The lawyer started with "Good afternoon, Mr. Calabrese," but things didn't stay cordial for long.
Nicholas Calabrese, who had already acknowledged in testimony Thursday that he was "a rat" for testifying against his brother and other mob figures, was quickly cast by the defense as a mass murderer, racketeer, arsonist and liar.Attorney Joseph Lopez, who is representing Calabrese's brother, seemed intent on provoking Nicholas Calabrese during cross-examination, even suggesting he could have avoided becoming an Outfit killer or mob traitor by hanging himself.
Calabrese, the government's star witness in the landmark Family Secrets trial in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, said he took part in 14 murders for the Chicago syndicate out of fear that he would have faced death himself if he refused.
"I was loyal because I was afraid," said Calabrese, barely raising his voice. "I was a chicken and a coward because I didn't walk away from it."
It was also his fear that he could be executed for murder that led him to turn stool pigeon for the federal government, he said.
"That's why you're sitting [on the witness stand] rather than sitting over at that table next to your brother," said Lopez, looking toward his client, Frank Calabrese Sr. The flashy lawyer, his normally colorful clothing toned down to an all-black suit, shirt and tie, paced around in front of Calabrese.
Frank Calabrese Sr. sat a few yards away, his eyes and head sometimes bouncing back and forth between his attorney and his brother like he was courtside at a tennis match.
During his four days of testimony this week, Nicholas Calabrese, 64, has described how he had gradually been drawn into Outfit life, collecting high-interest "juice" loans and keeping gambling books for his brother before graduating to an accomplice and then a triggerman in mob hits.
Calabrese portrayed himself as a reluctant participant, too scared to say no to his ruthless older sibling.
Lopez asked Nicholas Calabrese if his brother had ever called him a coward.
"There's not many names he didn't call me," Calabrese said.
On Tuesday, Calabrese testified that he wet his pants while he, along with his brother, buried his first murder victim, a fact that Lopez couldn't resist in his questioning.
Reminding Calabrese of the time in early 2000 when he learned that the FBI had matched DNA to him from a bloody glove left at one murder scene, Lopez asked, "When you learned that, you really wet your pants, didn't you?"Calabrese admitted he was concerned. Lopez pressed him, asking if he knew he couldn't beat DNA evidence. "That's correct," said Nicholas Calabrese, staying mostly unruffled.
"You didn't want to get fried either, is that correct?" Lopez asked, referring to the death penalty.
"That's correct," Calabrese said.
The longtime mob insider acknowledged agonizing over his decision to assist the government. He said he waited until his daughter finished high school to avoid bringing embarrassment to his family. Calabrese said he contacted the FBI in 2002, offered to cooperate and rid himself of "a load" he had been carrying. He was then in prison, finishing up a sentence for helping his brother's violent juice-loan operation.
Lopez repeatedly challenged Calabrese's version of his Outfit work, asking him over and over why he didn't just leave Chicago and move to California or elsewhere to avoid the mob and his supposedly evil brother.
"That's why I'm a coward," Calabrese replied.
Lopez asked if Calabrese hadn't in fact reveled in the life of a mobster,
"No, I didn't like the fact that people would look at me and respect me for that," he answered. "And it was only a very few people that knew."
Before his life of crime, Nicholas Calabrese said he had held legitimate jobs, working in radio communications for the Navy, an ironworker on the the John Hancock Center construction project and even as a Cook County security officer at the courthouse in Maywood.
But he drifted into organized crime, Calabrese said, eventually becoming his brother's "stooge." The two were convicted in 1995 in a racketeering case. Also convicted were his nephews, Frank Calabrese Jr. and Kurt Calabrese, who were forced into crime by their father, he said.
Lopez questioned Nicholas Calabrese about why he seemingly had no problem killing. Calabrese testified Wednesday he had a cup of coffee after taking part in the 1986 murders of mob figures Anthony and Michael Spilotro.
"You didn't have a problem drinking that coffee did you?" Lopez asked.
"Yes, I did," said Calabrese, his voice shaking slightly.
"You drank it anyway, didn't you?" retorted Lopez.
"I didn't drink it all," Calabrese answered.
Calabrese admitted he lied to the FBI after he began to cooperate, at first concealing co-defendant James Marcello's role in the Spilotros' killings because Marcello had been paying his wife $4,000 a month while he was in prison.
Lawyers for Joey "the Clown" Lombardo and former Chicago Police Officer Anthony Doyle, who are among those charged in the sweeping conspiracy case tied to 18 mob hits, also cross-examined Calabrese.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel halted the questioning at one point to tell Doyle's lawyer, Ralph Meczyk, to stop badgering Calabrese over inconsistencies in his statements to the FBI.
Lombardo's attorney, Rick Halprin, leaned over a lectern, asking in a booming voice about Calabrese's accusation Wednesday that mob hit man John Fecarotta once told him in a restaurant that Lombardo had been involved in the murder of federal witness Daniel Seifert in 1974.
Halprin noted wryly that he couldn't call Fecarotta to the witness standbecause Calabrese had fatally shot him in the head. Still, Halprin scoffed at the idea that Fecarotta would have discussed the Seifert slaying with Calabrese.
"Did he order pie and coffee when he told you about the murder?" Halprin asked sarcastically.
Earlier Thursday, while still under questioning by prosecutors, Nicholas Calabrese detailed the Fecarotta slaying, the last of the 14 murders he said he took part in.
Calabrese said Fecarotta had displeased his mob bosses because of money problems and his once leaving Phoenix before completing a hit. Calabrese said he was selected to carry out the hit because Fecarotta, wary that he was a marked man, trusted him.
Fecarotta was misled into thinking he and Calabrese were headed to bomb the office of a dentist who had run afoul of the Outfit, Calabrese said. But as Calabrese reached into a bag to "light the fuse" of the bomb, he instead pulled out a gun as the two sat in a parked car outside the dentist's office.
"He caught the play," said Calabrese, testifying that a struggle ensued. "I believe I shot myself when I shot him."
Fecarotta fled from the car and Calabrese took off after him. As he chased his onetime friend, Calabrese said, he couldn't help but recall that two other mobsters had wound up in the trunk of a car dead after botching a hit.
"My mind is going, 'If I don't do this and he gets away, I'm dead,'" Calabrese testified. "I have to catch him and I have to shoot him."
Calabrese said he caught up to Fecarotta before he reached the back door of a bingo hall and finished him off with a shot in the head.
As he walked from the area, Calabrese said he thought he had slipped into his pocket the black golfing gloves he was wearing. But the gloves fell to the ground and were recovered by police. More than a decade later, blood on the gloves from the gunshot wound Calabrese sustained was matched by authorities to him through DNA, the break that enabled authorities to win his cooperation and construct the larger investigation that became Operation Family Secrets.
During his cross-examination, Lopez insinuated it was impossible to know when Calabrese was truthful, under oath or otherwise. Lopez asked Calabrese if he had lied to Fecarotta with a straight face before shooting him.
"If I had a straight face, yes," Calabrese replied.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun