If you're interested in understanding the real Chicago -- and there can be no serious understanding of this completely political city without examining the Chicago Outfit -- then you'll soon have a great new book on your shelves:
"Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob" (Chicago Review Press) by Chicago Tribune federal courts reporter Jeff Coen.Yes, Coen is a colleague of mine who is well-respected in our newsroom. But the reason I recommend this book is that I've followed Coen's work chronicling this case. His careful eye and clean writing style have produced years of compelling Tribune stories and now this authoritative account of one of the most amazing Chicago Outfit cases in history.
It involves the FBI's turning of Chicago Outfit hit man Nicholas Calabrese into a top witness and informer. Calabrese's access and insight into unsolved murders, offered up at trial by the expert killer and brother of a Chinatown Crew boss, were more than astounding. And, in a creepy but necessary way, illuminating.
Calabrese, a deadly though perpetually terrified hit man, testified against the bosses about more than 18 gangland murders in the federal Family Secrets case. Now mob bosses including his brother Frank, Joey "The Clown" Lombardo and Jimmy Marcello, and fellow hit man Paul Schiro will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Later this week an Outfit messenger boy -- Anthony Doyle, a former Chicago police officer who worked in the evidence section and who visited Frank Calabrese in prison to discuss the FBI's interest in an old bloody glove -- also will be sentenced.
From the witness stand, Doyle gave Chicago one of my favorite words, "chumbolone," the Chinatown Crew's slang for idiot or fool. He deserves a long sentence. Federal mob watchers consider him to be close to the Outfit's current overall reputed street boss, Frank "Toots" Caruso.
Outfit helpers like Doyle, placed in sensitive government posts, in politics, in law enforcement, in the judiciary, in city inspection and business licensing bureaucracies, have long allowed the Outfit to form the base of the iron triangle that runs things.
"Doyle was one of the most interesting aspects of the case," Coen told me this week. "Here you have a police officer as a mole telling the Outfit when evidence in a murder was being sought by the FBI. I don't think the public is aware of the effort that goes into placing people in low-key clerical positions that give them great access, people that can fly under the radar."
Doyle learned the FBI was interested in a glove worn by Nick Calabrese in the murder of John Fecarotta, who himself received an Outfit death sentence for botching the 1986 burial of brothers Tony and Michael Spilotro.
"If Nick doesn't drop that glove, the FBI doesn't have the physical evidence to tell him he'd be going away forever," Coen said. "Without the glove, they wouldn't have Nick."
Nick's testimony involved the planning and surveillance of his victims, and the final end that came to them, either by a remote-controlled car bomb on a suburban highway ramp, or shotguns from a van along a country road near Joliet, or the laying on of hands and feet and ropes in a suburban basement.
The movie "Casino" depicted Outfit brothers Tony and Michael Spilotro beaten to death in an Indiana cornfield. That's how many of us thought they were killed, until Family Secrets revealed that they were actually beaten and strangled in a Bensenville basement.
In the gangster movies, the hit men are usually the roughest characters. But Calabrese wasn't a movie hit man, he was a real one, so frightened that he wet himself during his first killing.
On the witness stand and in the book, he comes off like what he is, a nerd of homicide, a man plagued by a sickening fear that settled on him at the first one and became like a second skin, and he found one way to deal with that fear -- meticulous planning.
"He was nothing like a movie hit man," Coen said. "During testimony, he looked like somebody you'd bump into at a store in your neighborhood. But if the bosses pointed him at somebody, they could sleep, knowing the murder would be done."
On my shelf, there are books I consider to be indispensable to truly knowing how Chicago works. There is "Clout" by Len O'Connor, "Captive City" by Ovid Demaris and "The Outfit" by Gus Russo.
And now, there is "Family Secrets: The Case that Crippled the Chicago Mob."