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Bombs, Ghosts and Bus Tours: The Dying Gasps of th...

Bombs, Ghosts and Bus Tours: The Dying Gasps of the Chicago Mafia

On January 3, 2019, Robert “Bobby No-Nose” Panozzo Sr. sat inside the Leighton Criminal Court Building to receive his sentencing.

Panozzo is a member of the Chicago Outfit, the mafia once run by Al Capone. He’s just pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, and he’ll do prison time for it. Four years ago Panozzo was caught with the Outift’s Grand Avenue crew pretending to be a cop. While impersonating law enforcement officers, the crew tried to raid a drug house owned by a cartel, most likely to then resell the stolen goods. What he hadn’t realized back then was that it wasn’t really a drug house — it was a sting set up by Chicago police and federal agents, who stormed in to arrest them all.

An epically botched raid of this caliber is the kind of thing the mafia in Chicago attempts to do nowadays, when they aren’t busy running gambling operations or the strip clubs they have a hand in. It’s a far cry from the days of Prohibition when gangsters like Capone rode around Chicago like outlaw kings.

Today, the Outfit is gasping for air in a world that seems to be moving on from their Golden age. Chicagoans may not think about their mafia nowadays unless they’ve seen a tour bus with a gangster’s face on it skirting around town, or been to Chicago’s macabre mafia tourist sites like the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on the North Side or outside the Biograph Theater where John Dillinger was gunned-down.

The Outfit doesn’t get talked about much nowadays because of Operation Family Secrets, an investigation and trial that ended in 2007 with the beheading of the mob’s leadership, which irrevocably changed the face of organized crime in Chicago.

Operation Family Secrets — one of the most complex and sweeping organized crime investigations in the history of the FBI — can be boiled down to the dynamic implied by its name: a son turning against his father and ratting out the Outfit.

On July 27, 1998, Frank Calabrese Jr. sent a letter to the FBI from the prison where he and his father were incarcerated for loan sharking. Calabrese Jr. made a deal with the feds to wear a wire and record his father, a blood-oath bound “made man” in the Chicago Outfit.

“This is no game,” Calabrese wrote in his letter. “I feel I have to help keep this sick man locked up forever.”

Wearing a pair of headphones with a bug hidden inside, he collected recordings of his father describing numerous mob hits — and where the bodies were buried.

When the case finally went to trial in 2007, the Chicago Outfit was about to change dramatically. With over 125 witnesses and more than 200 pieces of evidence, the trial was set to hit the mob hard. Former Chicago Tribune federal courts reporter Jeff Coen covered Family Secrets as it unfolded in the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in downtown Chicago, and later wrote about it in his book Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob.

“Chicago was always kind of a different experience, even from New York City where you had different family groups that were always in charge,” Coen said. “Chicago was much more top-down organized. You had very strong, almost corporate-type leadership here. And so what a case like Family Secrets did was really smash that.”

As Coen describes it, Family Secrets was able to target the Outfit in a unique way. This top-down, corporate structure meant the Outfit kept things centralized — creating a prime target for prosecutors and the FBI. According to Coen, the Chicago Outfit was  “decapitated” when Family Secrets ended. That type of organizational structure might have benefited the Outfit because of the strength and ability to exert influence over its own members, “but once you’re the government trying to take that down, it’s much easier to kill it with one giant hammer stroke,” Coen said. “You don’t have the five families or whatever, you’ve got one big organization.”

Markus Funk is one of the people who swung that hammer.

At 39 years old, Funk was one of the youngest members of the prosecution team, joining veteran U.S. Attorneys Mitch Mars and John Scully. He joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago in 1999 after teaching at Oxford and cut his teeth prosecuting taxing cases — from abusive priests to a murderous identity thief.

The day the trial began, Funk watched his fellow prosecutor Scully rise to give the opening statement from the U.S. government. The courtroom was packed with the five men who were primarily on trial and their accompanying lawyers. The walls were adorned with photos of past judges who sat on the same bench on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Courthouse.

Scully wanted to make something clear to the jurors from the get-go.

“This is not The Sopranos, this is not The Godfather,” he told them. “This case is about real people and real victims.”

