Thursday, March 22, 2018
Human Interest

For ex-con, there's no glamor in straight life, but it still beats prison

A knock on the motel door at 6:30 a.m. wakes Tony Ferrentino. He lifts his 315-pound body a few steps to the door, where a Louisville Slugger leans by the window. His arms are tattooed from wrist to shoulder with dapper mobsters and sprawling, cat-eyed women flashing those parts typically left to the imagination. A nearly 40-year heroin habit has withered his veins. With swollen hands he sweeps aside the drapes.

"Can I come in?" asks a man wearing an ID badge.

"Okay," Ferrentino says.

"Just wanted to touch base and look around," Ferrentino's new probation officer says.

"You're not going to have any problems out of me," Ferrentino says.

"Oh, I know," the man says.

His probation officer finishes the checkup and leaves. Ferrentino stands alone in the single room. His belongings — everything the 63-year-old has managed to scrape together in the three years since he got out of prison — fill a few plastic bins, are spread across the floor and hang from portable clothes racks.

There was a time when a motel room, even at this very motel in St. Petersburg, served only as a place to hole up while he worked another cocaine or heroin deal. His Cadillac or his 1977 Corvette Stingray, the one with white leather interior, would be parked out front. On the floor of the room would lay the bundles of drugs to be weighed. Cash would be spread across the bed — $1,000, $10,000, $100,000 — and sorted into piles for payment and piles destined for his safety deposit box. A scintillating light would glow off the gold jewelry he wore. And it was in those motel rooms that he'd savor the sweetness. He'd suck the liquid into a syringe, search for a decent vein and let the heroin warm his body. If God made something better, Ferrentino always says, he sure as hell has kept it to himself.

Ferrentino walks to the bathroom mirror.

"You're doing good, baby, you're doing good," he thinks to himself. "You didn't put no poison in your life, you didn't put no poison on the street. You're doing good, baby."

Ferrentino pushes open the door to the motel room No. 104. He cranks the key to his Chevy Astro work van and prepares for one more day in the straight life.

/ /

My stepfather was driving . . . and he looked up in the mirror and he says, "Jeez, I got a cop on me." So I says, "Turn in over here, see if he follows you." . . . When we bend the corner to go around and we pulled into the driveway, under the canopy, man, s---, they came from everywhere — woowoo, vans, cars, and they jumped out like the Trojan Horse.

And my father, he was shaking. I says, "You be all right, Dad, you be all right . . . I'll be back in a little while." They cuff and stuff me, and brought me down.

And they got all my jewelry. They're playing with it — a bib of gold . . . I says, "I'll be out before you finish inventorying that, you hear?" Sure enough . . . I go to the telephone and I says to my father, "Dad, did they tear the place up bad?" And he says, "Yeah, they tore it up pretty decent." . . . "Did they, uhh, go in the freezer?" "No, they never went there."

So I says, "Okay, take those steaks out. We'll be eating steaks when I get home."

Wrapped up in freezer paper were steaks and money. . . . They never look in butcher paper, for some reason. That's twice they looked in my house and never found it. S---, 10 days later, they got me again.

/ /

Ferrentino stops for a $2 breakfast at a deli on 16th Street S. As he steers into the parking lot, he hollers out the window.


A man sitting on a bench with his feet kicked out looks his way. Harry "Dirty Harry" Simmons wears shades and a gold-colored watch, and rests his hand atop a cane.

"Guess what I woke up to today?" Ferrentino asks.

"Oh yeah?" Simmons says. "Got you a new parole officer?"

In the 1970s and '80s, Simmons was a stickup boy (he stole drugs from drug dealers), and he and Ferrentino ran together. Simmons went away for murder soon after the FBI began investigating Ferrentino.

The feds believed Ferrentino's drug operation touched Colombia, Puerto Rico, Florida and East Coast cities up to New York. Among his drug trafficking operation, a pill scam, two pawnshops, a nightclub and a prostitution ring, Ferrentino figures he netted about $90,000 a month.

In 1994 Ferrentino joined his friend in prison after the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office busted him for enlisting a doctor to write fake prescriptions for 3,000 Dilaudid each month. Ferrentino found a way to smuggle heroin and drugs into prison, he says, and the guards often gasped that he had more money in his commissary account than they earned in a year.

He served 17 years of his 25-year sentence. Got clean along the way. He even counseled younger inmates. When he left prison, he fell to his knees outside the gate, gulped the air and swore he'd never return.

A man who ran a prison drug program helped Ferrentino find part-time work at WestCare, a nonprofit that, among other services, oversees transitional and halfway homes.

