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.
While he may be known as “The Clown” in the press, Lombardo’s nickname on the streets is “Lumpy"-"because he was so good at pounding lumps on people’s heads,” says Richard Lindberg, a Chicago author and historian. Lombardo has also used a number of aliases, including Joe Padula and Joe Cuneo. But his given name is Giuseppe Lombardi, one of 11 children born to Mike and Carmela Lombardi.
The Lombardis emigrated from Bari, Italy. Like most Italian immigrants to Chicago at the time, they settled on the Near West Side, where Mike worked as a butcher, according to Giuseppe’s birth certificate. “Mama and Papa were ‘old country,’” says Jack O’Rourke, a former Chicago FBI agent who is now a private investigator. “And dirt poor.”
Joey Lombardo once told police he committed his first theft when he was 18 so his mother could get an operation. But it’s likely that Lombardo, a high-school dropout, began his wayward life at an earlier age, growing up in the same Grand-Ogden area as Tony Spilotro and Tony Accardo’s Circus Café Gang.
In 1951, Lombardo married Marion Nigro in a Catholic ceremony at the Holy Rosary Church, at 612 North Western Avenue. Nigro already lived in the two-story brick building on West Ohio Street that has become so familiar as Lombardo’s home. Joey moved in, and the couple never moved out, while raising their two kids, Joseph Jr. and Joanne. (Property records show that Marion and Joanne now co-own the building.)
By the time he was 25, which would have been 1954, Lombardo owned a construction company, according to his lawyer, Rick Halprin. Indeed, Chicago Crime Commission documents describe Lombardo as a partner in Lombardo Bros. Construction at one point. He is also variously described over the years as a partner in several other construction companies; owner of the Lombardo Trucking Co. (address: 2210 West Ohio); a worker for a hot dog stand manufacturer; and the holder of hidden interests in real estate and restaurants. Lombardo started racking up a series of burglary and loitering arrests in 1954, according to Chicago Crime Commission files. (In each case he avoided conviction.)
In 1963, Lombardo first started showing up in the detailed annual reports compiled by Virgil Peterson, then the crime commission president. Chicago police had charged Lombardo and five others, including future mob bigwig John “No Nose” DiFronzo, in connection with an alleged West Side loansharking ring. The case centered on a factory worker who owed $2,000 and was behind on his payments. Lombardo and his pals allegedly tied the deadbeat to a beam in the basement of a bar called Mr. Lucky’s Tavern and beat him “unmercifully” until he lost consciousness, according to Peterson’s account. On the witness stand, however, the factory worker couldn’t positively identify Lombardo, who was immediately dismissed from the case-his 11th acquittal in 11 arrests. The other defendants also won acquittals.
By the end of the 1960s, Lombardo’s work for the mob covered virtually every one of its specialties, according to law enforcement allegations: loansharking, gambling, porn, and even a ring dealing in stolen furs that operated at four Midwestern airports, including O’Hare, and had the participants wearing coveralls to pose as airport workers. “He was a well-rounded crook,” says Jim Wagner. And Lombardo was attending the weddings and wakes of mob members, according to a contemporary Chicago Crime Commission memo. The newspapers started calling Lombardo an “up-and-comer.”
In 1967, the mob held one of the premier public social events of its history, a swanky party at the famously pink Edgewater Beach Hotel honoring the West Side overlord Fiore “Fifi” Buccieri. The 1,000-strong guest list included 200 “important crime syndicate hoodlums,” according to Peterson. At least a handful of unabashed pols attended, too. The crooner Vic Damone and a 20-piece band provided the entertainment. The Chicago police called it “the largest assemblage of mobsters ever staged in Chicago.”
Lombardo, of course, was there.
The story of Las Vegas still astonishes after all these years. Who would have imagined that gigantic and gaudy casinos would bloom in the desert, and that the descendants of Al Capone’s Chicago mob would be there to cash in? That they would use the pension fund of a union for truck drivers, taxi drivers, and warehousemen-the Teamsters-to finance their schemes? And then coordinate couriers crisscrossing the country with suitcases of cash every week, delivering the “skim” to all the mob bosses who had a piece of the action?
