Monday, January 22, 2007

Blood vs. Blood in Operation Family Secrets

The mob hit men were under the gun -- literally -- as they exited the brown Ford LTD and approached their target in front of the His 'N Mine Lounge in Cicero.

One of them, Nick Calabrese, felt he had a choice. Either kill the intended victim, Richard Ortiz, an alleged dope peddler who had crossed the mob -- or be killed himself.

Nearby, in the car he just left, sat his brother, Frank Calabrese Sr., with a gun aimed out the window. Frank Calabrese Sr. was providing cover for the hit men. He could just as easily mow them down if they froze on the job.

Nick Calabrese had no doubt his brother would do it if he didn't complete the job, according to federal court testimony. It was not a new feeling for Nick Calabrese. He and other family members often worried that Frank Calabrese Sr. was going to kill them. In fact, Frank Calabrese Sr. instilled fear and terror into his family every day.

Interviews with friends and acquaintances of the family and law enforcement sources along with a review of court records provide fresh details on life in the Calabrese family. The stereotype of the mobster -- whether it's Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone -- is that while he does business brutally, he treats his family with honor and respect. Calabrese Sr. shattered that perception, according to interviews and court records.

In the 1983 murder of Ortiz, the victim had been stalked for months. Nick Calabrese had called off one hit attempt because he believed it was too risky. But rather than tell his brother the truth and incur his wrath, he told him another hit man, James DiForti, froze during the job.

Frank Calabrese Sr. told Nick Calabrese he should have killed Ortiz anyway. And then Frank Calabrese Sr. told his brother he should have killed DiForti, as well.

Such brutality and ruthlessness may help explain why Calabrese Sr. has not one but two family members cooperating against him in a case that has been called the most important mob prosecution in Chicago history. The investigation is called Family Secrets, and it indeed will reveal some of the deepest family secrets of the Chicago Outfit. But underlying the case are other family secrets -- those of the Calabrese family -- that many never saw but that still haunt the family.

At the trial starting in May, Nick Calabrese will testify about the mob killings he and his brother went out on together, such as the Ortiz killing. In that case, Nick Calabrese and DiForti went through with the hit at the His 'N Mine.

Calabrese Sr.'s son Frank Jr. was less involved in the mob life and has gone clean. He will tell jurors about the conversations he had with his father as they walked the yard while in prison together on another case in 1999 -- conversations he secretly recorded at great risk to himself to ensure his father never saw freedom again.

In those conversations, Calabrese Sr. may have believed he was advising his son on mob life and planting the seeds with him to continue the Calabrese legacy in the Outfit. Instead, he may have been sowing his own destruction.

Frank Calabrese Sr. is even recorded once on tape telling his son he would send "his blessing" if other top mobsters determined his brother Nick was cooperating and had him killed.

How Frank Calabrese Sr. treated his children became a sore point between Calabrese Sr. and his brother Nick. The tension reached a high point during the first federal case against them in 1995, according to law enforcement sources.

While Frank Sr. and Nick had deep involvement in their street crew, Frank Jr., had much less involvement, while his son Kurt's role was virtually nonexistent.

Nick Calabrese felt his brother could have better looked out for his sons in the case and worked to reduce any chance of prison time for the two young men. But in the end, both went to prison. While Calabrese Sr. was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison, son Frank got 57 months and Kurt got 2 years.

When Frank Calabrese Jr. and his younger brother, Kurt, were growing up in Elmwood Park, their childhood, from the outside, seemed normal and all-American, according to people who know them. They lived in a tight-knit, Italian-American neighborhood, going to school at John Mills Elementary and to what was then Holy Cross High School.

In the community, Frank Calabrese Sr. worked to portray himself as a great father, one who was always friendly with the neighborhood kids. Inside the home, though, was a radically different story.

Calabrese Sr. would at times erupt in rages, even over the smallest matters, and scream like a maniac at his two sons, according to sources who know the family. Following the humiliation would come the beatings, with Kurt Calabrese often taking the worst of it. It was a reign of terror that left both sons dreading the time their father came home every day. The abuse continued into adulthood.

When Kurt Calabrese, for instance, got married in the early 1990s, the matter was not a cause of celebration for his father. Kurt was seeing the granddaughter of Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra, a brutal mobster who was Calabrese Sr.'s mentor in the mob.

Neither Calabrese Sr. nor LaPietra wanted the two young people to see each other, but the two fell in love and secretly got married.

On his wedding night, Kurt Calabrese broke the news to his father while they were sitting down at a restaurant in the west suburbs. Calabrese Sr. was stunned that his son would disobey him and punched him in the face. Fearing for his life, Kurt Calabrese hightailed it out of the restaurant and drove off. The two engaged in a high-speed chase, with Kurt Calabrese eventually eluding him.

Chicago political operative Frank Coconate, a friend of Frank Jr.'s, pointed to that confrontation as an example of the price the family paid for Calabrese Sr.'s decisions. "That's what the Outfit does, it makes you choose between them and your family," Coconate said. Frank Calabrese Sr. "chose the mob and threw his family in the gutter."

Despite often taking the worst of the abuse, Kurt Calabrese is not cooperating in the case, law enforcement sources said.

Calabrese Sr.'s attorney Joseph Lopez denied that his client ever abused his children and said the elder Calabrese loves both sons dearly. But Lopez also went on the attack on Frank Calabrese Jr., calling him a con artist who "could sell air conditioners to Eskimos."

Calabrese Jr., who is believed to be living out of state, put his life on the line by secretly recording his father, according to court testimony and law enforcement sources. FBI agents did not have the ability to listen in on the conversations as they happened, and if his father attacked him, agents -- whose presence at the prison was a secret -- were not close enough to protect him, law enforcement sources have said. Calabrese Jr.'s key reason for cooperating with the government was to keep his father locked up for good, sources said.

People who associated with Calabrese Sr. say no one was safe from his wrath. Even having breakfast at a restaurant with Calabrese Sr. could turn into a free-for-all. Calabrese Sr. would be very particular about his order. If the waitress should make an error, the mobster would erupt in a fury, spewing obscenities.

Calabrese Sr.'s demanding nature has not mellowed with age.

Well-known Chicago private investigator Ernie Rizzo learned that firsthand when Calabrese Sr. hired him last year to help him prepare for trial, according to a source familiar with Rizzo's account. Calabrese Sr.'s trial strategy is to try to dig up dirt on his son Frank Jr. in an attempt to undermine his testimony.

It's unclear how attacking the son, though, will counter Calabrese's Sr. own words on hours of secretly recorded conversations in which he discusses mob hits. His attorney has suggested in court that Calabrese Sr. was merely bragging about things he actually never took part in.

Calabrese Sr. wanted Rizzo's office number. And his cell phone numbers. Plus his home phone number. And the phone numbers of any bars where he hung out.

Calabrese Sr. also was frustrated with his attorney, Lopez, because Lopez allegedly wasn't taking his calls -- or calls from his representatives -- as often as Calabrese Sr. wanted.

So Calabrese Sr. wanted to find out if Rizzo had better luck with Lopez. Calabrese Sr. wanted Rizzo to keep a log on how many phone calls it took before the attorney answered Rizzo's calls. That way, Calabrese Sr. would have something to badger Lopez about.

Calabrese Sr. "orders people around like a hit man," Rizzo would say, according to the source.

The thing that disturbed Rizzo most was that Calabrese Sr. would try to get to meet him alone, away from his lawyer, at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop, where Calabrese Sr. is being held. The one-on-one meeting never took place.

Thanks to Steve Warmbir

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