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The Lost Don

When FBI agents showed up last spring to arrest the Chicago mob boss Joey “The Clown” Lombardo, there was a problem: he wasn’t there, and he hasn’t been seen since. But Lombardo is more than a vanishing act. He’s one of a vanishing breed—a last link to the Chicago Outfit’s blood-spattered heyday.

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Some veteran mob watchers are disappointed that last spring’s indictment doesn’t address more of the killings long attributed to Lombardo. First among those is the 1973 slaying of the Cook County sheriff’s chief investigator, Richard Cain, in Rose’s Sandwich Shop on Grand Avenue. According to police accounts, two men walked into the shop, lined the customers against the wall, put their shotguns under Cain’s chin, and blew his brains out. Cain worked for Sheriff Richard Ogilvie, the future governor. A partner with Sam Giancana in overseas casinos, Cain also worked for the mob and as an FBI informant, kind of a triple agent. Among others, Bill Roemer, who claimed Cain as one of his closest friends, named Lombardo as one of the triggermen that day. So did FBI informant and federal witness Alva Johnson Rodgers. (Lombardo once reportedly said that he was at Fritz’s Bamboo Hut, also on West Grand Avenue, at the time of Cain’s murder.) Rodgers also said Lombardo OK’ed the assassination in 1977 of a millionaire Indiana oilman, Ray Ryan, who supposedly had stopped making payoffs to a colleague of Lombardo’s.

Another informant said he once asked Lombardo for permission to kill a man who had damaged the informant’s Schiller Park disco. “Break the guy’s arms, legs, and head instead,” Lombardo said, according to news reports. “But if the problem occurs again, do whatever you have to do.”

“Such alleged exploits,” Roemer once said, “give [Lombardo] a certain respectability in his circle.”

Lombardo’s public exploits were another matter. Take, for example, the night in 1980 when he and James “Legs” D’Antonio were sitting in a car on the 500 block of North Racine Avenue and police in unmarked cars arrived to raid a gambling den. One of the officers, mistaking Lombardo for one of the men named in his search warrant, approached the car. Lombardo and D’Antonio took off. A six-minute high-speed chase ensued, until Lombardo and D’Antonio stopped at Fulton Street and Western Avenue. Three officers and a detective hopped out of their cars with guns drawn. Lombardo tried to walk away quietly. (He later told police he was “going for cover.") Once busted, he tossed two notebooks over a fence. Police recovered the notebooks, which included descriptions and license plate numbers of the two cars that had just chased him, and a series of off-color jokes. He was, after all, the Clown.

In the lockup, police found $6,000 in cash on him. After he was treated at Cook County Hospital for minor injuries, police searched him again and found another $6,000 in cash in his shoes.

Lombardo was diligent about attending the routine pretrial hearings, unusual for a mobster. After one day’s proceedings, hoping to dodge the media, he pulled up his collar, pulled down his hat, and whipped out his Sun-Times, with precut peephole. He was photographed as he made his way from the courthouse to the car that D’Antonio had brought around. That photo is now the iconic image of Joey the Clown.

A jury convicted Lombardo of resisting arrest, despite his testimony that he merely told D’Antonio to speed away when he saw a suspicious car appear. “I had $12,000 on me,” he said. “Those guys might be robbers or killers.”

The beginning of the end of the Outfit’s glory days apparently unfolded in the International Towers, an office building on Bryn Mawr Avenue near O’Hare airport. In the first six months of 1979, FBI agents secretly recorded 112,000 telephone conversations from 13 phone lines in Allen Dorfman’s insurance office there, as part of an investigation into the mob’s hidden ownership of several Las Vegas casinos. Unexpectedly, agents stumbled upon a bribery scheme in which a 5.8-acre plot of land that the Teamsters owned next to the Las Vegas Hilton hotel and casino would be sold to U.S. senator Howard Cannon, of Nevada, at a cut rate. In turn, Cannon, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, would wrest control of a trucking industry deregulation bill from the Judiciary Committee chairman, Edward Kennedy. Cannon would then kill the bill, as a favor to the Teamsters.

