Thursday, January 19, 2006

Lombardo looks like a new man - but he's still The Clown

Friends of ours: Joey "The Clown" Lombardo

One picture would probably be worth more to you than the 800 words to follow. Even if I wrote an extra 200 words to make it an even thousand, that wouldn't solve the problem. You want to know what reputed mobster Joey "The Clown" Lombardo looks like these days, and I'm no substitute for the work of a photographer. But cameras aren't allowed in federal courtrooms, and it was the chance to see him for myself that drew me to the Dirksen Federal Building on Tuesday morning. So let me first report that, no, Lombardo doesn't look anything like that photo they snapped of him in a federal lockup after his Friday night arrest.Captured Lombardo

The unkempt gray beard and whiskers that he grew during nine months on the lam have already been shaved clean, revealing a 77-year-old man who looks much more like the character who once famously hid his face behind a copy of the Sun-Times that he'd doctored with an eyehole cutout.

Lombardo's full head of hair is still dark and bushy. He's got the same short, muscular build, the short sleeves of his orange prison jumpsuit revealing forearms that are still formidable.

The eyeglasses have changed. Lombardo's got wire frames to replace the big lenses that always look so 1970s in the few photos and videotapes that are available from his heyday in the upper echelon of Chicago organized crime.

"The Clown" had proved elusive long before he went underground as the feds came calling last April with an arrest warrant. (And I must add that I don't see any resemblance to the guy on the bicycle, you remember, the poor mope from Lombardo's Grand Avenue neighborhood who our friends at Brand X mistakenly identified on the front page as an accused mobster.)

As long as we're relying on your imagination, forget Friday's Saddam Hussein look-alike photo altogether and conjure up one of those images of Lombardo from the early 1980s, then mentally run him through one of those computer programs that adds age lines, wrinkles and jowls. But keep one other feature: that mischievous twinkle in the corner of his eyes that always helped explain how somebody with a reputation as a stone-cold killer could have his particular nickname.

Lombardo clowned around just a little Tuesday with U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who had asked about Lombardo's health and whether he'd seen his doctor as part of the routine inquiry before taking his initial "not guilty" plea. "I was supposed to see him nine months ago, but I was, ah, what do they call it - I was unavailable," Lombardo said with a smile.

That was the only time Lombardo intentionally drew a laugh, although much of the audience also got a chuckle when he was sworn in and promised to tell "nuttin but da troot."

Lombardo gave several indications that he was having trouble hearing Zagel, leaning in closer and turning his head when the judge was speaking.

He also peered quizically around the courtroom at the spectators in the gallery and at the lawyers of his many co-defendants. But Lombardo attorney Rick Halprin said his client was neither confused nor agitated when I suggested otherwise in a question.

Halprin said Lombardo just didn't recognize all the lawyers for his alleged co-conspirators, who by coincidence were scheduled to appear in court Tuesday for a regular status hearing. Halprin said Lombardo denies knowing all but one of his mob co-defendants, too.

I liked the fact that the FBI caught up to Lombardo in Elmwood Park, which is close to my home turf. The agents haven't given us any details on how long Lombardo had been in Elmwood Park, let alone how he passed the time, but I like to picture him slipping into the back room at Gene's Deli for lunch or sending his buddy to Johnnie's for a beef sandwich, except for Friday's when he'd get pepper 'n egg. Or maybe Lombardo would visit Caputo's on Harlem early in the morning to shop for his own groceries, and if anybody recognized him, they'd just wink.

If he wanted to come downtown, he'd just ride Metra, nobody being in the habit of looking for mob fugitives sitting across from them on the train.

I don't mean for the tone of this to minimize Lombardo's alleged crimes - which haven't exactly been spelled out with much specificity to this point - although I expect that to resolve itself now that he's in custody. (He must be forgetting about the murder charges against him.)

As he left the courtroom, Lombardo was engaging in some sort of banter with the federal agents who would escort him back to jail. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but they were smiling.

Thanks to Mark Brown

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