Tourists on an “Untouchable Tour” look at the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was killed in 1934. Photo: Doug Klain, 14 East.

The trial dragged on for weeks and there were times that Funk got a bit frustrated with the way people treated the defendants. According to Funk, a marshal or bailiff typically brings a defendant out to face the judge and remains stone-faced. But not here.

“These guys were delighted,” Funk said. “I mean everyone was delighted by these people, you know, like, ‘Oh aren’t they funny?’ and laughing at their jokes.”

“People would stand in line around the building to get into the court to watch them, it was like a celebrity thing,” Funk said. “And it always was important to me that, to the extent possible, that those guys knew they weren’t charming us. We weren’t giggling and sort of star-struck in the way that some people were.”

Funk partly understands why people didn’t have the same sober demeanor towards the mobsters that he had. They hadn’t seen the same pictures and evidence he had to pour over for hours on end.

“I mean we had seen all the murder victims’ shots, we had seen a guy’s face blown off,” he said. “We’d also seen the pain that these guys caused the family members of victims killed, and the way they laugh about it. You can hear Frank Calabrese laughing and giggling about some of the homicides he’d committed. It was just galling.”

In a bit of a roundabout way, Funk thinks the popularization of mobsters in Chicago is what makes it easier for people to romanticize groups like the Outfit. “You can go to Chicago today and there will be mob tours and some goofy dude walking around with like a little fedora on, trying to talk like Al Capone,” Funk said.

“Go to the airport, right? If you go to the airport in Santa Barbara or New York or somewhere else, they’ll have key chains of the Big Apple or the Santa Barbara Zoo. You go to Chicago, and you see machine guns and Al Capone pictures.”

Funk admits that in the course of the trial, his team did make the case that guys like Frank Calabrese Sr. were the descendants of Capone.

“These guys were continuing that legacy, but I think the reality of their conduct really wasn’t appreciated by people who typically have only seen the man on TV fall over clutching his heart when he’s been shot,” Funk said. “They haven’t seen what a real crime scene looks like.”

There’s a famous scene in The Godfather — perhaps the most famous depiction of the Italian-American mafia in mainstream media. Sonny Corleone (James Caan) gets caught at a toll booth with a car in front of him that won’t move. As he senses something’s fishy, men with Tommy guns surround him and start raking his car with bullets. Sonny gets shot and stumbles out of his car where his body starts writhing — he clutches his heart as more bullets strike him down in a blaze of bloody glory.

Like many things in movies, though, the scene has little basis in reality. Mario Puzo, the author of the Godfather book, said that these scenes came almost entirely from his imagination. Indeed, Puzo said he never even met a mafioso until after his novel was published in 1969. Sonny’s dramatic toll booth death scene has been parodied numerous times on shows like The Simpsons or Conan.

It might be ridiculous in comparison, but media texts like The Sopranos are the kind of things people think of when they think of the mafia. It’s possible that it’s what some of the people in Funk’s courtroom pictured when they tried to imagine how the murders being described to them happened.

Craig Alton’s favorite mob movie is the 2012 film Lawless, a bootlegger flick starring Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf. Alton founded Chicago’s “Untouchable Tours” 30 years ago after seeing just how interested folks were in the bloody history around the mafia. Now, his black tour buses are a common sight around town, with tourists and locals alike being shuttled around to sites of murders, massacres and arrests by a tour guides wearing fedoras and talking in exaggerated Chicago accents.

One day in February, an Untouchable Tours bus pulls up to the curb of a McDonald’s in downtown Chicago across the street from the Rainforest Cafe. With the Cafe’s giant green frog head smiling down at them, Alton and Tom Wocjik, one of the tour guides, are taking photos with tourists — giving them a fake gun so the tourists can pretend it’s a stick-up in their pictures.

When the next tour begins, Alton and Wocjik get back into their characters. Dressed as two Prohibition-era gangsters, they’re now known as “Southside” and “Biggy Blue-Eyes,” respectively. Alton’s wearing a black leather vest, a pinstripe shirt and sports a white mustache that curls up into two perfect circles underneath his glasses. Wocjik’s got a patchy beard and a loosely tucked shirt, with suspenders and a Tommy gun tie clip.

