He's known as the ultimate iceman -- a cool, calculating mob killer whose brains and brutality are matched only by his stubborn refusal to rat out others. But to hear it from reputed hit man Harry Aleman -- whose dark, penetrating eyes once struck terror into hearts -- he's really an old softy, just trying to get by while serving a 100- to 300-year prison sentence.
He breaks into a smile at the thought of his first great-grandchild paying a recent visit ("It was something to see"), shakes his head at the hurricane devastation in New Orleans ("A f------ shame"), contemplates Jesus' suffering in the movie "The Passion of the Christ" ("This guy had balls this big") and longs for freedom and living out his final years with his family ("They sustain me").
During an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times at the Western Illinois Correctional Center, about 250 miles from Chicago, the convicted killer spoke about his personal and professional lives and admitted being affiliated with the Chicago mob -- when it existed. "It's over," he insists. "It's done."
He also says he has never killed anyone and is doing time for someone else's crime.
In fact, Aleman hints that new evidence pointing to his innocence will emerge in an upcoming court filing. One of his lawyers later explained that Aleman will be seeking a new trial based on "newly discovered evidence" that he won't yet discuss.
Authorities regard Aleman's claims of innocence and a frameup as ridiculous. "I think he's convinced himself he's a victim, which people often do when they've been locked up for as many years as Harry has," said Cook County prosecutor Scott Cassidy. "There was evidence that he was a hit man for the mob, and I think he relished that role."
In a landmark case handled by Cassidy, Aleman was convicted in 1997 of shotgunning to death a Teamsters union steward who once was married to Aleman's cousin. It remains Aleman's sole murder conviction, although he once was indicted in another case and is suspected in 15 to 20 or more slayings. "Never, never," he said, when asked if he has ever killed anyone. "And they know who killed them -- but he's dead. They don't get raises or elevated blaming a dead person."
Aleman said he was framed because he would never flip on fellow hoodlums as local and federal officials pressed him to do. He said he maintained that obstinate attitude during more-recent prison visits by investigators.
It's not totally clear why Aleman -- a thin but taut man of 66 with graying, combed-back hair and well-groomed nails -- agreed to speak. A reporter wrote him many months ago, and Aleman recently agreed to talk. He said he has never granted an interview before. But the three-hour sit-down came as Aleman lays the groundwork to get a new trial, he faces a December parole hearing, and a massive federal investigation bears down on some of his old mob associates for crimes stretching back decades.
"I could be a target; I don't know what's in the FBI's mind," said Aleman, who's prone to gesturing and raising his voice when trying to make a point.
"For all I know, they're going to keep indicting me for murders" until he flips.
Harry Aleman wants hot chocolate.
Technically it's still summer, but the frigid rain pelting Aleman's medium-security prison, population 1,900, indicates otherwise. Aleman suggests that the reporter who came to visit him go to the vending area and get a hot chocolate -- and a coffee for "yourself." Then he remembers: You need a special vending card, so that's not an option.
He's hungry, apparently having missed lunch for this meeting. But he's still polite and friendly. "What can I do for you?" he asks after small talk about a long-ago hunting and fishing excursion out West.
Aleman is reminded it was he who wrote the reporter earlier in the month saying he had something "exceptionally newsworthy" to discuss.
"Where's the letter?" he asks.
In the car.
"Did the FBI send you?"
The meeting is taking place in a small office with a desk, typewriter, phone and a few filing cabinets. The walls are tan cinder block. The floors are pale tile. Aleman is wearing a blue button-down prison-issued shirt tucked into darker prison-issued pants. He's carrying a coat. He and the reporter are alone, but just outside the closed door is another desk and, at times, a guard. There'll be no trouble, however. Aleman isn't regarded by corrections officials as problematic.
Aleman begins speaking about himself, claiming he was "out and out railroaded" and prosecuted for no other reason than "just to get Harry."
William Logan, the Teamsters official, was murdered in 1972, and an eyewitness, Bob Lowe, testified during a 1977 trial that Aleman was the trigger man.
Aleman was acquitted, and later it was determined that the judge had been bribed with the help of mob lawyer Bob Cooley, who later became an informant.
Although the law bars "double jeopardy" -- trying someone for the same crime twice -- Cook County prosecutors won a new trial as the courts determined there was no "jeopardy" the first time because the case was fixed.
