Jean Claude Garofoli pictured with his family.

Jean Claude Garofoli pictured with his family.

My father was a criminal. Here’s how I found out.

My dad worked as a furniture salesman and drove a Rolls-Royce. It was only after his death that I learned about his secret past.

In the 1970s, my dad, Jean Claude Garofoli, was a local celebrity businessman in Hamilton, Ontario. He had long, black, permed hair, and while the other dads wore brown suits and striped ties, mine rocked bell-bottom jeans and T-shirts and rode a motorcycle. He was an alchemist who could turn nothing into something with clever storytelling and slick salesmanship. His personality was captivating, like Kevin Kline meets Eugene Levy.

Dad owned a shopping plaza with a car dealership and a furniture store, where he financed colour televisions, stereo equipment and appliances with 10 cents down. This was unheard of at the time. Somewhere along the way, he became a gemologist, selling jewellery for cash as a side hustle. He had a certificate from the Gemological Institute of America on the wall behind his desk.

He went by the moniker “Funky Garfunkle” in his advertising campaigns. In addition to running his businesses, he worked as a concert promoter. He brought acts like Pink Floyd, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka and Bob Hope to town. He was the only person in the area to drive a Rolls-Royce, and famous people often stopped by our house.

I grew up with my parents, my older sister and my older brother in the picturesque town of Grimsby, Ontario, just east of Hamilton. I thought we were a nice, normal family: my mom worked at the furniture store, and her stern Ukrainian mother, who we called Baba, commanded us like an army general. I didn’t know the difference between a Rolls-Royce and an Oldsmobile. Our home was filled with museum pieces—shrunken heads and Egyptian artifacts. My dad once casually noted, “If you need to hide money, put it in art, jewels or antiques. Cops don’t know the difference between a child’s finger painting and a Van Gogh. You can cross the border with a mil in jewels. Just wear them on your neck.” My schoolmates’ fathers clock-punched at steel mills or worked in offices. Mine came and went with the predictability of a sycamore seed helicoptering in the wind.

Garofoli was the first person in their hometown of Grimsby, Ontario, to drive a Rolls-Royce.

Most of my early memories of Dad are of watching him cook dinner on Sundays. While other families ate ham or roast beef, he cooked seafood and made homemade pasta. He had a twisted sense of humour: once, he put a live lobster in my bed. (I don’t eat seafood to this day.) Still, I learned that dinnertime was a golden opportunity to snag Dad’s attention. “I’m going to be a writer and a pilot someday,” I told him. “You’re not smart enough to make money writing, and girls don’t fly planes,” he replied, a cigarette hanging from his mouth as he stirred a pot of his famous Italian sauce. “Your goals are too lofty—just marry rich.” I knew one day I would prove him wrong.

I was a gawky introvert who often ran away from school to read books in the town library. On my walks home from school, I regularly passed a small log house that I’d fondly nicknamed the Writer’s Cabin. I dreamed of living there one day. I planned to fly commercial jets to exotic places and write about my adventures in novels. My older brother, Brad, was my only ally. He and I would disappear on epic adventures, riding our bikes 44 kilometres round-trip to Balls Falls. We’d sustain ourselves with Popsicles and chocolate bars along the way, paid for with silver dollars we’d lifted from Baba’s security box. Brad and I understood each other. We both had undiagnosed learning disabilities, and we never felt stupid in each other’s company, as we did with the rest of the world.

By the time I was 12, my father was running for the position of city controller on Hamilton’s city council, claiming that he wanted to “clean up” the city’s mass corruption. He believed the RCMP and Hamilton Police were targeting him for this, and that the lead detective, Ken Robertson, was jealous of his success.

The tension came to a head in 1977. One day, when I was 12, I stepped off my school bus in Grimsby for the last time. When I approached our home, I saw police officers and movers hauling furniture onto a truck. My mother and Baba stood on the lawn next to a few suitcases and our toy poodle, Bijou. “Get in the car. We’re taking a trip,” my mom said. We quickly piled into Baba’s brown Pontiac LeMans and headed to the U.S. border. My mom said my father and brother were at my aunt’s, and my sister was staying at boarding school. I didn’t ask any questions.

There’s only one problem with this indelible memory. It probably never happened. Not the way I remember it. Everyone I’ve spoken to—my family, my dad’s friends—remembers the story differently. Throughout my life, I hung my childhood history on this pivotal, life-changing moment like an IV bag on a coma patient. I would find out decades later that the film in my head was some kind of trauma stew—bits of truth melded with fiction, fused by the repeated fallout of my father’s bad decisions.