In 1971, Tony Accardo sent Tony Spilotro to join Spilotro’s childhood friend Frank Rosenthal to run the Outfit’s operations there. As revealed by the FBI’s investigations and portrayed in numerous accounts, Spilotro acted as Mr. Outside, the street muscle who did the dirty work to keep everyone in line. (Bill Roemer titled his book about Spilotro The Enforcer.) Rosenthal acted as Mr. Inside, the brilliant innovator who took the sports book off the street and put it in the casino. Rosenthal not-so-secretly operated the largest casinos in town, including his home base, the mobbed-up Stardust.
Back in Chicago, Lombardo had proved himself as a dependable moneymaker with sharp business instincts. (FBI agents listening to wiretaps would later be surprised to hear how knowledgeably Lombardo spoke about the stories he read in The Wall Street Journal.) He did a stellar job as Grand Avenue capo and seemed ready for a promotion. By many accounts, Accardo tapped Lombardo to oversee Spilotro and Rosenthal; they would report to him.
Accardo also made Lombardo the Outfit’s liaison to organized labor, and in particular to Allen Dorfman, the Chicago insurance executive who managed the Teamsters’ pension fund. Dorfman was a legacy: his father, Paul, had introduced the Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa Sr. to the mob. Dorfman was essentially the mob’s loan officer-the mob couldn’t exactly go to a bank to get financing to build or acquire new casinos. He, too, would report to Lombardo.
From here on out, Lombardo’s fate would be inextricably bound up with the performance of Spilotro, Rosenthal, and Dorfman. He would also be fortunate to remain out of the spotlight as the exploits of his new crew spread. “A Machiavellian figure in the back of things,” says Richard Lindberg.
The job got a little easier in 1976, when New Jersey voters passed a referendum to allow gambling in Atlantic City. Before that, the ruling body of the mob nationally, “The Commission,” considered Las Vegas open territory. After New Jersey legalized gambling, The Commission gave Chicago the exclusive rights to Las Vegas in exchange for securing Atlantic City for the East Coast mobs.
It was a coup for Chicago, a reverse Brock-for-Broglio. But it’s no secret how things turned out. “These people had paradise all to themselves,” Scorsese later said, “and blew it.”
For a while, though, every-thing clicked-not only in Vegas but in Chicago. Problems had a way of disappearing. In 1974, for example, the U.S. attorney here charged Lombardo, Spilotro, and Dorfman, among others, in a fraud scheme involving a $1.4-million pension fund loan to the American Pail Company, a sham enterprise unwittingly fronted, in part, by Daniel Seifert, a 29-year-old Elk Grove Village businessman. The FBI suspected that Lombardo and his pals were more interested in using the loan to line their pockets than to make pails. Word of Seifert’s cooperation with the federal probe leaked out, leading Lombardo to ask Accardo for permission to eliminate him, according to Bill Roemer’s 1995 book Accardo: The Genuine Godfather.
Despite Accardo’s professed aversion to killing private citizens, he told Lombardo to “take him out,” according to Roemer.
At 8 a.m. one fall day, four masked gunmen shot Seifert dead in front of his wife and child as they were about to enter a Bensenville factory he owned. Both Roemer and an FBI informant have named Lombardo as one of the triggermen. In their indictment last spring, prosecutors linked Lombardo to the murder for the first time. (Rick Halprin says Lombardo was in a police station reporting a stolen wallet at the time of the murder.)
By Roemer’s account, Accardo was furious that Seifert had been killed in front of his family. Such a cold-blooded hit was bound to bring heightened police and media scrutiny. “[Accardo] could understand that Tony Spilotro would stoop to such stupidity,” Roemer wrote. “But Accardo had a hard time reconciling that Joe Lombardo, a much sharper guy than Spilotro, could be so stupid.”
Nonetheless, Seifert’s murder was “an absolute disaster” for the prosecution in the loan-fraud case, says Peter Wacks, one of the lead agents in the matter. Without Seifert’s testimony, the prosecution fell apart and all hands were acquitted.
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.”
Shortly after he was paroled from a federal penitentiary in eastern Pennsylvania in 1992, Lombardo placed an ad in several Chicago newspapers. “I never took a secret oath with guns and daggers, pricked my finger, drew blood or burned paper to join a criminal organization,” the ad said.
