Joseph "the Clown" Lombardo was at a workbench in his small Near West Side shop, where masonry saws and tools are sharpened, when 10 federal agents swarmed in.
One agent waved a grand jury warrant, another carried a cotton swab. The agents dabbed the inside of Lombardo's mouth with the swab--gathering DNA--and were gone in less than two minutes.
Lombardo, a longtime Chicago Outfit leader who publicly swore off his mob ties after being released from prison in 1992, is one of more than a dozen mob bosses and associates who are subjects of a new federal probe into long-dormant mob murders, some dating as far back as three decades.
A federal grand jury is investigating at least 16 unsolved killings, making it one of the biggest law-enforcement strikes against organized crime in Chicago history. Sources close to the investigation--dubbed Operation Family Secrets--and attorneys for some of the alleged mob members say they expect the grand jury to hand up indictments as early as next month.
Convictions on this scale would be unprecedented. The Chicago Crime Commission counts 1,111 Chicago-area gangland slayings since 1919, but only 14 have ended in murder convictions and three cases were cleared when the suspected killers were murdered before being arrested, according to the commission. The crime commission is a non-profit group of civic leaders that aim to improve public safety.
Prosecutors not only have new DNA technology drawing out evidence from old cases but also have cooperating witnesses, including at least one member of the notorious 26th Street Crew, sources said. Nick Calabrese, a high-ranking crew member, spent years in a Michigan federal prison before turning informant and fingering past associates in several murders, according to sources.
Working on the tips, federal investigators have fanned out across the Chicago area, swabbing more than 30 known Outfit associates for DNA samples to try to link them to some of the area's most notorious gangland slayings.
Like the 1974 murder of Daniel Seifert. Scheduled to testify against Lombardo and other Outfit members in a Teamsters pension loan fraud case, Seifert was slain by shotgun blasts by ski-masked men outside his Bensenville plastics factory as his wife and 4-year-old son watched.
Federal prosecutors hope DNA from a hair strand lifted from one of the ski masks found under a getaway car in that case could link Lombardo to the crime scene.
Though the investigation has focused heavily on the 26th Street Crew, investigators have tossed a wide net, hoping to snare members of different crews in cases ranging from the 1970 disappearance of Michael Frank "Bones" Albergo, a 220-pound organized crime muscleman, to the 1986 murder of Anthony Spilotro, the Outfit's man in Las Vegas who fell out of favor with his bosses. He and his brother, Michael, were beaten and buried in an Indiana cornfield. Dust and sand found in their lungs indicated they had been buried alive, officials said.
Top mob bosses probed
Besides Lombardo, other mob associates that agents are investigating include John "No Nose" DiFronzo and Jimmy Marcello, considered two of the Outfit's top-ranking bosses, a source familiar with the investigation said.
"It's a pretty massive investigation from the stuff I'm hearing," said Rick Halprin, Lombardo's attorney. Halprin said Lombardo, now 75, was at a Chicago police station reporting a stolen wallet at the time of the Seifert murder.
Albergo, an alleged loan shark for the mob, was scheduled to stand trial on charges of criminal usury and conspiracy when he disappeared in September 1970. Authorities at the time speculated he may have been killed for not realizing he was making illegal loans to an undercover Chicago policeman.
In 2003, Albergo's name resurfaced when FBI agents excavated an edge of the parking lot at U.S. Cellular Field, reportedly looking for his bones, sources said. Calabrese led authorities to the site, the sources said.
Two other murders expected on the indictment are those of William and Charlotte Dauber, who were gunned down by rifle and shotgun blasts in a car chase on a rural Will County road in 1980. The couple's bodies were found sprawled across the front seat of their Oldsmobile, with three of its windows blown out and its front end crushed against a tree.
William Dauber, a reputed Outfit hit man who authorities believed was responsible for more than 30 slayings, had been arrested on federal drug charges and mob leaders feared he would turn informant.
One of the more notorious slayings expected on the indictment is that of Anthony Spilotro.
The Outfit's enforcer in Las Vegas, Spilotro had angered his bosses by indulging in a series of burglaries, dope deals and murders that brought unwanted federal attention.
In June 1986, the Spilotro brothers made national headlines when a farmer discovered their bodies in the Indiana cornfield. The pair had been badly beaten and stripped to their underwear before being buried alive. (The scene would be reproduced in the 1995 film "Casino.")
Three months later, John Fecarotta, a longtime muscleman for the 26th Street Crew, was shot to death in a doorway of a bingo hall on West Belmont Avenue. Informants said he was killed for botching the burials of the Spilotro brothers, according to court documents.
Such violent tasks--beatings, murders, torture and disappearances--many times fell to the 26th Street Crew, believed by federal authorities to be the Outfit's enforcement arm and expected to bear the brunt of the upcoming indictment.
The crew's strong ties to Outfit leaders and its violent reputation made it the top choice of mob bosses for carrying out killings, said Robert Whisman, an FBI agent who investigated the 26th Street Crew from 1984 to 1993.
Mob trusted violent crew
"When [Outfit bosses] needed someone killed, they called people they trusted," said Whisman, now an agent with the FBI's Kansas City office. "They needed people who couldn't talk on them because they had already killed people. There were several people from the 26th Street Crew who had killed people. They were the logical choice."
Led by street captains such as Angelo "the Hook" LaPietra and John "Johnny Apes" Monteleone, the 26th Street Crew--one of six street crews that investigators say operate as part of the Chicago Outfit--prowled a territory south of the Eisenhower Expressway that included Chinatown's gambling dens and South Side auto chop shops.
