Friday, February 22, 2008

Family Secrets Mob Prosecutor Succumbs to Cancer

It may seem an odd compliment, but there is perhaps no better praise for the work Assistant U.S. Attorney Mitchell Mars did than how mobsters referred to him.

"That (expletive) Mitch Mars," is what crooked Chicago cop Anthony Doyle called him on tape recordings he didn't know were being made.

"That is a real testament to the guy," said Markus Funk, one of Mars' co-prosecutors in the Family Secrets trial, which put Doyle and other mobsters away in September.

Over and over, said Funk, on wiretaps and prison eavesdropping recordings, the bad guys had one concern: what did Mitch Mars know and how close was he getting?

More often than not, Mars knew a lot about the Chicago Outfit and was very close.

In September, he got closer than many mobsters ever dreamed he would: convicting mob leaders James Marcello, Joseph "The Clown" Lombardo, Frank Calabrese and others on racketeering charges stemming from murders that were, in some cases, decades old.

It was a fitting exclamation point on the career of Mars, the chief of the organized crime section of the U.S. attorney's office.

Mars died of lung cancer Tuesday night. He was 55.

He had battled crime since 1978, when he joined the U.S. Justice Department. He arrived in Chicago in 1980 and joined the U.S. attorney's office in 1990 when it merged with the Justice Department's organized crime strike force.

Family Secrets was but the last hurrah in a long line of prosecutions. He also helped put away Cicero mayor Betty Loren-Maltese, Chicago Heights mob boss Albert Tocco and several others along the way.

"But we would do a disservice to remember Mitch only by what he accomplished as a prosecutor in the courtroom," said Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, in a prepared statement.

"He is a complete gentleman," said Susan Shatz, one of the lawyers who represented Lombardo in the trial. "I hold him in the highest regard.

While Mars was all business in the courtroom, those who knew him outside of it said he was easygoing and a prankster.

After months of trial and working late nights and weekends, Shatz and Mars were forever calling one another, Shatz said.

On the last day of trial, Shatz arranged with Mars' wife, Jennifer, to have Jennifer wait until Mars wound down that evening and then ask him if he had remembered to call Shatz.

Mars apparently enjoyed the joke enough to return the favor, calling Shatz that night on her office phone, demanding trial papers in a mock-annoyed voice.

"I have not taken his message off my voicemail since then," said Shatz, who said she kept it when she learned Mars was sick.

Mars discovered his cancer shortly after the trial and took a leave of absence to spend time with his family.

He is survived by his wife, his mother, Constance, his sister, Deborah Berkos, his brother, Jeffrey, an uncle Raymond Oster and several other aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

Visitation is Friday from 3-9 p.m. at Damar Kaminski Funeral Home, 7861 S. 88th Avenue in Justice. A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Cletus, 600 W. 55th St. in LaGrange.

Thanks to Rob Olmstead

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