The former cop and death row inmate was callous and calculated, quoting military tactics as he considered which of two targets it made the most sense to kill in order to take over their chunk of a lucrative strip club, federal authorities allege.
"You chop the snake's head off. Pow," Steven Mandell allegedly told an undercover informant in September 2012 as a hidden video recorder rolled. "I still don't think you have a clear path on how it plays out, but at least we'd be on our way, wouldn't we?"
In the end, Mandell decided to kill the more vulnerable of the two — and his wife if necessary — then place a threatening phone call to the second target's wife to convince him to walk away, according to transcripts of the secret recordings filed recently in federal court. And in case anyone thought the Chicago Outfit's infamous Elmwood Park crew didn't have muscle anymore, Mandell had a special message.
"Tell that (expletive) husband to leave this situation alone, or else," Mandell said he would tell the wife, according to the government filing. "'Cause I'll show you what Elmwood Park really looks like. I can get really nasty."
On the FBI video, Mandell then drew a hand across this throat and made a "slitting sound," the filing said.
The chilling new details have emerged a month before Mandell, 63, is set to go on trial in U.S. District Court in connection with a series of alleged plots, including a gruesome scheme to kidnap and extort a local businessman, then kill him and dismember the body.
Now, through details provided in the court record, the Tribune has confirmed that the strip club associate Mandell had allegedly planned to kill, identified in the government filing only as "Victim 2," was Anthony Quaranta, a former Franklin Park cop known as "Tony Q." He also allegedly targeted Quaranta's associate, Demitri Stavropoulos, a highly paid "consultant" at the Polekatz strip club in suburban Bridgeview who was identified in the court record only as "Associate 1."
The court document also paints a more detailed picture of just how reckless and daring Mandell — formerly known as Steven Manning — had allegedly become before his sensational arrest in October 2012.
According to the government filing, for several weeks that fall, Mandell and his alleged associate, Gary Engel, were conducting cloak-and-dagger surveillance of Victim 2's pregnant wife while at the same time outfitting a vacant Northwest Side storefront with the industrial equipment needed to chop up a body as part of the separate plot to kill the businessman.
At one point, the FBI was conducting aerial surveillance as Mandell crouched down next to a car in a suburban mall parking lot, allegedly to install a tracking device on the car of one of his girlfriends, according to court records.
In recent months, Mandell's case has also been linked to the suspicious death of Giacomo Ruggirello, a Lake County restaurateur who perished in a fire in September 2012. The Tribune has previously reported that someone had broken into Ruggirello's Highwood restaurant on the same day as the fire and taken the office safe. Mandell's attorneys have subpoenaed the records from the suspected arson investigation.
Authorities have alleged that Mandell's schemes didn't stop with his arrest. Days later, he called his wife — an 82-year-old Buffalo Grove woman — from a federal Loop jail and asked her to get rid of evidence in the case, his indictment alleged. Prosecutors have also alleged that Mandell tried from jail to arrange the murder of the FBI's key informant in the case — a man previously identified by the Tribune as Northwest Side real estate mogul George Michael.
Originally from the Italian section of Chicago's Near West Side known as "The Patch," Mandell's criminal history goes back to his days as a Chicago cop in the 1970s and '80s. After he was booted from the force for insurance fraud, Mandell was accused of taking part in a mob-connected jewelry theft ring and other alleged schemes, including the kidnapping and extortion of several drug dealers in Kansas City, records show.
Mandell was eventually sent to death row for the drug-related 1990 slaying of a trucking firm owner, and at his sentencing prosecutors linked Mandell to two additional unsolved murders, including the 1986 killing of his own father, Boris, according to court records.
Both his murder and Missouri kidnapping convictions were overturned on appeal after Mandell alleged authorities fabricated evidence and used a notorious jailhouse snitch to frame him. He sued the FBI and won a landmark $6.5 million in damages from a federal jury in 2005. However, a judge later threw out the award, and Mandell did not receive any money.
Records show that after the jury verdict, Mandell moved to Florida, married and started a lock and safe company out of his wife's home. When he returned to Chicago, he had changed his last name from Manning to Mandell, records show.
