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The State You're In: Pioneering cop cracked Tampa's bolita rackets from the sky

When St. Petersburg police received complaints about someone with a distinct hairdo taking photos up skirts of Publix customers April 3, they circulated images of the "man bun creeper" in action on social media.

Tips led to the arrest a week later of Brian Augustus Haseloff, who faces a felony video voyeurism charge thanks in part to the store's surveillance cameras.

BACKSTORY: Police arrest 'man bun creeper' accused of peeking under skirts.

It's not easy to get away with a crime these days. Cops can track bad guys' cell phone movements, debit card purchases and social media posts — and cameras seem to be recording our every move.

There was once a simpler era, when such options were few for law enforcement. Once upon a time, for instance, it never occurred to criminals that detectives might be following them in an airplane as they performed their nefarious deeds.

Then came Ellis Clifton.

The late sheriff's deputy is a law enforcement legend around these parts. Photos of him hang inside the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Ybor City headquarters.

In the 1950s through the 1960s, Clifton was head of the sheriff's vice squad, charged with bringing down the local mafia in an era when organized crime was at its peak in the Tampa Bay area.

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I was introduced to Clifton in 2006 when his health was rapidly declining.

When he learned I was a reporter obsessed with local history, he made me a deal: He was not supposed to drink beer, Clifton told me, but if I bought him one and did not tell his wife, he'd answer just about anything on the record.

So, over multiple adult beverages in Ybor, Clifton spilled secrets, including about the time he cut a deal with a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro.

He was vague with specifics, promising to take the details to the grave, but he did say it involved guns making it from Florida to Castro in Cuba in exchange for legendary mobster Santo Trafficante, Jr., who was then residing on the island.

When the Tampa don was later expelled from Cuba, it was indeed Clifton waiting for him at a port in Miami. Though, as he always did, Trafficante avoided arrest.

RELATED: Tampa helped arm Castro's revolution

But an already public account about his pioneering use of an airplane for surveillance also stuck with me.

Bolita — an illegal lottery — was the game of choice back then and Clifton was the sworn enemy of numbers runners for the frequent arrests he made. He earned nicknames such as "The Bolita Buster" and "The Rabbit" for his ability to seemingly pop up out of nowhere when the law was being broken.

Still, by 1958 he had not made a major collar of the men running the show. For that, he needed to find where bolita tickets were sent to tabulate winnings and losses.

As Clifton explained, the tickets were run through a miles-long maze of neighborhoods and busy roads to a final hub. They were clandestinely passed from moving car to moving car, with each driver only knowing his or her destination and not the final one.

Clifton said the vice squad tried using unmarked vehicles to tail the drivers but never could successfully follow the trail to the final destination.

Then the vice cop heard about another law enforcement agency in Florida that had been the first to use an airplane to track crime suspects. He decided to try it, too.

An informant told Clifton of one stop along a bolita maze that began in St. Petersburg and ended in Tampa. That was all Clifton needed to proceed.

In a small aircraft, from just a few hundred feet above the road, Clifton had a clear view of the bolita envelope exchanges.

Because air surveillance had never been employed locally before and had been used only once before in Florida — and without any press coverage — the numbers runners had no reason to suspect something was afoot. That allowed Clifton to find the destination: a home in Tampa owned by Frank Diecidue, one of Trafficante's top men.

Clifton said it was either weeks or months later that deputies acted on this discovery. All those years later he couldn't remember exactly.

According to archives from the former Tampa Tribune, the vice squad raided that residence on March 22, 1958, made seven arrests and found lottery tickets worth as much as $25,000. They seized ledgers with names of at least 50 individuals associated with a bolita ring that earned millions of dollars a year. That intel led to future arrests, including 28 a week later.

As for Diecidue — he was convicted of running an illegal lottery, making him Clifton's first bigtime bolita bust.

Clifton died in April 2007 at the age of 80, but a few years earlier then-Sheriff David Gee let him know how highly the agency thought of him.

"Your service continues to stand as a shining example," Gee wrote in a letter to Clifton, "of a remarkable law enforcement officer who served his community with fearlessness and conviction."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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