Aleman still is indignant over the ruling, noting that two white men who once denied killing black youngster Emmett Till in 1955 and were acquitted in his race-inspired murder later confessed in a magazine article. But they couldn't be retried because of double jeopardy.
Aleman was tried again in 1997 -- again with Lowe's help -- and convicted. A book about Lowe and his long road to justice, Everybody Pays, came out a few years ago.
Aleman, though, questions Lowe's credibility, mentioning his personal troubles and asking a "hypothetical" question: If a killer "in the movies" made eye contact with an eyewitness to a murder, what do you think would happen to that eyewitness? "You kill him," not let him go, Aleman says.
'I didn't feel nothing'
Aleman's other allegation -- raised unsuccessfully by his defense team in the 1997 trial, at which Aleman never testified -- was that William "Butch" Petrocelli really killed Logan. Petrocelli had been secretly dating Logan's ex-wife, and he and Logan had fought, Aleman said. Petrocelli also was a reputed hit man. Aleman said they once were best friends, and he described Petrocelli as "my partner." Petrocelli disappeared in late 1980, and his mutilated body was discovered several months later.
Although Aleman was jailed at the time -- he has spent most of the last 27 years in custody for various crimes -- questions have been raised about whether he ordered the hit because his old pal was holding back money meant to take care of his family.
Aleman dismisses that theory, saying, "If he was holding back money, I wouldn't have known about it because my family was taken care of."
Theories about Petrocelli's murder also have centered on Petrocelli possibly shaking down people in a mob boss' name, without his knowledge, then keeping the cash.
Aleman, though, claims Petrocelli was killed by mobsters because it was found out he was a "rat."
How was that discovered? "People in the neighborhood" began asking questions about why Aleman got sent away on a particular beef and Petrocelli didn't, Aleman said, and "it got to the right ears."
"Whoever," Aleman says.
Aleman believes -- it's not clear exactly why he believes this -- that Petrocelli was in trouble with the law in the late 1970s, so a relative, a policeman, persuaded him to flip. And then the government didn't want to admit Petrocelli was the Logan killer, Aleman says.
Cassidy, the Cook County prosecutor, said, "I have no information to support that allegation" of Petrocelli being an informant. The feds wouldn't comment. "The government wants everybody to be a stool pigeon ... and I'm never going to become a stool pigeon," Aleman said. "I don't want to disgrace my family."
The government doesn't "respect" that stance "because they've had so much success turning over hard-core guys," Aleman says. "The guys out there [still on the street] I have to think twice about. You're not stupid."
How did he feel when Petrocelli died? "I didn't feel nothing," Aleman says. "I wish they would have got him and made him confess, then exile him. Killing him didn't help me at all. I'm still languishing in prison."
No more mob
The feds hope to solve 18 old mob hits as part of their ongoing probe. One of those is Petrocelli's murder.
The indictment fingers notorious loan shark Frank Calabrese Sr. as a participant, saying he "and others committed the murder of William Petrocelli in Cicero."
Aleman has not been implicated in any of the 18 killings, or any of the other crimes listed in the indictment, but curiously, he is mentioned in the document as being among the "criminal associates who reported at various times to [late hoodlum] Joseph Ferriola."
The feds are basing much of the information in their racketeering case on the word of mobster-turned-witness Nick Calabrese, Frank Calabrese Sr.'s younger brother. Aleman says Nick Calabrese and he served time together at the federal prison in Pekin. He describes Nick Calabrese, now in protective custody, as "a regular guy," quick to add that "I didn't pal with him or anything like that. ... You never ask a guy questions." He heard about Nick Calabrese flipping "in your paper."
Aleman doesn't know if he'll be pulled into this probe in some way, and the feds won't talk. "Who knows what Calabrese could say," he says. What could he say? "It's not anything 'on me' [that Nick Calabrese has], it's what they want him to say," Aleman says, referring to the feds.
To that point, federal prosecutor Mitch Mars later said, "We never tell any of the witnesses to say [something]. It's suicidal for us. . . . Nick will say whatever he's going to say."
Aleman looks at the floor when asked about Frank Calabrese Sr. He refuses to discuss him, changing the subject to the reporter's shoes, marveling that they had cost just $17 on sale. When pressed, he says, "Go talk to him."