***

That summer, my mom, Baba, and I lived in a Travelodge motel near Fort Lauderdale. Our room smelled like mildew, commercial cleanser and stale cigarette smoke. I entertained myself with a skateboard we found at a yard sale.

By fall, my father showed up and moved us to a beautiful home across the street from the beach. They registered me at a small private school. My sister was still in boarding school, and Brad had dropped out of high school and was working as a roadie for a travelling carnival in Canada.

When I was 13, he quit the carnival and arrived in Florida. He had sprouted more than two feet, and our three-year age gap seemed much wider. I was old enough to start paying attention to the grown-ups in my life and began twigging onto the fact that my dad had one too many hush-hush meetings. The idea that we were a normal family was slipping away like a wet fish.

The author (bottom right) grew up with her parents, siblings and grand-mother.

My dad was an entrepreneur before anyone knew what that meant. He claimed he could set up a business in any city with $50, a phone and a classified ad, and he was right. “America’s where it’s at, man. Those socialist Canadians are taxing businesses to death.” He was always an early adopter. One day, he came home with a Commodore 64, the world’s first home computer. “This is the future,” he said. “Wait and see. Soon there will be one of these in every home. People will shop on it, date on it and work from home on it.” He started a new furniture business in Fort Lauderdale called Model Home Furniture. After spotting a hole in the marine market, he bought my brother scuba gear, then set him up in a business servicing the bottoms of boats. Brad took to diving like a dolphin to a bucket of minnows.

By the time I was in high school, I’d developed meaningful friendships and settled into a routine. My sister was enrolled in law school, and she and my brother lived in a condo they purchased together. Father and son spent much time at marinas and hung out on gleaming yachts with high-flyers like oil tycoons, art dealers and sheiks. Occasionally, I’d tag along while they drank martinis and smoked Cubans.

Dad began to offer private jewellery showings to his new friends. Sometimes he’d take me to Miami to see where he did business. We’d walk the streets with a brown paper lunch bag filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewels, stopping in at the International Building. He’d always treat me to a Cuban coffee and a guava pastry, then buy a sandwich to give to a homeless person. These were the rare moments I felt a connection to my dad, where snippets of humanity peeked through his shady varnish.

Somewhere, deep down, I knew something suspicious was going on. Our gated neighbourhood had 24-hour security and a guard house, and yet I found handguns strategically placed in planters in every room of our house. Dad had a man purse, fat with hundred-dollar bills, and he filled the garage with antique sports cars. As he carelessly built his house of cards, my adolescent mind began to puzzle at the abnormality of it all. A parade of men would come and go from our house at all hours. Dad had me call them all “uncle.” “Business associates. Don’t worry about it,” he’d tell my mom, who was working at a medical office. She had no idea he was getting up to anything illegal.

Sometimes my dad would take me to Miami. We would walk the streets with a brown paper lunch bag filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewels.

One day, my dad asked me to meet a client on Las Olas Boulevard to exchange a diamond for a $10,000 cash payment. I had no idea why he was sending me on the errand, but when I arrived at the appointed spot, the man who climbed into my car pulled out a gun and took the diamond from me.

When I got home, I screamed at my father, demanding to know why he’d put me in danger. At that moment, he was laying a record of one of his favourite opera arias on the turntable. He turned to me and said, “If you don’t like living under my roof, then you can get the fuck out.”

So I did. I was only in Grade 10, but I had a car and a waitress job at a diner. I dropped out of school and took a second job in a jewellery kiosk at the mall, and I rented a room in my co-worker’s apartment for $150 a month. After a few months, my dad sent my brother to talk me into coming home. I was furious he was siding with our father. I yelled, “If you aren’t going to support me, you can go fuck yourself,” and slammed the door in his face.

That night, at 4 a.m., I was roused by fists pounding on my apartment door. I looked through the peephole and saw my father, sheet white and shaking. “Get in the car,” he said. “Your brother’s been in an accident.”

Garofoli swimming with his son Brad.

Brad had borrowed my dad’s Mercedes convertible to go out on a date. On the way home, someone ran a red light, pinning the car against a transport truck in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts where I used to work. His head had slammed against the windshield.

In the ICU, Brad looked nothing like himself, his head wrapped in bandages and his face swollen. He wasn’t my brother. By the time the on-call neurologist got to the hospital, it was too late to save my brother from the swelling in his brain. He was 19 when he died.

