What They Forgot to Mention About Olympic Skier Julia Mancuso

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This winter’s Olympics have seen the usual sentimental media saturation of weepy or aw-shucks back stories on the athletes. Overcoming adversity is often the theme:  Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette soldiered on to win the bronze just days after her mother died of a heart attack.  There’s often more than one story of an athlete triumphing over career-threatening injury; or, the multiple stories of a parents’ sacrifice — the driving, the financial burden — to support their talented progeny up to the medal stand.  NBC did an up-close story on the winningest winter games American medalist, skater Apolo Ono, who, as an unruly teenager, tried his single parent dad, a Japanese immigrant to the U.S., to the point that the father plunked his son in a wilderness cabin and left him there for a week to ponder his future. It worked.

There is even the obverse, but rare, tale that dares to suggest negative parenting:  Cheri Davis, the mother of African-American speed skater and medalist Shani, was called a “polarizing” figure by the New York Times last week, passing along the skating-circuit view of a sports mother as a version of the pushy backstage mother of yore.  Cheri, it would seem, might rival Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother for aggressiveness on behalf of her darling. The Times suggested a possible tepid defense that Cheri was just a caring mother standing up for her son. Worse, the Times passed along anonymous whispers accusing Ms Davis of playing the race card whenever she found fault with U.S. Olympic skating officials, or other skaters, in the treatment of her son.  And yet, the very fact the Times did the story would no doubt be one more racist arrow in Cheri’s quiver, considering that the august newspaper and others simply ignored the tawdry story of skier Julia Mancuso’s devoted ski-dad, Ciro Mancuso: a convicted drug cartel crime boss.

While most of the media was caught up in the rivalry-cum-cat fight between gold medalist skier Lindsey Vonn and her three time medalist rival, Julia (a slalom gold from the Torino games and two silvers in Vancouver), they all ignored the back story of the tiara-wearing princess whose private bus and whole career was boosted by her doting father. Not that it was breaking news exactly. Four years ago, the father’s criminality was glossed over as being behind him and not amounting to much. The storyline was, Julia had overcome that adversity and her father was nowhere to be seen, although he hid out in the general seating areas so as not to embarrass his daughter.  But it was much more than that, certainly in the ethos of the hip world both father and daughter occupy.

His legal troubles stemmed from a 1989 arrest which itself was the result of a federal task force investigation hearkening back to the 1970s.  The Reno, Nevada investigators had a hard on for the wealthy Squaw Valley developer, and they initially seized his beautiful homes in Squaw and Hawaii along with millions of dollars in Swiss and California banks, along with some of the cash buried on some of his other real estate holdings in northern California and Nevada.  He seemed destined to serve a long prison sentence.

But the federal prosecutors soon turned their sights on what they thought was an even juicier target to put away:  Ciro’s long time attorney and putative friend, Patrick “Butch” Hallinan. Hallinan was a colorful, prominent Bay Area attorney whose clients had included Bill Honig (the California state education czar) and others.  Moreover, he was the son of a legendary leftist attorney, Vincent, an accused Communist who ran for U.S President on the Progressive ticket in 1952.  All the Hallinans were known for their leftist activism, including his mother Vivian, who demonstrated against Pinochet in Chile while wearing eye-popping jewels and designer clothes.

Offering Ciro inducements in return for cooperating in nailing his former attorney, the drug importer put on a wire and sold out his attorney and named all his best ski buddies and partners. He even edited the long pages of indictments against Hallinan for the prosecution, helping with the charges. Moreover, Ciro, with prosecution’s blessing, headed down to Mexico to talk a “witness” and co-conspirator into heading north to testify.  So Ciro even acted as a federal agent, a point that eventually would be ripped apart by Hallinan’s defense.  Ciro’s various properties initially seized by the government were returned to him, along with his bank accounts and millions of cash dollars, without tax agents even looking into the case.

It took six years for L. Anthony “Tony” White, the chief prosecutor, to bring the case to trial against Hallinan. Many defense attorneys rallied to Hallinan’s cause, viewing the racketeering charges under the RICO act as open season on any criminal defense attorney.  Hallinan was respected and had done what any good attorney would do, they argued, such as advising co-conspirators to leave the country so they couldn’t testify against his clients, or hiring lawyers for them, acts which contributed to obstruction of justice charges. One ex federal prosecutor weighed in that if the government went after every attorney the way they did after Hallinan, “almost all defense attorneys would be put in jail.”

Even San Francisco’s then federal prosecutor Michael Yamaguchi intervened to stop what he regarded as a dangerous precedent for the U.S. Justice Department tantamount to declaring war on lawyers.  Hallinan’s wife Lauren said Yamaguchi confided in her that he had traveled back to Washington five times trying to get them to withdraw support for the Reno prosecutors.  But he failed.

