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   Are the mobsters gone from the Southland?

 

The influence of the mob has waned, but experts warn not to count the Outfit out yet

Sunday, May 8, 2005

By Chris Hack,
Special to The Star

Nearly a century after organized crime embraced Chicago and slithered south to claim new turf, federal officials last month trumpeted a historic victory.

Billed as an unprecedented strike against the leadership of Chicago's organized crime syndicate, the Outfit, more than a dozen alleged leaders and associates were indicted, many accused of taking part in 18 gangland murders between 1970 and 1986.

The charges described a mobster-vengeful violence often depicted in the movies but made little mention of the notorious Outfit crew that once ruled the South Suburbs from a well-established base in Chicago Heights.

Authorities said that absence illustrates a decline in mob membership everywhere, as well as the lasting effects of a string of crippling prosecutions that singled out south suburban Outfit leaders more than a decade ago.

Times have changed since bootleggers ruled. Hobbled by the government, the mob's Chicago Heights crew also has been eclipsed by a different kind of crime. A city that once seemed to swing to the script of "The Godfather" eventually was saddled with a new kind of gangster, modeled after the drug kingpin from "New Jack City."

The group targeted by the feds last month can be traced back to Chicago's infamous Levee District, a muddy patch of downtown land rife with brothels and shady saloons in the late 19th century. The rural South Suburbs quickly became fertile ground for mob-run liquor stills and, later, automobile chop shops.

South suburban mob bosses while often still answering to people up north ultimately controlled lucrative territory along what would become the Interstate 80 corridor from northwest Indiana to Joliet.

According to federal investigators, the Outfit for decades was made up of six crews based across the Chicago area, including a long-prominent group in Chicago Heights. But at a packed April 25 news conference announcing the indictment, FBI special-agent-in-charge Robert Grant said the Outfit's crews had been reduced to four and declared the mob's Chicago Heights faction defunct.

"When I read that in the paper, it astounded me," said retired IRS investigator Robert Fuesel, who was a longtime member of an anti-mob strike force. "It's hard for me to believe they still don't have six crews. At the very least, it's hard for me to believe the Heights isn't part of one of these crews."

With the exception of a low-level mob associate from Willow Springs accused of helping Outfit higher-ups run an illegal video poker operation, none of those named in the indictment hailed from the South Suburbs.

Grant said the Outfit crews from Grand Avenue and 26th Street in the city and from Melrose Park/Cicero and Elmwood Park are the remaining crews. Lombard resident James Marcello, allegedly of the Melrose Park crew, has been fingered by the feds as the current leader of the Outfit.

"It's been our position the Marcello crew has been running everything," IRS special agent Bill Paulin said last week.

But federal authorities, as well as mob-watchers who always warn against proclaiming the Outfit extinct, are quick to point out that doesn't mean there aren't wiseguys plying their trade south of 95th Street.

"I think there's still a pretty active group of fellows down there engaged in various money-making enterprises but not in the numbers there once were," Paulin said. "If it's a matter of who they report to, they may not have their own crew boss it's been consolidated."

FBI spokesman Ross Rice, who worked as a special agent out of the bureau's Tinley Park office when a series of high-profile federal prosecutions targeted south suburban mob bosses, said that consolidation was inevitable.

Aggressive racketeering prosecutions and other factors have contributed to an overall decrease in Chicago's "La Cosa Nostra" our thing as gangsters call their chosen way of life. Federal agents estimate there are now only 100 Outfit members and perhaps only two dozen of those are "made" members with leadership positions active in the Chicago area.

"The number of people across the board has been reduced," Rice said. "So the number of people you have to lead is reduced. There is activity (in the South Suburbs), it's just not centered there anymore."

When the mob came

Mob historians trace the origins of the modern-day mob in Chicago to the late 1800s, when James "Big Jim" Colisimo organized gambling, labor and prostitution rackets from his power base in the city's 1st Ward. When Prohibition was imposed a few decades later, that structure was tapped to build a bootlegging empire.