Likewise, Aleman would rather not talk about reputed mob boss John "No Nose" DiFronzo, who was not indicted in the feds' current case. "I don't know what anybody does," Aleman says.
Asked about the severity of one Calabrese brother turning on the other, Aleman says, "I don't think about them things. If he did it, he did it." But he adds that the increasing number of mob informants is one of the reasons "no new people [are] coming into the mob.
"The reporters and newspapers have to keep it alive, but there ain't nothing in Chicago, no street tax, no extortion, no nothing," Aleman says. "There might be some old guys languishing around, but it's moot.
"The younger generation doesn't want no part of the mob; it's over." Aleman adds that young men would rather go to college and not take a risk they'd end up like him.
"There's no dice games, no card games, no bookmaking, if there's any bookmaking, it's just with the Jewish people on the North Side," he says, adding that even if that's happening, there's no street tax on the money changing hands.
"There's nobody who wants to do the job; this isn't the '30s or '40s," he recalls. "Is there a mob running over, putting people in trunks? . . . No, nobody wants to be part of it because of the feds. ... And these guys don't want to go to no jail like Harry.
"Whoever they locked up recently, they locked them up for their past performance, because they haven't been doing anything for the past 10 or 15 years."
While it's true the murders in the feds' case are old, authorities accuse reputed mob chief Jimmy Marcello and his brother Michael "Mickey" Marcello, among others, of running an illegal video gambling operation in recent years.
Aleman readily admits knowing the heavy hitters in that indictment. His take on the Marcellos, after being told about the alleged video gaming racket: "Mickey's a legit guy . . . his brother wouldn't make him do anything stupid like that. He has a catering business or a vending business."
Aleman said he only knew Jimmy Marcello was in trouble by catching a glimpse of the WGN-TV news one day.
Aleman also knows reputed mob overlord Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, who was accused of murder in the feds' current case but is on the lam.
Aleman says he didn't know Lombardo had taken off. "Joey ran away? Good for him," he says. "I hope they don't find him because he's a real good guy. He'd help anyone. ... He was known for helping out everyone in the neighborhood.
"He's not a monster at all; he helped more people in this area; he's the softest touch around -- 'Hey Joe, can you loan me $20?' Newspapers, what they can do to you."
Regrets? He's had . . . very few
Aleman indicated that it was the black-knight image of hoodlums that led him into the mob.
Sure, his dad was a criminal, a "regular thief," he says. But it was the guys in the shiny cars and slick suits who would act as "Robin Hoods," watching over the neighborhood and paying the grocery bills when a family couldn't, that got Aleman excited. "Some guys want to be like that; some want to be a tailor" like one of Aleman's grandfathers, he says. "I wanted to take care of my family. . . . I'd do anything to support them, anything. Like many other guys did before me."
Aleman, who says he tries to "slough it off" when people call him a cold-blooded killer, was asked several times if he has any regrets about his chosen profession or anything he might have done in the past. "The only regret I have is not being with my family and not being with my grandkids," Aleman replies the first time.
Later, when asked again, he gets a serious look -- something that often entails a clenched jaw -- and says, "The only regret I've got is I broke my mother's heart, and she died prematurely. . . . All I try to do is try to stay healthy and see my family and talk to them . . . all you've got left is family."
And lastly: "The only regret I have is not being able to sit down and eat with my family on a daily basis."
Family is a recurring theme with Aleman. Not "family" in a mob sense, but his family at home.
Some believe he cynically fosters this image of a devoted family man to soften his reputation -- to jurors, investigators, the public. But Cassidy, the prosecutor, believes there really is a strong mutual love between Aleman and his family. "Unfortunately, he has another side to him," Cassidy added.
Whatever the case, Aleman's family has remained devoted to him, weathering a four- to five-hour drive from the Chicago area to visit him.
Aleman has no biological children. But long ago, he married a woman, Ruth, with four kids. Their biological father, also a hoodlum, had been murdered. Aleman notes: "I didn't know my wife at the time he got killed."
Ruth died in 2000. Aleman helped her raise two boys and two girls as his own, and believes their fusion as a family unit was serendipitous.
