It was a judgment day like none Chicago has ever seen.
Mob hit man Nicholas Calabrese, the admitted killer of 14 people, stood before a judge Thursday as the only made member of the Chicago Outfit ever to testify against his superiors. His cooperation solved some of the Chicago area's most notorious gangland killings and sent three mob leaders away for life.
Weighing Calabrese's terrible crimes against his unprecedented testimony in the Family Secrets trial, a federal judge sentenced him to just 12 years and 4 months behind bars, leaving relatives of Calabrese's many victims outraged and distraught.
One widow, Charlene Moravecek, collapsed moments after leaving the courtroom and was taken from the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on a stretcher. She had earlier glared at Calabrese in court and called him "the devil."
Anthony Ortiz, whose father, Richard, was shot to death by Calabrese outside a Cicero bar, called the sentence pathetic. "To me, that's a serial killer," Ortiz said of Calabrese. "That's less than a year for every person that he killed."
Making the sentence even harder for the families to swallow is the likelihood that Calabrese, 66, will be released from prison in as little as four years. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he must serve 85 percent of his sentence, but Calabrese has been incarcerated in connection with the Family Secrets case since November 2002.
Bob D'Andrea, the son of mobster Nicholas D'Andrea, whom Calabrese admitted beating with a baseball bat, said he expected the judge to be somewhat lenient. But Calabrese won't receive his ultimate penalty in this life, he said. "If he believes in God, he knows what he has coming," D'Andrea said.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who had to balance rewarding Calabrese for his extraordinary cooperation with punishing him for the 14 murders, knew his decision wouldn't be acceptable to many relatives of the victims. He spoke directly to them in a slow, deliberate tone.
"None of this happened without Nicholas Calabrese," Zagel said of the landmark Family Secrets prosecution. The judge reminded the crowded courtroom that Calabrese had given families some sense of closure. Zagel said he also had to consider that other would-be mob turncoats must be given some incentive to provide information too.
Federal prosecutors left the sentence to Zagel's discretion but later expressed support for his decision. However, "pure justice" would have required that Calabrese be imprisoned for the rest of his life, said First Assistant U.S. Atty. Gary Shapiro.
Shapiro, a veteran mob-fighter, noted that Chicago has been "the toughest nut to crack" in the U.S. when it comes to turning mob insiders. "Here Judge Zagel has sent the word out that if you do what Nick Calabrese has done, you have the chance of not spending the rest of your life in prison," he said.
With images of many of his 14 victims flashing on a screen just a few feet away, Calabrese had refused to even look that way. He instead stared down at the empty defense table looking like he was trying not to cry.
Wearing a plain gray shirt and jeans, he finally walked to the lectern with a slight limp. He apologized for his wrongdoing and said he thinks about his crimes all of the time. "I can't go back and undo what I done," he told Zagel as his wife and children looked on. "I stand before you a different man, a changed man."
Calabrese's testimony had riveted Chicago in summer 2007 as he pulled back the curtain on murder after murder. He testified about wetting his pants during his first killing, fatally shooting friend and hit man John Fecarotta and taking part in the notorious slayings of Las Vegas mob chieftain Anthony Spilotro and his brother, Michael. At trial, five men were convicted, including mob bosses James Marcello, Joey "the Clown" Lombardo and his brother, Frank Calabrese Sr. Four of them were linked to 18 murders in all.
All of the victims' family members who addressed Zagel in court Thursday said they understood the significance of what Calabrese had done, but they still said they wanted him to pay fully. They recounted years of heartbreak, with the men violently taken from them missing holidays, weddings and births.
"I have waited half a life for the chance to come face to face with the person responsible for my father's death," said Janet Ortiz, the daughter of Richard Ortiz.
Peggy Cagnoni, whose husband, businessman Michael Cagnoni, was killed in a car-bombing on the Tri-State Tollway that Calabrese had said took a hit team months to pull off, called Calabrese "the ultimate killer."
"I feel you are truly heartless and deserve no mercy," she said. "You got caught in a trap and had nowhere to go."
Calabrese had decided to cooperate after investigators confronted him in 2002 with DNA evidence taken from a pair of bloody gloves he dropped while leaving the scene of the Fecarotta homicide in 1986.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Markus Funk called Calabrese a "walking, breathing paradox." Funk acknowledged that the unassuming Calabrese could sometimes be a cold, robotic killer but said he had shown remorse and had done as much or more than anyone before him to damage the Outfit.
Calabrese's lawyer, John Theis, sought a sentence of less than 8 years in prison, which effectively would have meant his immediate release. Calabrese will forever live in fear, Theis said, but should be given the chance to once again be with his family.
Zagel said he doubts Calabrese will ever truly be free. No matter how long he lives or in what protected place it will be, Calabrese will always have to look over his shoulder. "The organization whose existence you testified to will not forgive or relent in their pursuit of you," he said.
Thanks to Jeff Coen
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