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I-Team: Murder probe's legacy is debated

Posted: 1:33 PM, Jan 16, 2016
Updated: 2016-01-16 18:33:54Z
Forty years ago, a former Tampa police sergeant who was assisting the U.S. Department of Justice in rooting out government corruption in Hillsborough County was shot dead at his Seminole Heights home.
 
As if the brazen assassination of Richard Cloud wasn't shocking enough, the investigation into his murder proved even more disturbing for law-abiding citizens.
 
Cloud's surviving comrades at the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies embarked on a relentless search for his killers. That inquiry inevitably morphed into a searing examination of decades-long friendships among local mobsters, politicians, police and courthouse personnel.
 
Some look back on the dragnet that ensnared underworld figures and public officials alike in the years following Cloud's murder as a turning point in Tampa history.
 
Outside investigators, led by a courageous federal prosecutor and later state attorney named Bill James, pulled back the curtain on the cozy relationships that had stained Hillsborough County's parochial government for years. Their efforts set Tampa on a course to becoming a modern American city.
 
But others aren't so sure. They suggest local government is as graft-ridden today as when Cloud was gunned down. 
 
The scope of that era's corruption is spelled out in a recent book, The Last Lonely Eagle: The Untold Inside Story of the 1975 Dick Cloud Murder Case. The author, retired Orlando Sentinel reporter Dick Burdette, was assisted by three of Cloud's closest associates.
 
According to the book, investigators concluded Cloud's slaying was a contract hit underwritten by the Tampa Mafia and carried out in retaliation for his leadership of a vice squad that had hounded gangsters profiting from illegal gambling and drugs.
 
Among those convicted in the murder conspiracy was Frank Diecidue, identified by a U.S. Senate committee as the underboss of Tampa's Trafficante crime family. The conviction of Diecidue, who died in 1994, was later overturned on appeal.
 
Retired federal prosecutor Chris Hoyer, a top James aide, was working with Cloud at the time of the killing. In a recent interview with the ABC Action News I-Team, Hoyer talked about the mob hit and the gut-wrenching aftermath for the first time publicly.
 
"We had a special grand jury meeting and he was going to start testifying," Hoyer said of Cloud. "When they killed Richard, it was as intense a time as I've ever experienced."
 
The Cloud murder probe reconfirmed that the Mafia had penetrated many quarters of local government. That echoed congressional findings dating back to the 1950s, when a Senate committee reached "the inescapable conclusion" that Tampa was saddled with a "dismal pattern of corruption of public officials by entrenched gambling interests."
 
Yet, in 1975, many local officials entrusted to investigate and prosecute criminals in Tampa still clung to the discredited notion that the Mafia was nowhere to be found in the Cigar City. "You had the city police chief and you had a state attorney going: 'There's no organized crime in Hillsborough County,'" said Al Geer, a retired state trooper who later worked for the sheriff's office.
 
One elected official of that time had no doubt there was mob influence in local government.
 
Jan Platt, for whom a south Tampa library is named, recalled being invited to a local produce market during her first city council campaign in 1974, a year before Cloud was gunned down. A supporter wanted her to meet somebody who might be willing to help her politically, Platt says.
 
"I was taken into a back room and, in that back room, were these two men who were looking at tomatoes," said Platt. One gentleman owned the market, according to Platt, and "the other was Santo Trafficante Jr."
 
Platt, who had just resigned as head of a local Girl Scout council to run for city office, says she fled the reputed Tampa Mafia boss as fast as she could. "That sort of was my entree into Tampa politics," she said.
 
The encounter left Platt suspicious of most everything in the local political realm for the rest of her long career as a Tampa council member and Hillsborough commissioner.
 
Hoyer says James and the team investigating Cloud's murder kept a certain distance from local law enforcement. "You didn't know who the good guys and the bad guys were," Hoyer said. "We chose to trust only ourselves."
 
Cloud had been put in charge of the vice squad by Police Chief James G. "Babe" Littleton, whom then-Mayor Dick Greco had installed to crack down on the mob-controlled Cuban numbers racket known as bolita.
 
"People had been shooting each other to try to get on top of the game," Greco told the I-Team. "It gave Tampa a bad name."
 
Hoyer says it's hard for new generations of Tampa residents to imagine the carnage left by the city's bolita wars of the 1930s through the 1950s and, later, the car explosions that epitomized the underworld struggle to control illegal drugs.
 
"People get blown up by bombs, getting their legs blown off," Hoyer said. "Up to that point, they were blowing each other up, a lot."
 
But Cloud's doggedness, which included helping send a Tampa police commander to prison, made him a gangland target as well, after Littleton's successor fired him once Greco left office.
 
Even without a badge, Cloud kept aiding the FBI. That further alienated him from Tampa's political establishment.
 
Platt was the only city council member to attend his funeral.
 
"Elected officials or not, they all grew up together," said Hoyer.
 
Five months after the killing, the James investigative team caught a break.
 
A motorist whom trooper Geer was transporting to jail from a Gibsonton traffic stop hinted that he had information about a cop killing. "Finally he goes, 'the city guy in Tampa, Cloud,'" Geer recalled. "So we pulled over."
 
Geer's passenger later identified the triggerman, who put the feds on a trail to the upper echelon of the Tampa underworld.
 
The prosecutions were largely successful, despite the suspicious deaths of a couple of key conspirators who were cooperating with investigators or thinking about it at the time of their demise.
 
"These were very intense people, who were very paranoid and heavily armed," said Hoyer, "on both sides."
 
From the Cloud case, the feds expanded their investigation, tackling the corrupt atmosphere permeating Tampa that had made killing a former police officer seem almost laudable to some.
 
"It was sad to see law enforcement officers taking money," Hoyer said. "It was sad seeing county commissioners take money."
 
How thoroughly did they clean up Tampa government?
 
Platt, who watched three of her fellow county commissioners led away in FBI handcuffs in a 1980s bribery scandal, is one of the skeptics.  
 
"We don't know that that's not going on right now," Platt told the I-Team. "That's the way they did business. Just because of this, that doesn't change anything."
 
The ill will towards Cloud certainly lingered, even after his passing.
 
Although Platt and her city council colleagues posthumously reinstated Cloud to the Tampa police force in 1977, it took another 16 years for his name to be added to the department's memorial for fallen officers.
 
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