With the national media finally interested in Illinois corruption, it's too bad they were focused on Springfield's dancing monkey show and not on what happened in a federal courtroom in Chicago on Wednesday.
That wasn't a monkey dancing on a string. It was an ape. The kind of ape that pulls the strings on the dancing monkeys.
His name is Frank Calabrese, the former Chicago Outfit Chinatown crew boss, convicted of racketeering conspiracy involving seven murders in the FBI's historic Operation Family Secrets case of 18 unsolved hits. Six other bodies were attributed to Calabrese at his sentencing.
Calabrese, 71, wore a wrinkled orange jumpsuit, with old man glasses attached to his head with a thick felt strap. Yet when he'd raise his paws you could see they were once powerful enough to strangle a man until his eyes popped out. Or stab him to death. Or beat him to death. Or pull a trigger. Or set off a bomb and more.
One of the victims was Paul Haggerty, who was 27 in 1976 when the Calabrese crew picked him up to question him about missing jewels. Haggerty was handcuffed, his eyes and mouth taped shut and tortured. Frank strangled him with a rope. They cut his throat and dumped him in the trunk.
On Wednesday, Haggerty's widow, Charlene Moravecek, confronted Calabrese as a parade of victim families told their stories to U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel.
"God bless you!" Calabrese told Moravecek. She rounded on him, shouting, "Don't you mock me! Don't! Your honor, I don't want to hear from him."
Calabrese's own son, Kurt—a convicted Outfit loan shark—appeared before Zagel as a victim, saying his father beat him, belittled him, threatened to bite the nose off his face and kill him.
"He was more an enforcer than a father," Kurt said, turning to Frank. "And I want you to apologize for what you did to me and my brother."
Frank shouted that his sons and his hit man brother Nick, who turned federal witness, had betrayed him with lies.
"You better apologize for the lies you are telling, that's what you better do!" Frank bellowed, the old man gone now, the Chinatown strangler rampant.
"Tell them about the money you stole, the million dollars [cash] you stole from me and the $110,000 that didn't belong to you!" Frank Calabrese said, of mob cash he'd stashed away before going to prison in the 1990s. "If I was such a bad dad, why didn't I do anything to you then? You were treated like a king!"
Kurt stalked out of the courtroom, and I followed him down the hall, where he was leaning against a wall, emotional. "That's the last time I'm ever going to see my father," Kurt told me. "I just wanted him to apologize."
What about the missing $1 million? Did you take it?
"No," Kurt said. "All I wanted was an apology. But you see how he was. He still thinks he's the boss."
Frank Calabrese finally got his say, insisting he never killed or beat anyone, that he helped Connie's Pizza, not merely charged them street tax, and that his juice loans were more user-friendly than payday loans.
"I'm not no big shot," he said. "I'm not nothing but another human being." He added that his brother Nick was a coward. "Which is why I called him Alfredo, from ' The Godfather,' " speaking of the fictional Corleone who betrayed his own brother.
Zagel gave Frank Calabrese life in prison, saying he'd never seen a case in which two sons and a brother testified against a father. "Perhaps you didn't have a loving family," Zagel said. "Your crimes are unspeakable."
During the Family Secrets trial, the connection between Chicago politics and the Outfit came up often. In one bit of testimony in 2007, Mayor Richard Daley's friend Fred Bruno Barbara, the trucking boss and Rush Street investor, was identified by Nick Calabrese as a willing driver for mob boss Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra on bombing runs.
Daley got so angry when asked about Barbara that he turned purple and shrieked. The governor of Illinois could have called him "cuckoo."
For generations, the Outfit has formed the base of the iron triangle that runs things, and no understanding of politics in Illinois is complete without them.
Sentencing of other bosses continues on Monday. The dancing monkey show in Springfield will be over by then, but if the national media wants to understand Chicago, they should show up in federal court to see how the apes behave.