Things get off to a slow start as one of the groups is late. The group is made up mostly of tourists from out-of-town, and everyone waits as Louis Armstrong croons out of the bus speaker system. Once the latecomers arrive, Southside hops behind the wheel and Biggy Blue-Eyes starts his routine.

In Little Italy, near the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, Blue-Eyes tells the crowd about the dramatic murders of John Scalise and Alberto Anselmi in 1929. Two successful hitmen for the Chicago Outfit, Scalise and Anselmi were supposedly plotting to kill Capone. When Capone found out, he staged a banquet in their honor. At the banquet, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, one of Capone’s men, walks up behind the two and apologizes that his boss couldn’t be there tonight, explaining that Al sends his regards.

Tom Wojcik and Craig Alton while giving an “Untouchable Tour.” Photo: Doug Klain, 14 East.

In an exaggerated Chicago accent, Blue-Eyes explains that McGurn told the hitmen that Capone wanted “to opine about the great American pastime of baseball”.

“See baseball’s a team sport,” Blue-Eyes says. “And if you’re not playin’ for the team, you might as well be playin’ against the team.”

Blue-Eyes then explains that Machine Gun McGurn then pulls out a Louisville slugger, a type of baseball bat.

“And in front of all these people, he beats Scalise and Anselmi to bloody death. By the time it was over folks, you didn’t know where the marinara sauce began, and the brains ended!”

The tourists smile and gasp a bit at the mention of brains and marinara sauce, with muted laughs and exclamations.

A few blocks south, Blue-Eyes gives a bit of a warning.

“Folks I gotta tell ya, this is a bit of a sketchier neighborhood that we’re in right now, a little bit of higher crime rates.” Southside murmurs agreement from behind the wheel.

“Actually folks, this is the road right here to the Maxwell Street district, home of the original strip mall,” he continues. “First they strip your car, then they maul you! Kind of fun, nice place to buy back your hub caps.”

“But folks I think we’ll be ok just so long as we avoid the viaducts.”

The bus starts driving near a darkened underpass with some red graffiti along the sides of it.

“Actually today’s ok, there’s no kids hanging out so we should fine,” Southside says, about to go under the bridge.

“Yeah? Well that’s fine, gives us time to talk about something tranquil, something quiet,” Blue-Eyes responds.

“Like some of the history around here that you — oh! Oh god!” The sound of machine guns start blaring over the loudspeakers.

“Oh geez! Oh no, oh we’re gonna die!” Blue-Eyes dives onto some empty seats, writhing as if he’s being gunned-down — either by a Tommy Gun or an Uzi, it’s unclear. The entire bus has burst into laughter at the hilarity of it, some of the folks pretending to duck down to avoid the gunfire. Blue-Eyes clutches his heart like Sonny Corleone.

“Aw geez! Aw god! Guys, are you OK? Well, thank god, that was some pretty good driving.” Blue-Eyes has recovered by now. “Give it up for Southside everyone! Serpentine driving, they call it.” Southside gives a little bow from behind the steering wheel, and the tour continues.

Later, once he’s out of character, Wocjik explains that he doesn’t feel weird making jokes like that, pretending the bus has been shot up by gangsters.

“Hey you know what, we’re joking about murders the entire tour. Just different times,” he says.

“You know, we also pay tribute to the beauty of this neighborhood. Because it’s a beautiful thing, it’s a paradox. You have some violence, but you also have these beautiful little moments, and I love that. That’s what I love about Chicago. It’s a beautiful part of town right here.”

Wocjik, a guest, and Alton pose for a photo after finishing their tour. Photo: Doug Klain, 14 East.

Alton thinks that over time people have sanitized the history of the mafia.

“If you were to ask your average person on the street what they think about Al Capone, they light up because they say ‘he was such a great guy and he did yada-yada-yada,” he said. “The funny part of it is, you know, because he was probably responsible indirectly for the murder of almost 300 people in the 1920s.”

It’s funny to Alton just how much people get into these romantic mob stories.

“I have a feeling it’s because they can’t ever imagine in their own minds being able to kill somebody or hit somebody in the face or stick somebody with a knife, and so vicariously to see people who are so cold and can do this is somewhat cathartic, I think,” he said.

