Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Veteran Chicago Mob Investigator Passes

The trait that made retired Chicago Police Cmdr. Michael J. O'Donnell such a great mob, loan-shark and prostitution investigator may have been his kindness. That may sound like an odd crime-fighting trait, but John Spellman, a retired police officer who worked for Cmdr. O'Donnell for many years, said it set him apart.

"He had a kindness and a kind nature for people who had weakness," Spellman said.

During the 1960s, Cmdr. O'Donnell led teams of officers investigating organized crime, especially loan-sharking operations that preyed on gambling addicts. It was the kind of corruption that struck at the core of Cmdr. O'Donnell's beliefs, said his son William, who followed in his dad's footsteps.

"He did not like anyone who would take advantage of another person," said his son, commander in the Near North Police District, the same district his father commanded when he retired in 1989. "The one thing that stands out with him is his integrity. The jobs they gave him were based on that. He was my hero."

Cmdr. Michael O'Donnell, 79, who lived in the Sauganash neighborhood, died Monday, Oct. 24. He had been undergoing treatment for leukemia at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

During Cmdr. O'Donnell's career, federal investigators came to rely on him as a tough, reliable cop to work organized crime cases. He "was one of the most trustworthy officers I knew in the department at that time," said retired FBI agent Vincent Inserra.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Cmdr. O'Donnell moved to Chicago with his family after his father died, leaving his mother to raise 10 children. He enlisted in the Navy while attending Providence-St. Mel High School on the West Side and served on a ship in the Pacific during World War II.

He joined the Police Department in 1952, became a detective in 1954 and became a sergeant in the intelligence unit in 1961, working on organized crime cases. In the early 1960s he investigated loan-sharking operations run by some of Chicago's biggest reputed Outfit figures.

He became commanding officer of the vice control division in 1974, and eventually was made commander of the East Chicago District, now the Near North District, which includes Rush Street and the Gold Coast.

William O'Donnell said his father was a role model for him as he followed in his footsteps. "It was so much fun when I was named commander of [the Near North District] to go home and compare notes. For me, that's been the highlight of my career."

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