Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Mob's Worst Nightmare

by Libby Hellmann

While many in Chicago are still consumed by the indictment of former governor Blagojevich and the alleged criminal organization he created, another criminal organization – once the foremost crime syndicate in Chicago and quite possibly the world—was in the news two weeks earlier.

The final chapter of the "Family Secrets" trial ended March 26 with the sentencing of its star witness, Nick Calabrese. For those of you who come from another planet, the federal Family Secrets Trial in 2007 convicted a top Mafia boss and four other high-profile members of the Chicago Outfit of over a dozen murders spanning three decades. The brother of one of the accused, hit man Nick Calabrese, turned states evidence and informed on his brother as well as others.

The trial dominated Chicago news during the summer of 2007, as much for its drama as the expose of the mob’s activities. Raising the curtain on what arguably had been a feared institution, it revealed the backstories of the men involved. Yes, we heard Joey the Clown deny he murdered anyone, but we also heard about the fear of being a young Mafioso; we heard about bumbling mistakes; we even saw an occasional flash of humor. In that sense, the trial was a watershed event. It’s easy to fear the unknown, but once one has peered “behind the screen,” once the personalities are more than cardboard or Hollywood stereotypes, it’s harder to be afraid.

Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen, who covered the trial from start to finish, has chronicled it in his just-published Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob. Full of vivid details and anecdotes, it reads like a novel and should be required reading for anyone who follows the Outfit. Below are some of his thoughts about the trial and its impact, taken from an interview I did with him.

Given Nick Calabrese’s relatively light 12 year sentence, what message was Judge James Zagel (who coincidentally will be trying Blagojevich) sending?

Coen: I think Zagel had different messages for different audiences. He did stop and tell the families of victims that they wouldn't like the sentence, but that the law allows for undeserved leniency in these kinds of situations. In a perfect world, Nick would spend the rest of his life in prison for what he did, but the justice system has to allow breaks for some people like him. If you sentence him to life, same as a Joey Lombardo, then what incentive do future Nick's have to come forward? That's the message to criminals - if you do what's right, there might be hope that you don't have to be locked up for good. It was a tough job for the judge to try to balance this one out.

What was the most surprising or significant development that came out of the Family Secrets trial?

Coen: Some of the surprises were in the details of the high-profile murders. The public record, so to speak, was corrected on the killings of the Spilotro brothers, for example. What really happened - not the "Casino" version (a film made about their murders) - was revealed. That included the stunning testimony about Anthony realizing what was happening and asking to pray. Some of the other things I was struck by were more mundane. I think the trial really offered a rare glimpse of what the everyday, grind-it-out lifestyle was for these guys. You could really imagine what it would be like to be a Nick, driving around to meet juice customers and pick up envelopes and run sports books. Overall I think the most significant part of it is just the place the case and the trial hold now in city history. I was attracted to it as a book project in part because I wanted to preserve that.

How much has the Outfit’s power and influence waned as a result of the trial? What other organized crime syndicates are powerful these days?

Coen: I think the case definitely damaged the Outfit and drove what's left of it even further underground. There are fewer street crews now, and they've retreated into basic activities, such as gambling. Family Secrets was sort of the mob's worst nightmare. It saw the Outfit charged in a conspiracy case as an organization, and saw the first made member in Chicago history testify against it. There aren't lots of people eager to become the public face of organized crime here or draw too much attention.

In terms of organizations that do the most damage these days, in Chicago it is obviously street gangs. They are often less organized than something like the Outift, but they certainly ruin entire communities with narcotics and violence. Street gangs here are responsible for as many killings in two or three years as the Chicago Outfit has been credited with in its whole history. The Chicago FBI aims a lot of resources at major gang cases.

The Chicago Police, especially the rank and file, aren’t happy with Jody Wies. Morale is said to be at an all time low. Do you believe it? What do you see as the repercussions?

Coen: I would agree morale is probably as low as it's been in recent memory. I used to work at the main criminal courthouse in Chicago, and don't recall the kind of ill will we see today toward the Superintendent. Weis has dealt with some scandals, and embarrassments like the 14-year-old who went on traffic patrol. None of that helps, and the police union is still working without a contract. As far as repercussions, maybe it's mixed in terms of what we see on the street. Some important stats have shown some improvement - such as murders being down this year. But over the long haul, you don't need a department that's tearing itself apart.

As far as the Outfit goes, interestingly enough we are about to see another case with police entanglements. There's a case the feds are working out of Cicero that has police there tied up with a crew and running surveillance on FBI agents who were running surveillance on some Outfit guys.

It's always something.

That’s Jeff’s take. What’s yours? (Btw, you can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffCoen)


Dana King said...

Thanks, Libby. This book is going to be a must read for me. I followed the Family Secrets trial pretty closely, often through the excellent reports on Steve Warmbir's excellent blog, THE OUTFIT ON TRIAL. I even paid for a transcript of James Wagner's testimony as research for the book I was writing at the time.

I'm sure the trial has dealt a serious blow to the Chicago Outfit, but I also suspect they may be like the seventeen-year locusts, willing to rest underground until the time is right for a renaissance.

Violette Severin said...

Uhm. . . Rod didn't start a criminal organization in IL government. Bill Cellini did. Rod is merely a follower just as George Ryan and Jim Thompson were. I have heard whispers that current and former state employees are talking about Cellini. If this is true, there is more bad publicity about our state coming.

Libby Hellmann said...

Good point, Violette. You're right.

Dana, be sure to get hold of this book... you;ll appreciate it.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, thanks for staying on top of this.

Dana King said...

Libby (and Jeff, if you're following the thread),

My daughter bought me FAMILY SECRETS for Fathers Day. (Is she a great kid, or what?) All of the kudos are deserved. I've read all of Connie Fletcher, Bill Roemer, Gus Russo's THE OUTFIT, and Robert Cooley's WHEN CORRUPTION WAS KING. FAMILY SECRETS does an excellent job of bringing the lay devotee up to date on the Outfit's activities and organization. it's a good, if harrowing read, that should disabuse anyone of romantic notions about organized crime and "men of respect."

Well done.