In 1981, the feds indicted Lombardo, Dorfman, Teamsters president Roy Williams, and two others. (Cannon was not charged, and the property was sold to another party.) Prosecutors described Lombardo as the “pragmatist” of the conspiracy, whose role in smoothing the way included persuading other bidders for the property to drop out. After performing one such delicate maneuver, he was caught on tape saying, “Another good move by me. I’m like an old-time general. They’d better give me some stars.”

Near the end of the trial, the jurors had to be sequestered because five of them had received ominous phone calls from strangers. A sixth juror was approached while on an outing of the jury to a Chicago Bears game.

In December 1982, after four days of deliberations, the jury found Lombardo, Dorfman, Williams, and two others guilty on 11 counts of bribery, fraud, and con-spiracy. A month later, while out on bail awaiting sentencing, Dorfman was shotgunned to death in the parking lot of the Lincolnwood Hyatt Hotel. The mob apparently thought Dorfman was too soft to do his time and might start singing. ABC-TV’s Ted Koppel devoted an episode of Nightline to the murder, accompanied by a profile of Lombardo. To this day, the Dorfman slaying remains unsolved.

Lombardo’s neighbors said they could not imagine their friend bribing (or killing) anyone. “He’s very highly regarded by all the homeowners,” one neighbor said at Lombardo’s sentencing. “They were devastated when they found out he got taken into custody.” Another neighbor said, “You could tell Joe Lombardo anything, and it would be held in confidence. You wouldn’t even go to a priest with some of your problems, but you’d go to Joe Lombardo.” Another recounted how Lombardo was known as “the coach” at local playgrounds. Yet another recalled how Lombardo once took in a stray dog and named it Fluffy.

Then Lombardo spoke for himself. “I never ordered a killing,” he said. “I never OK’ed a killing. I never killed a man in my life. I never ordered or OK’ed any bombing or arson in my life.”

He impressed Judge Marshall. “Mr. Lombardo delivered what I regarded as one of the more eloquent statements that I have heard in my time on the bench the other day,” the judge said. Then he sentenced Lombardo to 15 years. “Mr. Lombardo is an enigma. You are not a Jekyll and Hyde. You apparently live very publicly. But no one can get ahold of your economic life over the last seven years.”

About a month and a half into his term, Lombardo gave a jailhouse interview to the Chicago Tribune. “Don’t you know when an innocent man is in jail?” he complained. “If a guy commits a crime, he belongs in jail. But when they start trumping up stuff, it’s sickening. And the way you guys in the news media tolerate it, it’s just sickening.”

“I have no faith in the system,” he declared.

A few months later, the FBI finally broke the mob’s hold on Las Vegas. On the strength of an extensive series of wiretaps, the government convicted the mob bosses of Chicago and Kansas City, among others, including Lombardo, with having skimmed almost $2 million in hidden profits from several Las Vegas casinos since 1974. Lombardo got 16 years, though the sentence ran concurrent to the one he had already begun serving. (Alan Dershowitz represented Lombardo on his failed appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Six months later, the bodies of Tony Spilotro and his brother Michael were found in a shallow grave in an Indiana cornfield. In his last few years, Tony Spilotro had spun out of control, freelancing on the side with his so-called Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and taking up with Rosenthal’s estranged wife. Tony also faced an upcoming trial. In short, he had become a headache, which made him expendable. The bodies, however, were supposed to disappear. Three months later, John Fecarotta, who was in charge of the burying operation, was killed for his incompetence, according to law enforcement accounts. Fecarotta’s murder would later open the door for the Operation Family Secrets investigation.

Everything connected to the Las Vegas operation seemed to go sour. Somehow, though, Lombardo escaped reprisal. In Double Deal, Michael Corbitt offered his explanation: “In the Outfit, when you screwed up, you got planted. End of story. It wasn’t like they handed you a pink slip and you went to work for another crew. You were done. That is, unless you used a tactic that was a favorite of America’s corporate set, the old CYA routine-cover your ass and blame whatever went wrong on the other guy. That was Joey Lombardo’s modus operandi, and that’s what kept the son of a bitch alive and in power. Every time somebody who reported to Joey got in trouble, he just blamed that particular guy for the problem and got permission to have him whacked. Obviously, you didn’t want to work for Lombardo.”

 

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