CHICAGO – It seemed like a good idea at the time. A gang of burglars decided in December 1977 to break into the home of Tony Accardo, one of the most powerful men in organized crime history, and rob his basement vault.
Accardo was not amused.
Six men Accardo blamed for the heist were swiftly hunted down and murdered, according to papers filed by federal prosecutors in preparation for Chicago's biggest mob trial in years, scheduled to begin Tuesday.
And that's only one of the grisly tales jurors are likely to hear at the trial stemming from the FBI's "Operation Family Secrets" investigation of 18 long-unsolved mob murders allegedly tied the Outfit, Chicago's organized crime family.
"This unprecedented indictment puts a hit on the mob," U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in announcing the charges in April 2005. "It is remarkable for both the breadth of the murders charged and for naming the entire Chicago Outfit as a criminal enterprise under the anti-racketeering law."
Reputed top mob bosses head the list of defendants — James Marcello, Frank Calabrese Sr. and wisecracking Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo. Four co-defendants include a retired Chicago police officer, Anthony Doyle.
All have pleaded not guilty.
Another defendant, alleged extortionist Frank "The German" Schweihs, has been tentatively dropped from the trial for health reasons.
Accardo, the notorious mob boss whose home was hit by the burglars, died in 1992 at age 86. He boasted that he never spent a night in jail.
The case has already made the kind of headlines that might seem the stuff of novels and movies. A federal marshal assigned to guard a star witness was charged with leaking information about his whereabouts to organized crime. The marshal has pleaded not guilty.
That witness — Nicholas Calabrese, brother of Frank Calabrese Sr. — knows four decades of mob history from the inside and really does have a link to the movies. He is expected to testify against his brother.
Nicholas Calabrese pleaded guilty to several counts in May and admitted that he took part in 14 mob murders including that of Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, known as the Chicago Outfit's man in Las Vegas. Spilotro, who inspired the character played by Joe Pesci in the movie "Casino," and his brother were beaten to death and buried in an Indiana cornfield in 1986.
Lombardo, 78, and Schweihs disappeared after the indictment was unsealed in 2005, setting off an intense FBI manhunt.
Crime buffs speculated that Lombardo was hiding out in the hills of Sicily or enjoying a life of ease in the Caribbean. In fact, after nine months on the run, FBI agents nabbed him in a suburban alley one frosty night in January 2006. Schweihs was captured deep in the Kentucky hill country in December 2005.
The Clown lived up to his nickname later when he appeared before U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel, who inquired about the aging man's health and asked why he hadn't seen a doctor lately.
"I was supposed to see him nine months ago, but I was — what do they call it? — I was unavailable," Lombardo rasped.
In the 1980s, Lombardo was convicted in the same federal courthouse, along with then-International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Roy Lee Williams, of attempting to bribe Sen. Howard Cannon of Nevada.
When Lombardo got out of prison he took out a newspaper ad denying that he was a "made guy" in the mob and disavowing any role in future organized crime activities.
Lombardo defense attorney Rick Halprin scoffs at prosecutors' claims his client is a powerful organized crime leader. "Those things just aren't true," he said.
Experts say the Chicago crime syndicate is so deeply entrenched that it won't be decapitated even if the government gets a clean sweep of convictions.
Gus Russo, who describes the Chicago mob in his book "The Outfit," noted that the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act has helped crime-busting prosecutors make progress against the mob.
"But, regretfully, greed is such a part of our culture that you're always going to have a criminal element and it will organize," Russo said. "This will hurt the mob but it won't end it."
The trial is expected to take four months. Among the security precautions, jurors' names are being kept secret and prosecutors say they have nine potential witnesses whose names have been kept secret out of concern for their safety.