The Chicago Syndicate: FBI went high-tech to nail mobster

Magee 1866 Heritage Month

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

FBI went high-tech to nail mobster

Friends of ours: Frank Calabrese Sr., James Marcello

Frank Calabrese Jr. looked like any other prisoner in the yard at the federal detention center in Milan, Mich.: Large headphones covered his ears as he listened to a portable radio hitched to his belt. That's what prisoners did in the yard, so Frank Calabrese Jr. didn't stand out. And that was precisely the point for FBI agents.

No one would suspect that the ordinary-looking headphones and radio had cost the FBI about $25,000 to create. In the headphones was a listening device. In the radio was a computer chip to record whatever voices were picked up.

Calabrese Jr. agreed to wear the high-tech device -- details of which have been previously undisclosed -- to secretly record his father, Frank Calabrese Sr., a brutal loan shark and suspected hit man, as he talked about the Chicago Outfit. The FBI says Frank Calabrese Sr. was involved in 13 murders and one attempted murder, charges Calabrese Sr. has denied.

The conversations are among key parts of the evidence against Calabrese Sr. in his trial next year. Twelve other men, including the reputed head of the Chicago Outfit, James Marcello, are charged in the case, which pins 18 murders on the Outfit in the most significant indictment ever against organized crime in Chicago. The U.S. attorney's office had no comment on the listening device or any aspect of the case.

FBI agents went to the prison several years ago because Calabrese Jr. had written to them, saying he wanted to cooperate against his father, law enforcement sources said. The younger Calabrese wasn't looking for any favors. Nor did the FBI have anything to hang over his head.

Calabrese Jr. simply wanted to ensure that his father stayed in prison for the rest of his life, law enforcement sources said. Both men were convicted in a loan-sharking case, but the son had much less involvement than his father. Calabrese Jr. was released from prison in 2000 and is believed to be living out of state.

Putting a body wire on Calabrese Jr. each time father and son roamed the prison yard simply wasn't going to work. So the son came up with the idea of where to plant the listening device, law enforcement sources said. Even with the recording device so cleverly disguised, Calabrese Jr. was putting his life on the line every time he recorded his father.

His father is a brutal, cagey, street-smart mobster, always paranoid about his conversations, sources said. So Calabrese Jr. had to devise clever ways to get his father to discuss matters that mob code forbids ever talking about.

FBI agents were at the prison while the conversations were being digitally recorded. But the listening device only recorded. It did not broadcast, so there was no way FBI agents could listen in while the two men were talking. So if Frank Calabrese Jr. got into trouble -- if his father got suspicious or threatened him -- there was no way for FBI agents to hear what was happening.

Still, the younger Calabrese succeeded beyond agents' expectations. His father talked and talked and talked. The man known for his ability to negotiate and argue brilliantly with other Outfit members was hanging himself with his own words in the prison yard, sources said.

Calabrese Sr. allegedly described murders he and other mobsters were allegedly involved in, as well as mob rituals and who was and was not a member of the Outfit. Calabrese Sr.'s attorney, Joseph Lopez, has disparaged the tapes, saying they prove nothing.

Thanks to Steve Warmbir

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