In the Chicago Outfit's long, sordid history, few mobsters talked tougher than Frank "the German" Schweihs, and even fewer carried out their threats with his cruel enthusiasm.

Schweihs, who died late Wednesday in federal custody after battling cancer, spent decades as a reputed enforcer for the mob's Grand Avenue street crew, gaining a reputation as a profane killer who was feared even by his cohorts in the underworld.A chance encounter with him could leave many wondering whether they had finally stepped on the wrong toes. According to testimony last summer at the landmark Family Secrets trial, at least one mobster warned his family to call 911 immediately if Schweihs was ever seen lurking around their home.

"He was the one guy that nobody wanted to see coming," said John Mallul, supervisor of the FBI's organized crime unit in Chicago. "It was bad enough to have a meeting with him, let alone see him by surprise."


Get the Baltimore Football app for iPhone and Android

The Outfit had its bosses and moneymakers, but investigators said Schweihs was known for one thing: muscle. He was among those indicted in 2005 in the sweeping Family Secrets mob case, charged with storied Outfit capo Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, who allegedly used Schweihs to collect "street tax" and eliminate enemies of the Grand Avenue crew.

He was too sick to stand trial with the others last year. The once-imposing Schweihs, 78, had appeared in court in recent months a pale, withered old man slumped in a wheelchair. His trial, set for October, had been put off for a time this year when he signed -- but later rescinded -- a do-not-resuscitate order.

Schweihs was transferred Monday from Chicago's downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center dehydrated and needing emergency treatment. He died of complications of cancer Wednesday evening at Thorek Medical Center in Chicago, said Vincent Shaw, a jail spokesman.

Authorities said Schweihs started his life in crime as head of an armed-robbery ring in Chicago in the 1950s and rose to become a reliable Outfit assassin of German descent known by mob code names that included "Hitler."

He relied on a reputation as a maniac to keep those under him in line, losing his temper and dishing out beatings for seemingly no reason, sources said.

As part of the Family Secrets prosecution, Schweihs was accused of taking part in the ambush hits on federal witnesses Daniel Seifert in Bensenville in 1974 and Emil Vaci in Phoenix in 1986. Shortly before he was to testify against Lombardo, Seifert was gunned down by three masked men outside his business as his wife watched.

The key government trial witness, Nicholas Calabrese, a mob turncoat, testified that Schweihs also played a role in early attempts to take out Las Vegas chieftain Anthony Spilotro and his brother, Michael, stalking them in 1986. In one of the most notorious gangland slayings in Chicago history, the Spilotros were later slain after returning here for a mob meeting and buried in Indiana.

Though not charged, Schweihs also had long been a suspect in other unsolved Outfit hits, as well as in the murder of a former girlfriend, sources said. Calabrese linked Schweihs to the 1983 murder of corrupt insurance executive Allen Dorfman, who had been involved with Lombardo in schemes to loot Teamster funds.

Dorfman was shot seven times outside a Lincolnwood hotel as he met a friend for lunch.

"In life, Schweihs was a vicious, ruthless, cowardly murderer and Outfit thug," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Markus Funk. "Now his case is closed."

Schweihs' attorney, Ellen Domph, said he was determined to fight the government's case to the end. He had a "loving relationship" with his three children, Domph said, and though he could be rude and threatening even in court, he had always been courteous and polite to her.

Like Lombardo, Schweihs fled after the Family Secrets indictment came down in 2005. He spent months on the lam before the FBI caught up with him and a girlfriend in Berea, Ky.

Even though he was missing from the courtroom during the Family Secrets trial, Schweihs still played a role in the historic trial that resulted in convictions of five Outfit figures, including Lombardo. To show the jury how the Outfit prospered through extortion, prosecutors played undercover tapes of William "Red" Wemette, a porn shop owner being pressed to pay mob street taxes in the late 1980s.

On the grainy video, a gruff Schweihs, wearing a baseball cap, announced that another mobster whom Wemette had once paid taxes to had gone to "open up a hot dog stand in Alaska." The shop was now under his control, said Schweihs, who didn't like hearing that someone from the Rush Street crew had come around bothering his new property.

"I don't care who it is," Schweihs barked on the undercover tape. "If it's Al Capone's brother and he comes back reincarnated. This is a declared [expletive] joint."

Schweihs would tolerate no one moving in on his turf, he said.

"I'll be looking at the obituaries," an obviously nervous Wemette replied.

In an interview Thursday, Lombardo's lawyer, Rick Halprin, called the playing of the tape a pivotal moment in the trial. Jurors had suddenly been confronted with the reality of the case, he said.

The same tapes had been used to help convict Schweihs of extortion in 1989.

"It was a very scary performance," Halprin said. "I would not dispute that."

Schweihs displayed flashes of his fiery temper even in public. At a court hearing last month, he spoke loudly to Domph and spat insults when Funk looked over in his direction.

"You makin' eyes at me?" Schweihs snarled. "Do I look like a [expletive] to you or something?"

jcoen@tribune.com