Initially, Chicago was divided into territories ruled by different factions formed along ethnic lines. A powerful gang run by mobster John Torrio and later, his partner Al Capone controlled the South Side and the South Suburbs.

When booze became illegal, Chicago Heights sprouted liquor-making stills. A once-remote outpost, the Heights became a quick ride from the crowded city with the popularity of the automobile. By most accounts, Capone's gang took over the extensive bootlegging operation there in 1926.

Although he came to rule citywide and eventually made west suburban Cicero headquarters, Capone always will be linked to Chicago Heights. He hid there while on the run from Chicago police for murder and came back to visit often; a popular story has him handing out wads of cash at a 1931 baptism reception.

Capone's connection to Chicago Heights and the massive bootlegging operation that thrived there wove mob lawlessness into the city's identity.

An extensive account by local historian Dominic Candeloro of a mass 1890s immigration of Italians who primarily came from a half-dozen towns in Italy and settled together in various Chicago Heights neighborhoods according to their old hometowns noted that some observers suggested Prohibition helped bring prosperity to the growing city. Workers were needed to build, operate and maintain the illegal stills, and the new industry probably helped create a wealth that outlived the booze ban.

"Former and surviving bootleggers made nest eggs for legitimate businesses or to send their children to college and into the professions," Candeloro wrote.

But the mobsters and bootleggers also fostered negative ethnic stereotypes that persisted as new generations of Italian immigrants rose from working-class jobs to become, by the 1980s, the city's political leaders. Chicago Heights Mayor Anthony DeLuca said that as an Italian-American, he's upset with the recent hubbub over the new mob indictments.

"They're beating up on these 78-year-old former mobsters, or current mobsters, or whatever they're calling them, for whatever they were doing 40 or 50 years ago," DeLuca said. "The feds are probably just doing their job ... (mobsters) need to be brought to justice. But it's the media they tend to sensationalize it, and it puts a very bad mark on us."

Decline of Southland mob

After Capone was out of the picture, one of his top henchmen, Frankie LaPorte, took responsibility for the south suburban territory. Later, a young LaPorte driver named Alfred Pilotto would assume control of the area.

Pilotto ruled for years as the Outfit profited from rampant vice on Calumet City's "Sin Strip," a world-renowned collection of brothels and gambling dens. The South Suburbs and still-rural Will County also became the region's hub for mob-controlled chop shops.

Even before Bloom Township resident Albert Tocco took over the area's Outfit activities, it was rumored that downtown Outfit bosses wanted more control of the south suburban rackets. And with a string of federal prosecutions looming, the local mobsters started killing each other off.

William Dauber, a one-time hit man who reportedly angered Tocco by starting a freelance string of chop shops, was killed along with his wife in a sensational daylight attack in Will County. A year later, Pilotto was shot several times in an assassination attempt on the eighth hole at Linconshire Golf Club in Crete. He survived.

A wiseguy implicated in the botched hit on Pilotto, Nicholas D'Andrea, was found beaten to death in a car in Chicago Heights not long afterward. And Samuel Guzzino, Pilotto's bodyguard at the golf course that day, turned up dead in a ditch near Beecher.

In 1982, Pilotto was convicted of federal racketeering charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison; after being released, he died in 1999 in his Chicago Heights home. Eight years later, Tocco was convicted and sentenced to 200 years in prison.

After Tocco's downfall, understudy Dominick "Tootsie" Palermo briefly took over the south suburban rackets. But Palermo was quickly indicted in 1992 by the feds in Hammond, Ind., and sentenced to 32 years in prison; he died last month, four months before he was eligible for parole.

"That crew was pretty much decimated by federal prosecutions Tocco, Palermo, Pilotto," the FBI's Rice said. "And there were also all the prosecutions of the public officials who helped them operate."

The two-pronged attack may have spelled the end of the South Suburbs' nearly autonomous mob. According to an often-cited 1997 report by the Chicago Crime Commission, mobster Johnny "Apes" Monteleone of Chinatown at that time ruled over a consolidated syndicate empire that encompassed everything south of the Eisenhower Expressway. Monteleone died in 2001.

