Friday, August 17, 2007

End of the Clown's Days?

The Joey "The Clown" Lombardo who testified Tuesday in his own defense was the boss of nothing, in his own mind.

Street boss, what street boss? Clown, what clown?

He was just an old man with a gray face in a gray suit with a cane, pushing 80, working his jaw, his tongue fishing some flecks of lunch out of his gums as he sat in the witness box, taking the one chance left to him in this historic Family Secrets trial of the Chicago Outfit in federal court:

To convince the jury he wasn't the Joey Lombardo of legend, but instead a humble shoeshine boy from the old neighborhood who hustled a bit for extra cash.

Lombardo said he grew up on the West Side, that his father worked at the Tribune in some unspecified capacity, and that Joe later took fencing lessons in high school, played handball, even rollerbladed in later years, ending up with a small interest in a floating craps game while running minor errands for bail bondsman and Outfit wiretapper Irwin Weiner.

Lombardo didn't kill anyone, he insisted. He wasn't the boss of anything. He wasn't a made member of the Outfit, which forms the base of the triangle that runs the town. Politicians, Lombardo said, were the real hoodlums.

"There's 50 bosses in Chicago," Lombardo said, "The 50 bosses are the 50 aldermen; without them you can't get anything done. If you want zoning, you see the alderman. If you want to run a card game, you go see the alderman. If you want a dice game, go see the alderman."

In Lombardo's mind, what does that make the boss of all the aldermen, that guy I used to call Mayor Fredo, who sits on the 5th Floor of City Hall? I couldn't ask Lombardo, since he's only talking from the witness stand.

The last time I tried speaking to Lombardo was years ago, at Bella Notte, a nice Italian restaurant on Grand Avenue, just after former Chicago Police Chief of Detectives William Hanhardt was indicted for running an Outfit-sanctioned jewelry-heist ring. I wanted to ask Lombardo about Hanhardt, another friend of the Outfit-connected Weiner. But before I could saunter over to Lombardo's table, he snapped his fingers, the busboys shoveled his food into containers and he walked out. The manager trotted over and said I was sadly mistaken if I thought he catered to clowns.

"Clown? Clown? What are you talking about, clown? What clown?" the manager said.

Well, wasn't that the Clown? "No, that was Mr. Irwin Goldman," the manager said, forgetting to explain why Mr. Goldman was wearing a St. Dismas medallion -- the Good Thief crucified next to Christ -- around his neck.

That was sure amusing, but Lombardo is weirdly amusing, and when he testified in court on Tuesday he got a laugh when he talked about shining shoes as a boy. Gamblers would tip him a dollar. The cops only gave him a nickel. "They were very cheap people," said Lombardo, and there was a loud chuckle in the courtroom, prompting U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel to admonish other lawyers laughing at Lombardo's wisecracks.

Rick Halprin, the seasoned criminal lawyer whose job it is to try and keep Lombardo from dying in prison, took a gamble in putting Lombardo on the stand. Halprin had no real choice, with Lombardo's fingerprint on the title application from a car used in the killing of Danny Seifert, a Lombardo partner-turned-federal witness in 1974. That fingerprint has an itch the Outfit can't scratch. It waits, still, quiet, filed, hanging over Lombardo's head.

In 1974, Seifert was killed in front of his family. Seifert was the key witness in the federal case against Lombardo. The case against him exploded the way Seifert exploded, when the shotguns came out. Halprin had to gamble the jury would see a cane in the fingers of the grandpa on the stand, not a shotgun.

The other accused Outfit bosses and soldiers on trial must be thinking that now they've got to follow him up there, too, and swear another oath, this one before God. They watched Lombardo in cold blood. There was Paul "The Indian" Schiro, James Marcello, Frank Calabrese Sr. and former Chicago Police Officer Anthony Doyle, accused of warning the Outfit when the FBI began investigating the 18 formerly unsolved mob killings that are part of this landmark case.

Their eyes black, their heads framed against black leather courtroom chairs, they leaned back and watched the shoeshine boy. Their chins rested on fists, they took deep breaths, their eyes sponging up the light of the world.

Halprin: "On Sept. 27, 1974, did you kill Danny Seifert?"

Lombardo: "Positively, no."

Halprin: "Have you ever been a capo or a made member of the Chicago Outfit?"

Lombardo: "Positively, no."

The old man pushed that second "positively, no" too quickly past his choppers, the delivery was rushed, so it fell in front of the jury with a thunk, like a car trunk slamming shut in a lonely parking lot.

There wasn't anything amusing about it.

It wasn't funny, like a clown.

It was desperate, an old man holding his cane, seeing the end of days.

Thanks to John Kass

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