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The Secret Life of Joey "the Clown" Lombardo: Part 1

Joey "the Clown" Lombardo and several alleged Outfit compatriots go on trial this week in what may be the last housecleaning of the oldtime Chicago mob. This profile was published in the October 2005 issue of Chicago magazine, before Lombardo was nabbed in Elmwood Park. We have enhanced it (links!) for your enjoyment, and split it into three parts. Today is part one.


By Steve Rhodes

At 6 a.m. one Monday last spring, nearly 100 FBI agents fanned out to serve arrest warrants on a handful of men thought to be connected to 18 of the most gruesome unsolved gangland murders in Chicago since 1970. Teams of agents found most of the suspected wiseguys in their suburban homes or hangouts. Two were arrested in Lombard, including James "Jimmy the Man" Marcello, thought to be the current boss of the Chicago mob, otherwise known as the Outfit. Agents nabbed Marcello's brother, Michael, at his home in Schaumburg. Nicholas Ferriola, son of the late reputed mob boss Joe Ferriola, was apprehended in Westchester. Others were arrested in Hillside and Western Springs. Frank "Gumba" Saladino was discovered dead (of natural causes) in a Kane County motel room where he had been living. A retired Chicago police officer accused of acting as a mob mole while he was on the force was located in Arizona.

At a press conference that day, Chicago FBI chief Robert Grant touted the significance of the roundup, the result of a federal investigation called Operation Family Secrets. "While there have been many successful investigations during the past quarter century resulting in the arrest and indictment of high-ranking members of the Chicago Outfit," Grant said, "never before have so many in lofty positions in the Chicago mob been charged in the same case."

The man in perhaps the loftiest position, however - the one thought to be most intimately familiar with Chicago mob matters, and the final link to the Outfit's glory days of Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, the infamously mobbed-up First Ward, and organized crime's glittery reign over Las Vegas - that suspect could not be found.

At age 76, Joey "The Clown" Lombardo was on the lam.

"We thought we had everybody in pocket, so to speak, but obviously we're still looking," Grant said.

Lombardo, many believe, is Marcello's consigliere, the senior adviser whose approval even the boss must seek before making major Outfit decisions. "On a higher plane than day-to-day operations," says Jim Wagner, a former supervisor of the FBI's organized crime unit in Chicago and now chief investigator for the Illinois Gaming Board.

Lombardo ascended to his position by cunning, street smarts, and sheer ruthlessness - and in spite of the eccentricity that earned him his nickname. "[H]e was no clown; he was a deadly killer," Bill Roemer, the late FBI mob hunter, once wrote. Michael Corbitt, the late Willow Springs police chief who was secretly working for the mob, once said of Lombardo, "I believe he filled up a cemetery or two."

Lombardo was been weirdly conspicuous by his absence. The media attention last spring included an unfortunate episode in which the Chicago Tribune thought it had an exclusive: a Columbia College student gave the paper a photo purportedly of Lombardo, riding a bicycle down West Grand Avenue. The Tribune put the photo on the front of its Metro section under the headline, "Have You Seen This 'Clown'?" To the paper's horror, the cigar-smoking man in the floppy hat and overcoast merely bore an uncanny resemblance to the missing mobster, but certainly wasn't Lombardo.

Then, a week after his disappearance, Lombardo sent a four-page letter to the federal judge handling the case that outlined his surrender terms - namely a ridiculously low $50,000 bond and (also unlikely) a trial separate from those of his codefendants. He signed the letter "Joe Lombardo. A Innocent Man."

"It sounds like part of his clown routine, a real bonehead move," says Howard Abadinsky, an expert on the Outfit and a professor of criminal justice at St. John's University in New York. "But he's not stupid. That letter might be written for somebody else's review, not the judge."

Such as? "A message to the Outfit: I'm not going to flip, Abadinsky says. Just in case the mob had any ideas about making very sure Lombardo didn't - couldn't - talk.

Whatever, the letter was very Joey the Clown.

"It's kind of refreshing to have people like Joey Lombardo out there," says Peter Wacks, a former FBI agent who once helped put Lombardo away. "There aren't many left from that era, that's for sure."

Which isn't to forget the terrible crimes authorities link to Lombardo. It is to suggest an appreciate of Joey the Clown as a consummate Chicago character whose story in many ways tells the story of the Outfit in the past half century.

* * *

By law enforcement accounts, Joey Lombardo's long rise to the top of the Outfit demonstrated a remarkable versatility and savvy business sense. He began as a poor but determined street tough in the 1950s who moved ahead as a jewel thief, juice loan collector, and hit man. He rose into management, so to speak, when he took over as capo of the Grand Avenue crew - kind of like a corporate vice president getting his own division, with about 30 "soldiers" in his employ.

