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Fires allegedly set in theaters


November 8, 2003

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

In an attempt to intimidate theater owners in 10 states, members of a Chicago projectionists union ignited explosive gases during movies that sent hundreds of panicked theatergoers racing through dark and crowded theaters, federal officials said Friday.

When the smoke cleared, theater workers found the union members' calling card -- compact discs from the group Chicago or advertisements of Chicago plays. In two incidents, theater managers were beaten with a pipe and a baseball bat.

On Friday, seven union members and two associates were charged with multiple federal counts involving arson, assault and conspiracy that date to 1998 and 1999.

Four Chicago area defendants were arrested and arraigned Friday: Albin Brenkus, 60, the current business manager of Chicago-based Local 110; Carl Covelli, Jr., 48; Keith Dutton, 48, and Peter Lipa, 48.

Two others -- Peter Macari, 41, and Michael Rossi, 44 -- are already serving convictions for state charges for beating a theater manager with a baseball bat at his Elmhurst home in 1999. Another defendant, Gregory Tortorello, is a soldier stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. Two final Illinois defendants, Kent Dickinson, 52, of Bonfield, and Joseph Marjan, 29, of Riverdale, are making arrangements to turn themselves in, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sergio Acosta.

Seven of the incidents occurred in Illinois; others were in Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. While movies were shown, the defendants left drinking cups filled with incendiary chlorine and brake fluid, producing chlorine gas and igniting a flash fire that filled the theaters with smoke and fumes, sometimes burning seats or drapes. In one incident, a theater manager at a Chicago Loews at 1471 W. Webster was hit in the head with a pipe.

Prosecutors said the fires and assaults were intended to scare three movie theater chains -- AMC Entertainment Inc. of Kansas City; Cinemark U.S.A. Inc. of Plano, Texas, and Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. of New York -- to give in to contract demands.

"Those who set fires in crowded theaters will feel the full heat of the law," promised U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

Despite the union's image of alleged mob connections, Fitzgerald said the indictments did not involve organized crime allegations. A woman at Local 110 said no one was available for comment.

Contributing: Dan Rozek



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