He's an acquisition specialist, meaning he sits at a desk and calls businesses to find donations. He also manages a transitional home for ex-cons in St. Petersburg, sits through Narcotics Anonymous classes and volunteers most of his free time. A 12-hour day is typical. For this — and with a little extra for his disabled knees — he's lucky if he takes home $1,800 each month.

Ferrentino finishes his breakfast of eggs and sausage. He turns the conversation to a man he and Simmons hung out with back in the day who had just died. "We went to Pojo's funeral and you see what's left of us," he says to Simmons. "There's just a skeleton crew left: who's still in prison that's never getting out; who's dead and in the grave; and then there's a few of us holding on, tying knots."

After breakfast Ferrentino typically checks on his transitional house or drives to the downtown office building where he works. Each day he hollers to the desk clerk, whom he calls his "main man," and lights up the cleaning lady's face with his pidgin Spanish. He rides the elevator to the ninth floor to the office with his name on it. He fits on reading glasses and leans toward the computer screen. His cumbersome fingers swallow the mouse. He shuffles back and forth from the computer to the printer. He shakes his head, clicks menus, walks back to the printer, and still it defies him.

/ /

I didn't want to be a firefighter, or a police officer, or nothing. I was one of those kids that wanted to be a gangster.

My life wandered into drugs and drug selling and things I never should have got involved in, because if I wanted to be a boss, that was one of the rules, that you don't do . . . any drug — selling or using. That was a no-no. And I was called on the carpet a few times.

I would lie (to them) . . . "No, it's okay. I had a little problem, but I'm okay now." . . . That's when people started reaching out to me. . . . "Oh, let's get him down to Florida, let's get him out of New York."

They thought they were doing me a favor getting me out of New York. But I moved me with me. I took me with me. And as long as I came, there was problems.

/ /

Ferrentino motors toward a grocery store, over causeways where the houses double in size near Treasure Island.

He parks and walks in through the back door. He pushes two carts outside and down the ramp. He unloads the donated bread and pastries, which he'll later drop at a WestCare transitional housing complex.

As he walks to the driver's door, he spots a plastic bin with wheels by a Dumpster, and his mind takes trips down old paths.

"I'd load up the bin. (In the storage room) you got everything you want, sodas and beer, whatever. I'd walk it back out with a bit of garbage on it — leave it sit for a bit to make sure no one was watching — and then put it in the back of the truck."

After decades of criminal life, Ferrentino doubts his mind will ever stop scheming.

When he read a headline about a 96-year-old woman who jumped to her death downtown, Ferrentino's first thought was that someone pushed her. To collect her Social Security, he figured.

Ferrentino delivers the donated food. Just before 3 p.m. he decides he can fit in a haircut before he volunteers to unload pallets at another transitional complex. In the barber's chair, his head nods as he falls asleep.

/ /

I was in the visiting part (of prison), and what happened was, everybody that came around would say, "Hey, Tony! Big Tony, I want you to meet my family . . . "

And my brother says — he flew down to be with me from New York — and he says, "You walk around this prison system like you got a f------ invisible crown."

I says, "What are you talking about?"

He says, "Everybody calls you to the table — 'Godfather,' 'Big Tony,' this, that . . . I don't know what you think," he says, "but I just don't understand it, man."

I says, "Man, you're a sheep. You're a f------ sheep, man. I'm a boss. People respect me."

He says, "Yeah, baa baa. I'll be a sheep any day. But I go home at nighttime, so you can take that invisible crown off, because looks to me that you're stuck in here."

I wanted to punch him — my kid brother. But I thought about what he told me. He was right.

/ /

He wakes from the barber chair and walks outside to his van. He drives a few blocks to the other transitional home to unload more food.

Around 7 p.m. Ferrentino parks near his motel room door.

Inside he paces the floor making phone calls. It's still early, and he offers his muscle to a woman who runs a transitional home and needs to kick out a man still using drugs. She declines. Ferrentino fears idle time because who knows where his mind will lead him given a few free hours.

This is why he volunteers, attends Narcotics Anonymous classes, hopes to start a nonprofit prison mentoring program, and why when he speaks to prisoners each week about his life, he tells them he has two dogs fighting inside.

"When I came to prison, I had two pawn and jewelry shops," he tells the men. "I had a nightclub, I had an escort service, I had heroin and everything in them streets. And some days I sit and think, 'I ain't driving no new Cadillacs.' "

His fiancee calls, and they debate where they should go for a Mother's Day dinner and whether it's too costly to replace her broken computer.

He grabs a juice jug from the fridge and sits on his bed.

Ferrentino falls asleep behind the blue door marked No. 104. In the morning he'll wake up, look at himself in the mirror and think, "You're doing good, baby, you're doing good."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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