Mandell's trial in February will focus on a series of undercover recordings made in fall 2012 at Michael's Northwest Side realty office and the storefront on West Devon Avenue jokingly referred to in recordings as "Club Med," where Mandell and Engel allegedly planned to dismember the businessman's body.
While much of the transcripts have been blacked out for undisclosed reasons, the portions that have been made public in court filings highlight the allegedly disturbing nature of the conversations that jurors in Mandell's trial are likely to hear.
Prosecutors allege Mandell and Engel planned to wage "psychological warfare" on the kidnapping victim to coerce him to turn over his assets. In an undercover FBI recording made at Club Med in the days before the planned kidnapping, the two discussed everything from how to instill the most fear in their victim to how best to drain his body of blood.
According to one prosecution filing, Mandell was referring to the victim's genitals when he asked his alleged accomplice, "You going to put a little blade there?"
"It's like slicing a banana split," the filing quoted Engel as responding.
Following his arrest in October, Engel was found hanged in his jail cell in McHenry County, a death that has been ruled a suicide.
According to court records, Mandell was also captured talking extensively about Quaranta and Stavropoulos and their stake in Polekatz, a multimillion-dollar strip club in the south suburbs that has been engulfed in controversy over its murky finances and alleged ties to felons and organized crime associates.
Stavropoulos, identified by the Chicago Crime Commission as an organized crime associate, was brought on as a $5,000-a-week consultant at the club about a year after his release from prison for running a multistate bookmaking ring, according to court records.
A 2010 Tribune investigation also documented how Stavropoulos partnered with another alleged underworld figure, Michael "Jaws" Giorango, and borrowed millions from the family bank of former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who at the time was running for the U.S. Senate. Giorango and Stavropoulos used the money to launch their own lending business that made high-interest, short-term loans to questionable borrowers, the Tribune found.
Quaranta, meanwhile, quit the Franklin Park police in late 2002 at about the time prosecutors dropped charges that he had illegal steroids delivered to his house, records show. He later lent about $500,000 to Polekatz and became a highly paid consultant to the club. Records show that in addition to his interest in Polekatz, Quaranta either owns or has a financial interest in four other strip clubs and taverns from suburban Bedford Park to Indiana and Texas.
Quaranta did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. His attorney, Ed Wanderling, returned a message left on Quaranta's cellphone and said he could not comment on a pending investigation or "what Steve Mandell's ideas or plans were." Wanderling said he was not aware of any plans by prosecutors to use Quaranta as a witness in Mandell's trial.
Reached by telephone recently, Stavropoulos declined to speak about the case. When asked about Mandell, Stavropoulos responded, "Who?"
According to the filing by federal prosecutors, to move in on the Polekatz action, Mandell decided that it made more sense to kill Quaranta, who has no criminal record and would therefore have an easier time fighting the takeover in court if he was left alive.
On the recordings quoted in the government filing, Mandell ruminated how Stavropoulos understood muscle and would step aside once he saw that Mandell meant business.
"Although he's got a big ego, when he sees what happens to (Quaranta) and his old lady … he might (expletive) all over himself, too," Mandell allegedly said of Stavropoulos.
Mandell developed a plot to kill Quaranta and his wife at home while their children were in school, according to the government filing. He lamented it might be a "rush job" but was ready to ad lib if necessary, according to the undercover recordings.
"I know from military strategy what George Patton said, battle plans are as good as the first shot fired," the government filing quoted Mandell as saying. "Once that first shot's fired, you're almost into improvisation, right?"
Mandell's attorneys had sought to have the wiretaps barred from trial, arguing the FBI could have used normal investigative techniques to stop the alleged schemes. In denying the request last month, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve quoted snippets of a wiretapped conversation from almost a month before Mandell's arrest that showed he had planned to act dumb and lawyer up if authorities came around asking about Quaranta's murder.
"How can I help you with this (expletive)?" Mandell said he would tell investigators, according to the government filing. 'Wow — he was — this is a murder investigation? … I have a lawyer to attend to this. They'll gladly handle all your questions."
Mandell then planned to point investigators in another direction by remarking on Quaranta's background as a strip club operator.
"Italian guy, Franklin Park cop who runs five joints? That smells like organized crime," Mandell said he would say. "I think you're in the wrong neighborhood. Go beat on someone else's door."
Thanks to Jason Meisner and Joseph Ryan.
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