Jim Jack and I are watching the world's biggest mob trial from a back bench, where he can whisper to me while pointing to this thug and that one.
All these decaying Chicago Outfit guys, they look like uncles and grandpas now. But Jack knew a few of them when they just looked mean. They hide it better now.
Jack, 79, was a Chicago cop. He got on the force in 1955, made detective a year later, and worked the old Gale Street District on the Northwest Side -- last stop before the suburbs. He and his longtime partner, Frank Czech, knew all the hinky joints and liked to poke their heads in.
Jack points across the courtroom to a balding fellow slumped in a chair. That's Frank Calabrese Sr., alleged hit man in love with his work.
Jack tells me about the first time he met Calabrese. It was 1958 and he and Czech were cruising around, looking for a suspect in a shooting. They stopped at a mob-connected joint called The Nest, in the 3800 block of North Central.
"It was like 2 o'clockish in the morning, a swinging place, Tony Smith playing on stage," Jack says. "And me and my partner walk in and it was jammed. I was lucky I had my feet on the floor. I take two steps to the bar and there's a space between two guys. I'm bothering nobody, just sticking my head in there to look down at the end of the bar."
One of the two guys swiveled on his stool, as Jack recalls, and offered a traditional Chicago greeting: "What the f--- you lookin' at?" Jack replied, "Nothing much."
"Evidently he took offense to that, because first thing I know he whacked me right in the mouth," Jack tells me now. "Later on, when he's under arrest, he says he's sorry -- he didn't know we were cops. Like if I were a regular patron, it's OK to do a tattoo on my face."
I look across the courtroom again at Calabrese. He still looks like somebody's uncle. But I wonder if he's wondering what the f--- I'm looking at.
James A. Jack has been attending the Family Secrets mob trial at the Dirksen Federal Building since it began June 21. He's thinking of writing a book about his cop days, and the trial fits in.
Jack already has written one award-winning book, Three Boys Missing: The Tragedy That Exposed the Pedophilia Underworld, just published by HPH Publishing. The book is Jack's account of his dogged police work in the days immediately after one of Chicago's most notorious crimes, the 1955 Peterson-Schuessler triple murders.
Jack didn't solve that crime. Decades would pass, in fact, before an aging pedophile would be convicted of the murders and tossed in prison. But in the course of working on the case, Jack and his partner rooted out two or three other sex offenders, and they discovered something that was almost like a secret in the more innocent 1950s -- pedophilia is frightfully common.
That's what happens when you're a cop: You learn the world is a darker place than most people know.
I ask Jack for another story, another tale from those jolly formative years. He tells me about his first partner as a detective, a cop who dressed in Gucci on a Florsheim salary.
"Phil Tolomeo -- the Outfit put him in there," Jack tells me. "The first month I was working with him, I didn't even know. I was new and just married.
"We're working midnights and he's driving, and he stops at a place on Harlem called Meo's," Jack continues. "He says, 'Wait here, I'll be right back,' and he goes in and it's like 45 minutes, then an hour. He comes out and I say, 'Jesus, where the hell you been?' He says, 'Oh, I just went to see a few guys.'"
Jack didn't like Tolomeo's Gucci shoes. He didn't like that Meo was the last three letters in Tolomeo. He didn't like what he had heard when he started asking around -- that Meo's was a favorite mob hangout.
"They're all in there, every day and every night -- Tony Accardo, Aiuppa, Cerone, Murray the Camel," Jack says. "I'm not Charlie Chan, but I'm beginning to figure it out."
The last straw came the third or fourth night Tolomeo left Jack waiting outside Meo's. All of a sudden, as Jack sat there in the dark, flashbulbs began popping in the weeds from a vacant lot across the street. Somebody was taking pictures.
Back at the police station, Jack finally had a talk with Sgt. George Murphy, the supervisor of detectives. "Sarg, what's going on?" he said. "I'm gonna get myself fired."
Murphy nodded and clued Jack in. Yeah, he said, that was probably the FBI taking surveillance pictures from the weeds. And he already knew all about Tolomeo.
"Somebody had to be his partner, Jim," Murphy said, "and you're new and we didn't think you'd get in trouble with him."
"Get me off," Jack said.
The next month, Jack had a new partner, Frank Czech. And 35 years after that, long after leaving the police force, Phil "Philly Beans" Tolomeo -- who was, indeed, related to the owner of Meo's -- entered the federal witness protection program. He explained to the FBI exactly how Frank Calabrese's extortion racket worked.
Jack wasn't a Chicago cop for long. He left the police force in 1968 and became head of national security for Toys R Us. He had a family to support, and he was tired of moonlighting to make ends meet. One good-paying job made more sense than two or three poor paying jobs. Not bad for an ex-boxer from the West Side who grew up in an orphanage. But before turning in his badge, Jack gathered enough great cop stories for a lifetime.
Like the story about getting into a huge bar fight with Tony Spilotro, the vicious mob boss of Las Vegas who wound up dead in an Indiana cornfield.
Jack's story about Spilotro is a long one, starting in 1961 and ending in 1963. It's also a good one, involving a nightclub singer, a pretty girl and a grudge that wouldn't go away. But in the space I've got left here, I could never do it justice.
"You really should write that book," I tell Jack, whispering to him at the Family Secrets trial.
Up on the witness stand, a forensic pathologist is describing how Tony Spilotro and his brother Michael were beaten to death with nothing but fists, knees and feet.
"I just might," Jack says. "It was something."
Thanks to Tom McNamee
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