CHICAGO – The trial of a reputed mob boss known for his wide girth and alleged penchant for violence will offer a peek into the inner workings of Chicago-area organized crime, laid low by prosecutions that sent older mobsters to prison for life.
Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno, whose racketeering trial starts Wednesday in Chicago, is considered — at the relatively young age of 52 — a different breed of mobster, someone whose talents as an enforcer normally would not have translated into a top mob job.
"I would say he is the perfect example of the new face of the mob," said Art Bilek, a one-time mob investigator at the Cook County State's attorney's office. "He has street smarts — he's not a dope. What he simply doesn't have is the intelligence some of the earlier guys had."
That goes to show how far the mob has fallen, he and other law enforcement experts said.
The 2007 Family Secrets trial, the biggest such trial in Chicago in decades, was a body blow to the Chicago-area mob, also known as the Chicago Outfit. It ended in life sentences for reputed bosses James Marcello, Frank Calabrese Sr. and Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo.
With aging kingpins behind bars and others dying, a weakened Outfit has scaled back a network that in its heyday, around 1970, encompassed operations ranging from prostitution and drugs to multimillion-dollar scams involving corrupt unions or Las Vegas casinos.
But racketeering laws designed to target organized crime, aggressive federal prosecutors and competition from big-city street gangs or biker syndicates have severely cut into mob-associated operations. Not surprisingly, mobster numbers are down.
There are now fewer than 100 people formally initiated into the Chicago-area mob compared with more than 200 'made men' around 1970, estimated Scott Burnstein, co-author of a book on the Family Secrets trial.
In Chicago, the mob now focuses more heavily on running illegal video gaming, with approximately 25,000 machines in bars and restaurants, generating millions of dollars in revenue, according to some estimates.
It's leaders allegedly include Sarno, who weighed as much as 300 pounds and was known for using his bulk to collect mob gambling debts as an enforcer. Bilek says he suspects Sarno may have taken over operations in the city's western suburbs from one of the imprisoned bosses.
Sarno's defense attorney, Michael Gillespie, said allegations his client is linked to the mob are "fanciful."
"The associations he has are with his family — his mom and dad," Gillespie said Tuesday.
Whatever the case, it is impossible to know just where Sarno would fit in. That's partly because the mob's old pyramid structure is coming undone and true leaders are eager to maintain a low profile, even endeavoring to keep violence at a minimum, Bilek said.
Burnstein said there are reasons to question what would be the extent of Sarno's power. For one, mob bosses want to see crime organizations they built up over decades continue after their deaths, so it's likely more savvy mobsters also are being promoted.
"I don't think it's quite fair to say Sarno's the new face of the mob, therefore the mob is dead because he's an idiot," Burnstein said. "If he is the new power, I agree it wouldn't bode well. But I'm sure there are other competent mobsters who aren't just thugs."
Sarno is accused of ordering co-defendants Mark Polchan and Sam Volpendesto to set off a bomb that wrecked the offices of a gaming company in Berwyn, C&S Coin Amusements. The aim, say prosecutors, was to send a message: Stop horning in on a profitable mob business.
The indictment alleges the enterprise Sarno was a part of also was responsible for burglaries and jewel thefts. The armed robbery of the Marry Me Jewelry Store in LaGrange Park netted nearly $650,000-worth of jewelry and other valuables, according to the indictment.
Sarno, Volpendesto and Polchan all have pleaded not guilty to racketeering and other related charges.
Polchan's attorney, Damon Cheronis, would only say Tuesday that trial observers will see "a different picture painted than the one painted by the government." Volpendesto's lawyer, Michael Mann, declined to comment.
Prosecutors portray Volpendesto, 86, as a remnant of the old mafia. Last year, they released a wiretap recording in which Volpendesto talked about once watching a mobster put a human body through a meat grinder.
In 80 pages of recording transcript, Volpendesto also speaks of knowing famous mob boss Sam Giancana and sadistic loan shark Sam DeStefano. Sometimes known as "Mad Sam," DeStefano was one of the most feared men in the underworld until he was fatally shot in 1973.
In the tapes, Volpendesto seems almost nostalgic about the good old days.
"There was a whole bunch of guys who were very dangerous people," he said. "But they aimed it in the right direction," he added. "Like they used to say in the old days, 'Make sure you get the right guy.'"