Saturday, August 18, 2007

From Eating Oatmeal as a Boy to Earning for the Mob

Chicago Outfit loan shark and accused hit-man Frank Calabrese Sr. didn't have the gall to wear his First Communion suit on the witness stand. It wouldn't have fit, anyway.

Instead he wore a pale sports coat just on the edge of ivory, like an older bride with plenty of miles, still yearning for the white on her big day.

Calabrese testified in his own defense in the "Family Secrets" trial on Thursday, explaining that as a boy, his family was so poor they ate oatmeal most every night, that he had to leave school in the 4th grade to help deliver coal. And, how he grew up with an intense desire to protect the weak against the strong, even when the weak owed him money from his juice loans and couldn't pay him on time.

"I hated bullies and I still hate them today," said the knightly Calabrese, led through his story by crafty defense lawyer Joseph Lopez.

Yet when court resumes Monday, Calabrese will face cross-examination by federal prosecutors, so the jury won't see Sir Frank of Chinatown, but a different Frank, the Frank on federal tape giggling about murders.

The jury will hear about his many alleged victims, dumped into holes like so many goo-goo dolls, those yellow rubber toys of years ago. Put your thumbs on their throats, squeeze hard, and their eyes bug out, the tongues protrude, they make a strange noise, which is the way his brother, Nicholas Calabrese, described the effects of Frank's heavy work in earlier trial testimony.

"Murder? No way. No way," Frank kept telling Lopez, also resplendent in a pink shirt and electric yellow tie, as Lopez directed him through more than two hours of testimony designed to give context to Calabrese's life and have his client repeatedly deny he killed anyone.

Lopez's theory is that Frank's son and his brother Nick conspired to rip off Frank's money and keep him in prison. It's an interesting theory. But on Monday, as those tapes are played, the tapes his son Frank Jr. recorded in prison conversations with his father for the FBI, the theory will have a side effect.

Calabrese's co-defendants -- Joseph Lombardo, Paul Schiro, Anthony Doyle and James Marcello -- will look up and feel the fork in them and know they're done.

Some of my colleagues have been tempted to say that the Chicago Outfit is done, too, but it is not. Today's web was woven long ago, when Paul "The Waiter" Ricca moved here from New York and quietly allowed Al Capone to play the loud baboon in the shiny suit.

Calabrese is an example of this influence, a portly squire from the Chinatown crew, which still reaches into the 11th Ward, home of mayors. His brother-in-law was the late Ed Hanley, president of the powerful international hotel workers union, who dabbled in wiseguys and politics from Chicago to Las Vegas.

Hanley got him a city job, and later Frank got Nick a city job running McCormick Place, and depending on what testimony you believe, they either killed a lot of people together or they didn't, but they made a lot of money.

Calabrese explained on Thursday that the Outfit is dedicated to money, composed of two kinds of men, those who earn, and those who do the heavy work.

"And what is the heavy work?" Lopez asked.

"Killing people," Calabrese said, "but I didn't kill people, I was an earner ... I earned millions ... I didn't have time to do that other stuff."

He did this, he said, by loaning money at high rates to gambling addicts who couldn't go into a bank and apply for loans.

Listening to him, I wondered how lousy he must feel, in prison now, with so much opportunity outside, as City Hall pushes quietly for a giant city-run gambling casino, one that would have its own "independent" gaming commission controlled by the mayor, so it won't be subject to bothersome state regulations.

Loan sharking is part of gambling, in casinos or on Rush Street, though scary collectors aren't featured in the commercials. Calabrese testified that in his loan-sharking business, he never threatened or hurt anyone, but they paid anyway, but not from fear.

Yet it was instructive, with Calabrese explaining the meaning of "the sit down," a meeting designed to settle disputes, like the time Butch Petrocelli (one of the alleged victims) "kept sticking his nose in there" to try and take away Calabrese's card games, Calabrese said.

"It was all done diplomatically," Calabrese said. "The head of this group sits there, the head of that group sits there. And someone very important, like [late Outfit boss] Joey Aiuppa sits there."

Lopez asked: "Was there any swearing or cursing?"

"Swearing or cursing? Oh, no. It was diplomatic," Calabrese said. The way he said "oh, no" was quite odd. It was something a PTA mom would say, not some Chinatown bone-crusher who sat meekly before the boss.

The jury stopped taking notes, and stared, transfixed, as if a penguin from the zoo were sitting in front of them reading "The Divine Comedy." And Calabrese faced them, in his almost white ivory jacket, blinking.

Thanks to John Kass

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