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The Secret Life of Joey "the Clown" Lombardo: Part 3

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. This is Part 3. Here are Parts 1 and 2.


THE LOST DON/By Steve Rhodes

Shortly after he was paroled from a federal penitentiary in eastern Pennsylvania in 1992, Lombardo placed an ad in several Chicago newspapers. "I never took a secret oath with guns and daggers, pricked my finger, drew blood or burned paper to join a criminal organization," the ad said. "If anyone hears my name used in connection with any criminal activity please notify the FBI, local police and my parole officer, Ron Kumke."

While the ad played like a joke, it was probably a calculated, if odd, strategy undertaken by Lombardo. "My belief, based upon information known to us through sources, was that when he came out of prison his most important goal was to never go back to prison, not necessarily to become known as the head of Chicago organized crime, says the Gaming Board's Jim Wagner. "And so, in order to accomplish his first goal, he wanted to stay in the background as much as possible, not get a spotlight on him, and I think that's why he put the notice in the newspaper. But, beyond that, we still had sufficient source information that we believed that regardless of his protestations, he was in fact in charge."

Another way to deflect attention was simply to change the way the mob operated. "A friend of Joe Lombardo's recently claimed that Lombardo decreed in the early nineties that murder and mayhem were now forbidden, except in the most extreme cases, and then only when given the green light from above," Gus Russo reported in his 2001 book, The Outfit.

It's not as if Lombardo went into hiding, though. After returning home from prison, he again became a visible neighborhood presence. Abadinsky recalls touring the neighborhood in a car with an investigator in the Chicago Crime Commission, a cop, and a deputy sheriff. They pulled into the alley behind Lombardo's home and found him there fixing his garage. "When you're fixing your garage and suddenly a car comes down the alleyway with four big guys in it - you think you think you'd get a little bit nervous?" Abadinsky says. "So here's Joey with a cigar in his mouth; he's working; he takes a quick glance at us, doesn't even glance back; he couldn't care less. He's in his neighborhood, he's in Grand Avenue; nobody's gonna touch him in Grand Avenue."

And the neighborhood still embraced him. "He loved all of the trappings of being a mobster," Abadinsky says, "including the old-timer's idea that you settle disputes - we have a sit-down and Joey settles things in the neighborhood."

A year before his release, Lombardo and Marion divorced. He returned to 2210 West Ohio anyway, but moved into the basement.

Peter Wacks and other mob watchers say that while Lombardo was away, he put Vincent "Jimmy" Cozzo in charge of the Grand Avenue crew. Cozzo is a former Teamsters official - and once a technical adviser in the state transportation department - whom the union barred in 1990 because of his mob activities. In the 1980s, Cozzo built a casino-hotel on the Caribbean island of Curacao that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reportedly once suspected laundered the Chicago mob's drug money. "And anything that Jimmy Cozzo was doing down there, Joey had a piece of," says Wacks.

The Curacao venture, though, ended badly. The Curacao authorities seized the property after Cozzo fell millions of dollars behind in taxes, lease payments, and other fees.

Another influential Lombardo pal, Chris "The Nose" Spina, lost his job as a foreman at the First Ward sanitation yard in 1993 when the city alleged he was spending his time chauffering Lombardo around town while he was clocked in at work. In 1997, a Cook County judge reinstated Spina - with back pay. "He's seen as a spy of the Clown," the Tribune's John Kass reported a couple of years later. (Spina retired in 1999.)

In 1998, in a purge of organized crime members, Lombardo's on, Joseph Jr., was kicked out of the Laborers' International Union of North America, where he had risen to the post of secretary-treasurer. Later, though, a report by hearing officer Peter Vaira, a former federal prosecutor, found that Lombardo Jr. was a hard worker, the only ruling council official with a college degree, and not a member of the mob.

Even with all that, the 1990s were a relatively quiet time for Lombardo. Curtailing the killings worked; the Outfit drew less attention from the police and the media was its operations shrank mostly into the suburbs, focusing on comparatively small rackets such as video poker. Lombardo, meanwhile, had amassed considerable property in the Grand Avenue area under other names and fronts, says former FBI agent Jack O'Rourke.

But then somebody started to sing.

