Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Alledged Mob Social Club: We Do a Lot of Good Things

Friends of ours: Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra, Bruno Caruso, Fred Roti, Frank "Toots" Caruso, Michael Talarico
Friends of mine: Robert Cooley

Leaders of the Chicago mob's 26th Street Crew established the Old Neighborhood Italian-American Club in 1981.

Members said it was just a private social club. But the FBI tapped the club's phones in the 1980s, suspecting it was a nerve center for gambling and "juice loans" -- illegal, high-interest loans enforced with the threat of violence. The wiretaps became part of a case against 10 men accused of running an illegal gambling operation in Chinatown.

Some reputed mob figures still hang out at the club. But one of them says reputed mob members no longer run the place as they once did. He put it this way: "We're not influenced by us any more."

The club -- which includes members of the powerful Roti family -- has broadened its membership since it was founded in 1981 by the late Angelo "The Hook'' LaPietra, who ran the 26th Street Crew. The members include doctors and lawyers, and people from different ethnic backgrounds.

The club has sponsored youth baseball teams, hosted anti-drug seminars for kids and held civic events featuring, among others, former Los Angeles Dodgers baseball manager Tommy Lasorda. It's opened its doors to church functions and school graduations. It's hosted "breakfast with Santa" and huge July 4th parties. "We do a lot of good things," one longtime member says. And when the White Sox are playing, its big-screen TV is blaring. Sox Park is just a few blocks south of the club, a red-brick building at 30th and Shields -- a big improvement over its former home in a Chinatown storefront. "It started out as a storefront, they'd play cards, sit around," said one veteran mob investigator. "Now, it's a Taj Mahal, with dues, workout rooms."

One past member is Robert Cooley, a former Chicago cop who became a mob lawyer, then government informant. "Everybody that I knew from the Chinatown area belonged, all of the bookmakers that I represented, that I knew," Cooley said in a July 1997 deposition to union investigators examining alleged mob ties of labor leader Bruno F. Caruso.

Caruso, a nephew of the late Ald. Fred B. Roti, was identified in a 1999 FBI report as a "made" member of the mob. He is also a member of the Old Neighborhood Italian-American Club. The group's "purpose . . . was to keep the neighborhood very active with children," Caruso said in a deposition six years ago.

Other current or recent members include two other men the FBI identified as "made" mob members: Caruso's brother Frank "Toots'' Caruso and Michael Talarico, a restaurant owner who married into the extended Roti family.

The club president is Dominic "CaptainD" DiFazio, a longtime friend of "Toots" Caruso. In a recent interview, DiFazio allowed that he was involved in illegal gambling but said that was years ago.

"Twenty five years ago, I was arrested for taking bets on horses -- 25 years ago," DiFazio said. "You learn your lesson quick in life, and that's it. Everyone's made a mistake in their life.

"Whatever I do now I do now, my heart's in this organization . . . It was always for the community, never anything sinister, believe me."

Thanks to Robert C. Herguth, Tim Novak and Steve Warmbir

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