Fear, not passion, drove Outfit killer

Even Outfit hit men have feelings.

They can strangle tiny pet shop mice, fixing tiny nooses around their necks and hanging them from your windshield wipers as a warning. But that's work, not fun.They can kill human beings with bats and ropes, though mostly with guns, shooting their friends as they beg for mercy.

But don't accuse Outfit assassin Nicholas Calabrese of being a serial killer. Serial killers do their thing with passion and hatred. Outfit killers do it for money and fear.


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You're a serial killer, shrieked one of the defense attorneys in the historic Family Secrets trial of Outfit bosses and stooges.

Calabrese, the government's star witness, who has admitted to at least 13 hits, is a quiet, pale man. He became quieter still. His chin got longer, somehow, and there was some grief on the bones of his face. Outfit hit men don't let lawyers frazzle them, but he did sigh at the insult.

"I'm a killer, but I'm not a serial killer," Calabrese said.

Defense attorney Joseph Lopez, representing Calabrese's brother, Frank, ticked off a list of Nick's sins. Murders, lies, oaths broken, from the oath of silence when Calabrese became a made member of the Outfit to betraying friends before he shot them in the head. Lopez questioned Calabrese's manhood and loyalty.

"I was loyal because I was afraid. And I was a chicken and a coward because I didn't walk away from it," Calabrese said about his life in the Outfit's Chinatown crew in the politically heavy Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago.

Lopez: Aren't you a mass murderer?

"I killed a lot of people," Calabrese said. "I did it because I didn't want it to happen to me ... I was afraid if I didn't do what I was supposed to do, I'd get killed."

Lopez mentioned the holy pictures that burned in Calabrese's hands during the mafia ceremony, the made men declaring they'd burn in hell before betraying the Outfit.

Lopez: Aren't you going to burn in hell like those pictures? And you're going to burn in hell for killing all those people, aren't you?

"If I didn't [kill], I was in trouble with him," Calabrese said, referring to his brother Frank, who kept smirking and nodding like a madman from across the room.

The cross-examination from defense lawyer Rick Halprin, representing mob boss Joseph Lombardo, was equally fine, especially when Halprin brought up Nick Calabrese's killing of mobster John "Big Stoop" Fecarotta.

"I can't call Mr. Fecarotta to the stand to refute your testimony, because you killed him in 1986, correct?" Halprin asked.

Yes, Nick said.

These were well-crafted dramatic maneuvers to insult the killer, to force him to admit being a liar. And it gave the wiseguys on trial their money's worth, because they've been getting a pounding from the U.S. attorney's office and Thursday was the day their lawyers could fight back.

But all week I've sat near the jury, watching them watch Nick. When he explained that he killed his victims because he was ordered to do so and knew what would happen to him if he refused, and that he urinated on himself after the first murder because he was so afraid, it was more than theatrics. It was believable.

I know it's a mistake to try to think what's going on in the minds of a jury. And I've been waiting for this trial for years, since February 2003, when I wrote a column about Nick Calabrese disappearing from prison and into the witness protection program, which caused panic among Chicago gangsters and their political puppets.

On the street, they're frantic. New indictments in the Outfit stronghold of Melrose Park, including that of former Police Chief Vito Scavo, will be discussed Friday.

If the FBI starts checking on the political and Outfit relationships in Rush Street real estate and nightclubs, they might really cause a tsunami of fear, or perhaps a crescendo of worry.

Nick Calabrese doesn't sit before the jury like some caricature from "The Sopranos," dripping testosterone and attitude. He's not like that.

Rather, he comes off as what he is: a technician, calmly describing his craft in a professional monotone, describing how to tune the frequencies for remote control detonators for car bombs. And how to alter brake lights in cars to avoid police, and how to plan a hit. It begins by establishing behavior patterns, as the victim drives unaware, often for weeks, laughing, stopping off at restaurants, oblivious to the hunters following him, a dead man still animated, marked, ready for the hole that's been dug.

The gray-haired man in jeans and a sweat shirt with the wire-rimmed glasses could be a master plumber, an expert cabinet maker, a fellow of high intelligence and skill, with a lot of tools in the garage, all properly maintained.

Except instead of making cabinets, he killed people.

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