In Alton’s mind, seeing mob violence play out on the silver screen reaffirms to people this idea of what they are not.

“You feel better about yourself maybe, realizing why you could never do that,” he said.

“Even just punching somebody or sticking somebody with a knife, can you imagine how horrible you’d feel? You would feel the rest of your life about that. Then there’s these guys who are like ‘it’s all business,’ you know? Just like machines.

One story from the trial burned into Coen’s mind. A businessman named Michael Cagnoni was forced to pay a street-tax to the Outfit. At one point, Cagnoni goes to the mob and tells them he just can’t pay it anymore “They decide to make an example out of him,” Coen said.

“The problem was he lived in this wealthy suburb,” Coen said. “Can’t exactly drag a guy off the streets there because there’s neighbors watching out for each other, there’s police presence, and whatnot. So the Outfit squad dedicated to this hit decided to place a bomb in Cagnoni’s car and trigger it with an electronic garage door opener.”

“This has always stuck with me,” Coen said. “They proceed to spend a period of months working out ways to kill this guy, just over and over and over again, trial and error, with this car bomb. And they realized that they couldn’t get too close to it without getting themselves. They figure out he takes the same route to work everyday, gets on the same tollway, and uses the same entrance ramp every day to get to work. So they took a car that they park in a lot that’s basically adjacent to the ramp. They tape the trigger, leaving it in the ‘on’ position and leave it in that car.”

The next day, Michael Cagnoni took the same route to work that he did everyday —  getting onto a heavily trafficked expressway into downtown Chicago — and inadvertently drove his car into the range of a garage-door opener that had been waiting for him all night. According to one witness who testified in court, they were driving onto the on-ramp to the expressway with a Mercedes in front of their own car. One moment it was there and the next moment it was incinerated, leaving a crater in the road.

According to former FBI Special Agent John Mallul — one of the lead agents on Family Secrets — the Outfit has learned a lot since the days when Al Capone could be taken down on tax evasion. “You talk about the current state of the outfit, and for years they would have union infiltration,” he said.

“What the Outfit does, is they try to get some sort of management position within the union, like the Laborers’ [International Union of North America] for example.” According to Mallul, Outfit guys would be maneuvered into jobs as the business manager for different union groups to show some source of legitimate income.

“That way they can declare on their income tax, that they have a $110,000 or a $115,000 position as being the business manager of Local Whatever, so they get union pay, they get health insurance benefits for them and their family, they get a retirement, they get a steady paycheck, they have something to legitimize their income tax return. And in return they do absolutely nothing, or some minimal amount of work, and they simply use their day to go about their Outfit business.”

While Funk was one of the lead prosecutors making the government’s case in the courtroom, Mallul was one of the people who helped put that case together in the first place. When Calabrese Jr. and his uncle Nick Calabrese agreed to cooperate, Mallul was the one who sat down with them in the interrogation room and made the deal. It’s people like Mallul that got all the pieces in place for the Family Secrets trial to happen like it did.

Something happened during the trial’s closing arguments — Funk refers to it as “a little bump in the road.” The closing arguments are when the prosecution gives the jurors a run-through of everything they’ve heard and explain what it all means, which is essential in a case like this where the trial went on for weeks. Funk’s closing lasted five hours.

Funk is on his feet, re-capping one of the many murders that Frank Calabrese Sr. has been charged with. Calabrese Sr. is sitting with his lawyer, Joe “The Shark” Lopez, at a table directly behind Funk. He’s holding a manila legal folder, the same one he’s been staring at carefully throughout the trial. He’s been hiding car magazines inside it, smuggled to him by Lopez to pass the time.

“So he was sitting there with Joe and I was talking about one of the homicides he committed, and he starts giggling back there,” Funk said. “I think that maybe was his defense mechanism, maybe to show that he didn’t do it or whatever.”

The giggling doesn’t go over smoothly. According to Funk, Calabrese could never read a room very well. When you spend your whole life with people kissing your ring and pulling out chairs for you to stay on your good side, you get a distorted view of yourself.