Hallinan’s attorney was more than up to the job.  A bold-face-named lawyer who had successfully prosecuted Oliver North in the Iran-Contra case, John Keker ripped apart Tony White’s case on the stand.  In the end the blue-collar the jury took only 5 hours to acquit Hallinan.  But it was all costly:  Hallinan’s wife said it cost more than a million dollars.  “And,” she said by phone this week, “Butch had a huge law practice at the time that was hurt badly.  He earned no income during that year.”  She said his practice never fully recovered.

The tape recordings Ciro made didn’t prove that Butch had acted as consigliere for the huge cartel business, or anything criminal, and Hallinan walked. The jury foreman publicly opined afterwards that Ciro had all the credibility of “a used car salesman.”

The prosecution blamed Ciro for the failed case.  He was sentenced to nine years but served only four and was out in 1999, quickly putting together his charmed life again.  Not long after, The Tahoe Quarterly called him an “aging preppie” and ex-felon who “exudes an easygoing air,” and the writer gushed on: “Aided by a high-alpine deep tan, he looks more like 38 than 58.  He loves architecture.”  And Ciro has glossed over what he has done, and especially has omitted the more unsightly mess he made as a rat fink for the Feds — at least in the eyes of most of Hallinan’s supporters and other defense attorneys:  “It’s easy for some to label me a terrible criminal.  I was a product of the sixties, and, to me, this wasn’t criminal stuff.  I didn’t find it morally wrong… We were a bunch of close friends, guys I skied with, who decided to smuggle marijuana.”  Of course, Ciro turned in his friends as well, and all 13 of them also trotted into the witness box against Hallinan.  And it wasn’t just a little pot; it was enormous amounts of the stuff, ship after ship, and millions of dollars.

But Ciro charmed with his looks and his insouciant air.  And so does his daughter, who is also a great skier.  She has overcome a lot about her father, including a few years of estrangement from him.  She has credited him as her biggest booster in her rise to being an Olympic champion in ’06. (Her parents divorced years ago and both have remarried to others.) Few would ever blame her for her father’s sins, including both Hallinan and his wife.  “I haven’t seen her since she was three,” Hallinan said last week, “and don’t hold anything against her.”  He claims he’s no longer bitter about Ciro (he sued unsuccessfully Mancuso immediately after his not guilty verdict); he blames the Feds more, although his wife is not that sanguine about it.

Still, Julia raises hackles among Vonn’s supporters in the girls’ rivalry, with Julia bristling that all the media attention making Vonn the “it girl” of the current ski world, with all her injuries and a Sports Illustrated cover, is just a “popularity contest” that detracts from the sport.  And Vonn saw fit to mention that when the two girls were friends as teenagers and fellow junior skiers, that during an invitation to the Mancuso’s 6000 square foot Tahoe mountain top home she went out mountain bike riding with Ciro and Julia, who were experienced bikers.  To her teenaged chagrin, father and daughter took off and left her struggling, five miles behind on the mountain. Perhaps that was when the antipathy began.

Julia, the self-ordained princess who dons a tiny toy tiara, mouthing “kiss my tiara” to the cameras after a good ski run as a kind of verbal fist pumping, is shamelessly promoting her “Kiss My Tiara” lingerie line, as the media puts it, usually failing to mention that it is composed of racy thongs and boy cut underpants.  Her web site of that name is temporarily down because of Olympics rules on commercial enterprises of athletes, but Julia who has posed in her undies with skis to promote her “fashion” slips in the references and nobody cares. It fits with her “free spirit.”  She knocks Vonn for being too serious, boring and analytical a skier, while she claims to only care for the joy of skiing, not the money which she still has plenty of, nor even the medals.

Nevertheless, Julia cried on Wednesday when Vonn’s mishap interrupted her own run, which she had to do over later when the conditions had deteriorated. And she cried again on Thursday when her blistering second run only brought her to 8th overall. (If only Thursday were counted, she would have earned bronze.) Her Bode-Miller-I-just-love-to-ski-for-the-hell-of-it-mystique imploded. To her credit, it didn’t last long.  She shrugged it off later.  Meanwhile, Vonn, but not Julia will ski in Vancouver one more time, perhaps to pick up a third medal and pull even with her old rival. Julia, no longer feeling the joy, chose to drop out of her last Alpine event and go home.

Ciro Mancuso was a snitch and entrapper, along with being a self-described cool 60s-type dope smuggler, but NBC, the New York Times et al., didn’t bring it up; nor do they look too closely at her panties business.  Can anyone imagine the media ignoring those stories if the athlete had been, say Tonya Harding?  But Julia is a princess, not white trash, and maybe Cheri Davis is on to something after all about the differing treatment of athletes.


Kate Coleman is a journalist and author who lives in Berkeley. More from this author →