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A court revival of Chicago's mob past

Seven men are headed to trial this week. Prosecutors bill it as the broadest attack on city crime bosses in history.

June 17, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — The seven men scheduled to appear in federal court this week in connection with 18 murders from the glory days of the Chicago mob will offer a look at the current face of the storied crime organization.

It's a worn-out and faded visage.

Joseph "The Clown" Lombardo, known for skimming profits from Las Vegas casinos and for his courtroom antics, is 78. Frank Calabrese Sr., allegedly involved in more than a dozen murders, is well into his golden years.

An eighth defendant, Frank "The German" Schweihs, 77, a reputed mob enforcer, is battling cancer and so ill that U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel ruled Friday that he's not healthy enough to stand trial right now.

Some of their names and many of the crimes they are accused of have been relegated to the pages of mob history books and the memories of crime buffs. The 18 murders took place from 1970 to 1986.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Chicago mob: An article in Sunday's Section A about the Operation Family Secrets trial opening this week said Nicholas W. Calabrese had confessed to participating in 15 murders. The number is 14.

But in their day, the men were powerful and fearsome figures, prosecutors say -- men who didn't blink at ordering the slayings of foes or federal witnesses in such places as a Bensenville, Ill., plastics factory, an Indiana cornfield and a Chicago bingo hall.

When jury selection starts this week at the Dirksen Federal Building in the case dubbed Operation Family Secrets, prosecutors will begin what they say is their broadest attack on organized-crime leaders in Chicago's history.

"The families of these crime victims care that justice is served," said attorney Dean Polales, who used to head the special prosecutions section at the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago. "No time is a bad time to bring charges for such serious crimes."

In a city where bus tours have pointed out mobsters' homes -- and a city that has more FBI units to investigate corruption than any other in the nation -- a courtroom filled with organized-crime figures is hardly unusual.

What is rare about Operation Family Secrets is that so many alleged leaders of the Chicago mob have been charged at once -- and that, according to the indictment, prosecutors are seeking to use racketeering laws to have the so-called Chicago Outfit itself declared a criminal enterprise.

The case involves, among other crimes, two of the Midwest's most notorious slayings. Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro, the Chicago mob's chief enforcer in Las Vegas, and his brother Michael were severely beaten and buried in an Indiana cornfield in June 1986. In the 1995 movie "Casino," Joe Pesci's character was based on Anthony Spilotro.

The defendants, who were indicted in 2005, face charges of racketeering conspiracy including, in some cases, the planning or committing of murder, obstructing justice, or being part of illegal gambling ventures on behalf of the Outfit.

The accused include three men who authorities say headed some of Chicago's most powerful neighborhood crews: Lombardo, believed to have run the Grand Avenue crew; Calabrese of the South Side/26th Street crew; and James Marcello of the Melrose Park crew, reputedly the top boss of the Chicago Outfit. The indictment accuses Marcello, along with others, of murdering the Spilotros.

Lombardo, Calabrese, Marcello and the other five defendants pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors have declined to say why it took so long to charge the men. But part of the problem was simply locating them. The indictment named 14 men, some of whom were then living in such retiree hotspots as Arizona and Florida.

Two died, apparently of natural causes, before ever going to trial. One of them was Frank "Gumba" Saladino, accused of murder, who was found dead at an Illinois hotel the morning that the indictment was unsealed and he was to be arrested. At the scene, authorities discovered nearly $100,000 in cash and checks.

Part of the draw of the Family Secrets prosecution is that it provides a glimpse into how authorities, empowered by DNA technology and federal racketeering laws, have been able to curtail current scams while methodically clearing cold cases.

Though the crimes may be old, the details remain chilling.

In 1974, a federal witness was gunned down at his plastics factory -- in front of his wife and 4-year-old son. In 1977, a man's headless body was discovered bound inside an abandoned car in a police auto pound. And in 1980, a mob hit man and his wife were riddled with shotgun blasts on a deserted country road.

The case is being closely watched by retired law enforcement officers in other former mob strongholds, particularly in Las Vegas, where the Chicago Outfit once held interests in several casinos.

But the Outfit's influence dwindled over the years as its leaders died of old age, were killed by rivals or were sent to prison.

Now the Chicago crews are a shadow of their former selves, hanging on to a minimal take from topless clubs and the occasional burglary, said former federal prosecutor Donald Campbell, who is now a private attorney in Las Vegas.

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