Chicago Outfit enforcer Mario Rainone, a loyal reader of this column, once called me to insist that "I'm no beefer!" — mob slang for talking to the feds.
But now he's facing 15 years to life behind bars after his conviction last week on a federal gun charge. The prospect of dying in prison has a way of loosening the tongue.
So even before a federal jury convicted Rainone on the gun charge — a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver found in the nightstand next to his bed in suburban Addison — there was this question:
Does Rainone know anything about the killing of a northwest suburban Amoco Oil executive — shot twice in the chest, once in the head — on Nov. 4, 1987?
For years, law enforcement has wondered if Rainone, a member of the Outfit's Grand Avenue crew, might be able to help them solve the case. And could such knowledge allow the 58-year-old mobster to live free somewhere far away, say out West, sitting in the sun near a pool, looking at the sky?
"I don't know the answer to that," said Rainone's attorney, Joseph "The Shark" Lopez, after the jury's verdict. "He's not talking, and you can quote me on that!"
I'm told that while he's waiting for sentencing in June, Rainone reads the column and listens to my WLS-AM 890 radio show in the federal lockup on Van Buren. So the other morning, after the jury dropped the hammer, Rainone got a 50,000-watt greeting.
"Mario, a shout-out to you at the federal facility," I said. "And I might even do a column on you for this weekend, so hang loose, dude."
And here it is.
He isn't exactly a sympathetic character, though he was once convicted of smuggling delicious sobrasada, other sausages and cheese into prison, because, well, federal snacks are just awful.
Rainone has spent most of the last 20 years behind bars, with record of burglary, extortion and other crimes while trying to climb up the Outfit ladder.
A federal judge called him "an urban terrorist" after a 1992 conviction for extortion and other charges. One victim testified that Rainone threatened him, saying, "I know where your family lives. I know how to get to your kids."
Another restaurateur, the owner of Francesco's Hole in the Wall, told authorities that Rainone promised to cut off his head and fix it to a spike outside the restaurant door.
Then there was that night in 1989, when, according to federal documents, Rainone was sent by the bosses on an Outfit mission. As he waited, surveying the landscape for threats, he spotted two fearsome colleagues in the shadows. They weren't there by coincidence, Rainone later told the FBI.
One was Rudy Fratto and the other Willie Messino. Rainone figured he was a dead man. So he ran to the feds, talked at length and helped set up mobster Lenny Patrick on a telephone call. Then Rainone's mother's porch was bombed. So he clammed up, refusing to testify, and did 15 years in prison.
His underworld superiors apparently forgave him. "I did 15 years in hard joints," he told me in 2010. "I didn't beef."
Cut to the present. The FBI and U.S. attorney's office don't charge a career ex-con over just one gun unless they want to put him away. And in federal court last week, under those hard fluorescent lights, Rainone, dressed in a suit with an open collar, dark-framed glasses, waited for the inevitable. He's balding now, a hard-time deadpan face on him. His eyes locked on everyone who came through the courtroom door.
Lopez argued as best he could, trying to plant doubt in the jury, suggesting the gun didn't belong to his client. But he didn't have a chance. The feds had the gun. Assistant U.S. Atty. Amarjeet Bhachu kept repeating to the jury: "What does your common sense tell you?"
Rainone covered his mouth with his left hand, so you could see only a corner of his lips when they twitched. The jury came back from lunch and it was done: guilty.
Bhachu declined comment pending sentencing. But Lopez talked, saying his client was "targeted because of his background."
"There's a bunch of people running around with federal convictions and gun cases at 26th Street (Cook County Criminal Court) that they don't send over here," Lopez said.
But they aren't Mario Rainone.
If I were an investigator, I'd want to know if Rainone could help solve the killing of Charles Merriam, the oil executive slain in 1987.
Merriam, a former Marine, had become embroiled in business disputes with gas station owners suspected of having connections to underworld figures. Law enforcement documents alleged that some stations had become fronts for bookmaking and loan-sharking operations.
Cold cases fade, remembered only by investigators and the victim's loved ones. The victim's daughter, Joni Merriam Sims, 47, told us last week that the family can only get closure if "someone like Mario starts speaking years later."
"After all these years," she said, "it feels like a crime novel."
Her brother Ken, 50, in California, greeted the news of Rainone's conviction this way:
"I'm amazed anybody called now because you thought it's sort of a dead story. … With some of the principals dead, you'd actually like to see that somebody can actually solve the thing. You'd like to have at least somebody solve it, or say this is how it went down. This is the way it happened."
Someone might know how it went down. And that someone has to decide if he wants to spend 15-to-life behind bars, or if he's ready to beef.
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