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National Perspective | COMMUNITY

Beating Case Is a Bizarre Tale of Mafiosi and a Racial Divide

A black boy is kicked into a coma in Chicago, setting off unlikely spectacles and confounding the judicial system.

July 01, 1999|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — On the evening of March 21, 1997, a 13-year-old African American boy pedaled his bike west, beneath the Dan Ryan Expressway and across an invisible line that separates the largely black neighborhood of Bronzeville from largely white Bridgeport. For his transgression, three white teens kicked Lenard Clark into a coma.

The crime was brutal enough to make national headlines but not unusual enough to keep it there. After all, the city's recent catalog of sensational crimes then included two older boys dropping a 5-year-old out a 14th-floor window and an 11-year-old murder suspect executed by his own friends.

But as the story of Lenard Clark slipped to the inside pages of the local papers, the case began to spin into a tale bizarre by any standard.

First, the key witness vanished.

A second was shot to death.

A third gave police a detailed account of the attack but told a jury more than 125 times that he forgot what happened.

And the judge in the case was put under 24-hour guard after a Mafia informant told the FBI there was a contract out on his life. Clark's main assailant was the son of a reputed mob boss.

Along the way, the case has been punctuated by unlikely spectacles: Mafia figures socializing with black street gang members, the prime defendant spending time with the daughter of a well-known black minister, Clark's mother pleading for leniency for the attackers even as her son was relearning to walk.

While initially uniting this racially divided city in outrage, the convoluted case has further stressed relations both between racial communities and within them. It has confounded the judicial system, stumped law enforcement and tried nearly everyone's sense of justice.

The story begins on the near-South Side of Chicago, on the border between Bronzeville and Bridgeport--communities separated physically by the 12-lane Dan Ryan Expressway and psychologically by a broad racial divide.

Bronzeville is largely poor, the remnant of a once-thriving neighborhood laid low by drugs, gangs and despair. Bridgeport is a gritty, middle-class community of Italian, Irish and Polish descendants. Home to the Daley political family and the legendary Chicago Democratic machine, it is also a center of mob activity.

Racial tension between the neighborhoods stretches back generations but, until the beating, had begun to ease.

But Clark wasn't thinking about all that while riding his bike. He was thinking about his tire. It was low on air.

A service station in Bronzeville offered air for 25 cents. One in Bridgeport had air free. Clark and two friends headed for the free air, police say.

At the same time, 18-year-old Frankie Caruso--whose father is a longtime boss in the mob "crew" that oversees Bridgeport, according to federal court documents and local authorities--was headed to a party with several friends.

"I'm gonna beat the ---- out of [them]," Caruso said, according to his friends' police statements. "They shouldn't be in this neighborhood."

Caruso and two buddies took after the boys. Clark's friends escaped, but Caruso knocked Clark from his bike. Then the attackers chased a crying Clark into an alley, where they slammed his head against a wall and kicked him into a coma.

After the Talking, Everybody Clams Up

Several witnesses told police that Caruso, Victor Jasas and Michael Kwidzinski all bragged about the beating. But only two people saw the attack that left Clark in a coma for two weeks and caused the brain injuries from which he only recently has recovered.

One was a neighbor who could not identify the assailants. The other, prosecutors said, was Caruso's friend, Richard DeSantis. DeSantis, police learned, was also the son of a reputed mob figure.

Caruso's friends gave police statements two days after the beating. It was all the information prosecutors would get.

"In a case like this, somebody's dad talks to you, and somebody's lawyer talks to you, and pretty soon everybody clams up," said Wayne Johnson of the Chicago Crime Commission, a nonprofit group that keeps tabs on the local mob.

Caruso, Jasas and Kwidzinski were each indicted on two counts of committing a hate crime and one count of attempted murder and aggravated battery.

The trials were set to begin in April 1998 when DeSantis disappeared. So Judge Daniel Locallo postponed proceedings while federal agents looked for DeSantis.

Meanwhile, the prosecution's second key witness was busy enjoying his summer vacation. On May 15, Michael Cutler went out with some friends and, shortly after midnight, pulled up to a curb on Chicago's West Side to drop them off. As they left the car, two men approached Cutler, announced a robbery and shot him once in the chest.

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