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FBI's legendary pioneer Tampa agent is dead at 89

Joseph F. Santoiana Jr. earned a place in the bureau's inner sanctum during the reign of J. Edgar Hoover.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


TAMPA -- Joseph F. Santoiana Jr., an FBI agent who opened the first FBI field office in Tampa and oversaw the exhaustive surveillance of reputed mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr., died Thursday after a recent hospital stay. He was 89.

"He was a legend within the FBI," recalled Al Scudieri, who heads an association of retired FBI agents. Mr. Santoiana's familiarity with J. Edgar Hoover and Hoover's top administrators placed him in the "inner sanctum," Scudieri said.

Mr. Santoiana opened the field office in 1960, and over the years saw Tampa's criminal milieu shift from rough-neck mob dealings to white-collar misdeeds perpetrated in office towers.

He awed a generation of agents with his meticulousness, his skill with languages and his mastery of varied FBI duties. Agents were intrigued with his World War II-era trips to Latin America to talk about about espionage with foreign police agencies, and with his trips to Morocco during the war. His refusal to talk about some of those times only added to his aura.

"He was a terrific man," said Frank Gallagher, the present head of Tampa's FBI office, who went to work for Mr. Santoiana in 1971.

"He knew absolutely everything that went on in the Tampa division."

Before 1960, the FBI covered Tampa out of its Miami office. After Hoover ordered a bigger presence, Mr. Santoiana found an office on South Dale Mabry Highway.

FBI files reveal the hyper-detailed surveillance reports filed on Tampa's late reputed crime boss, Trafficante. Agents trailed Trafficante's white Dodge Dart around Tampa as he moved between the Columbia Restaurant, Krispy Kreme, his brother-in-law's barber shop and his small house on Bristol Avenue.

FBI agents were watching the day in 1966 when Trafficante got a flat on a trip to Miami. It took him from 3:10 to 3:24 p.m. to change the Dart's left front tire. Although he was charged several times, Trafficante never spent a night in a U.S. jail.

On New Year's Eve 1971, Mr. Santoiana and Phil McNiff, who was his second-in-command in Tampa in the early 1970s, got into a shootout in Odessa with three members of the Black Liberation Army, who had come to Florida after the killing of two police officers.

"We were 30 yards apart, and when we said "FBI,' (one) turned and started running," McNiff recalled. "He shot at me, and the bullet went through the drain pipe over my head. He kept running. He shot at Joe, and Joe shot at him. Another agent hit him with a shotgun and killed him."

McNiff said Mr. Santoiana arranged Hoover's hotel stays and the trips to the horse tracks that Hoover liked. He'd have the office painted every year to be presentable for Hoover's visits.

After Mr. Santoiana retired in 1973 after 33 years, he became general manager of the Carrollwood Village Golf & Tennis Club, where he and his wife, Celeste, would play golf on Sunday mornings. They had known each other since their elementary school days together in Bridgeport, Conn., where he was born.

Mr. Santoiana was a founding member of St. Paul Catholic Church in Carrollwood in 1963, said Eleanor King, the parish secretary. "It would take him so long to get from the parking lot to the church because he'd chit-chat with everyone," Mrs. King said. When his wife died in 1995, after a marriage of 58 years, the church became a primary focus of his time.

Mr. Santoiana graduated with honors from Georgetown University. He is survived by a brother and sister. Mr. and Mrs. Santoiana had no children.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Blount, Curry & Roel funeral home on Bearss Avenue. The family suggests that contributions be made to St. Paul Catholic Church Expansion Fund, to the American Heart Association, or the American Cancer Society.

-- Information from Times files was used in this report. Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or dougherty@sptimes.com.

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