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Ten years ago, epic ‘Family Secrets’ trial crippled the Chicago Outfit

Trial testimony solved mystery behind murders of Tony and Michael Spilotro

Paul Schiro pictured back row, middle

The historic “Family Secrets” trial began 10 years ago in Chicago, finally bringing to justice several top Midwestern mobsters responsible for 18 gangland murders since 1970. Among thespilotroFamilySecretsTrial murders solved as a result of the high-profile courtroom drama was the double homicide of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s point man in Las Vegas, and his younger brother, Michael.

The indictment, filed in April 2005, named a total of 14 defendants, but only five were put on trial in the summer and early fall of 2007. Four of those five men, however, were notable figures in Chicago Mob circles at that time: acting boss James “Little Jimmy” Marcello; consigliere Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo; South Side crew leader Frank “Frankie the Breeze” Calabrese Sr.; and the crime family’s West Coast representative, Paul “Paulie the Indian” Schiro, stationed in Arizona since the 1970s. The fifth defendant was Anthony “Twan” Doyle, a corrupt Chicago cop who for 20 years while on the force worked secretly as a messenger and street enforcer for the Outfit.

During the trial, federal prosecutors brought in more than 125 witnesses and introduced more than 200 pieces of evidence. All five defendants were found guilty of racketeering that September. Four of them were sentenced to life in prison. Doyle, who was not directly implicated in the murders, got 12 years on conspiracy charges.

The federal government’s investigation, called Operation Family Secrets, was jumpstarted in the summer of 1998 when imprisoned Chicago wiseguy Frank Calabrese Jr. wrote a letter to the FBI offering to help agents build a case against his father, hit man and Chinatown crew chief Frank Calabrese Sr. Both father and son were locked up at the time in a federal correctional facility in Michigan where they were serving time for racketeering. The feds had Frank Jr. place a wire in his portable Walkman tape player to record his dad telling gangland war stories for more than two years while the pair exercised in the prison yard.

By 2002, Frankie the Breeze’s baby brother, Nick “Nicky Slim” Calabrese, also a seasoned Mob executioner, joined Team U.S.A. in its effort to dismantle the Chicago Outfit and the Calabrese street crew in one fell swoop. Nicky Slim was the first made member of the Chicago Outfit to ever become a witness for the government and proved to be the key to the resounding success of Operation Family Secrets. He admitted to carrying out more than a dozen slayings with his older sibling, as well as copping to participating in the 1986 killing of the Spilotro brothers and the follow-up murder of Giovanni “Big John” Fecarotta two weeks later. Potentially damning evidence left behind at the scene allowed authorities to leverage his cooperation in the future.

Diminutive, yet ferocious and ambitious, Tony Spilotro had angered his bosses with his loud, insubordinate behavior overseeing Las Vegas. On June 14, 1986, they lured him and his brother to a basement of a house in Bensenville, Illinois, and viciously beat, stomped and strangled both men to death. Big John Fecarotta found himself marked for death in the weeks that followed for botching the burial of the Spilotros (they were discovered within the week in a shallow grave in a northwest Indiana cornfield) and for sharing too much sensitive Outfit intelligence with his wife and girlfriend.

The Calabrese brothers received the Fecarotta murder contract. In the process of killing him in the vestibule of a bingo hall, Nicky Slim was shot in the shoulder and dropped a bloody glove as he fled to a getaway vehicle driven by Frankie the Breeze. After Frank Calabrese Jr. agreed to flip, he told the FBI it was his uncle who left the glove at the Fecarotta murder scene and provided a tape of his dad telling him he had signed off while in prison on the Outfit’s decision to kill Nicky to keep him from talking.

Both Nicky and Frank Calabrese Jr. took the stand during the trial, delivering riveting, heartfelt testimony, admitting their own wrongs and implicating Frank Calabrese Sr. in many heinous acts of violence. Throughout their testimony and the whole trial, Frankie the Breeze didn’t appear all that fazed by the proceedings, frequently chuckling and breaking into a wide grin whenever he was tied to a beating or murder by a witness or prosecutor.

Frank Calabrese Sr. died in prison of natural causes in 2012 at age 75. Frank Jr. and his uncle Nicky Slim currently live under new identities in the federal Witness Protection Program.

Little Jimmy Marcello of the Outfit’s Cicero crew was convicted of murder for driving the Spilotro brothers to the Bensenville home of another mobster so they could be slaughtered. The colorful and quip-loaded Joey the Clown Lombardo, who testified on his own behalf at the trial, was convicted of the 1974 murder of Danny Seifert, a former close friend and business associate-turned-government informant, to prevent his testimony in a pension fraud case.

During Tony Spilotro’s reign in Las Vegas in the 1970s and 1980s, he reported directly to Lombardo, then the capo of Chicago’s West Side. Lombardo, 88, and Marcello, 73, are serving their life prison terms in a Colorado “supermax” federal correctional facility.

Based in the Midwest, Scott M. Burnstein is an author, journalist and true-crime historian who has written five books on organized crime. He founded and runs The Gangster Report (www.gangsterreport.com) newsmagazine website. Burnstein writes daily for the Oakland Press in Metro Detroit and has a focus on Mob activity in Detroit and Chicago.