CHICAGO – Sam Volpendesto began his adult life celebrated as a war hero. Now 87, he is almost certain to die behind bars, derided as a mobster.
At his sentencing Wednesday, the silver-haired, slightly built Volpendesto pushed himself up from his wheelchair to denounce witnesses who fingered him at his recent trial for bombing a video poker company, calling them lying "scum bags" and "crumb balls."
An unsympathetic federal judge promptly sentenced him to 35 years in prison.
"He's never once, not once, ever owned up to any of the things he's done," said Judge Ronald Guzman, glaring down from his bench. Guzman concluded by telling Volpendesto he would likely die serving his term.
The sentence was preceded by competing portraits of the Chicago-born Volpendesto.
Prosecutor Amarjeet Bhachu described him as a grizzled soldier of Chicago's Outfit mob who could be heard laughing on wiretaps about once watching another mobster stuff body parts through a meat grinder.
As a strip club owner in 1990, Volpendesto sought to silence a worker he believed was talking to the FBI, Bhachu said. He allegedly handed a bat to his underlings, who beat the employee nearly unconscious, the prosecutor said.
For his part, defense attorney Beau Brindley sought to turn back the clock to World War II, telling the judge how Volpendesto had helped save fellow Navy men trapped in a crippled destroyer. Brindley placed a box of medals on a lectern as he spoke, including a Bronze Star he said Volpendesto received.
"This serves as concrete proof that we are looking on ... a literal hero," he said.
Volpendesto faced a mandatory minimum prison term of 35 years, but his attorney still pleaded for Guzman to "let this man go home and die with his family."
Volpendesto was the oldest of five mob members recently convicted for the bombing and other mob activity. Most of the others have yet to be sentenced, including gang boss Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno.
In a lengthy presentencing filing, Brindley described Volpendesto's upbringing in the 1920s — the heyday of Chicago's best known gangster, Al Capone. According to Brindley, Volpendesto's father instilled values of honor and loyalty in his son.
It was a 1945 attack by Japanese kamikaze fighters on the USS Robley D. Evans during a Pacific battle that showed Volpendesto at his best, Brindley wrote in the filing.
On a different ship, he volunteered to swim into the sinking destroyer where survivors had found pockets of air. His mission was to fortify that part of the ship to prevent it from collapsing while the vessel was pulled to shallow water.
"Bodies, or parts thereof, were floating on the water," Brindley wrote. "The water inside the ship was red."
Eventually, the sailors were cut free and Volpendesto swam to safety.
Brindley described Volpendesto's life as going off track after attending art school in Chicago, then failing to make it as a sculptor. He took and lost jobs as a driver and as a manager at a knife manufacturing plant. Later, he started hanging with riffraff around pawn shops.
As criminal proceedings got under way, Brindley said it was the values passed down from his father that again guided his client when he chose not to turn federal witness in exchange for a lighter sentence.
"He won't save himself by pushing others under water," Brindley told the judge Wednesday.
Volpendesto's wife, Helen, and other relatives cried quietly on a courtroom bench as he raised his voice during his 10-minute statement denying involvement in any serious crimes.
"Maybe I hung around in the wrong place," he said in a thick Chicago accent. "But I says I never made two cents hanging round those scum bags." He also said he knew he would die soon, but, "I'd like to go out with a little bit of honor."
His attorney told Judge Guzman that one of the mobster's greatest fears is that his conviction might lead federal authorities to deny him the privilege of being buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.
In his remarks, prosecutor Bhachu also acknowledged Volpendesto's Navy record, but said "that does not substantially mitigate the evil committed by this man."
"War service is not a license to commit crimes," Bhachu said.