Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lombardo Feels Like Sadaam

Friends of ours: Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, James Marcello, John “No Nose” DiFronzo, Alphonse “Pizza Al” Tornabene

He has one of the most famous names in Chicago. It ranks right up there with Daley, Sandburg, Oprah and Susie Snowflake. I’m talking about Joe Padula. Some brave people call him “Lumpy.”

His real name is Joe Lombardo. You probably know him as “Joey the Clown,” currently standing trial in federal court in Chicago as the highest-ranking member of the Chicago Outfit.

For more than 50 years, Joey “the Clown” Lombardo has had the most prominent moniker in a fraternity where everybody knows your nickname.

As you know, most clowns don’t talk much. They’re more into pantomime, sight gags and slapstick.

Joe Lombardo’s actions have always spoken louder than his words. Like when the feds say he gave the nod to Outfit hit men to kill people, including witnesses set to testify against him. Or when, the feds say, he had a guy killed in front of his wife and 4-year-old son. Or when he bribed and extorted people, skimmed from Las Vegas casinos, and stole from labor unions.

He’s never really talked much. There was the newspaper he once used as a facemask, complete with cutaway eyeholes, to hide from reporters after a court appearance.

Lombardo’s favorite pose for police mug shots was with his mouth stretched wide open, as if at the dentist, disfiguring his facial features.

Now 78, Lombardo must be going soft on the pratfalls and practical jokes. As he sat in court last week, he wanted to talk about serious things. With me.

Our conversation took place during a break while the lawyers were out of the room. A few deputy U.S. Marshals stood nearby to make sure the Clown didn’t try to escape in his wheelchair or use his cane as a ball bat.

He was talking with a deputy about how people in all types of jobs are replaceable. Even his job, Lombardo said, whatever that may be. And then the Clown looked squarely at me and said, “If reporters are killed, they’re replaceable too.”

What a jokester.

He muttered something about cockroaches and mosquitoes.

“I watched you when you were reporting in Iraq,” he then told me, referring to TV stories I filed from the Middle East last year. He said he watched on a big screen TV.

That means he was watching TV news in his final days of freedom. After being a federal fugitive for nine months, Lombardo was nabbed on Jan. 13, 2006, in Elmwood Park, a few days after I left Baghdad. “I feel like Saddam sitting here,” he told me. “I know what he felt must’ve felt like.”

Joey the Clown sporting the Saddam look.Like Saddam, Lombardo was sporting a full, fluffy beard when he was arrested after hiding out. And like Saddam, who was hanged for the execution-murders of 148 people, Lombardo could effectively face a death sentence. At his age, if convicted, his sentence will ensure he will never again see freedom and will die in prison.

“You were right,” he told me. “When you were over there in Iraq. It’s all about the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech.”

“Do you know who should be here in this courtroom?” Lombardo asked me.

Without waiting for my answer, he provided his own. “Bush and Cheney,” he said.

“What would you charge them with?” I asked the man charged in a case that includes 18 gangland murders.

Lombardo thought for a moment and answered “murder.”

“Look at all those people who have been killed or injured,” he said, citing the thousands of Americans and Iraqis.

And then he said Bush and Cheney are like two bank robbers. If one shoots and kills a teller, the other is still liable for murder. Just like Bush and Cheney, he said.

Lombardo was about 15 feet away from me. He was sitting at the defense table, but another of the five defendants was seated between us. Jimmy Marcello, a Lombardo underboss, stared straight ahead as our words passed in front of him.

Marcello, or “Little Jimmy,” never said a word or acknowledged the conversation. Maybe Marcello, 65, was just deferring to his elder.

My tête-à-tête with Lombardo ended with a final shot from the Clown.

“They still don’t have the guy, do they?” he asked, implying that there was some mega-mobster out there still calling the shots.

“Who is the guy that they don’t have?” I asked Lombardo, thinking he was about to drop the name of John “No Nose” DiFronzo or Alphonse “Pizza Al” Tornabene. But Joe Lombardo was still thinking globally. “They still don’t have the guy, Osama bin Laden.”

But they have the Clown. And that’s no joke.

Thanks to Chuck Goudie

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