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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Police said the slaying appears to be unrelated to the beating. Others--including the judge, prosecutors and the Cook County state's attorney--have expressed doubt, noting that the gunmen did not rob Cutler's friends but took the time to pull a relatively inexpensive class ring from his finger, a traditional way mob hit men prove they've gotten their target.

With the prosecution's case teetering, the Caruso family mounted a public relations campaign. Frank "Toots" Caruso Sr. preached racial tolerance on local cable TV programs. He and his wife, Sherry, began attending black churches and making appearances with African American ministers, especially the influential Rev. Herbert B. Martin, an advisor to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and former director of the South Side branch of the NAACP. Chicago magazine published a story headlined "Frankie & ZeZe," detailing a budding friendship between Frankie Caruso, who was out on bond, and Martin's teenage daughter.

Some Bronzeville residents were incensed that prominent African Americans were socializing with the Carusos and accused Martin and other black leaders of taking Mafia payoffs.

"There is not one scintilla of truth to that," said Martin, who added that he had known the Carusos for a decade. "I felt that the best thing I could do was bring people from both sides . . . to church to begin the healing." The elder Caruso did not return requests for comment.

On Sept. 10, with police on heightened alert, Frankie Caruso went on trial.

One witness was dead. One was missing. And a third, Tom Simpson, told the jury more than 125 times that he didn't recall what happened. Still, Caruso was convicted of aggravated battery and committing a hate crime. He was acquitted of attempted murder. On Oct. 15, Locallo sentenced him to eight years in prison.

But without DeSantis' testimony, prosecutors felt they might lose the case against Jasas and Kwidzinski.

"Ironically, the disappearances and conspiracy of silence helped Jasas and Kwidzinski and didn't help Caruso--if that's what they were supposed to do," prosecutor Robert Berlin said.

So prosecutors offered Jasas and Kwidzinski plea bargains. While Caruso headed off to prison, his friends pleaded guilty to battery and got 300 hours of community service and probation.

The following day, Clark's mother, Wanda McMurray, joined Caruso's parents at Martin's church and suggested to reporters that Caruso's sentence might have been too harsh. "[Prosecutors] have been acting like it was just all [Caruso's] fault, and that's not true," McMurray said. "He never [pleaded guilty], but the other two guys pleaded, saying that they did it." Numerous attempts to reach McMurray also were unsuccessful.

The threats against Locallo began two days before a hearing in which Caruso's attorneys would ask that his prison time be reduced. It came in the form of a phone call from a Caruso supporter. "He said, 'Oh, if you could find it in your heart to reduce the sentence, that would show everybody that you're a compassionate judge,' " Locallo recalled. " 'And frankly, if not, I fear for your safety.' "

At the hearing, the Caruso family was joined in its plea for leniency by Martin, Clark's mother and Wallace "Gator" Bradley, an ex-Gangster Disciples street gang member who was then running for a seat on Chicago's Board of Aldermen.

When the judge denied the request, the gallery erupted. Within days, law enforcement sources said, Caruso backers, including some African Americans, organized an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Locallo in the Nov. 3 elections.

On Nov. 20, seven months after he disappeared, DeSantis turned himself in. His attorney, James Cutrone, would say only that he had been coerced by police into implicating his friends.

Judge Is Warned of Contract on His Life

And with that, a case that initially had seemed as simple as it was senseless finally appeared to be calming down.

Until two men in dark suits knocked on Locallo's door in January. They were FBI. And they had come to pass on a bit of advice. The judge should get some bodyguards, a mob informant had suggested. A contract was out on his life.

Frank Caruso Sr. vehemently denied any knowledge of the threat. And some longtime mob-watchers say the alleged contract didn't seem to be the work of any serious mobster--that "whacking a judge would be very bad for business," in the words of one law enforcement official.

After three weeks, the watch was lifted. "Let's just say that the FBI visited some people and said [a hit] wouldn't be such a good idea," Locallo explained.

More than two years after the beating, Clark and his mother have moved to a slightly more integrated Chicago neighborhood. He wants to be a rap star. Caruso is in prison. Jasas and Kwidzinski are on probation.

Legally, the only loose end is the case against DeSantis, who faces felony charges of fleeing to avoid testifying. Socially, the loose ends are many. And the expressway has perhaps never seemed wider. "I really haven't seen an issue that has divided the communities more," said Melody Spann-Cooper, general manager of WVON radio, which caters to black listeners. "It's all just heartbreaking."

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