The Unmaking of the Mob Men

Times Staff Writers

It has always been about the murders.

Behind Joey “the Clown” Lombardo’s courtroom antics and oversized glasses, behind Frankie “the German” Schweihs’ alleged shakedowns of adult bookstores well into his golden years, behind the Chicago outfit’s scrounging for profits from Las Vegas strip clubs and the Philly mob’s suicide wars and the destruction of the New York families in federal courtrooms, the American fascination with organized crime has always turned to murder and its consequences.

The federal conspiracy indictments handed down in Chicago this week against Lombardo, Schweihs and a roster of oddly nicknamed toughs reminded a public lulled by the soap opera theatrics of “The Sopranos” that the modern-day mob may be splintered, aging and perpetually on the verge of extinction -- but they apparently still know how to kill.

“These guys aren’t cartoon characters,” said James W. Wagner, former supervisor of the FBI’s organized crime unit in Chicago. “They’re three-dimensional people who have something missing in their makeup that allows them to destroy other peoples’ lives.”


The Chicago indictments provide portents of the mob’s future across the country: exhausted capos and bumbling foot soldiers eager to finger each other, and authorities so emboldened by federal racketeering laws and DNA forensics that they are able to rummage through unsolved crimes while snuffing out current schemes.

“The mob of old is unrecognizable now,” said Ronald Goldstock, former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. “What you’re seeing now in Chicago and elsewhere are mopping-up operations.”

This week’s indictments also are very much about the past, an excavation of 18 slayings that occurred in places like a Chicago bingo hall, a Bensenville plastics factory and an Indiana cornfield. That’s where Anthony “the Ant” Spilotro, the Chicago outfit’s main man in Las Vegas in the 1970s, was buried along with his brother, Michael, after they were beaten to death. The legendary 1986 hit was recounted in the film “Casino.”

In Chicago, federal agents scrambled Wednesday to find Lombardo and Schweihs, both 75, who failed to turn themselves in after the indictments. The two are presumed to be on the lam -- or perhaps homicide victims themselves.

“They could be in a hospital someplace,” said Wagner, chief investigator for the Illinois Gaming Board. “I’m sure the FBI is knocking on all the appropriate doors.”

In Las Vegas the indictments came as welcome news to retired law enforcement officials who spent years keeping tabs on the mobsters’ money-making schemes.


The Chicago outfit once had interests in several casinos, authorities said, but its influence has waned, and it now clings to a paltry take from topless clubs and bars. Donald J. Campbell, a Las Vegas lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said that the Chicago mob had scaled “back to their traditional street rackets: loan-sharking, burglary and the like.”

Law enforcement long had suspected the Chicago outfit in the Spilotro case, convinced the notoriously vengeful brothers had been killed for their outsized public notoriety.

“The last thing Chicago wanted,” said Kent Clifford, a former commander with the Las Vegas Police Department, “was to turn the spotlight on the money they were making here.”

Organized crime in Chicago has had its own problems in recent years with reputed members’ addiction to the spotlight. Although Lombardo has been tagged by mob watchers as either the outfit’s titular leader or its senior advisor, he also has been a wiseguy’s wiseguy.

He jokingly hid his face behind a newspaper with eyeholes cut out to avoid photographers waiting for him outside a courthouse where he was on trial. He served 10 years in a federal prison in Pennsylvania for trying to bribe a U.S. senator and skimming profits from Las Vegas casinos. Soon after his 1992 release, Lombardo placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune asking anyone who heard his name “used in connection with any criminal activity” to report him to his parole officer.

“It was his way of giving the finger to people,” said Thomas B. Kirkpatrick, president of the Chicago Crime Commission.

Schweihs was also well-known, a reputed enforcer whose German background was a throwback to the multiethnic pre-Al Capone days. Schweihs owned a restaurant in the Oldtown entertainment district and frequented the crowded piano bars and cabarets on Rush Street. He was a big tipper, Kirkpatrick said, who would “shush the crowds like a librarian so he could hear the music better.”

The two men are among a group reportedly involved in a string of killings dating to 1970. The crimes were carried out with ruthless efficiency. The owner of a plastics factory was riddled by shotgun blasts in 1974 in front of his wife and 4-year-old son. A man suspected of skimming mob profits was tortured with an acetylene torch. A suspected mob assassin and his wife were gunned down on a rural county road.

Most of the slayings appeared to have been business-like retribution. A few were more savagely personal. But each killing, mob experts said, sent a warning to fellow criminals and the world outside.

“It’s the fear of what could happen to you that keeps everybody in line,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s not only who they whack, but the fact that they’re able to do it and get away with it for so long that allows them to keep getting the results they want.”

Lombardo, the reputed head of a Southside fiefdom known as the Grand Avenue crew, was one of three alleged outfit leaders targeted in the indictments. The others are James Marcello, 63, who ran the Melrose Park crew and is in federal prison in Michigan serving time for racketeering and extortion, and Frank Calabrese Sr., 68, of the South Side/26th Street crew, who reportedly was given up in one of the killings by his nephew.

Like many successful federal mob prosecutions in recent years, the Chicago indictments are based on use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which has enabled prosecutors to target organized crime interests with conspiracy counts.

The case is also reportedly bolstered by the cooperation of Nicholas Calabrese, the nephew, and by another turncoat. A spate of high-profile informants in recent years has spelled the end of the omerta oaths that once enforced mob silence.

In July, Joseph Massino, head of the old Bonanno crime family in New York, was found guilty of racketeering and extortion after he was betrayed by his best friend and seven other informants. And John Gotti, the “Dapper Don,” died in federal prison in 2002, having been fingered by confessed hit man Sammy “the Bull” Gravano. The Bull was convicted that same year of running an Ecstasy distribution ring in Arizona and now faces murder charges.

“These new guys coming into the mob, they haven’t done much jail time like the old capos; they’re spoiled and they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives shut out of sight,” said Frank Wallace, who headed the Philadelphia Police Department’s Organized Crime Squad in the early 1980s.

Wallace watched as the city’s mob toppled into a two-decade war of attrition that cannibalized its upper leadership, leaving untested junior mobsters who killed each other with gusto -- when they could aim straight.

The last of the Philly mob’s older generation was Harry “the Hunchback” Riccobene, a pint-sized gambling and loan-shark boss who took each prison sentence with good humor. When Wallace visited Riccobene in prison and urged him to talk “before one of these kids ratted on him,” Riccobene demurred.

“Mr. Wallace, I gotta tell you, there are worse things in life than spending your life in prison,” Riccobene told him.

Even when the aging mobster escaped a botched assassination attempt in a phone booth, he never talked. But in 2001, mob lieutenant “Skinny Joey” Merlino and other leaders of Philadelphia’s dispirited mob were convicted of racketeering and other charges after the organization’s boss, Ralph Natale, testified for the government.

“We’re down to the dregs of the mob now,” Wallace said. “It’s fifth-tier guys.”

Veteran mob watchers in Chicago say that city’s criminal organization has not yet plunged to the Philadelphia organization’s level.

But the convictions of Lombardo, Schweihs and Marcello -- and a cast of lesser characters known as “Gumba,” “The Indian” and “Twan” -- would leave gaping vacancies in the ranks. Vacancies, however, can always be filled. And veteran capos like Lombardo and Marcello reportedly are well-versed in handling affairs from behind bars.

“I hate to say it, but the death of the mob is greatly exaggerated,” Wagner said. “We’ve had a lot of success in the last few years, but they’re not out of business yet.”


Braun reported from Washington and Goodman from Las Vegas.