When it came time for the Outfit to solidify its control of Las Vegas, Lombardo turned into a major player, authorities say. The big boss, Tony Accardo, tapped Lombardo to serve in two key, overlapping roles: overseeing the Teamster union's Central States Pension Fund (otherwise known as the mafia's bank because the mob dipped into it so often to finance so many of its schemes, including the secret purchases of several casinos) and supervising the dynamic duo that ran Las Vegas for the Outfit, Tony "The Ant" Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal.

Martin Scorsese dramatized the adventures of Spilotro and Rosenthal, played by Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro, respectively, in his 1995 film, Casino. Lombardo isn't depicted in the film, and he is barely mentioned in the Nichola Pileggi book on which the film was based. But Lombardo's crucial role emerged during the federal racketeering trials in the 1980s that destroyed the mob's hold on Sin City. "We all underestimated Joey," says Wacks. "We found out later he had a huge responsibility in Vegas."

Those trials resulted in Lombardo's first conviction; like a slew of other top mob leaders snared by the feds, he did a long stretch in the pen. In organized crime, however, imprisonment is not necessarily a career-killer. As the Chicago mob retrenched, according to several former FBI agents and other experts, Lombardo managed the changes from his prison cell. Though trying to pierce the Outfit's veil to determine who is really in charge is a bit of a parlor game, mob watchers alleged that when Lombardo left prison in 1992, it was as the boss of a smaller, quieter version of the Chicago mob.

Even then, Lombardo didn't stray from his roots as a neighborhood guy. Unlike most other elite mobsters, he never moved to the suburbs. In fact, with the exception of his eight years in the joint, he has lived in the same building - 2210 West Ohio Street - for nearly five decades. And he has hardly been a recluse. Instead, he regularly padded around the neighborhood to and from card games or the masonry shop where he ostensibly worked. "This guy is a neighborhood feature," says Abadinsky.

He is also, now, a rarity. During a raid on a bookmaking operation in 1981, Internal Revenue Service agents came across a photograph that mob junkies today call The Last Supper. Taken at the now-shuttered Sicily Restaurant, on the 2700 block of North Harlem Avenue, the picture shows the Outfit's top ten leaders of the day, including Accardo, Joey "Doves" Aiuppa, and Jackie "The Lackey" Cerone. On the right, in the rear, stands Lombardo, a youthful contrast to the graybeards.

For anyone looking at the photo now, Lombardo stands out for a different reason: everyone else in it is dead.

* * *

While he may be known as "The Clown" in the press, Lombardo's nickname on the streets is "Lumpy" - 'because he was so good at pounding lumps on people's heads," says Richard Lindberg, a Chicago author and historian. Lombardo has also used a number of aliases, including Joe Padula and Joe Cuneo. But is given name is Giuseppe Lombardi, one of 11 children born to Mike and Carmela Lombardi.

The Lombardis emigrated from Bari, Italy. Like most Italian immigrants to Chicago at the time, they settled on the Near West Side, where Mike worked as a butcher, according to Giuseppe's birth certificate. "Mama and Papa were 'old country,'" says Jack O'Rourke, a former Chicago FBI agent who is now a private investigator. "And dirt poor."

Joey Lombardo once told police he committed his first theft when he was 18 so his mother could get an operation. But it's likely that Lombardo, a high-school dropout, began his wayward life at an earlier age, growing up in the same Grand-Ogden area as Tony Spilotro and Tony Accardo's Circus Cafe Gang.

In 1951, Lombardo married Marion Nigro in a Catholic ceremony at the Holy Rosary church, at 612 North Western Avenue. Nigro already lived in the two-story brick building on West Ohio Street that has become so familiar as Lombardo's home. Joey moved in, and the couple never moved out, while raising their two kids, Joseph Jr. and Joanne. (Property records show that Marion and Joanne now co-own the building.)

By the time he was 25, which would have been 1954, Lombardo owned a construction company, according to his lawyer, Rick Halprin. Indeed, Chicago Crime Commission documents describe Lombardo as a partner in Lombardo Bros. Construction at one point. He is also variously described over the years as a partner in several other construction companies; owner of the Lombardo Trucking Co. (address: 2210 West Ohio); a worker for a hot dog stand manufacturer; and the holder of hidden interests in real estate and restaurants. Lombardo started racking up a series of burglary and loitering arrests in 1954, according to Chicago Crime Commission files. (In each case he avoided conviction.)