I moved back home and lived in a haze of confusion for the next nine months. My mom and dad rarely left their bed. One day, someone robbed our home and stole my mom and brother’s jewellery collections, including a couple of Rolexes. And so I launched my own investigation. We had deadbolts on our doors and 24-hour security with a guard: I suspected it must have been one of my dad’s sketchy contacts taking advantage of my parents’ grief.

I asked to see the visitor logs and found out that one of my father’s associates had visited when we were out of the house. I knew where he lived and took one of my dad’s guns to confront him. When I pulled up and pointed the gun at him, he was getting into his car. “I know it was you. I want everything back, or I’ll shoot you.” He sped off.

When I got home, my father was furious. He took the gun out of my purse and screamed, “Are you fucking crazy?” I told him to call the police on the guy, but he insisted his friend was innocent. I later discovered that my father was behind the ordeal. He was tight on cash because he hadn’t worked since Brad died and staged the robbery to make a claim against his homeowner’s insurance.

Desperate to escape my toxic home life, I joined the U.S. Coast Guard and devote my life to chasing drug runners and rescuing people at sea. In my third year with the Coast Guard, I met and married a Special Forces soldier. My parents had moved back home to Canada. Then I received a phone call from my dad. “My life is in danger. I need your help. Some bad people are after me. Don’t tell anyone I called. Not even your mother.”

My husband and I left the Coast Guard base in Miami in a rental car and drove non-stop to meet my dad in Montreal. His essence looked like it had been sucked away by vampires. “You’re going to take me to the border and drop me off, and I’ll meet you on the other side tomorrow morning.” We left him in the woods, then found a room in a Vermont inn.

Garofoli pictured in Canada, right before his arrest.

We awoke to a SWAT team surrounding our hotel. They seized our rental car, but by some dumb luck, the fellow interrogating my husband used to be in his military unit. They shared a brotherly bond and, as a result, he released us.

After returning to my base, I learned from my mother that Dad had absconded after being charged in an organized crime bust. Specifically, for conspiracy to import three kilos of cocaine from Florida to Canada. The evidence against him was derived from wiretaps and involved five other men, one of whom was a member of the Hamilton branch of the Buffalo mafia. My parents did a masterful job of keeping his arrest from me. The RCMP extradited Dad to Canada, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, which he served at Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ontario. At long last, all the bits and pieces of my dad’s shadowy existence began to line up.

***

Over the next few years, my sister stayed in the U.S. My mom remained loyal to my father throughout his time in prison. Meanwhile, I was forced to rebuild my life. In 1987, I was called into my commander’s office and given an honourable discharge. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said. “How a Canadian managed to enlist is beyond me, but it must have been a clerical mistake.” I shrugged it off as sloppy paperwork.

My then-husband and I moved back to Canada and eventually landed in London, Ontario. When we divorced in 2001, I found myself with two young daughters, a shaggy dog, an outdated resumé and $20 to my name. I took a job selling cars to put food on the table. It was still a male-dominated, shark-infested industry, but there was good money to be made, and soon I was earning more than $120,000 each year. Salesmanship was a valuable skill I learned from watching dear old Dad.

My father was released on early parole in 1992 and immediately started a new business. He sold computer systems, financed on low monthly payments. As per his usual method of operation, he also started brokering gems again. Within a few years, he began an affair, and Mom finally left him. He and I were estranged for a long while, but reunited a few years before he died of cancer in 2013.

In the meantime, I moved to northern Ontario and got a job at a boat and ATV dealership. I met my second husband after I hitched a ride on his floatplane to Killarney Provincial Park for a solo hiking trip. We moved to a farm on a lake, and I started a business in my laundry room, making natural care products. I had spent five years scaling my company, Walton Wood Farm, even landing a stint on Dragon’s Den. Running an international company was far more complex than selling cars on 100 per cent commission. But I soon realized that car sales training was the key to my success. I applied everything I learned at wholesale trade shows and worked the circuit across the U.S. and Canada twice a year.

In 2019, my mom dropped in for a visit and unloaded a trunk full of treasures into my foyer. She heaved a giant binder onto my hall table. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh, it’s the manuscript your dad wrote in prison,” she said as plainly as “pass the salt.” Only the salt, in this case, was 550 pages of 30-year-old typed sheets.

I did the only thing you can do when receiving an unwanted gift from beyond the grave: I shoved the manuscript into my hat and mitts drawer, where it lay dormant for the next five months. It surfaced again when the first sugary snowflakes sifted down onto our farm fields and I needed a hat and mitts. “Oh, hello there, dead Father,” I said.

I cracked open the autobiography and broke down into a blubbering mess upon reading the dedication.

To Bradley,
May you find peace. There is none here.
Love, Dad.

