The Chicago Syndicate: FBI Reopens Cold Case with Mob Connections
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, November 04, 2007

FBI Reopens Cold Case with Mob Connections

Joni Merriam Simms was waiting for her father to take her to lunch 20 years ago.

"I was at work downtown, I waited and waited, and he didn't call," Simms told me the other day. "It wasn't like him, not calling."

Amoco Oil company executive Charles Merriam, from the prominent Republican political family that once tried to reform the city and fight the Chicago Democratic machine, had been murdered.

The night before -- at around 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1987 -- two men knocked on the door of his northwest suburban home. He was shot twice in the chest, once in the head.

You could say he was killed under the weight of the iron triangle that connects corrupt politicians, corrupt cops and the Chicago Outfit. The investigation was bungled by Cook County sheriff's police, with missing files and evidence, including a monogrammed glove from the scene that disappeared. But there is news. The FBI has reopened the unsolved murder. Investigators are using DNA techniques similar to those that helped the FBI break the Operation Family Secrets case of 18 other, previously unsolved Outfit homicides.

"We are investigating," FBI spokesman Ross Rice told me on Friday. "We are doing some advanced forensic testing that was not available at the time of the Merriam killing."

Unfortunately, the Merriam family has seen leads die before. They also read the fascinating Chicago Tribune series, "Forbidden Friendships Between Cops and Criminals," by investigative reporter David Jackson in 2000. It connected the dots of the Merriam murder, reaching into City Hall, the highest echelons of the Chicago Police Department and the Outfit.

Chicago met Jackson's series about police and the Outfit with a telling quiet. The series was dead on, but was officially met with silence. No blue-ribbon committees were formed, no politicians reacted with outrage at news conferences staged for TV, nothing. "That's why 20 years later, my family closely followed the Family Secrets trial," Simms said. "And we were glad that some members of the Outfit were found guilty of various crimes, yet extremely frustrated that my father's murder remains unsolved."

Charles Merriam was responsible for monitoring about 1,000 Amoco service stations in the Midwest. A few of those stations were owned by restaurateur Frank Milito, a twice-convicted felon and casino investor with ties to mobsters, top politicians and cops, including one of his best friends, former Police Supt. Matt Rodriguez.

It was Rodriguez's friendship with Milito that led to Rodriguez's highly publicized resignation in 1997.

When Milito was convicted of tax evasion involving his gas stations in 1986, Merriam moved to take the stations away from him. Angry words were exchanged in court. Milito was furious.

"We knew my father was doing something that nobody at Amoco wanted to do," Joni Simms said. "Weeks before he was killed, we were aware that he was going to be doing something pretty dangerous. He was threatened before he was killed."

One man interviewed in the case years ago was Pierre Zonis, Milito's brother-in-law and a gas station manager. Zonis was also questioned in two other Outfit-related homicides, the 1982 killing of auto mechanic Richard Campbell, and the 1986 hit on Giuseppe Cocozza, a bust-out gambler and gas station manager.

Zonis is a Chicago cop, though he's been listed by the Chicago Crime Commission as an Outfit associate. He'd seen both Cocozza and Campbell hours before their deaths. And a few hours before Merriam was killed, a call was placed to Merriam's unlisted phone number from a pay phone in a gas station run by Zonis.

"I'm supposed to be a mob hitman because a pay phone in my gas station was used?" Zonis told the Tribune years ago.

We tried to reach Zonis last week, and left a message at the 23d District where he works. If he calls, I'll let you know what he says.

I'd like to know about his relationship with Mario "I'm no Beefer" Rainone, an Outfit loan shark and godfather to one of Zonis' children; and Mario's little buddy, the perpetually quiet Albert Vena.

Rainone recently called me to proclaim he never ratted on any Outfit guys, even though he did help the FBI tape an incriminating conversation between himself and North Side gangster Lenny Patrick.

Now Rainone is out of prison, perhaps hanging around with his friend Vena, who twice beat murder charges against him. Neither Zonis, Rainone or Vena has been charged in connection with the Merriam killing.

Milito is in prison on yet another tax charge. Zonis remains a cop. City Hall keeps pushing for the mayor's big casino. And Joni Simms?

"I don't think people understand the impact the Outfit has," she said. "I don't think people realize how it impacts local politics and local police officers."

She understands the Chicago Way. I figure her dad, Charles Merriam, understood it, too, the moment he opened the door.

Thanks to John Kass

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