I ask, slowly placing my drink on the bar. “Just before Johnny was due to testify in front of a grand jury he disappeared, only to turn up five years later managing one of your family’s casinos in Kenya. What’s the story there?”

“The DEA had a mountain of evidence against him, but my family called in a few favours, and in the end nothing stuck. After that Johnny went off to learn the business for a while.”

“Favours? In return for what?”

“Bay of Pigs. The Kennedy’s. You name it…”

“Tell me about your family.”

“Like you don’t know…” he laughs, playfully boxing my shoulder. “OK, for your readers. Dino Devini started out in Steubenville, Ohio in the 1920’s during Prohibition, in Rex’s Cigar Store. Like every other cigar store in town, Rex’s was a front for mob rackets: numbers, illegal drinking, bookmaking, craps games, the whole ball of wax. Uncle Dino was like a magician the way he could palm cards and switch dice. That’s how he became the youngest bust-out man in Steubenville.

“From these humble beginnings, he went on to run the Riviera Casino and Tropicana Club in Havana for Meyer Lansky and the others. But in ’59, after the Revolution, Fidel Castro closed down all the casinos in Cuba and the family was forced to leave the country. We moved around for a while, finally ending up in Africa.

“Anyway, in 1961 when the US government needed his help, Uncle Dino played his part as a good American citizen and worked for the CIA on Operation Mongoose. They were meant to assassinate Castro. Well, we all know how that ended,” he sneers. “Still, you scratch my back, I scratch yours, badda bing badda boom, when the time came they dropped all charges against my cousin Johnny.” He takes a swig of his drink, eyeing me, never dropping his glare, then asks, “Did I tell you Marty and Bobby are making a movie about the family?” 

“You did,” I reply smiling. “By any chance does the screenplay include Johnny’s story?”

“Why you so fucking interested in Johnny?” he snaps slamming down his drink. "Listen, my cousin’s dead. End of story. Capice?”

“But until last year Miami-Dade County thought otherwise. Why’s that?”

“Who gives a fuck? Seriously. You’re asking too many questions about the dead. Johnny who, Johnny where… Let sleeping dogs lie. ”

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