In the long history of the Chicago Outfit, few murders have captured national attention like the killings of Anthony and Michael Spilotro, two brothers found battered and buried in an Indiana cornfield in 1986.

On Thursday, the man reputed to be the one-time head of the Chicago mob stood before a federal judge with an emotionless stare, his hands folded in front of him as he prepared to hear his sentence for his role in the Spilotro killings. James Marcello's expression didn't change as U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced him to life behind bars.Marcello was believed to be the highest-ranking mobster felled by the 2007 Family Secrets mob conspiracy trial, and he was held responsible for its marquee murder.

The Spilotros were killed for bringing too much heat to the mob's lucrative arm in Las Vegas, then headed by Anthony Spilotro. The brothers' deaths were immortalized in the movie "Casino," which showed them being beaten with bats in a farmer's dark field.


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The Family Secrets trial cleared up many of the myths surrounding the killings. Testifying for the government, mob turncoat Nicholas Calabrese explained how the brothers were actually lured to a suburban Chicago home with the promise of promotions but were jumped in a basement by a hit team.

In some of the most riveting testimony of the trial, Calabrese recounted how the men walked down the basement stairs. Realizing his fate, Anthony Spilotro asked whether he could say a prayer.

That moment was not lost on one of their brothers, Patrick Spilotro, a suburban dentist who aided federal authorities in the Family Secrets investigation. Spilotro was one of three relatives to address the court during Marcello's sentencing hearing and ask for a just punishment.

Those who "denied my brothers a prayer ..." he said, his voice trailing off, "deserve no mercy."

Prosecutors alleged Marcello drove Calabrese and others to the murder scene. He might have known how his actions would hurt others, Patrick Spilotro said, as Marcello lost his father in an Outfit killing.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Markus Funk argued for a stiff sentence, describing Marcello as more cunning, courteous and adept than the other mob figures at the trial. In short, he was management material.

"That is why he, unlike them, is in a different position in the Outfit," Funk said.

Marcello's lawyers, Marc Martin and Thomas Breen, told the judge there was little they could say that had not been repeated often during the trial. Marcello pleaded not guilty and always maintained his innocence, they said.

"Mr. Marcello has denied his involvement in the Spilotro brothers' murder as well as [a third murder]," Breen said. "That's all he can do."

When Zagel offered him a chance to address the court, Marcello declined, as many convicted reputed mobsters have historically done.

The judge then echoed Funk as he handed down the sentence, saying Marcello had shown self-control and judgment throughout the trial, unlike others who had sometimes come unglued.

It was most significant to Zagel that "you could have done better," the judge told Marcello. "You know how to do better."

Marcello spent most of the hearing looking relaxed in a dark olive suit, even when the son of another of his victims turned from the courtroom lectern to stare him down. Bob D'Andrea's father, Nicholas, was beaten to death in 1981 while mob leaders were questioning him about an unauthorized attempt on the life of a ranking Outfit member.

D'Andrea told Marcello to imagine his father's pain as he was beaten with the butt of a shotgun while tied up in the back of a car. One day, Marcello will have to explain himself to God, D'Andrea said.

"I hope Mr. Marcello has some good answers for him," he said. "That's not life. That's eternity."

At the defense table, Marcello sat still, one hand resting on his cheek.

jcoen@tribune.com