Second Life

Sentenced to life for drug smuggling, George Martorano spent decades in prison with no hope for release. Then John Flahive answered his call.

click to enlarge GREETINGS FROM PRISON: John Flahive and George Martorano pose for a holiday photo in front of a faux domestic backdrop at Coleman prison. - COURTESY JOHN FLAHIVE
Courtesy John Flahive
GREETINGS FROM PRISON: John Flahive and George Martorano pose for a holiday photo in front of a faux domestic backdrop at Coleman prison.

Every holiday season, there's a tradition at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Central Florida, 20 miles south of Ocala. During the month of December, prison officials set up a large holiday backdrop painted with a Christmas tree, wreath and brick fireplace, partially concealing the grey cinderblock wall in a corner of the visiting room. Families and couples line up to have portraits taken with their incarcerated dads and husbands and sons. Smiles are plentiful, if a little hollow.

On a cloudless afternoon in December 2006, two men — one in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, the other in prison-issued olive drab — walk up for their turn. John Flahive, 50, glares at the camera, fierce and determined; the inmate, 57-year-old George Martorano, shorter and slightly stooped from a hernia, looks ahead with the weariness of a man who has spent the last 23 years of his life in prison. The two clasp hands.

For the other inmates and their families, the photos are an attempt to relive, if for just a few moments, past holidays spent together on the outside. But all Flahive and Martorano have ever known are the bonds forged in this sterile room, eating cheap food from the vending machines and sitting too long on uncomfortable chairs.

They're not family, exactly. Flahive, a former alcoholic and drug addict from St. Petersburg, met Martorano, a convicted drug smuggler from Philadelphia, through a chance 15-minute phone call. But the random encounter led to a six-year friendship and a joint effort to change the federal rules that keep an estimated 116,500 non-violent offenders behind bars for disproportionately long sentences.

That includes Martorano, who holds the unlucky title of longest-serving first-time non-violent offender in federal custody. And unless a legal brief convinces a Philadelphia judge his sentence was illegal or President Bush signs off on the clemency request now on his desk, Martorano will keep that title, spending the rest of his life in prison.

But this is more than a story about a prisoner and an activist. The connection they've made has rekindled a nationwide sentencing reform movement. And even more important for Flahive and Martorano, the friendship has profoundly changed both of their lives.

While the rest of the families in the visiting room talk about relatives and school reports, Martorano asks about Flahive's mother, sister and his sick dog. Flahive, energized by the Starbucks Frappuccinos he drank on the 70-mile trip from St. Petersburg to Coleman, talks loud and fast, gesturing spiritedly. Martorano, meanwhile, is quiet and contemplative, smiling only slightly when Flahive cracks a joke.

It's hard to reconcile Martorano's reserved demeanor with the life he lived in the early '80s. Then, Martorano was known to South Philly as George "Cowboy" Martorano, a bombastic hustler with a propensity for women and weed.

The Martorano name was well known in Philly for another reason: Martorano's father was reputed mobster Raymond "Long John" Martorano, who the FBI long suspected of affiliations with Philly's two top crime bosses. And although Martorano says his father never inducted him into the world of organized crime, after years of making little money in legitimate businesses, the younger Martorano struck out on his own criminal enterprise.

He started out small, peddling marijuana to friends until he joined a larger group of smugglers flying in high-grade pot from Jamaica. Within months, Martorano and 14 others had established a $75-million-a-year drug smuggling ring, adding cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and Quaaludes to their product line. Unfortunately for Martorano, a slew of informants and two FBI agents were also part of the enterprise.

On Sept. 19, 1982 — minutes after conversing with an undercover agent poolside at a Miami Holiday Inn — Martorano was arrested by the FBI on 19 counts of drug possession and conspiracy charges stemming from a 15-month undercover operation. Because of Martorano's family history and incriminating statements on hundreds of hours of taped phone conversations and meetings, authorities pegged him as the drug ring's kingpin.

The Martorano family hired attorney Robert "Bobby" Simone, who convinced Martorano, then 33, to plead guilty. After all, Martorano had no prior convictions, not even a traffic ticket, and none of his charges were for violent crimes. He'd get 10 years, at most. Even a federal sentencing board recommended that Martorano get only 40-52 months in prison.

click to enlarge WEEKLY VISITOR: Flahive has visited Coleman once or twice a week since meeting Martorano six years ago. - ALEX PICKETT
Alex Pickett
WEEKLY VISITOR: Flahive has visited Coleman once or twice a week since meeting Martorano six years ago.

But Martorano's family history trumped everything. Between his trial and sentencing, rival mob bosses loosed a bloodbath on Philly's streets. As the body count mounted, U.S. Judge John Hannum and Louis Pichini, a prosecutor with the U.S. Organized Crime Task Force, pressured Martorano to spill whatever secrets he knew about the Philly mafia. Federal agents suspected Martorano's father was involved with one of the more murderous crime families, run by Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo. But Martorano, then and now, denies having any information the feds didn't already know. In a phrase he's repeated for two decades, Martorano says, "The daily newspapers knew more about my father than I did."

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