With all the bravery I could muster, I gathered my broken self and curled into a chair with the binder, an emotional support blankie and a cup of tea. The introduction began: “He had it all—a loving family. Influential friends. His business interests were extensive. One day, he decided to run for political office in his hometown…That brought him to an underworld few knew existed. A dirty world run by legitimate agencies, the CIA, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Naturalization Services, and more. He learned the U.S. and Canada were full of snitches doing these agencies’ dirty business on a clean front.”

Wait, what?

***

After her father’s death, the author discovered a 550-page manuscript confessing his many years of covert criminal activity. (Photo by Markian Lozowchuk).

I learned a lot about my dad by reading his manuscript. For example, that he spent his elementary school years with his sidekick and brother—my Uncle Tony—gambling on street corners to earn money for food. In 1958, when my dad was 18, his family arrived in Hamilton.

I found out what happened to my uncle, too. My parents always told me Uncle Tony died in his sleep of unknown causes when he was 32. But in the book, Dad confessed he’d fired Tony from his car lot, and he believed his brother had killed himself. My father never forgave himself.

I also learned about how he first got involved with drug trafficking. On one hand, he claimed the concert-promoting culture at Hamilton Place was an excruciating game of bribes and interference by management, unions and politicians. Yet he admits he also learned how to get cocaine for Pink Floyd, who he says refused to perform without the drug.

His decision to run for city controller in Hamilton was his downfall. He lost to the incumbent, who he says tried to bribe him to drop his candidacy. At this point, the running narrative in my father’s story was that of an honest businessman trying to right the wrongs of corrupt politicians and police. “He was framed for fraud,” he wrote about himself in the third person.

I could see the manuscript was an inky smudge of truth and lies. If I was going to get close to the truth, I’d have to deconstruct my memories against Dad’s version of events and hunt down as many of the people from our lives as I could find.

***

I decided to turn the project into a podcast, which I called Rewriting Dad. I enlisted the help of a business acquaintance, a writer and actor named Meg Murphy. She quickly tracked down Ken Robertson, the detective who had led the charge against my dad. Robertson’s name had regularly come up in our home, even as I held my father’s hand on his deathbed. Dad blamed all his troubles on him. “Robertson is the devil himself,” he said. Robertson had retired as Hamilton’s police chief in 2003. He had moved to a small town in Ontario and was enjoying life as a father and grandfather. He responded to my email: “Jean Claude Garofoli? Yes, I remember.” Then he allowed me to phone him.

He was very kind, and at first he said he barely remembered the guy. But as he kept talking, it seemed he knew a lot more than he thought he did. Robertson said that in 1976, he was assigned to investigate a case involving Samsung, a major supplier to Dad’s furniture store. They claimed they weren’t getting paid, and initially, Robertson thought it was theft by conversion. They claimed they were owed around $400,000.

After taking a closer look and wondering what my dad did with all the money, he witnessed the members of Hamilton mafia families, the Luppinos and Musitanos, showing up at the store. At the time, the police were trying to get to the bottom of the so-called “bakery bombings,” a series of attacks on Italian bakeries by the Musitano family. The bombings instilled fear in the community, helping the Musitanos extort protection money from small business owners like my father. The Samsung investigation at my dad’s store offered the cops an opportunity. It became a springboard to examine the Luppino and Musitano crime families, and Hamilton city council approved its first-ever organized crime Joint Task Force, with Robertson as administrator. With evidence from this Joint Task Force case, Tony Musitano, the boss of the family, was convicted of conspiracy to possess explosive substances with intent to cause explosions. Pat, Tony’s nephew, took over the family in 1992. Their era of dominance ended in July of 2020, when he was gunned down at midday at a Burlington strip mall.

Dad absconded after being charged with conspiracy to import three kilos of cocaine from Florida into Canada.

Through my conversations with Robertson, I learned that when we fled for Florida, my dad was facing fraud charges for the Samsung conspiracy, though they were dismissed a few years later. Robertson told me that my dad’s connections to organized crime and illegally living in Florida likely made him vulnerable and ripe to recruit as an informant. Dad claims he was recruited to work with the Montreal branch of the RCMP, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, the CIA, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency. He did not want to return to Canada. Jail was certainly not an option.

In his book, he says the feds used his boat business to suss out drug runners, who were all over marinas back then. Another assignment, he writes, was to get intel on a well-known Montreal criminal who kept an 80-foot yacht on the New River. Dad took my brother and me along for a viewing of the yacht, pretending to be interested in buying it. My brother and I were supposed to distract the owner with questions out on the deck as my dad had a look at the interior. He says he stole some of the notes out of the garbage and managed to grab the fella’s Rolodex, which he turned in to the police.

