Prohibition was the law of the land when Al Capone took over Cicero in 1924, muscling his way in with gun-toting hoodlums on Election Day. And many residents were happy to hear his beer wagons rumbling through the streets en route to speakeasies.
More than 80 years later, this sleepy-looking suburb of blue-collar bungalows and strip malls a few miles west of Chicago still hasn't shaken its reputation for mob influence, political scandal and corruption, even as leaders insist they've put it behind them.
"The organized crime mystique _ that's the reason for our image," says town spokesman Ray Hanania, insisting President Larry Dominick has "taken politics out of town government" since taking office in 2005. The story of Cicero and the mob, he said, is "a great story and it's easy to write but it's unfair."
Critics, though, say corruption still hangs thick in the air.
About a week ago, former town President Betty Loren-Maltese returned to Chicago after 6 1/2 years in prison for fleecing taxpayers of more than $12 million in a mob-related insurance scam. The money paid for an island golf course in Wisconsin, a horse farm and a summer home for reputed mob boss Mike Spano, who went to prison along with Loren-Maltese.
Loren-Maltese was boosted into politics by her late husband, former Cicero town assessor Frank "Baldy" Maltese, who was indicted on corruption charges in the early 1990s along with Rocco Infelice, reputed one-time boss of the Cicero mob. Maltese pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 1993 but died of cancer before going to prison. Infelice died behind bars.
No sooner had the once-jovial Loren-Maltese _ sporting her trademark flamboyant hairdo but grim and silent behind large dark glasses _ arrived Monday to start a four-month term in a halfway house, than news surfaced that she and her elderly mother were receiving health insurance benefits from the very town fund that Loren-Maltese was convicted of looting.
Hanania said Loren-Maltese received the benefits under a law she "rammed through" while still in office that provides coverage to all Cicero elected officials for life, and her mother got insurance for serving on the police and fire commission for 10 years.
By Tuesday, officials in the town of about 85,000 decided her mother wasn't entitled to the coverage because she never held elective office, and terminated it. But that wasn't the only problem, critics say. Dominick, a hefty ex-cop who served on the Cicero force for years, also has found jobs for a number of his relatives on the town payroll, including a son who works as the human resources director.
"I think they haven't really changed since the Al Capone era in their approach to government and politics and civic decency," says Andy Shaw, head of Chicago's Better Government Association. "This is the town that time forgot."
Not that some things haven't changed.
Scantily clad prostitutes no longer saunter in the neon haze outside the mob-connected strip joints that flourished along Cicero Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s. Gone are the no-name prize fighters who once slugged it out in a little arena in a cloud of colored smoke and flickering strobe lights.
"The place was crawling with vice and gambling," said John Binder, author of "The Chicago Outfit," a history of the city's organized crime family. "It was the same story in some other little suburbs where the mob could get its hooks in, but Cicero was sort of the crown jewel, maybe because of its location close to Chicago and because Capone pushed his way in there."
Now it all seems comparatively tame. Almost.
In February 2003, a massive pipe bomb erupted on a quiet street in Berwyn, a neighboring suburb. The explosion blew away the front of a company that distributed the video poker machines that federal prosecutors say were used for illegal gambling throughout Chicago and its suburbs.
Prosecutors said it was organized crime's way of delivering the message that horning in on its monopoly on video poker machines was dangerous _ and at the time, the biggest distributor of the machines in the western suburbs was based in Cicero.
It was owned by Michael Marcello, whose brother, James Marcello, went to prison for life following the 2007 Operation Family Secrets trial, the biggest mob case in Chicago in decades. Michael Marcello also went to prison after pleading guilty to racketeering and other offenses for running a gambling business and paying the government's star witness in the Family Secrets case, Nicholas Calabrese, to keep mum.
Then in 2008, Cicero jewelry store owner Mark Polchan and Samuel Volpendesto, a tiny, white-bearded, 86-year-old former manager of a Cicero strip joint, were indicted on charges of blowing up the Berwyn video poker company.
Last year, the charges against the two men became part of a larger, racketeering indictment that added five other defendants, including a Cicero police officer. All have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial in September.
Originally reported by Mike Robinson on 2/21/10.
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