South Florida

Goodbye to a big-gun prosecutor who took on some of Miami’s most-infamous criminals

Federal prosecutor Pat Sullivan outside Miami’s older federal courthouse. He’s retiring after a 46-year career that pitted him in court against a string of high-profile defendants, from ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to the Miami River Cops.
Federal prosecutor Pat Sullivan outside Miami’s older federal courthouse. He’s retiring after a 46-year career that pitted him in court against a string of high-profile defendants, from ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to the Miami River Cops.

Pat Sullivan hated studying law at the University of Florida. Thought all that stuff about business, contracts and taxes was boring.

But in time, he would find himself and his passion — in the criminal court. Nearly a half century later, Sullivan is retiring as a legendary federal prosecutor in Miami’s legal community. His name may not be well-known outside the courthouse, but the cases he took on and won were infamous: Corrupt cops and judges, cocaine cowboys, a Panamanian dictator. The felons he sent to prison literally define South Florida’s criminal history: Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, Manuel Noriega, and so many more.

Understated in court, Sullivan reflected on his storied career in characteristic fashion.

“I didn’t do anything special,” he said in an interview last week. “I just did it for a longer time than anybody else.”

His colleagues and adversaries in court say he is being typically modest. In the Miami office of the U.S. attorney, Sullivan was the big gun for the biggest cases.

As a trial lawyer, he’s known for being quiet, stoic and unflappable in the courtroom — like the fictional TV character Leroy Jethro Gibbs in the CBS series “NCIS,” as one of his peers described him. And when he says something or makes a gesture, everyone pays close attention. He has used those personality traits to his advantage over more-theatrical opponents in the courtroom.

“You cannot shake him, you cannot disturb him, you cannot get under his skin,” said longtime colleague, prosecutor Dick Gregorie, whose Justice Department career has paralleled Sullivan’s. “Anytime there is a case that is tense and nerve-racking, you would want him on your side.”

A courtroom illustrators depicts federal prosecutor Pat Sullivan during the 1992 trial of ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Handout

Sullivan, 70, is retiring this month after the kind of run that a dozen prosecutors put together might not have accomplished.

It was an internship with the Alachua County Public Defender’s Office that turned him on to becoming a trial lawyer — but not on the side of accused criminals.

Sullivan, working under an assistant public defender, represented a teen-age boy accused of the attempted rape of an 8-year-old girl. They won an acquittal, but the victory would always haunt him: the defendant had tested positive for the same venereal disease as the young girl had contracted. The prosecutor had no clue about that evidence at trial because he had never asked the judge to have the teenager tested.

“When you know the prosecution blew the case, it really bothers you,” Sullivan recalled. “I decided right then and there I didn’t want to be a defense attorney anymore.”

Sullivan — who got his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he went on a football scholarship — was hired in 1971 after interviewing with U.S. Attorney Robert Rust, who was appointed by President Richard Nixon.

“He offered me a job on the spot,” said Sullivan, who joined what he described as a “rinky-dink” office of 25 prosecutors compared to the roughly 250 today.

His career since has mostly been told through a stream of headlines — mirroring the drug trafficking, violent crime and corruption that has riddled South Florida’s landscape over the years and decades.

“He’s one of the best there is,” said his colleague, Gregorie.

Up-and-coming lawyers in the U.S. attorney’s office learned their way around the courtroom from closely watching Sullivan’s methodical, no-nonsense approach. He would not micromanage or dictate to younger assistants; rather, he would let them hold up their end of the case.

“Pat doesn’t view himself as a professor or as a superior,” said prosecutor Michael Davis, who joined the U.S. attorney’s office in 1994. “Pat views himself as an equal and you as an equal — and that gives you ownership of what you’re doing.”

Davis worked alongside Sullivan on the prosecutions of Magluta, Falcon and dozens of their associates in the aftermath of a scandal that shook up the federal justice system in Miami. The Boys, as they were known, won improbable acquittals on cocaine-trafficking charges in 1996, but authorities would soon discover why.

For Sullivan and fellow prosecutor Christopher Clark, it was an agonizing loss. But they regrouped and quickly figured out what they suspected: One of the jurors contacted them to report that the jury foreman was determined from the get-go to acquit Falcon and Magluta, and an inmate at the federal detention center reported that Falcon bragged about paying him off.

“They were lionized in the drug community,” Sullivan said, describing the Miami Senior High School dropouts who became legendary smugglers for the Colombian cartels from Medellin and Cali. “They walked away proving their omnipotence. But through our persistence, we turned it around.”

Sal and Willie
Cocaine cowboys Sal Magluta, left, and Willie Falcon on a trip to Las Vegas during their heydey as South Florida drug smugglers.

Sullivan and fellow prosecutors would go on to win convictions against The Boys and more than 50 Falcon-Magluta associates. “That case means more to me than all of the others,” he said.

While Falcon cut a plea deal, Magluta — viewed as Public Enemy No. 1 by prosecutors — stood trial in 2002 for four intense months. The charges: murdering three government witnesses, attempting to kill four others and money-laundering conspiracy, including bribing the jury foreman in the original trial.

The case pitted Sullivan, along with Davis, against Jack Denaro, considered one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country. Denaro said Sullivan was at the “very top of his game” in that trial, which ended with Magluta being acquitted of the violent crimes, but convicted of the money-laundering conspiracy and various related counts. He is serving 195 years in prison.

Denaro said Sullivan’s “prowess” in the Magluta case and many other high-profile trials is what gave the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami “its national status of being outstanding.”

As big as the Magluta case was, what had turned Sullivan into a star came earlier in his career — the prosecution of Noriega. The notorious Panamanian general was accused of receiving payoffs from the powerful Medellin cartel in exchange for protection of their cocaine shipments. Noriega was captured by U.S. military forces after an invasion ordered by President George H.W. Bush in late 1989 — raising the stakes of the case even higher.

Federal prosecutor Pat Sullivan, center, speaks at a news conference following the conviction of ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on drug-trafficking charges in 1992. Sullivan is flanked by fellow prosecutors Myles Malman and Guy Lewis. Handout

“It’s a glorified drug case, but how many drug cases have the 82nd Airborne capturing the defendant?” asked Sullivan, who worked on Noriega’s prosecution with the late Myles Malman and Guy Lewis, as well as a Drug Enforcement Administration team.

In the politically charged trial that lasted nine months, Noriega was convicted of drug trafficking charges in 1992 and sentenced to 30 years by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler.

Sullivan also played a central role in the prosecution of dirty police officers who stole drugs from traffickers in the so-called Miami River Cops case in the 1980s, and in the crackdown on crooked judges who accepted bribes in the Operation Court Broom case the following decade.

His influence as a prosecutor was not limited to South Florida, however. The Justice Department enlisted Sullivan to prosecute a less-known, but politically charged case against a CIA contractor accused of beating a prisoner in Afghanistan. In a North Carolina federal court, he helped win the first and only conviction of its kind during the U.S. war on terror.

Sullivan, who plans to move soon with his wife, Barbara, to be near their daughter in Atlanta, said he will miss his colleagues in the justice system, but not those long, demanding trials: “It’s a game for younger prosecutors.”