Thanks to his jewellery background, he writes, his role expanded to fencing jewels acquired by foreign governments to fund the Contras, the rebel groups fighting the Nicaraguan government. He says the agencies also had him buying and selling weapons. Those trips Dad and I took to the International Building in Miami? Apparently, that’s where he would pick up illegally smuggled jewels and drop off cash. “I sold arms to the U.S. government. Arms that would be used to kill people in some foreign country,” he writes. “I did undercover work for surreptitious agencies. I sold jewellery belonging to the people of South and Central America that their government stole to raise money so they could undermine and destabilize their systems,” my dad writes in his book.

Around the same time, I learned, one of my dad’s friends got me into the Coast Guard illegally. It was a dream for me to enlist, and he knew his friend could get me in under the radar as a favour. After I read this, I went rifling through my mom’s treasure trove for evidence. I found my recruitment papers, which his friend had signed. It all made sense—he and my recruiter came to my bon voyage dinner. Recruiters didn’t go to family dinners with their newbies.

According to a friend, after Brad died and when I was in the Coast Guard, Dad’s business model shifted to much darker activities, which led to his downfall. I think he stopped caring altogether. There was nothing to live for. When his private jewellery clients would pay cash for their purchase, he would note the location of the safe. A few weeks later, he’d send two thugs dressed as cops to rob them at gunpoint. One of those fake cops was a friend of my dad’s, who I learned had staged the robbery of our home—when Brad’s jewellery was stolen—so my dad could collect the insurance.

In his book, my dad insists he was innocent of the armed robbery scheme, but Florida law enforcement almost caught up with him. To escape them he fled out the back door. That’s how he and my mom ended up back in Canada.

Jean Claude Garofoli and his wife in Florida.

As soon as they arrived in Hamilton, the RCMP wiretapped our home, investigating him as part of a conspiracy to traffic cocaine with members of the mafia. When they stormed into their bedroom to make the arrest, my long-suffering mother was in bed with a bad back and couldn’t even get up.

When my father later appealed his conviction and 15-year sentence, his lawyers applied to challenge the admissability of the wiretapping evidence, setting a precedent now known as a Garofoli Application, which is still used today, mostly in terrorism and money laundering cases. A Garofoli Application is a motion to exclude intercepted communications based on a client’s Charter rights, and to ensure the evidence was obtained legally.

While interviewing my father’s friends, lawyers, and acquaintances, the most shocking thing I heard was from a close friend of my dad. It was about my brother, Brad. “Your dad told me it wasn’t an accident,” my friend told me, though he didn’t know any more than that. The idea that Brad’s death might have been a revenge murder was a battering ram to my heart.

As I investigated my dad, I was struck by the notion that he could have easily been successful without committing crimes, but he was drawn to the underworld like a hermit crab to a shell. It was also evident that working the system and being “connected” in his community of immigrants was a badge of honour—the “I got a guy” culture. My dad was “the guy.”

Most of all, I was surprised by how much I was like my father—minus the criminal activity. I was rewriting Dad, and he was rewriting me. We both lay awake many nights, worried about cash flow, supply chain issues, staffing, sales and taxes. We never confided in anyone. We both always thought we could handle things ourselves. It was consoling to know Dad went through precisely the same things I did.

Both of us were prone to chase the next shiny thing, but I learned restraint from my dad’s lack of discipline and inability to control his impulses. I learned to cage those squirrels, set a course and stay true to it.

Like my dad, I could find holes in the market and fill them. This was my inheritance. When I started a personal care company, I targeted the gift market. The world was full of lavender and vanilla, but I knew people would pay for story over utility. I wrote funny copy on the packaging: Winter’s a B*tch, Week from Hell, and Better B’ver were some of my product names. My collections became the perfect, practical gift.

Nearly everyone I interviewed deeply missed my father. He inspired and pushed them to seize the day, pursue their dreams and live fully. To eat well, drink well and find laughter in the mundane. My dad was a wine enthusiast, and when he died, we placed his ashes in a crate that had contained his favourite vintage, which he sipped as he took his last breath—a $5,000 bottle of 1989 Petrus.

I’ve learned much about my memories and how flawed they can be. Time erodes the truth of what we experience and replaces it with an imperfect web of stories that we may never fully untangle.

Today, I am both a pilot and a writer, despite what my father said. If he were alive today to read this article, I know he wouldn’t say, “Well done.” His reaction would be, “Where’s my cut?”


This article appears in print in the October 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $29.99.

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