The Chicago Syndicate: Family Secrets of the Murderous Kind
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Monday, October 01, 2007

Family Secrets of the Murderous Kind

Wrecked car of mob victim Michael Cagnoni
Chicago mobsters planted a bomb in the car of Michael Cagnoni, killing him, in 1981. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

It all started with a letter sent to our Chicago office in 1998: the son of a Windy City mobster wanted to help us collect enough evidence to have his gangster father put away for life. The letter spawned a seven-year investigation that culminated in a federal courtroom in September with guilty verdicts.

We dubbed it “Operation Family Secrets,” and it’s one of our most successful organized crime investigations ever. The indictment named 14 defendants and included 18 previously unsolved murders.

The man who approached our Chicago office with an unprecedented offer to help was at the time serving a prison sentence with his father, Frank Calabrese Sr. The son agreed to wear a wire during conversations with his father as they talked about the family business.

That family business was the Chicago Outfit, a criminal enterprise operating out of the city for more than four decades. The Outfit had an organized structure and chain of command with “crews” that were assigned specific geographic territories around Chicago.

What kind of business was it? Typical mob stuff: loan sharking, extortion, and gambling, to name just a few. And, of course, murder. Calabrese Sr. talked to his son about three murders he was connected to, with our tape recorders catching all the details.

Thanks to the recordings, our agents got court permission to tape other conversations between Calabrese Sr. and certain visitors. The mobster liked to talk and apparently didn’t mind conducting business from prison.

Soon, our agents had collected enough information—and corroborated it with evidence—to build an iron-clad case against the senior Calabrese for the 1986 murder of mobster John Fecarotta in Chicago. The evidence also clearly implicated Calabrese’s brother, Nicholas W. Calabrese.

Faced with the overwhelming evidence, Nicholas decided he wanted to cooperate, too. He started spilling more family secrets. A lot of them, in fact, including details about 18 previously unsolved mob hits.

Eventually, seven agents worked the Family Secrets case. Everything our agents learned—through the different wire taps, through our own surveillance, and statements from cooperating witnesses—had to be checked out and verified, a process that literally took years to accomplish.

Agents pored over thousands of documents—including old police reports, financial statements, property records, and even seized gambling receipts. “We were checking material that went all the back to the ‘70s,” said Special Agent John Mallul, our Organized Crime Squad supervisor in Chicago and one of the original agents to work on the case.

All the evidence was handed over to a federal grand jury that in April 2005 returned a 43-page indictment. The list of those charged read like a “Who’s Who” in the Chicago mob.

The trial for five men—Calabrese Sr., James Marcello, Joseph “The Clown” Lombardo, Paul “The Indian” Schiro, and Anthony “Twan” Doyle—started in June and ended August 30. The government called more than 125 witnesses and presented more than 200 pieces of evidence, including dozens of photos. All five were found guilty of racketeering and related crimes September 10.

Of the remaining defendants in the indictment, two died prior to trial (Frank Saladino and Michael Ricci), six pled guilty, and one (Frank “The German” Schweihs) was too ill to stand trial.

“This was an exceptional case,” Mallul said. “We haven’t had an individual cooperate like this, and give us this kind of detailed information, before. It helped us take out three crew bosses and the acting head of the Chicago Outfit.”

Thanks to the FBI

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