The indictment of 14 Chicago Mafia members might well be an episode of The Sopranos, complete with nicknames, "made" mobsters, family intrigue, crooked detectives, murders that go back decades, and a detailed explanation of a structure that includes capos, sotto capos, and a consigliere.
The indictment, announced Monday, charges the likes of Joseph "the Clown" Lombardo, Frank "Gumba" Saladino, and Paul "the Indian" Schiro with racketeering conspiracy and connects them with 18 previously unsolved murders dating back to 1970.
Along with being a colorful description of "The Chicago Outfit," the indictment is one of the biggest attacks yet on organized crime in the city of Al Capone - and a reminder that the Mafia, while weaker, still exists beyond the TV screen.
"They're alive and well," says Thomas Kirkpatrick, president of the Chicago Crime Commission, a citizens watchdog and advocacy group. The arrests, he says, are a big blow to the outfit. "I don't know that you can ever completely destroy it, but it certainly takes a major part of their leadership out and disrupts what's left in terms of people thinking they can trust each other."
The government has cracked down on organized crime since the late '70s, and has weakened groups that used to operate relatively openly. But such a far-reaching indictment, charging so many upper-echelon leaders with so many crimes, is extremely rare.
Since 1919, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, only 14 of 1,111 mob-related murders have been solved. This indictment would solve 18 more, including the much-publicized 1986 murder of Anthony "the Ant" Spilotro and his brother Michael, mob figures who were found buried in an Indiana cornfield and whose murders were portrayed in the movie "Casino."
Beyond the murders, the charges paint a picture of mob-related activities that range from using extortion and threats to collect "juice loans" to running illegal gambling operations and collecting "street taxes."
Several of those indicted are "made" members of the Outfit - individuals who had committed murders for the organization or had otherwise proven themselves trustworthy, and who swore allegiance in a ceremony.
The FBI made numerous arrests in three states - Illinois, Florida, and Arizona - Monday, arresting James Marcello, the alleged boss of the Chicago mob, at his home. They discovered one alleged hit man, Frank "Gumba" Saladino, dead in a motel, apparently of natural causes. Two more - Joseph Lombardo, also known as "the Clown" or "Lumpy," and Frank "the German" Schweihs remained at large at the time of publication. Eleven of the defendants were charged with conspiracy, and two are retired Chicago police officers.
In the past three or four decades, "this is the largest indictment of its type in the Chicago area," says Frank Bochte, spokesperson for the Chicago FBI Office. "We're not fooling ourselves into thinking we've eliminated the problem, but we're hoping this sends a message that the FBI is still actively investigating these crimes."
While La Cosa Nostra holds a celebrated place in the popular imagination, many see it as a relic of a bygone era. The Chicago arrests are a reminder of its existence, but also evidence that it's continued to weaken. Many of those charged are in their 60s or 70s, and the murders took place between 1970 and 1986. Other crimes, particularly those related to gambling, are much more recent.
"We've seen a tremendous drop-off in the number of mob-related homicides, but the tentacles of the mob still stretch into the illegal gambling industry in Chicago," says Mr. Bochte.
Since passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in 1970, federal agents have made significant crackdowns on organized crime in the US. The government's attack on the Mafia began in earnest in the late '70s, says James Jacobs, a law professor at New York University and author of "Busting the Mob." Since then, the government has "made a lot of headway," he says. "They've sent hundreds of LCN [La Cosa Nostra] capos and bosses and soldiers to prison. It's been relentless, and it's occurred in every city where there are LCN members."
Gone are the days when politicians could openly dine with mob bosses, or when Chicago's First Ward was controlled by the Mafia, and everyone knew it. Back then, says Professor Jacobs, "they had hooks and influence in police departments, in City Hall, they were part of the power structure of the country."
J. Edgar Hoover, the former FBI chief, refused to devote any agency resources to fighting organized crime. But after his death in 1972, and with the advent of RICO - which made it possible to give significant prison sentences for mob activities - and the Federal Witness Protection Program, the government began a more concerted effort to wipe out organized crime. Federal moves have severely weakened it, and eliminated Mafia presence in at least a few cities, but it's been a tough battle - in part, says Jacobs, because so many arrests simply pave the way for internal promotions.
That's one reason officials are touting the Chicago arrests - for taking on so many people at once. As with most major attacks on the mob, it was made possible in part through alleged internal cooperation. According to the Chicago Tribune, Nicholas Calabrese, a "made" man who worked for South Side Street Crew (one of four such Chicago crews), was connected to the 1986 murder of John Fecarotta through evidence given by his nephew. He in turn cooperated with officials to give evidence against other members of his family.
Despite the fact that the mob in Chicago, as in other cities, is severely weakened, the arrest is a good reminder of its continued activities, says Mr. Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Crime Commission. "People tend to start thinking of it in terms of the Sopranos and as an older part of our culture, and they forget that every day somebody is being shaken down," he says. Despite the federal government's current focus on terrorism, it's "good to see they're not giving up on the kinds of crimes that threaten more ordinary people in the course of a day."
These arrests, officials hope, send that message particularly forcefully.
The indictment "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," said US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in a statement. "After so many years, it lifts the veil of secrecy and exposes the violent underworld of organized crime."