In 1963, Lombardo first started showing up in the detailed annual reports compiled by Virgil Peterson, then the crime commission president. Chicago police had charged Lombardo and five others, including future mob bigwig John "No Nose" DiFronzo, in connection with an alleged West Side loan-sharking ring. The case centered on a factory worker who owed $2,000 and was behind on his payments. Lombardo and his pals allegedly tied the deadbeat to a beam in the basement of a bar called Mr. Lucky's Tavern and beat him "unmercifully" until he lost consciousness, according to Peterson's account. On the witness stand, however, the factory worker couldn't positively identify Lombardo, who was immediately dismissed from the case - his 11th acquittal in 11 arrests. The other defendants also won acquittals.

By the end of the 1960s, Lombardo's work for the mob covered virtually every one of its specialties, according to law enforcement allegations: loansharking, gambling, porn, and even a ring dealing in stolen furs that operated at four Midwestern airports, including O'Hare, and had the participants wearing coveralls to pose as airport workers. "He was a well-rounded crook," says Jim Wagner. And Lombardo was attending the weddings and wakes of mob members, according to a contemporary Chicago Crime Commission memo. The newspapers started calling Lombardo an "up-and-comer."

In 1967, the mob held one of the premier public social events of its history, a swanky party at the famously pink Edgewater Beach Hotel honoring the West Side overlord Fiore "Fifi" Buccieri. The 1,000-strong guest list included 200 "important crime syndicate hoodlums," according to Peterson. At least a handful of unabashed pols attended, too. The crooner Vic Damone and a 20-piece band provided the entertainment. The Chicago police called it "the largest assemblage of mobsters ever staged in Chicago."

Lombardo, of course, was there.

* * *

The story of Las Vegas still astonishes after all these years. Who would have imagined that gigantic and gaudy casinos would bloom in the desert, and that the descendants of Al Capone's Chicago mob would be there to cash in? That they would use the pension fund of a union for truck drivers, taxi drivers, and warehousemen - the Teamsters - to finance their scheme? And then coordinate couriers crisscrossing the country with suitcases of cash every week, delivering the "skim" to all the mob bosses who had a piece of the action?

In 1971, Tony Accardo sent Tony Spilotro to join Spilotro's childhood friend Frank Rosenthal to run the Outfit's operations there. As revealed by the FBI's investigations and portrayed in numerous accounts, Spilotro acted as Mr. Outsid, the street muscle who did the dirty work to keep everyone in line. (Bill Roemer titled his book about Spilotro The Enforcer.) Rosenthal acted as Mr. Inside, the brilliant innovator who took the sports book off the street and put it in the casino. Rosenthal not-so-secretly operated the largest casinos in town, including his home base, the mobbed-up Stardust.

Back in Chicago, Lombardo had proved himself as a dependable moneymaker with sharp business instincts. (FBI agents listening to wiretaps would later be surprised to hear how knowledgeably Lombardo spoke about the stories he read in The Wall Street Journal.) He did a stellar job as Grand Avenue capo and seemed ready for a promotion. By many acconts, Accardo tapped Lombardo to oversee Spilotro and Rosenthal; they would report to him.

Accardo also made Lombardo the Outfit's liaison to organized labor, and in particular to Allen Dorfman, the Chicago insurance executive who managed the Teamsters' pension fund. Dorfman was a legacy; his father, Paul, had introduced the Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa Sr. to the mob. Dorfman was essentially the mob's loan officer - the mob couldn't exactly go to a bank to get financing to build or acquire new casinos. He, too, would report to Lombardo.

From here on out, Lobmardo's fate would be inextricably bound up with the performance of Spilotro, Rosenthal, and Dorfman. He would also be fortunate to remain out of the spotlight as the exploits of his new crew spread. "A Machiavellian figure in the back of things," says Richard Lindberg.

The job got a little easier in 1976, when New Jersey voters passed a referendum to allow gambling in Atlantic City. Before that, the ruling body of the mob nationally, "The Commission," considered Las Vegas open territory. After New Jersey legalized gambling, The Commission gave Chicago the exclusive rights to Las Vegas in exchange for securing Atlantic City for the East Coast mobs.

It was a coup for Chicago, a reverse Brock-for-Broglio. But it's no secret how things turned out. "These people had paradise all to themselves," Scorsese later said, "and blew it."


Coming Tuesday: The glorious, violent, tragic reign of the Outfit in Vegas. Brought to you in part by Joey "the Clown" Lombardo.


Posted on June 18, 2007

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