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At 6 a.m. one Monday last spring, nearly 100 FBI agents fanned out to serve arrest warrants on a handful of men thought to be connected to 18 of the most gruesome unsolved gangland murders in Chicago since 1970. Teams of agents found most of the suspected wiseguys in their suburban homes or hangouts. Two were arrested in Lombard, including James “Jimmy the Man” Marcello, thought to be the current boss of the Chicago mob, otherwise known as the Outfit. Agents nabbed Marcello’s brother, Michael, at his home in Schaumburg. Nicholas Ferriola, son of the late reputed mob boss Joe Ferriola, was apprehended in Westchester. Others were arrested in Hillside and Willow Springs. Frank “Gumba” Saladino was discovered dead (of natural causes) in a Kane County motel room where he had been living. A retired Chicago police officer accused of acting as a mob mole while he was on the force was located in Arizona. At a press conference that day, Chicago FBI chief Robert Grant touted the significance of the roundup, the result of a federal investigation called Operation Family Secrets. “While there have been many successful investigations during the past quarter century resulting in the arrest and indictment of high-ranking members of the Chicago Outfit,” Grant said, “never before have so many in lofty positions in the Chicago mob been charged in the same case.”
The man in perhaps the loftiest position, however-the one thought to be most intimately familiar with Chicago mob matters, and the final link to the Outfit’s glory days of Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, the infamously mobbed-up First Ward, and organized crime’s glittery reign over Las Vegas-that suspect could not be found.
At age 76, Joey “The Clown” Lombardo was on the lam.
“We thought we had everybody in pocket, so to speak, but obviously we’re still looking,” Grant said.
Lombardo, many believe, is Marcello’s consigliere, the senior adviser whose approval even the boss must seek before making major Outfit decisions. “On a higher plane than day-to-day operations,” says Jim Wagner, a former supervisor of the FBI’s organized crime unit in Chicago and now chief investigator for the Illinois Gaming Board.
Lombardo ascended to his position by cunning, street smarts, and sheer ruthlessness-and in spite of the eccentricity that earned him his nickname. “[H]e was no clown; he was a deadly killer,” Bill Roemer, the late FBI mob hunter, once wrote. Michael Corbitt, the late Willow Springs police chief who was secretly working for the mob, once said of Lombardo, “I believe he filled up a cemetery or two.”
Lombardo has been weirdly conspicuous in his absence. The media attention last spring included an unfortunate episode in which the Chicago Tribune thought it had an exclusive: a Columbia College student gave the paper a photo purportedly of Lombardo, riding a bicycle down West Grand Avenue. The Tribune put the photo on the front of its Metro section under the headline: “Have You Seen This ‘Clown’?” To the paper’s horror, the cigar-smoking man in the floppy hat and overcoat merely bore an uncanny resemblance to the missing mobster, but certainly wasn’t Lombardo.
Then, a week after his disappearance, Lombardo sent a handwritten four-page letter to the federal judge handling the case that outlined his surrender terms-namely a ridiculously low $50,000 bond and (also unlikely) a trial separate from those of his codefendants. He signed the letter “Joe Lombardo, A Innocent Man.”
“It sounds like part of his clown routine, a real bonehead move,” says Howard Abadinsky, an expert on the Outfit and a professor of criminal justice at St. John’s University in New York. “But he’s not stupid. That letter might be written for somebody else’s review, not the judge.”
Such as? “A message to the Outfit: I’m not going to flip,” Abadinsky says. Just in case the mob had any ideas about making very sure Lombardo didn’t-couldn’t-talk.
Whatever, the letter was very Joey the Clown.
“It’s kind of refreshing to have people like Joey Lombardo out there,” says Peter Wacks, a former FBI agent who once helped put Lombardo away. “There aren’t many left from that era, that’s for sure.”
Which isn’t to forget the terrible crimes authorities link to Lombardo. It is to suggest an appreciation of Joey the Clown as a consummate Chicago character whose story in many ways tells the story of the Outfit in the past half century.
By law enforcement accounts, Joey Lombardo’s long rise to the top of the Outfit demonstrated a remarkable versatility and savvy business sense. He began as a poor but determined street tough in the 1950s who moved ahead as a jewel thief, juice loan collector, and hit man. He rose into management, so to speak, when he took over as capo of the Grand Avenue crew-kind of like a corporate vice president getting his own division, with about 30 “soldiers” in his employ.
When it came time for the Outfit to solidify its control of Las Vegas, Lombardo turned into a major player, authorities say. The big boss, Tony Accardo, tapped Lombardo to serve in two key, overlapping roles: overseeing the Teamsters union’s Central States Pension Fund (otherwise known as the mafia’s bank because the mob dipped into it so often to finance so many of its schemes, including the secret purchases of several casinos) and supervising the dynamic duo that ran Las Vegas for the Outfit, Tony “The Ant” Spilotro and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal.
Martin Scorsese dramatized the adventures of Spilotro and Rosenthal, played by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, respectively, in his 1995 film, Casino. Lombardo isn’t depicted in the film, and he is barely mentioned in the Nicholas Pileggi book on which the film was based. But Lombardo’s crucial role emerged during the federal racketeering trials in the 1980s that destroyed the mob’s hold on Sin City. “We all underestimated Joey,” says Wacks. “We found out later he had a huge responsibility in Vegas.”
Those trials resulted in Lombardo’s first conviction; like a slew of other top mob leaders snared by the feds, he did a long stretch in the pen. In organized crime, however, imprisonment is not necessarily a career-killer. As the Chicago mob retrenched, according to several former FBI agents and other experts, Lombardo managed the changes from his prison cell. Though trying to pierce the Outfit’s veil to determine who is really in charge is a bit of a parlor game, mob watchers alleged that when Lombardo left prison in 1992, it was as the boss of a smaller, quieter version of the Chicago mob.
Even then, Lombardo didn’t stray from his roots as a neighborhood guy. Unlike most other elite mobsters, he never moved to the suburbs. In fact, with the exception of his eight years in the joint, he has lived in the same building-2210 West Ohio Street-for nearly five decades. And he has hardly been a recluse. Instead, he regularly padded around the neighborhood to and from card games or the masonry shop where he ostensibly worked. “This guy is a neighborhood feature,” says Abadinsky.
He is also, now, a rarity. During a raid on a bookmaking operation in 1981, Internal Revenue Service agents came across a photograph that mob junkies today call The Last Supper. Taken at the now-shuttered Sicily Restaurant, on the 2700 block of North Harlem Avenue, the picture shows the Outfit’s top ten leaders of the day, including Accardo, Joey “Doves” Aiuppa, and Jackie “The Lackey” Cerone. On the right, in the rear, stands Lombardo, a youthful contrast to the graybeards.
For anyone looking at the photo now, Lombardo stands out for a different reason: everyone else in it is dead.