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Feature Sun Apr 26 2009

Review: The Outfit in Decline - Jeff Coen's Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob

Gapers Block politics editor Ramsin Canon brings us his review of Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob by Jeff Coen:

If you're not versed in the history of the post-Capone Chicago mob, known as the Outfit, you may easily have missed the fact that the Martin Scorcese classic Casino was about our city's organized crime syndicate and their control over gambling in Las Vegas in the second half of the twentieth century. The word "Chicago" is never spoken or named in any way during the movie—in fact, at one point, when Joe Pesci's Nick Santoro character is narrating a flashback he says, "Even back home, years ago," and on the screen flashes the title, "Back Home Years Ago" instead of "Chicago, 1973". Only once, when he almost slyly refers to "Remo Gaggi" (a blend of Joseph Aiuppa and Tony Accardo) as "the Outfit's top boss," is there any real indication that the gangsters hail from Chicago. (There's another scene where Pesci's character says, "Hey Ace, tell him the line on the Bear game.") There were briefly local rumors about why; that the producers were afraid to antagonize a criminal organization that, at the time, may still have had influence in some of Hollywood's powerful craft unions. More likely the movie plays so fast and loose with the facts that they didn't want to draw too direct a parallel.

Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen's episodic telling of the federal government's prosecution of Chicago mobsters and their associates plays like a similar biopic, telling the history of the top tier of an immensely powerful, violent criminal organization through the lens of a personal, familial tragedy. The terrible difference of course is that Coen's book tells stories that are absolutely real, and recent enough to have living, breathing victims—both direct and indirect. The so-called "Family Secrets" investigation led to the conviction of Joseph Lombardo, James Marcello, Frank Calabrese Sr., and Paul Schiro for murder and Anthony Doyle for providing sensitive information to the convicted felons.

Books on the modern Outfit are scarce; the most recent contribution to the literature was investigative reporter Gus Russo's book The Outfit, an at-times sensationalized book that tried to portray the Outfit as a legitimate underworld counterpart to overworld (normal world?) corruption and exploitation. Like much of the literature on organized crime, it falls closer into the category of a "mob watcher's" book—similar to the work of former FBI agent Bill Roemer, whose book on the Chicago mob's Vegas influence—The Enforcer; Spilotro: The Chicago Mob's Man Over Las Vegas—borders on the voyeuristic. Coen's book is not a "mob watchers" book; it is a useful and lucid history of a gigantic investigation and prosecution and a sobering look at organized crime. If only more books on "the mob" read more like studies of organized crime than true crime dramas.

The contribution Coen's book makes to the literature of organized crime is that it completely and utterly demystifies the professional criminal class. The Chicago criminal underworld described by Nick Calabrese, the Outfit killer whose testimony was the cornerstone of the federal case, is one filled with cold cruelty, mistrust, betrayal, paranoia, and ceaseless hustling, dealing with society's most down-on-their-luck. There is no glamour or the type of vicarious thrills that come with being able to exact revenge at will: according to Calabrese's testimony, murders were done for petty reasons or out of a primal paranoia. The mystique of the gangster who never spends a day in prison is shattered; since the events that transpired in the movie Casino, a series of prosecutions chased the Outfit out of Vegas and imprisoned much of its leadership, and Family Secrets is a story of people in prison or killing to avoid prison.

The Family Secrets investigation was built on the cooperation of two men: Nick Calabrese and his nephew, Frank Calabrese, Jr. Frank Jr. agreed to meet with and surreptitiously record conversations with his father, the much feared leader of the Outfit's Chinatown crew Frank Calabrese Senior. Nick Calabrese, meanwhile, agreed to give the FBI everything: three decades of murders—including some of the most notorious unsolved slayings in the history of the city. In this case the feds finally closed the book on the murder of the Spilotro brothers, Anthony and Michael, fictionalized as Nicky and Dominic Santoro in the Scorcese film. Frank Jr.'s recordings of his father explaining criminal life and a number of homicides were only useful insofar as they corroborated evidence provided by Nick; most of the case was built on Nick Calabrese's first-hand account of the operations of the Outfit and details of murders he witnessed or helped plan.