A new breed of criminals

The decline of the Chicago Heights mob faction also may have coincided with the gradual disappearance of Outfit chop shops. Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks car-related crime, said La Cosa Nostra elements appear to have bowed out of the chop-shop business.

"There's definitely been a reduction in the old wiseguys running the chop shops," Scafidi said. "They've been replaced by other groups take your pick which one."

While organized auto theft-related crime is still prevalent, it's a racket that's been overtaken primarily by smaller, more specialized groups, including Eastern European gangs, in some parts of the country, Scafidi said. Anti-theft devices on newer cars have meant that thieves have become more sophisticated, and manufacturers' special markings on car parts have helped reduce chopping.

And while Scafidi said there's still no shortage of unscrupulous mechanics creating a market for cheap parts stripped from stolen cars, it's more common now for vehicles especially foreign-made ones to be stolen here and smuggled intact into Mexico or even shipped by container overseas.

In Chicago Heights during recent years, any Outfit doings likely have been overshadowed by a different kind of organized crime. For Mayor DeLuca, the 1980s-era mob hits and malfeasance revisited in last month's indictment are ancient history.

"I can't speak to what happened when I was playing Chicago Heights Little League baseball as a small fry," DeLuca said. "But I can tell you there's a lot of other kinds of crime here now, whether you call it organized crime or not."

Chicago Heights wasn't spared during the nationwide spread of crack cocaine in the late 1980s. With the help of several corrupt police officers, kingpin Otis Moore perfected large-scale drug dealing at open-air markets near housing projects on the city's East Side.

After Moore was convicted and sent to federal prison, the drug-dealing vacuum was filled by another group busted by the feds in 2003. That organization, run by a well-defined hierarchy of employees, operated around the clock across from an elementary school at Fifth Avenue and Claude Court, pulling in $20,000 a day.

Its leader, Troy Lawrence, of Hammond, blatantly fashioned himself after the Nino Brown character from the movie "New Jack City" and even bragged he was more powerful than the fictional kingpin was in the film. Lawrence, who was convicted and is scheduled to be sentenced next month, went by the nickname "Nino," and had his moniker memorialized on a platinum medallion and a car license plate.

"We have our drugs still," Chicago Heights Police Chief Anthony Murphy said. "Anytime you have a big (federal) prosecution there's going to be a drop-off, but they're not going away.

"We have no crime here we can attribute to organized crime," he added.

DeLuca, who was elected in 2003, suggested federal resources would have been better spent combating modern-day crime epidemics in his city.

"The last two years, I've seen no indication of any crime taking place here other than the sale of illegal substances and gang activity," DeLuca said. "What are they doing about that?"

But Fuesel, the former IRS agent who also served as director of the Chicago Crime Commission, and other federal officials warn against brushing off the mob's resiliency and ability to exploit new rackets.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Fuesel said. "The Outfit adapts."

Authorities believe the mob's revenue now primarily comes from sports bookmaking and illegal video poker machines placed in taverns. Although Cook County sheriff's police routinely raid suburban bars that pay winners, last month's indictment alleged a mob-owned Cicero business quickly resupplied them.

State regulators, promising to be extra vigilant against mob elements becoming involved in Illinois' casino business, have stalled for years plans to build the state's 10th state casino in Rosemont. Some experts have said that nationwide moves to legalize casino gambling, which Illinois did more than a decade ago, have contributed to the mob's decline but Fuesel isn't so sure.

"The state may have actually helped them as far as gambling goes," Fuesel contended. "Because when you win with the mob, you win tax-free."

And even some customers of state-sanctioned casinos may need to seek out mob members for the age-old help of juice loans cash advances with exorbitant interest rates given to desperate debtors banks won't trust.

"Anywhere there's a cash business, they can infiltrate and control it," Fuesel said. "And they're out there. There are guys all over dying to get into the Outfit."

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