The 26th Street Crew--also known as the "Chinatown Crew" or "South Side Crew"--emerged in the 1950s and flourished through the '60s and '70s, collecting a cut of revenues from the area's storage and trucking companies, railroad depots, junkyards and chop shops, or auto yards that dismantle stolen cars. Crew bosses reported to and delivered a percentage of all revenue to Chicago's head mob boss at the time.
Truck hijackings and cartage thefts were common, said Vincent Inserra, who headed the organized crime squad of the Chicago FBI office from the early 1960s to the mid-'70s.
"They were known for bombings," he said. "Not necessarily to kill people. But if they wanted to put fear into the hearts of people, that would do it."
Gambling made the 26th Street Crew big money and established it as a vital spoke in the Outfit wheel, according to court documents and federal agents. Headed by Frank "Skids" Caruso from the late 1950s through the 1970s, the crew set up illegal backroom betting parlors to take wagers on everything from horseraces to Chicago Bears games and doled out "juice loans," where money is lent at extortionate rates.
If a gambler couldn't cover his loss, the crew would offer him a juice loan to pay it back, said Jack O'Rourke, a former FBI agent who monitored the 26th Street Crew for more than 10 years. If he fell behind on juice payments, it meant baseball-bat beatings, torture or death, O'Rourke said.
The 26th Street Crew was also responsible for Chinatown, located just blocks north on Wentworth Avenue.
Using Asian liaisons such as Joe Wing and Ken Eto and their own enforcers, the crew collected a cut of the action from the illegal Fan Tan and Maj Jong games operating behind the neighborhood's storefronts.
When Asian heroin flooded Chicago's Chinatown in the 1970s and '80s, the crew took a piece of profits as well, charging dealers and helping to enforce payments without dealing directly in the drugs, court records show.
Under LaPietra, the crew's boss in the 1980s, the epicenter for the crew became the Old Neighborhood Italian-American Club, at its former location of 26th Street and Princeton Avenue. Crew bosses and enforcers dropping off payments would enter under the "Members Only" sign over the door and discuss dealings or join illicit crap games in the back room.
LaPietra's nickname, "the Hook," came from his reputation for hanging enemies from meat hooks while torturing them to death.
Standing just 5-foot, 5-inches with thick glasses and heavy-lidded eyes, LaPietra was beloved in his neighborhood. He invested in community projects and held a block party every summer.
Outfit devoured its own
But behind the cheery benevolence simmered a world of violence, and the mob hit no one harder than its own.
When mob bosses suspected that William "Butch" Petrocelli, an up-and-coming mob thug, had skimmed collection money and shaken down a group of robbers without permission, they resolved to teach him a lesson, court documents say. According to a federal informant, Petrocelli was called to a meeting in December 1980, questioned, tortured and murdered. His body was found three months later wrapped in a sleeping bag in the backseat of his car on a Southwest Side street. His face had been charred with an acetylene torch.
Later, according to court documents, an informant told agents the 26th Street Crew had been involved and LaPietra had done the actual killing.
Chicago went without an apparent Outfit hit for at least five years in the late 1990s, until Ronald Jarrett, a reputed lieutenant in the South Side Crew and friend of Nick Calabrese, was shot as he walked to his car in front of his Bridgeport home on Dec. 23, 1999. He died about a month later.
The Jarrett slaying, which sources said will be part of the indictment, could implicate a number of high-ranking mob associates because of the enemies Jarrett had earned within the Outfit. Known as one of the syndicate's more vicious thugs, Jarrett had a penchant for assaulting police officers and for luring women away from men at bars, O'Rourke said.
Around the time he was shot, Jarrett had been clashing with other Outfit members, including top leaders of the 26th Street Crew, he said.
"Everyone hated him," O'Rourke said. "When he was killed, we had more suspects than we could count."
In recent years, investigators say the crew has been headed by Frank "Toots" Caruso (Skids' son and a nephew of the late Ald. Fred Roti, who was convicted of federal racketeering and extortion charges in 1993) and Frank and Nick Calabrese, according to federal sources.
Caruso, his brother Bruno and other Outfit members had also infiltrated the Laborers unions in Chicago and its district council that controlled a billion-dollar union pension fund, according to testimony at federally monitored union hearings. After prompting from federal prosecutors and reformers in the union, union leaders removed them from their locals.
As its leaders have lost their previous jobs in unions and government, law enforcement officials said the 26th Street Crew today has become a lot less visible--though still operative--organization.
LaPietra died in 1999 of natural causes after serving 11 years in a federal prison for skimming money from a Las Vegas casino.
Old habits die hard
Yeong Shun Video and DVDs now occupies the storefront of the former Old Neighborhood Italian-American Club. New riverboat casinos have stolen a lot of the bookies' business and the last-known gangland murder occurred in November 2001, when Anthony "the Hatch" Chiaramonti, a 26th Street associate, was shot outside Brown's Chicken & Pasta in Lyons.
Enforcement officials said much of the Outfit, including the 26th Street Crew, have become more sophisticated, investing in legitimate businesses and curbing their violent impulses.
But some habits--threatening competitors, leaning on customers, pulling political connections--still linger, officials said.
"The minute things get tough, when business starts slipping," said one longtime Outfit investigator, "they go back to their old ways."
Tribune staff reporters Ray Gibson and Art Barnum contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times