Monday, June 18, 2007

Murder, Juice Loans, Pornography, Street Gambling, All Part of Mob Family Secrets Trial

Friends of ours: Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, James Marcello, Frank Calabrese Sr., Paul "the Indian" Schiro, Anthony Doyle, Tony Spilotro, Frank "the German" Schweihs, Nick Calabrese, John Fecarotta, Rocco Infelice, William Hanhardt
Friends of mine: Michael Spilotro

With the sweeping "Family Secrets" conspiracy trial just days from starting, reputed mobster Joey "the Clown" Lombardo was looking pretty relaxed. If not for the orange jumpsuit and the federal courtroom, he could have been passing time in a coffee shop or one of his favorite Grand Avenue restaurants.

As he sat in a wheelchair with his legs crossed, he gestured and chatted with court personnel and lawyers about the clothes he'll wear when a jury hears allegations that he and several co-defendants ruthlessly steered the Outfit through years of vice and violence. "Do I get a haircut too?" he said with a smile, drawing a laugh.

Even in a city as heavy with mob history and lore as Chicago, the landmark trial set to begin Tuesday with the selection of an anonymous jury promises to be a spectacle.

There will be veteran prosecutors who have made careers targeting wiseguys. There will be flamboyant defense lawyers unafraid to make a joke in court and wear pink socks while doing it. And there will be Lombardo and at least four other defendants, a group accused of forming the backbone of the Chicago Outfit for much of the 1970s and '80s. The trial will lay bare secret ceremonies, 18 long-unsolved gangland slayings and the mob's grip on the city's dark side -- street gambling, juice loans and pornography.

They are now shadows of the men who have stared coldly out of mug shots. They have limped into court using canes, the 78-year-old Lombardo leading a geriatric assortment of characters that has complained of bad backs, poor eyesight and heart trouble in the months leading up to the trial.

Federal prosecutors have targeted individual Outfit street crews and their leaders in the past, but Family Secrets will essentially put on trial the structure and enterprise that was the Chicago mob during the last few decades.

Expected to go on trial with Lombardo for racketeering conspiracy will be James Marcello, named as the boss of the Chicago mob at the time of his arrest; Frank Calabrese Sr., a made member of the Outfit's 26th Street crew and once Chicago's reputed top loan shark; Paul "the Indian" Schiro; and former Chicago police officer Anthony Doyle.

The case started with a bang when the indictments came down in the spring of 2005. Lombardo and reputed hit man Frank "the German" Schweihs -- now too sick to go on trial -- were on the lam for months.

While a fugitive, Lombardo wrote letters to the judge in the case, signing some "an innocent man" and promising to swallow truth serum to prove he wasn't involved in the murders. He vowed to turn himself in if he would be released on bail and tried separately. He was arrested in suburban Elmwood Park in January 2006.

As the case finally goes to trial, interest is expected to cause it to be moved to the ceremonial courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, the building's largest.

Prosecutors will tell the jury that Lombardo, Marcello and others helped control the organization born with Al Capone, which has persisted and flourished in all manner of illicit business, and has protected itself through murder when necessary. The most sensational of the 18 killings are the 1986 beating deaths of Anthony and Michael Spilotro, who were found buried in an Indiana cornfield and whose murders were featured in the movie "Casino."

"This ranks up there with the great cases ... based on the number of people and the high-profile crimes involved," said Lee Flosi, a former FBI agent who was the supervisor of Chicago's organized crime task force in the early 1990s.

It could even be the last great mob case, Flosi said, as the FBI devotes fewer resources to taking on a somewhat downtrodden Outfit. "It'll be many years before there's anything that rivals it," he said.

Observers are calling the case the most important involving the Chicago mob since Lombardo and three bosses were convicted in 1986 of skimming millions of dollars from a Las Vegas casino.