As a teenager, Aleman had a nasty accident. While washing his dad's car in a family friend's garage, Aleman stepped on one of those sewer caps, it flipped up, and he came down hard on it, right between the legs. His scrotum was torn open, and he was rushed to the hospital. Aleman was patched up and recalls being told he still could have kids some day. But much later, he found out he was unable to have children, so finding a "ready-made" family was "destiny," he says.
Aleman emphasizes the importance of having dinner every night -- when his dad wasn't in jail -- with his family growing up around Taylor Street.
When his dad was in jail, Aleman was sent to live with grandparents and an aunt, while his brothers stayed with their mom. He lived there as a youngster. He became quite close with the aunt, Gloria, often curling up with her to sleep. And so, when she ended up marrying Joseph Ferriola, the fearsome mobster, Aleman became close with him, too.
Aleman says he wasn't really involved in anything heavy, and cites Uncle Joe as evidence. "They make me part of the mob because of my uncle . . . which is not true because the last thing he wanted me to do is join," Aleman recalls. "My Aunt Gloria, she made sure he didn't make me do anything like he was doing."
Still, there's ample evidence of Aleman's ferocity. Before being sent to state prison, he did prison time for home invasions and other racketeering-related crimes.
For years, Aleman was accused of working as an illegal "juice" loan collector, pursuing deadbeats who didn't pay what they owed the mob, said Vic Switski, the former Aleman case agent on the FBI/Chicago Police organized crime task force.
Once, Aleman was accused of shoving a woman through the glass door of a lounge, then beating a Chicago Police commander's son who tried to intervene.
Because his frame was always slight -- he's 5-foot-8, 140 pounds -- Aleman said he felt he sometimes had to fight to prove himself. In high school, he and a friend brawled against others every day one semester, he said.
'You have no idea'
Aleman once sent ripples of terror throughout the underworld, and segments of legitimate society, but his own fears appear much different. They don't seem to involve the joint because he says he has no real trouble, from guards or other inmates. People treat the older guys with some deference, he says, and he and the other old-timers are known as "pops" by the younger, mostly black prison population.
One of the few times he alluded to fear came in a childhood story involving his beloved aunt, who "dressed me up and walked me to school," he says. "I was afraid to go to school."
He admits to being scared seeing his little great-granddaughter; he was worried about the long drive and his family getting into a car accident. The wife of a fellow inmate in Atlanta once was killed that way, driving to see the inmate, he says. "It's etched in me," he adds, simmering about his 2003 transfer from Dixon, which is closer to Chicago, to this current facility in the sticks, south of Macomb.
Aleman also hints at some frightening characters in his past. "You have no idea the guys in Chicago who never got their names in the newspapers and are the most f------ dangerous guys I knew," Aleman says. He declines to identify them.
Most of all, though, as the interview with the reporter nears completion, Aleman seems worried about the impact a story might have. He says he's not optimistic about getting paroled -- at more than one point, he says he's resigned to dying in prison -- but he's clearly thinking toward the possibility of freedom. "My fate was cut out . . . to raise my four kids and to be in prison for the rest of my life," he says. "I've got the love of my kids ... what else could I ask for? Of course, it would be nice to be with them."
"Don't hurt me," Aleman later implores.
IN AND OUT OF COURT
1975: Bookie Anthony Reitinger is murdered; Aleman indicted years later, but it never goes to trial
1977: Put on trial for 1972 murder of William Logan; acquitted because judge is bribed
1978: Convicted of interstate home invasions, goes to federal prison
1980: Reputed hit man and Aleman friend William "Butch" Petrocelli is murdered
1989: Aleman gets out of prison, albeit briefly
1990: Hit with new racketeering charges, sent to prison to await trial
1992 : Convicted in that case, gets 12 years
1997: Retried for Logan murder. Convicted, sentenced to 100 to 300 years
2002: Denied parole
2005: Major mob indictment comes down, Aleman not charged; awaits parole hearing
ALEMAN'S EARLY RECORD
A snapshot of Harry Aleman's early rap sheet
1960 malicious mischief
1962 possession of burglary tools
1962 assault, criminal damage
1965 aggravated assault
1966 grand theft auto
1966 armed robbery
1968 criminal damage to property
1969 aggravated kidnapping
1971 violating Federal Reserve Act
1975 keeper of gambling place
Thanks to Robert C. Herguth - Chicago Sun Times