“If anyone hears my name used in connection with any criminal activity please notify the FBI, local police and my parole officer, Ron Kumke.”
While the ad played like a joke, it was probably a calculated, if odd, strategy undertaken by Lombardo. “My belief, based upon information known to us through sources, was that when he came out of prison his most important goal was to never go back to prison, not necessarily to become known as the head of Chicago organized crime,” says the Gaming Board’s Jim Wagner. “And so, in order to accomplish his first goal, he wanted to stay in the background as much as possible, not get a spotlight on him, and I think that’s why he put the notice in the newspaper. But, beyond that, we still had sufficient source information that we believed that regardless of his protestations, he was in fact in charge.”
Another way to deflect attention was simply to change the way the mob operated. “A friend of Joe Lombardo’s recently claimed that Lombardo decreed in the early nineties that murder and mayhem were now forbidden, except in the most extreme cases, and then only when given the green light from above,” Gus Russo reported in his 2001 book, The Outfit.
It’s not as if Lombardo went into hiding, though. After returning home from prison, he again became a visible neighborhood presence. Abadinsky recalls touring the neighborhood in a car with an investigator in the Chicago Crime Commission, a cop, and a deputy sheriff. They pulled into the alley behind Lombardo’s home and found him there fixing his garage. “What if you’re fixing your garage and suddenly a car comes down the alleyway with four big guys in it-you think you’d get a little bit nervous?” Abadinsky says. “So here’s Joey with a cigar in his mouth; he’s working; he takes a quick glance at us, doesn’t even glance back; he couldn’t care less. He’s in his neighborhood, he’s in Grand Avenue; nobody’s gonna touch him in Grand Avenue.”
And the neighborhood still embraced him. “He loved all of the trappings of being a mobster,” Abadinsky says, “including the old-timer’s idea that you settle disputes-we have a sit-down and Joey settles things in the neighborhood.”
A year before his release, Lombardo and Marion divorced. He returned to 2210 West Ohio anyway, but moved into the basement.
Peter Wacks and other mob watchers say that while Lombardo was away, he put Vincent “Jimmy” Cozzo in charge of the Grand Avenue crew. Cozzo is a former Teamsters official-and once a technical adviser to the state transportation department-whom the union barred in 1990 because of his mob activities. In the 1980s, Cozzo built a casino-hotel on the Caribbean island of Curaçao that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reportedly once suspected laundered the Chicago mob’s drug money. “And anything that Jimmy Cozzo was doing down there, Joey had a piece of,” says Wacks.
The Curaçao venture, though, ended badly. The Curaçao authorities seized the property after Cozzo fell millions of dollars behind in taxes, lease payments, and other fees.
Another influential Lombardo pal, Chris “The Nose” Spina, lost his job as a foreman at the First Ward sanitation yard in 1993 when the city alleged he was spending his time chauffeuring Lombardo around town while he was clocked in at work. In 1997, a Cook County judge reinstated Spina-with back pay. “He’s seen as a spy of the Clown,” the Tribune’s John Kass reported a couple of years later. (Spina retired in 1999.)
In 1998, in a purge of organized crime members, Lombardo’s son, Joseph Jr., was kicked out of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, where he had risen to the post of secretary-treasurer. Later, though, a report by hearing officer Peter Vaira, a former federal prosecutor, found that Lombardo Jr. was a hard worker, the only ruling council official with a college degree, and not a member of the mob.
Even with all that, the 1990s were a relatively quiet time for Lombardo. Curtailing the killings worked; the Outfit drew less attention from the police and the media as its operations shrank mostly into the suburbs, focusing on comparatively small rackets such as video poker. Lombardo, meanwhile, had amassed considerable property in the Grand Avenue area under other names and fronts, says former FBI agent Jack O’Rourke.
But then someone started to sing.
For a long time the death of Big John Fecarotta-who was whacked for his sloppy handling of the Spilotro burials-looked as if it might go down as just another unsolved gangland hit. But a few years ago, authorities were able to use DNA evidence to tie Fecarotta’s murder to a mob loan shark and enforcer named Nick Calabrese, who was doing time in a Michigan prison for another crime. When confronted with the evidence, Calabrese started telling the feds what else he knew about the workings of the Chicago Outfit, providing a crucial impetus in the launching of Operation Family Secrets.