“So, he’s back there giggling and I sort of went off-script quite a bit and basically called him out,” Funk said. “I said ‘Look at that man, I’m talking about a murder he committed and he’s laughing about it.’”

Funk turns back to the jury and gets back on script, but the jury keeps watching Calabrese to see his reaction. Calabrese then mouths the words “You’re a fucking dead guy,” under his breath, and the scene is immortalized in a courtroom sketch.

Courtroom sketch of Markus Funk during closing arguments, with Joseph Lombardo (Left) and Frank Calabrese Sr. (Right) behind him. Illustration by Marcia Danitz, Wikimedia Commons 3.0 license.

Funk says that being threatened with death by a mob hitman didn’t bother him too much — the trouble really came when it ended up on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times. “As you might imagine, my neighbors were like, ‘Hey, Markus, saw that article and really appreciate your service. But uh, could you please move? Because we got small kids here and we don’t want anyone to blow the building up.’”

He didn’t take it too seriously at the time, because what gangster would try something with a high-profile prosecutor? “We’ve got a gang, too,” Funk said. “And they’re made up of law-enforcement officers, marshals, FBI agents and prosecutors. If they were to mess with any of us, they would pay a price.”

It turns out there was something to Calabrese’s threat after all. “We’ve had some issues since then with things these guys have done, and things we’ve found in their cells that indicate this wasn’t a one-off and there were efforts to put that into action but they failed,” he said.

“I can’t get into any of the details, but long and short of it is there were definitely indications that there was interest in making good on that threat. But I’m still here and he’s dead, so for now I’ve got the upper hand.”

At the age of 71, Calabrese Sr. was found guilty on all counts of conspiracy and criminal racketeering. Along with other leaders in the Outfit, he was sentenced to life in prison — serving much of it in isolation.

Frank Calabrese Sr. served four years of his term in North Carolina’s Butner federal prison, 812 miles away from his home in Chicago. On Christmas Day in 2012 — far from home and what family he had left — Frank Calabrese Sr. died in the Butner Federal Medical Center.

The damage that Family Secrets inflicted on the Outfit had a lasting effect, and Mallul thinks it’s one of the reasons mob activity in Chicago has changed today.

“The Outfit is not what we understand it to be from Chicago history,” he said. “It’s not like Tony Soprano, not here in Chicago anyway. You have guys trying to be tough, but it’s just non-existent to what it was.”

“I think the real presence is still in New York and New Jersey, East Coast, Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” Mallul said. “I’ve been out of it for 10 years, but I don’t think the Outfit is really still alive in Chicago like it is there.”

His sentiments may have been proved right by the news over the last few months. On March 13, Francesco Cali — the boss of New York City’s Gambino criminal organization — was assassinated outside of his Staten Island home. As one of the first dramatic and high-profile mob killings in decades for the area, it captured national headlines.

Meanwhile in Chicago, some old-timers are being quietly shuffled off to prison.

Sentences keep trickling in for the Chicago Outfit. In February, a longtime union boss and reputed mob figure named John Matassa Jr. pleaded guilty to fraud. He acted as a messenger for the Outfit in 2009 when a U.S. marshal was convicted of leaking information to the mob about Frank Calabrese Sr.’s brother, Nick, who cooperated with the feds on Operation Family Secrets. Now, he’s just like Bobby “No-Nose” Panozzo — alone in a prison cell.

The Outfit will keep trying to do what it can to scrape by — running loans and gambling rings and strip-joints — but its days are numbered. There aren’t many stories about it nowadays that don’t end with a tired-looking old guy receiving a conviction. Most of the stories about the Outfit are told by guys with fedoras and funny accents driving around town in a bus with faces stamped to the side of it. Some of the stories will end up in a movie, with guys clutching their hearts as they get shot up dramatically.

It’s worth remembering, though, that those stories onscreen aren’t the real deal. The real deal wasn’t The Sopranos or The Godfather — the real deal involved actual victims and perpetrators who actually giggled about it. Only a judge can decide what it is they deserve, but it probably won’t be as glamorous as Sonny Corleone’s exit. It’s probably just a lonely prison cell, far from home on Christmas morning.

 

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Header photo by Doug Klain, 14 East.