As a young FBI agent, Richard Giannotti went undercover for six years to infiltrate a notorious militant group, the Weather Underground, sitting in on their classes about terror tactics, bomb-making and overthrowing the U.S. government.
Giannotti and another undercover agent also played tricks on other recruits, giving them incorrect lessons on how to shoot firearms during target practice in the California desert.
That was just the first of many big cases in his long career as a federal agent, much of it spent in South Florida. After arrests were made in the mid-1970s, Giannotti joined the FBI's Miami field office, where he would lead major investigations. He supervised a Cuban counterintelligence unit that broke up a Castro-directed South Florida spy network implicated in the 1996 shoot-down of two unarmed exile group's planes, killing all four men aboard.
On Tuesday, Giannotti, 71, of Plantation, was remembered by more than 200 former colleagues, relatives and friends during a funeral service at St. David Catholic Church in Davie. Giannotti, originally from North Haven, Conn., died on Oct. 5. The man they all knew as “Gino” drew warm praise as a caring father, passionate investigator and humble mentor.
One of his closest colleagues, who trained with him as an FBI recruit in Washington, D.C., and ended his career in Miami at the same time, said Giannotti had the perfect personality for undercover work as well as supervising agents.
“He was just an ‘everyman,’ ’’ said Bill Murphy, describing Giannotti’s success in the Weathermen case. “He could fit in with any group. ... He let people talk, and he was a good listener.”
Murphy said agents respected him for his intellect and humility. “He never let his ego stand in the way of a case investigation or the men and women on his squad,” said Murphy, of Plantation. “He always made sure they got the credit.”
On social media, Giannotti’s family and friends expressed sorrow over his death, which came unexpectedly.
“We lost an incredible man,” said Joy Taylor, the sister of Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame nominee Jason Taylor and wife of Giannotti's son, Richard, who played baseball at the University of Miami.
“Mr. G was the best father in law I could have wished for,” Taylor, who is a TV sports personality in Los Angeles and previously hosted a radio talk show in South Florida, said on her Instagram page. “He was kind, gracious, funny and loving.”
On the same page, her brother Jason called Giannotti: “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Other former FBI colleagues spoke fondly of Giannotti, whose career spanned from 1971 to 2002. He was honored for distinguished work by the bureau and U.S. attorney general in the Cuban spy case and Weathermen investigation..
“As a fellow FBI supervisor for nine years, I often confided in Gino for guidance and assistance in many of the violent crime investigations handled by my squad,” Stephen B. Warner, of Coral Springs, wrote in a funeral home's online guest book.
“Never once was I turned away when I was looking either for direction or manpower help. Always the gentleman.”
He was also always the investigator, even after retiring from the FBI. Giannotti operated a private investigative agency and later became a lead investigator for the Florida Bar Association, probing lawyers suspected of ethical violations.
“People always wanted to talk with him and that was an invaluable tool of investigation,” said Randi Lazarus, of Weston, who worked with Giannotti at the Florida Bar over the past seven years.
“I loved talking to him about any case and his life experiences,” Lazarus wrote in the online guest book.
Giannotti’s former FBI colleague, Murphy, said Giannotti had that effect on people: “There was never a person I met who didn’t like him.”
Giannotti — a graduate of Providence College, U.S. Army veteran and lifelong Yankees fan — is survived by wife Susan, son Richard, stepdaughter Leslie Rennie, brother George, and sisters Eleanor Lentine and Barbara Radigan.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Jason Taylor Foundation, which supports South Florida children in need of education and healthcare.
Donations may be made by visiting http://jasontaylorfoundation.com/memorial/giannotti or mailed to Jason Taylor Foundation, 1575 Northpark Dr., Suite 99, Weston, FL 33326.