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The Chief, the Scotsman, the Swindler, and the Killer

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Milano says he was wiped out by the ordeal. He blamed Horvath, in part, for ordering his arrest without good cause. "My business was gone. My home was gone. My money was gone. And more importantly than anything else, my child was gone. Gone," Milano says. "All because of the capricious actions of a corpulent small-town policeman and his suspicions."

Milano was busted, and so was Texas. But the Berlin Wall had come down, and opportunities abounded in Eastern Europe for a man with ambition and hustle. Milano set out to make himself another small fortune.

There was no way he could have known that fate, and the rise of J.D. Horvath to chief of police, would converge to land Milano right back in DeSoto facing the Coleman accusations all over again.

When the Soviet bloc fell apart, vast markets for hungry consumers opened up in Eastern Europe. "It was like taking 400 million people from 1950 and inducting them into the 1990s," Milano says. "They wanted CDs, jam boxes, Levi jeans, cowboy boots, Lee shirts, anything. Hanes. Anything that said made in the United States of America."

Canny businessmen--some legal and some not--obligingly jumped into the breach, brokering deals to move vast amounts of merchandise to the newly open countries, where items such as U.S. blue jeans could be sold for staggering markups.

Not one to miss a chance, Milano jumped into the market, arranging shipments of baseball caps, cowboy boots, and anything else he could land. Milano says he stayed strictly within the law, never dealing in cash and always making sure his loads were legal. Mostly, he arranged shipments into Rotterdam, he says, where he would sell merchandise to wholesalers who then carted it to Poland or wherever.

More than anything else, Milano says, the new aficionados of American bounty wanted one thing--cigarettes. Preferably Marlboros. "The hottest commodity on the market was American tobacco," he says.

It was cigarettes that would again bring Milano to the attention of law enforcement.

Milano says he began brokering tobacco shipments into Rotterdam, reselling the stuff mostly to newly converted capitalists from Poland. The business was rocking along until 1992, when Milano agreed to arrange buyers for a boatload of Marlboros that was being brought to Europe by an English accountant named David Wilson.

According to later press reports, Wilson was handling the tobacco shipment for a mysterious Mexican general named Hector Portillo, who had somehow come into possession of thousands of cartons of cigarettes.

Wilson set up a company to buy a ship--which he named the Lisa Marie after one of his daughters--to bring the cigarettes from the United States to Rotterdam. Milano says Wilson contacted him about finding buyers for the load. It was a huge deal, and Milano says he nervously awaited its conclusion.

"[When] that boat gets to Rotterdam with the cigarettes, and my [customers] are there with the money, I'm walking away clear and clean with three-and-a-half million dollars," Milano says. "Naturally, you couldn't get a knitting needle out of my ass with a tractor."

But the mysterious Hector Portillo was really a New Jersey swindler named Michael Austin, and the shipment of cigarettes didn't exist. While he was in Rotterdam waiting for the shipment, Milano was arrested by Dutch police, who had been tipped about an apparent swindle going down with a phantom load of cigarretes.

Milano was jailed briefly and then released after authorities determined that Milano was a victim of the swindle, not a perpetrator.

Milano contacted Wilson, demanding the return of the money he had invested in the deal. But before Milano could collect, Wilson was killed.

According to British press reports, two gunmen arrived at Wilson's Lancashire home on March 5, 1992. The accountant was not there. The gunmen bound one of Wilson's grown daughters, and waited for Wilson to return home. When he did, with his wife and other daughter, the gunmen tied up the rest of Wilson's family.

"You know why we're here, don't you David?" one of the gunmen asked Wilson, according to later trial testimony. "It's over the money you took."

The killers then took Wilson into his garage, and shot him twice. The case made for blazing headlines in England, and it would take three years and an international manhunt before anyone was brought to trial for the slaying.

Ultimately Michael Austin, the New Jersey swindler and mastermind of the phantom cigarette scam, was extradited from the United States to England and convicted in February 1995, of hiring the killers, presumably to get even with Wilson for costing Austin money on the deal. The gunmen have not been caught.

But immediately after the killing, Romeo James Milano was once again suspiciously close to a brutal murder, and it was the second time one of his business associates had turned up dead.

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David Pasztor

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