The trial, expected to last as long as four months, will feature high-ranking turncoats, including a made mob member, Nicholas Calabrese, who will testify against his brother, giving the case its Family Secrets code name. It will include undercover recordings of prison meetings between the incarcerated Marcello and his brother, Michael, and even a government expert dubbed a "mobologist" by the defense to try to tie it all together. A parade of prosecution witnesses that includes hit men, pornographers, bookies, career burglars, gamblers and other mob associates are expected to testify about their dealings with the Outfit.

As the government attacks the mob as a racketeering enterprise, the case will attempt to close the books on the Spilotro killings and a series of other hits that for years sat among the hundreds of unsolved mob slayings in Chicago. Prosecutors will use the rarest of tools to take jurors inside organized crime -- a member of the Outfit's inner circle.

Billed as the most significant witness against the Chicago syndicate in decades, Nick Calabrese has the insider's knowledge to name names. Associated with the Outfit since 1970, he has admitted taking part in 14 Outfit killings and has information on many more, prosecutors have said.

A made member of the 26th Street crew, he began cooperating in 2002 after being confronted by authorities with DNA evidence that linked him to the 1986 killing of mob hit man John Fecarotta. Calabrese recently pleaded guilty.

He also will supply firsthand information about mob business, the Outfit's structure and its customs. And he will explain the backdrop and motives for many of the slayings. He is expected to directly link James Marcello to the murders of the Spilotros, according to prosecutors' documents. The brothers were beaten and strangled in a home near Bensenville after running afoul of the Chicago Outfit while heading its Las Vegas operation.

Calabrese is expected to tell jurors about an underworld ceremony in 1983 when he was welcomed into the mob's leading ranks with Marcello and Frank Calabrese Sr. Calabrese will describe how each inductee was joined by his crew boss and how the highest-ranking Outfit leaders had them pledge absolute allegiance.

To fight Calabrese and his testimony, defense lawyers said they will attempt to show the motives for many of the murders were unrelated to the mob, or that their clients were not directing the conspiracy. According to the defense, the government's case is built on the idea that the Outfit was structured from the top down. "In past cases, the government has shown all of this thuggery, and then asked the jury to reasonably infer that it was done on behalf of the mob," said Rick Halprin, Lombardo's lawyer and a veteran of the federal courthouse. "This case is the reverse. They will be proving that there was organized crime."

Halprin, an ex-Marine who was wounded in Vietnam, has a booming courtroom voice and is quick with a quip. Halprin intends to portray Lombardo as a lifelong working man. "He doesn't have a home in River Forest," he said. "He doesn't drive fancy cars."

Frank Calabrese Sr.'s lawyer, Joseph Lopez, who has defended other mob figures as well, is known for his sharp suits, occasionally accented with pink socks. He said he agrees the team of prosecutors on the case must show that the orders for the killings came down the mob's chain of command.

It doesn't matter, Lopez said, that his client has previously pleaded guilty to being in the Outfit. Prosecutors have to prove the slayings were mob hits. "The question is, were these killings sanctioned by the mob," Lopez said. "People get killed for a variety of reasons."

Lopez said he will present evidence to show that two individuals who have no connection to the mob killed Richard Ortiz and Arthur Morawski, one of the mob hits with which his client is charged. "We're not charged with murder. We're charged with conspiracy," Lopez said. "If we were charged with murder down at 26th Street [the Criminal Courts Building], this would be a different story."

"They can't show these [murders] were done to protect the Outfit," he said. But leading the prosecution team are two of the most seasoned, savvy assistant U.S. attorneys, Mitchell Mars, the office's organized crime chief, who headed the prosecution in the early 1990s of mobster Rocco Infelice, and John Scully, who prosecuted William Hanhardt, a former Chicago police chief of detectives convicted of running a mob-connected jewelry theft ring.

To be sure, they won't be in a joking mood, even though Lombardo might be. "You know he doesn't want to just sit there silently with his hands folded," Flosi said of Lombardo, who once famously covered his face with a newspaper -- a hole cut out for him to see -- as he left a 1981 court appearance. "Maybe he'll come to court in his pajamas," Flosi said. "Who knows?"

Thanks to Jeff Coen

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