After stopping momentarily to flirt with the blond court reporter and swearing to tell the truth with a raspy "I do," Joey "the Clown" Lombardo lowered himself onto the witness stand with the help of a cane.

The 78-year-old with a Caesar haircut leaned toward the microphone Tuesday afternoon and took off his rounded eyeglasses, settling in to answer his lawyer's questions at the landmark Family Secrets trial.With the revelation last week that one of the city's quirkiest reputed mob figures would take the stand in his own defense, his testimony became one of the most anticipated moments in a trial that already has earned a place in Chicago mob lore.

A long line of spectators waited for a seat in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse's largest courtroom, filled to capacity with federal judges, FBI supervisors, veteran federal prosecutors, a flock of reporters and dozens of the simply curious.

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Defense attorney Rick Halprin wasted no time in getting to the heart of the charges, asking Lombardo whether he took part in killing federal witness Daniel Seifert in 1974 and whether he was a "capo" in the Chicago Outfit.

"Positively no," Lombardo responded to both questions.

Lombardo is a reputed organized-crime figure with a flair for humor and theatrics, known for once leaving a court date with a mask made of newspaper to hide his face from cameramen. Another time he took out advertisements disavowing any mob ties.

When the Family Secrets indictment came down two years ago, he vanished, writing the judge letters asking for his own trial before he was apprehended in the suburbs sporting a beard that resembled the one Saddam Hussein grew while hiding in his spider hole.

Brought to court for the first time in the case, Lombardo announced he simply had been "unavailable."

On Tuesday, he was at center stage again, telling jurors how he worked the streets as a youngster, shining shoes of police officers in his Grand Avenue neighborhood. They paid him only a nickel a shoe, he said.

"Very cheap people," said Lombardo, sending a wave of laughter through the courtroom.

"Let's not press our luck," shot back Halprin, trying to keep his client focused.

"You told me to tell the truth," countered Lombardo, drawing more laughter.

The guffaws, some from other defense lawyers in the case, brought a stern warning from U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who said he didn't see anything funny about a sweeping conspiracy case that includes the murders of 18 individuals.

Lombardo, one of five men on trial, took the stand as the best way to flesh out his defense that he was essentially an errand boy for powerful mob-connected businessmen such as Irwin Weiner and labor racketeer Allen Dorfman, who ran an insurance agency that did business with the Teamsters. He contended he has always held legitimate jobs and got caught up in criminal conduct through friends.

The jury knows about Lombardo's celebrated convictions from the 1980s for attempting to bribe U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) and for skimming millions of dollars from the Stardust casino in Las Vegas.

Lombardo set about to describe his work history, starting with shoe shining and detouring briefly to his dice game. Lombardo acknowledged he ran one, blessed by city aldermen, from 1976 until the bribery indictment.

"I didn't have time to play dice because I was on trial," he said matter of factly.

Lombardo, dressed in a conservative gray jacket and silver tie, sometimes rubbed his hands in front of him as he testified and sometimes played with his glasses. He often gave brief answers in a sing-song tone and looked toward the jury as he talked.

Lombardo said he worked a dumbwaiter at a hotel, drove trucks, built two six-flats in a small construction business and worked at a salvage warehouse.