The Outfit's low profile over the last twenty years or so, and its lack of relative romance compared with organized crime in New York City kept the Family Secrets trial from becoming the national story that, for example, the Gotti convictions caused. But the cooperation of Nick Calabrese with federal prosecutors was the most high profile cooperation in the history of the Outfit, and its quarry in murder convictions will ensure that its hierarchy will remain permanently incapacitated. Through the late 1980s, the Outfit's far-reaching power as a criminal enterprise can't be overstated. Labor racketeering and an infiltration of government so brazen that a massive FBI investigation had to be undertaken just to ferret out corrupted judges, not to mention their control of legitimate businesses, made the Outfit uniquely influential among comparable domestic criminal organizations. So deep went the tentacles of this organization that the Outfit was able to get regular information from one of the U.S. Marshalls guarding Nick Calabrese during his cooperation. This is only a few years ago.

The Family Secrets convictions, as Coen's subtitle indicates, ended all of that.

In understanding underworld organizations, it's important to keep in mind that they are essentially social networks built on criminal activities. In his book Contacts, Opportunities, and Criminal Enterprise sociologist Carlo Morselli painstakingly demonstrates how criminal enterprises are built on individual relationships. Morselli plots out how two enormously successful criminals built their careers on successions of personal relationships based at least in part on mutual trust—or mutual suspicion. When individuals are plucked out of those networks, those organizations are weakened because the links between individuals in the organization are severed and cannot be replaced by appointment of an interchangeable bureaucrat. This is particularly the case in more sophisticated organizations that rely on highly sensitive relationships with government, law enforcement, and legitimate business enterprises. Removing the top echelons of a criminal organization inalterably changes and weakens it. The Family Secrets trial decimated what was a still-active, still-menacing on-going criminal organization. Books like Family Secrets provide critical data for serious academics like Morselli who can build usable models of the mechanics of criminal operations by studying how an individual builds a career in the underworld.

Coen's book reads a bit like a novelization of the court transcripts; the author provides a little context but the book unapologetically focuses exclusively on the trial and the evidence provided therein. As a result, some of the prose is stilted and the book can be repetitive—to the point that the reader will occasionally feel like they're reading the same passage for the third or fourth time. Occasionally the prose can seem a little rushed, with lazy metaphors or clichés popping up, but Coen's non-chronological, episodic framework keeps the pages turning.

And of course it would be insincere to say there wasn't an element of morbid curiosity for local readers. I was surprised to find out that a restaurant/bar I was a regular at in my early 20s, La Luce, was owned and operated by Frank Calabrese, Jr. The book teems with disturbing local color that, unfortunately, will likely reinforce stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and towns, particularly Bridgeport and several of those western suburbs that always seem to have mayors or cops getting indicted. Family Secrets is clearly a book written by a journalist trying to assemble a huge number of stories in one place; there's little in the book that couldn't be found in Coen's original reporting on the trial. But having this unbelievable story between two covers is invaluable.

In the end, the Judge James Zagel, who presided over the case, sentenced Nick Calabrese to twelve years in prison for fourteen homicides he committed—less than a year for each. After more than a generation of trying, the federal government had finally opened a wide crack in the Outfit's operational structure and they clearly wanted to encourage more gangsters to consider cooperation as an option. But is this creating an incentive for criminals to betray their organizations? Or is it merely encouraging them to tell law enforcement anything they want to hear in order to get leniency?

Coen somewhat addresses this problem, particularly with regards to the case against James Marcello, who was considered by many to be next in line to run the Outfit upon his release from prison. Calabrese provided contradictory statements to the feds regarding Marcello's participation in some murders, and flat-out contradicted himself by his claim that membership in the Outfit required that a man be Italian on both sides of the family—Marcello's mother was Irish. Calabrese's testimony seemed to dovetail just enough with the evidence prosecutors already had to connect some of the defendants to various homicides, a fact that defense attorneys wasted no time in pointing out to jurors. But it was ultimately the recorded conversations between Frank Sr. and his son, and Frank Sr.'s own testimony on the stand, which sank all of the defendants. Without those conversations, Nick Calabrese's testimony and the available corroborating evidence likely would not have been enough to put all of the defendants away, particularly not Marcello.

Chicago is a uniquely criminal city, and Family Secrets makes public things people have whispered about for generations. But the Outfit is just one sensational example of the vast and powerful criminal underworld that corrupts our civic life and endangers our streets. For ever one made member of the Outfit there are five hundred inducted members of street gangs like the Gangster Disciple Nation, who also have their hands in politics, construction, and high finance. The Latin Kings have had a troubling operation infiltrating the Chicago Police Department for at least the last decade. These are all sophisticated and dangerous criminal operations that prey on hard working people; they take what already exists and build nothing. Coen's unsentimental reporter's ethos comes through on every page of Family Secrets, something rare in much of the popular literature on organized crime, but certainly something we could use more of.

Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob Chicago Review Press, 400 pages. $24.95

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