“With his well-established connections, Calabrese is capable of giving Lombardo fits,” a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist wrote. The result so far is the nine-count racketeering indictment filed last April against 14 men that charges murder, bribery, extortion, and bookmaking, among other crimes. The indictment purports to solve 18 murders-13 of them allegedly committed by Nick Calabrese’s brother, Frank Calabrese Sr. (Nick Calabrese is now believed to be in the federal witness protection program.)
In 2003, based at least in part on the information gleaned from Calabrese, FBI agents showed up at the masonry shop at 505 North Racine Avenue where Lombardo went to work every day, according to Rick Halprin. The agents took a saliva swab and hair sample. They hoped to match Lombardo’s hair with a strand found on a ski mask discovered in the getaway car used in the Seifert murder. The FBI also warned Lombardo that his life was in danger, according to Halprin. Perhaps someone was afraid Lombardo, not wanting to live out his last days in jail, would flip. (It’s possible the Marcello brothers wanted to get rid of him. According to Wagner, the Marcellos “were really starting to take over and were probably the reason for the most recent mob murders. The indication was that that was how they would resolve problems.")
Lombardo vanished for a while, but Halprin says he was there at least two weeks before agents knocked on his door with an arrest warrant last spring. FBI investigators, stung by the critics who said Lombardo should have been under surveillance, now say he was long gone before they got there. “This came as no surprise to the bureau,” says John Mallul, supervisor of the FBI’s organized crime unit in Chicago; Lombardo was “gone well beforehand.”
Why wasn’t Lombardo under surveillance? “Everybody knew that he was going to be indicted, and yet they didn’t bother watching or paying attention to him,” says Robert Cooley, the former mob lawyer who became a federal informant in the 1980s. “It makes no sense whatsoever. The FBI has a surveillance squad whose sole job is to do surveillance. They’ve got planes at their access! That’s what some of the retired guys are snickering about. That is total, absolute incompetence.”
(An old Lombardo colleague, Frank “The German” Schweihs, 75, also disappeared before authorities could arrest him. Schweihs is named by prosecutors in the Seifert murder, too, and some authorities suspect he killed Dorfman.)
FBI spokesman Ross Rice finds the critics’ view facile. “The so-called experts said we should have had them under surveillance,” Rice says. “That may sound very plausible on its face, but if you’ve ever conducted a physical surveillance of someone, especially someone like Lombardo or Schweihs, who are surveillance-conscious, it’s very difficult. Maybe in hindsight we can say, OK, surveillance of Schweihs and Lombardo would have been prudent. But at the time, how do you know which defendants are going to be flight risks?”
Surveilling suspects prior to arrest is “an extremely manpower-intensive operation,” Wagner says. “And you don’t want the surveillance people to get ‘made’; you don’t want to tip [the suspect] off.”
Lombardo is also “a very hard guy to surveil,” says Peter Wacks, who speaks from experience. “He had little hiding places. He had a knack for slipping away, sometimes through back alleys.”
In the weeks before the indictment, Halprin discussed the possibility of Lombardo’s surrender with the U.S. attorney’s office. The looming arrest warrant “wasn’t a big secret,” says Wagner. “Joey had plenty of time to make up his mind as to what he was going to do.”
So where is the Clown?
“My suggestion to my former associates at the FBI was that he’s down with Frankie [Schweihs] in a retirement community in Florida,” says Wagner. “Who’s going to notice two old men?”
“The most obvious place to me where somebody should be looking is down in Curaçao,” says Wacks.
“Tijuana,” says Cooley.
“Sicily,” says O’Rourke. “His best friend in prison was an old-time Mafia boss from New York, who had a brother and some other relatives in Sicily. The boss would brag that he’d take care of his friend Joey if he ever got in trouble.”
“Vegas,” says former Cook County police officer John Flood, an expert on organized crime.
“I don’t see how he functions outside of Grand Avenue,” says Abadinsky. “It’s his neighborhood; he loves the place, he’s known in the place, he’s comfortable there. It’s got to be very uncomfortable for him if he’s out of that, not connected to the area anymore.”
Research assistance by Brian Rogal
1 month ago