Frail, wizened and wheelchair-bound with a heart complaint, 78-year-old Joey Lombardo hardly cuts the figure of a ruthless Mafia godfather allegedly behind more than a dozen Chicago murders in the 1970s and 1980s. But to the authorities in the Windy City, the gangster nicknamed ”the Clown” for his wisecracks and sharp wit is perhaps their biggest catch since Al Capone almost 80 years ago.
Lombardo and a handful of senior associates appeared in a federal court this week on conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges, at the start of a four-month trial that promises more intrigue than an entire series of the gangland drama The Sopranos.
At its heart is Lombardo, the reputed former head of the powerful Chicago ”Outfit” whose alleged victims include the underworld rival Tony Spilotro, buried alive in an Indiana cornfield in 1986, and whose murder was later recreated in the film Casino.
Lombardo, who was on the run for almost a year before his capture by FBI agents last January, joked to a judge at his pre-trial hearing that he had been, ”what do they call it, unavailable”, when asked if he had seen a doctor recently.
A colourful supporting cast includes an array of mob squealers, bent cops, loan sharks, bookies, hit men and pornographers whose testimony, prosecutors hope, will lift the lid on more than two decades of mafia violence in one of the US’s most crime-ridden cities.
”It’ll be many years before there’s anything to rival this,” Lee Flosi, a former member of the FBI’s organised crime task force told the Chicago Tribune.
Lombardo, who joined the Chicago Outfit in the 1950s and served eight years for conspiracy in the late 1980s, revels in his reputation as a prankster. He enjoys yawning to spoil police mugshot photographs and was said to have fled a police raid on a gambling den clutching $12Ã‚Â 000 and a book of jokes.
One friend said he was ”more liked than the priest” in the West Side neighbourhood where he used to coach baseball to children.
Prosecutors, however, are keen to play up the seriousness of the allegations against him. Jurors, who have been promised anonymity for their protection, will hear that Lombardo, and his fellow leaders of the so-called Outfit, James Marcello and Frank Calabrese Sr, were allegedly responsible for up to 18 unsolved slayings in Chicago, along with running the usual mob activities of illegal gambling, protection rackets and prostitution rings.
The defendants were indicted along with 11 others in 2005 after an intensive FBI operation that investigators code-named ”Family Secrets”, because it involves a mob captain, Nicholas Calabrese, giving evidence against his brother about Spilotro’s murder.
Yet only five of the ageing defendants remain to stand trial, including Marcello and Calabrese, 65 and 71 respectively; the Outfit’s alleged leading loan shark, Paul Schiro (69), and an ex-Chicago police officer, Anthony Doyle (62). Those to have fallen by the wayside in the two years since the indictment include Frank Saladino, who was found dead in a New Hampshire motel room along with thousands of dollars in cash, and Frank Schweihs, a 77-year-old alleged Outfit enforcer, who has been excused from the proceedings because he is undergoing treatment for cancer.
Some mafia experts believe that a higher success rate in the Lombardo case might have been achieved if tackling gangland crime had been made a higher priority. ”It’s taken a long time for law enforcement officials and federal authorities to do to the mob in Chicago what authorities in New York have been doing for 20 years,” said Jerry Capeci, editor of the ganglandnews.com website.
”Back in the 1980s, authorities there were obtaining racketeering indictments against entire families.”
Lombardo’s health, meanwhile, is likely to become a recurring theme at his trial. While in custody last September, he underwent heart surgery after his lawyer repeatedly complained that the authorities were ignoring his chest pains. While he was on the run, he wrote to a federal judge that he refused to give himself up because medical care in prison was ”a farce”.
The trial will carry another captivating subplot — what is certain to be a bruising locking of horns between several veteran lawyers of mob trials. The assistant US attorney Mitchell Mars was behind the 1992 conviction of the mobster Ernest Infelise, who was sentenced to 63 years for conspiracy to murder, while fellow prosecutor John Scully is credited with jailing a corrupt former Chicago police chief, William Hanhardt, who was involved in a series of jewel thefts in 2001.
Rick Halprin, counsel for Lombardo, is a former marine who was wounded in Vietnam, and says he plans to argue that his client cut all ties with the mafia in the early 1990s, even taking out a newspaper advertisement to publicise the fact. ”Those things just aren’t true,” he said of a claim by a retired FBI agent, Jack O’Rourke, that Lombardo was ”vicious and a killer, [the Outfit’s] prime enforcer”.
Although the trial is touted as the last of Chicago’s great mob courtroom dramas, Capeci believes that the mafia continues to thrive in Chicago and elswhere. ”Despite pronouncements that the law enforcement community has issued for decades about the mob being dead, it’s alive and well in major metropolitan areas around the country,” he said. ”There are a lot of wannabe gangsters looking to move up into the hierarchy of organised crime.” — Ã‚