Thursday, January 19, 2006

Joey's a load of laughs ... or buckshot

Friends of ours: Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, Frank "the German" Schweihs, Paul Schiro
Friends of mine: William Hanhardt, Chris Spina

It must be difficult to tell jokes while you're wearing leg irons and an orange federal jumpsuit, facing the possibility you could spend the rest of your life sharing prison space with some Colombian drug dealer, a blue tattoo covering half his face. But Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, 77, couldn't help but be amusing in federal court Tuesday after spending nine months as a fugitive from the FBI until his arrest late last week.

He pleaded not-guilty to a charge of conspiring in the 1974 shotgun murder of government witness Daniel Seifert. Then U.S. District Judge James Zagel asked Lombardo if a doctor had examined him. "I didn't see my doctor since nine months ago," said Lombardo. "I was--what do they call it? I was unavailable."

That got laughs. Even Zagel smiled. The criminal defense lawyers representing other Outfit figures in the federal government's Operation Family Secrets prosecution laughed too. One of them slapped Lombardo hard on the back.

Though he's pushing 80, Lombardo's runty and bandy legged in his jumpsuit, suggesting he had an active youth. His pantlegs are short, the cuffs rolled up several times, and he leaned on one foot, then the other, the leg irons connecting his ankles. And though he was joking and polite and cast as a colorful rogue, you could see something in him still.

You could see it in his back and in the way he folded his fingers together and held the hands up to his face while the judge was speaking, how he rubbed his lips with his thumbs, listening, eyes moving quickly in his head. Here's what you could see: You could still see the ape in the man.

We asked Jack O'Rourke, a former FBI agent, what was so scary about the Clown. Jack was polite but sounded as if he thought it was a silly question. What was so scary about Lombardo? "Well, he had absolute power and he could get you killed, that's basically it," O'Rourke said.

I've heard that sometimes, if Lombardo's really in a clowning mood, he'll take a photograph of himself and cut his own head off, then stick his photograph head onto another picture, perhaps some gorgeous supermodel in a calendar or an athlete on a poster. That's funny, isn't it? Or he'll point to a fish on the wall, some bass that got caught and mounted, and he'll say, "Hey, he wouldn't get caught if he didn't open his mouth." That's funny too.

One of my favorite Lombardo jokes took place after he had served time in prison for conspiring to bribe U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) and another conviction for plotting to skim $2 million from a Las Vegas casino. In 1992 he took an ad in the Tribune and other papers saying he wasn't a mobster anymore:"If anyone hears my name used in connection with criminal activity, please notify the FBI, local police, and my parole officer, Ron Kumke."

At that time, he was being driven around town on the taxpayer's dime by a $30 per hour city Streets and San foreman, Chris Spina. Chris, or Christy, had a trucking company, Spingee Trucking, and that firm received contracts in the mayor's Hired Truck program, and Spina's trucks may even have had engines. Former City Inspector General Alexander Vroustouris made all of this public in 1993 and tried to get Spina fired. But that's not the funny part.

The funny part is that after Vroustouris moved to fire him, and exposed the trucks and the Lombardo connection, the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated Spina and he got a raise, and Spina only recently retired with a full city pension. So Spina didn't get fired. It was Vroustouris who got fired later.

Then there was the time five years ago that I went looking for Lombardo at a nice little restaurant on Grand Avenue with my first legman, named Slim the Legman.

We were there to ask Lombardo about William Hanhardt, the former chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department, who was just indicted and who would later plead guilty to running an Outfit-sanctioned jewelry theft ring.

One of Hanhardt's partners in the ring, Paul Schiro, has been indicted in the Operation Family Secrets case that has also indicted Lombardo, reputed hit man Frank "The German" Schweihs and others.

Lombardo was in the restaurant, and he had a gold St. Christopher medallion around his neck.

Sitting with Slim, I took out my notebook and tape recorder, to let Lombardo know I was coming over. He snapped his fingers and bus boys ran over to shovel his food into takeout containers. Then he left.

I asked the manger why Lombardo left so quickly. The manager said it wasn't Lombardo.

"No. That was Mr. Irwin Goldman. I think it was, yeah, Mr. Goldman," he said.

Irwin Goldman wearing a St. Christopher medallion? Are you kidding?

"You're funny," the manager said. "That's funny."

But I'm not the funny one. I keep hearing how Lombardo is funny. I'm sure he's a riot.

I'm just wondering how funny he'd be with a shotgun in his hands.

Thanks to John Kass

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