"I had a choice of two titles, right? Rat, or cold-blooded murderer. And I chose rat," said Frank Calabrese Jr., former heir to the Chicago Outfit's Chinatown Crew and the author of a tell-all mob book. "Neither is a title good to have. But I had to make a decision."
Calabrese Jr. was dressed in dark clothes, sitting at a table with his back against a restaurant wall. He is not in the federal witness protection program, and he talked about that choice in a flat, quiet voice.
It was a voice that weighs things out, an unemotional voice, and if a meat scale could talk, it would have a voice just like that. Calabrese Jr. says he's changed his life, and made amends, but I could picture him years ago, using that voice on some bust-out gambler who owed his father Outfit juice, the son collecting, asking, "You're late this week. Where's my $5,000?" as he neutrally sized up the meat in front of him.
"I don't feel like a rat," he told me. "And afterward, I didn't go run and hide. But I'm not going to stand on the corner and flex my muscles.
"My father had these multiple personalities. There was the good dad and the evil dad. One minute, you're dealing with the caring, loving father who hugs and kisses you, and looks out for you. Then it changes. You see it in his eyes. I think he lost his soul," said Frank Jr. "I would have followed this guy anywhere. I didn't buy into the Outfit. I bought into my father. All I cared about was my father being proud of me. And he didn't watch out for me or my brothers."
Thus Frank Jr.'s book, "Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime Family". I get the feeling it is a must-read among Outfit types and their political puppets. And it is a story of fathers and sons.
Frank Jr. kicked off the famous Operation Family Secrets investigation of the Chicago Outfit. While in federal prison in 1998, he wrote a letter to the FBI volunteering to help them against a fellow inmate: his own father, Chinatown Crew boss Frank Calabrese Sr.
He wore a wire and recorded his father, and that led to the cooperation of hit-man uncle Nick Calabrese. By the time the Family Secrets trial was done, more than a dozen Outfit hits were solved, and his father, other hit men and bosses like Joseph "The Clown" Lombardo and Jimmy Marcello were given what amount to life sentences.
I remember Frank Sr. as stumpy old man in court, the one credited with strangling his victims before stabbing them in the head with a knife, a brutal loan shark and the hammer for the real boss of Bridgeport and Chinatown, the late Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra.
"Here's what he taught his son," said Frank Jr. "To manipulate. To find a guy with a business, with money, and he'd say, 'Make him feel close to you. Make him feel secure. And then somebody's going to come and scare the guy and he'll run to me. And then we'll get a piece of his business. And once we get a piece, there will be a little more, and a little more. If it's a bad week, I don't care, where's my money? And we'll slowly drain the business.'
"What happens is that you start getting numb to having feelings. And it becomes normal to threaten. These are the things my father taught me."
Calabrese's publicity tour this week began with Monday's story about Borders canceling his book-signing events after receiving anonymous threats. He's scheduled to be at the Union League Club for lunch Friday, discussing the case with former federal prosecutor T. Markus Funk, a member of the prosecution team whose own life was allegedly threatened by Calabrese Sr.
In the book there is talk of murders and beatings, extortion and treachery. But that is standard fare. What makes this book different is the dysfunctional family. The sons are in mortal fear of the patriarch. That's what will sell it as a movie.
Frank Sr. isn't receiving many visitors these days in federal prison. So I called Calabrese Sr.'s lawyer, criminal attorney Joseph "The Shark" Lopez, who isn't impressed by the son.
"I think there are some people who would blame the father for the sins of the son," Lopez said. "Some might say the father was out of order by talking to the kid. But the father was angry. He beat up his son because the son admitted to using and selling drugs. And the son stole a lot of money from his father."
In the book, the son admits to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling proceeds from hiding places. During the trial, the father claimed the son stole millions more, a charge the son denies.
"The son has always wanted to be in the movies," said Lopez. "Now he's written this book, he's done the publicity stunt about the threats although he's not in danger from anyone, and now his book will probably become a movie."
I can see it as a movie that begins in sentimental fashion, a father and his sons spending quality time together. But they're not tossing a ball and having some boring game of catch. Instead, they spend time together, collecting.
Collecting politicians, collecting gambling debts, collecting victims.
Thanks to John Kass
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