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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Scalise and Rachel after their 1980 jewel-theft arrest.
Scalise (second from left) and Rachel (far right) after their 1980 jewel-theft arrest.
 

While most Americans associate organized crime in Chicago with the Roaring Twenties and Al Capone, it was his successors who steered the city’s Mob to national dominance. None were more powerful than the understated Tony Accardo, who reigned as the Outfit’s unchallenged leader from the mid-1940s until his death, at age 86, in 1992 (see “The Chicago Mob’s Rise and Fall”).

Early on, the key to Accardo’s success was his ability to influence local government by controlling unions and pivotal ward committees inside the Democratic Party. His clout enabled mobsters to get lucrative no-show city or county jobs, tip-offs on police investigations, even a role in picking judges. In 1951, when Senator Estes Kefauver conducted the nation’s first congressional investigation of organized crime, he called the amount of political corruption in the Second City “particularly shocking,” writing that “organized crime and political corruption [in Chicago] go hand in hand.”

While the East Coast Mafia organized its turf by families—which proved to be a source of endless feuds—the Outfit used Chicago’s freeways to slice the area into five pieces and assigned a boss for each. Angelo LaPietra got Chinatown, where the immigrant residents’ penchant for gambling made illegal casino games especially lucrative. LaPietra stood just a few inches over five feet and wore thick glasses, but with his bald head and heavy-lidded eyes, he had the menacing look of a cobra. His nickname supposedly referred to the implement he used to torture his victims, most of whom he suspected of cheating him.

Like the other bosses, LaPietra would exact a “street tax” on every illegal activity in his area, from a neighborhood poker game to a bank heist. The Outfit’s hit men, who ruthlessly enforced the tax system, killed with impunity. “The Mob had confidence that they could control investigations inside the police department,” explains Wagner. “If that didn’t work, they could pay off a judge to throw the case out on a technicality.”

Having consolidated his hold on crime in the city during the 1950s, Accardo was able to extend his influence to Las Vegas, where the Outfit used Teamster pension funds to build lavish casinos. The Mob’s slick wise guys, with their pompadours, gold chains, and silk suits, brought Vegas glamour to the bars and restaurants of Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy, where they made a big impression on neighborhood teens Art Rachel and Jerry Scalise.

Though Scalise lived with his divorced mother, his father, who owned a grocery store and a car wash in Bridgeport, tried to exert a positive influence on his son’s education. He enrolled the boy at St. Ignatius, a prestigious Jesuit-run high school. Jerry did well there and won admission to Cincinnati’s Xavier University. But by 1957, at age 20, he had dropped out to pursue another of his life’s ambitions. “From the time he was a little kid,” says a childhood friend who requested anonymity, “Jerry wanted to be a thief.”

For aspiring young wise guys, the path to acceptance in the Mob often started with theft. Stealing a car or burglarizing a home proved to the bosses that a kid had the balls to break the law. And the Outfit generally took the lion’s share of the proceeds from fencing the goods.

Scalise was already an overachieving thief by 1961, when a garage where the 23-year-old was storing stolen cars caught fire. He was sentenced to probation. Before the year was out, he was convicted again of burglary and spent a few months in prison. As a cycle of increasingly serious crimes and ever-lengthening incarcerations began, so did Scalise’s rise in the Mob firmament. By the 1970s, the Outfit had made him a partner in the chop shops that sold parts to legitimate businesses.

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Meanwhile, Art Rachel, one of Scalise’s oldest Taylor Street buddies, was running with mobsters too. Over six feet tall, Rachel had a gaunt, hollow-eyed look that impressed some as half crazy. Like Scalise, he had a high IQ—hence his nickname, the Brain—and also an aptitude for art, which drew him toward counterfeiting currency. In 1958 and in 1972 he was sentenced to prison time for bank robbery.

In the 1970s, Scalise’s most frequent partner in crime was gunman Gerald “Gerry” Scarpelli. The “two Jerrys,” as FBI agents called them, made an odd couple. Scalise was lanky and ferret-faced; Scarpelli, shorter but muscular and with the chiseled looks of a movie star. Together they honed a method for knocking over armored cars that featured Halloween masks and split-second timing. From 1978 to 1980, they conducted three such jobs; Rachel joined in on one of them. The heists brought in a total of $1.2 million, as Scarpelli later confessed. They must have given some of that loot to the Mob in street tax, says Wagner. They wouldn’t have been allowed to continue if they didn’t.

By this time, Scalise had ascended to the highest level of trust for a foot soldier: He was enlisted into the Wild Bunch, an elite crew of hit men who executed the bosses’ capital punishment on offenders who were either dangerous or in the public spotlight. (Other members included Scarpelli and Frank Calabrese Sr.’s younger brother Nick. Both told authorities about Scalise’s involvement.) Although Scalise did not fire any shots—perhaps because of his deformed hand—he drove the car for the men who did.

One of the Wild Bunch’s most notorious jobs, in 1980, was against William Dauber. The Mob had used Dauber as a hit man, but after his wife was arrested on drug charges, it suspected him of informing to agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. According to FBI documents, Scalise was at the wheel of a van that followed the Daubers as they left court. When they reached a lonely stretch of road, he pulled alongside the couple’s car so the gunmen sitting behind him could blast away. After the car careened off the road, Scalise backed the van up to let one of the gunmen finish off the victims.

Two months after that killing, Scalise and Rachel teamed up for the most ambitious heist of their careers: robbing a jewelry store in London’s most fashionable shopping district. The duo gained entrance dressed as Arab sheiks, with robes and fake beards. Once inside, they pulled out a gun and a hand grenade, then scooped up some $3.6 million in jewels, including the 45-carat Marlborough Diamond, worth nearly $1 million.

Scalise and Rachel managed to board their Chicago-bound flight without incident. But an alert civilian had taken down the license plate of their rented car after they fled the store, and Scotland Yard was close on their heels. While they were flying across the Atlantic, the phone rang in the Chicago office of the FBI. “I can still hear that British detective’s voice,” says Jack O’Rourke, who then ran a program to track Chicago’s most prolific robbers and burglars. “He asked, ‘Would you know a chap named Skull-lee-cee?’ I answered, ‘Do I know him? He’s practically my hobby.’ ”

Though the jewels were never recovered (Scalise arranged for a London cabby to drop them in a mailbox), the Brits had enough evidence to convict the Yanks in London’s Old Bailey courthouse. Scalise and Rachel spent the next decade in England’s toughest prisons, along with the most incorrigible bombers of the IRA. Some of the cells were so medieval, Scalise told friends, they had buckets instead of toilets.

Back home, the feds hoped that the harsh conditions would convince Scalise and Rachel to become informants in return for shorter sentences or the chance to serve their remaining years in the United States. O’Rourke even went overseas to try face-to-face persuasion.

But the still-loyal Scalise was not about to violate the Outfit’s code of silence. As he wrote to his father: “I would rather sit in jail than compromise myself.” To O’Rourke, he quoted Nietzsche: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

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Photograph: Arthur Walker/Chicago Tribune

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