* * *

For a long time the death of Big John Fecarotta - who was whacked for his sloppy handling of the Spilotro burials - looked as if it might go down as just another unsolved gangland hit. But a few years ago, authorities were able to use DNA evidence to tie Fecarotta's murder to a mob loan shark and enforcer named Nick Calabrese, who was doing time in a Michigan prison for another crime. When confronted with the evidence, Calabrese started telling the feds what else he knew about the workings of the Chicago Outfit, providing a crucial impetus in the launching of Operation Family Secrets.

"With his well-established connections, Calabrese is capable of giving Lombardo fits," a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist wrote. The result so far is the nine-count racketeering indictment filed last April against 14 men that charges murder, bribery, extortion, and bookmaking, among other crimes. The indictment purports to solve 18 murders - 13 of them allegedly committed by Nick Calabrese's brother, Frank Calabrese Sr. (Nick Calabrese is now believed to be in the federal witness protection program.)

In 2003, based at least in part on the information gleaned from Calabrese, FBI agents showed up at the masonry shop at 505 North Racine Avenue where Lombardo went to work every day, according to Rick Halprin. The agents took a saliva swab and hair sample. They hoped to match Lombardo's hair with a strand found on a ski mask discovere in the getaway car used in the Seifert murder. The FBI also warned Lombardo that his life was in danger, according to Halprin. Perhaps someone was afraid Lombardo, not wanting to live out his last days in jail, would flip. (It's possible the Marcello brothers wanted to get rid of him. According to Wagner, the Marcellos "were really starting to take over and were probably the reason for the most recent mob murders. The indication was that that was how they would resolve problems.")

Lombardo vanished for a while, but Halprin says he was there at least two weeks before agents knocked on his door with an arrest warrant last spring. FBI investigators, stung by critics who said Lombardo should have been under surveillance, now say he was long gone before they got there. "This came as no surprise to the bureau," says John Mallul, supervisor of the FBI's organized crime unit in Chicago; Lombardo was "gone well beforehand."

* * *

Why wasn't Lombardo under surveillance? "Everybody knew that he was going to be indicted, and yet they didn't bother watching or paying attention to him," says Robert Cooley, the former mob lawyer who became a federal informant in the 1980s. "It makes no sense whatsoever. The FBI has a surveillance squad whose sole job is to do surveillance. They've got planes at their access! That's what some of the retired guys are snickering about. That is total, absolute incompetence."

(An old Lombardo colleague, Frank "The German" Schweihs, 75, also disappeared before authorities could arrest him. Schweihs is named by prosecutors in the Seifert murder, too, and some authorities suspect he killed Dorfman.)

FBI spokesman Ross Rice finds the critics' view facile. "The so-called experts said we should have had them under surveillance," Rice said. "That may sound very plausible on its face, but if you've ever conducted a physical surveillance of someone, especially someone like Lombardo or Schweis, who are surveillance-conscious, it's very difficult. Maybe in hindsight we can say, OK, surveillance of Schweihs and Lombardo would have been prudent. But at the time, how do you know which defendants are going to be flight risks?"

Surveilling suspects prior to arrest is "an extremely manpower-intensive operation," Wagner says. "And you don't want the surveillance people to get 'made'; you don't want to tip [the suspect] off."

Lombardo is also "a very hard guy to surveil," says Peter Wacks, who speaks from experience. "He had little hiding places. He had a knack for slipping away, sometimes through back alleys."

In the weeks before the indictment, Halprin discussed the possibility of Lombardo's surrender with the U.S. attorney's office. The looming arrest warrant "wasn't a big secret," says Wagner. "Joey had plenty of time to make up his mind as to what he was going to do."

* * *

So where is the Clown?

"My suggestion to my former associates as the FBI was that he's down with Frank [Schweihs] in a retirement community in Florida," says Wagner. "Who's going to notice two old men?"

"The most obvious place to me where somebody should be looking is down in Curacao," says Wacks.

"Tijuana," says Cooley.

"Sicily," says O'Rourke. "His best friend in prison was an old-time Mafia boss from New York, who had had a brother and some other relatives in Sicily. The boss would brag that he'd take care of his friend Joey if he ever got in trouble."

"Vegas," says former Cook County police officer John Flood, an expert on organized crime.

"I don't see how he functions outside of Grand Avenue," says Abadinsky. "It's his neighborhood; he loves the place, he's known in the place, he's comfortable there. It's got to be very uncomfortable for him if he's out of that, not connected to the area anymore."


Posted on June 20, 2007

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