The Mob’s Last Gasp?

THE GANG THAT WOULDN’T DIE: This month three Chicago senior citizens are set to be sentenced for an audacious plot to rob a mob boss’s home. A story of thrill-seeking, revenge, and the decline of the Outfit

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Art Rachel; Bobby Pullia in a 2011 FBI photo; and Jerry Scalise at Chicago’s Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in January.
Art Rachel (left); Bobby Pullia (middle) in a 2011 FBI photo; and Jerry Scalise (right) at Chicago’s Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in January.
 

In an enclave of mostly multifamily dwellings in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, the brown-and-gray brick house stands out like a palace. Flanking the front door are opulent bow windows etched with a diamond pattern. Wood shingles cover the entrance to the driveway leading to a detached four-car garage. And it is all enclosed by a six-foot-high brick wall. To convicted drug dealer and robber Robert “Bobby” Pullia, it was a “fucking fortress.” During the spring of 2010, he had spent two weeks checking it out with a couple of other ex-cons, Arthur Rachel and Joseph “Jerry” Scalise. “It’s a fortress,” Scalise agreed, “but it’s still got windows.”

Although born with a deformed left hand—no more than a knob with a pinkie and thumb—Scalise managed to scale the wall. He discovered a door to the house that was hidden from the street. To see inside before he picked the lock, he would need to remove some glass bricks from an adjacent wall.

On two successive nights, as either Pullia or Rachel stood lookout, Scalise returned with a drill to slowly and quietly cut through the mortar around the bricks. His plan, once they got into the house, was to search behind family portraits for compartments with hidden valuables.

But before the treasure hunt could begin, the three burglars would have to do something about the home’s occupant, a 68-year-old woman. If they waited for her to go to sleep, she might wake up while they were working and call police. They had to “get her before she goes to bed,” Scalise told Rachel. On the night of April 7, the two tested a can of Mace in a supermarket parking lot.

The next evening, the three returned to the house in a white Ford Econoline van and parked nearby. This time they were dressed in black from head to toe, and they brought the Mace, a six-foot ladder, handcuffs, and various tools. While Rachel remained in the van to monitor a police scanner, Scalise and Pullia stepped out for one last round of reconnaissance before the assault.

At 8 p.m., as the house’s resident sat sipping tea in her kitchen, she was startled by a loud noise. Outside her window, FBI agents in bulletproof vests and blue jackets swarmed a stunned Scalise and Pullia from all directions. The feds nabbed Rachel back at the van.

When the U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, announced the arrest a week later, some remarkable facts emerged. One was that the reported age of the suspects—Pullia, 69; Rachel, 71; and Scalise, 73—exceeded that of their intended victim. While most of their contemporaries had long since downshifted into retirement, this geriatric gang had already carried out one robbery and was planning others, according to a federal complaint. (The FBI had tailed them for months and had bugged Scalise’s van.)

What’s more, the place with the brick wall wasn’t just any house. It was the family home of the late Angelo “the Hook” LaPietra, one of the most powerful and fearsome bosses of Chicago’s Mafia, known as the Outfit. Though LaPietra had died in 1999, his daughter Joanne Lascola still lived there. Lascola’s daughter Angela is married to Kurt Calabrese, a son of incarcerated Outfit boss Frank Calabrese Sr. These family ties were known to Pullia, Rachel, and Scalise because the three had long been in the Outfit themselves.

To target LaPietra’s household and put his daughter at risk was not only an affront to the memory of a past don but also an insult to the Calabrese family—offenses that would have once been unthinkable. “It’s the ultimate sign of disrespect,” says Jim Wagner, a former head of Chicago organized crime investigations for the FBI. According to FBI reports and court testimony, Scalise in particular had been considered so loyal by the Outfit’s leaders that he was reserved for their most sensitive contract killings. So why did he, and the other two, do it?

Scalise and Pullia—who earlier this year pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, conspiracy to commit robberies, and weapons violations—aren’t talking; they have not responded to requests for interviews. Nor has Rachel, who stood trial on the same charges as the other two and was acquitted on only one gun count. Sentencing is tentatively scheduled for this month. Because they have refused to cooperate with authorities, each is expected to get ten years behind bars.

Despite the gang’s silence, a close examination of the government’s surveillance tapes and other evidence—plus interviews with friends and foes and an illuminating 2008 interview with Scalise himself—helps make sense of their methods and motivations. What emerges is not just a tale of three men who refused to fade into the sunset, but also a parallel story of a Chicago Mob that may already be in eclipse.

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Photography: (Rachel, Scalise) José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune; (Pullia) FBI

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