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Chicago Trials Begin for 'Joey the Clown' and Co.

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Chicago Trials Begin for 'Joey the Clown' and Co.

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Chicago Trials Begin for 'Joey the Clown' and Co.

Chicago Trials Begin for 'Joey the Clown' and Co.

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Jury selection is expected to begin in the federal racketeering and conspiracy trial of five reputed Chicago area organized crime figures, including Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo, who is 78. The crimes they are charged with date to 1970s and involve 18 previously unsolved mob-related murders.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

"The Sopranos" may be history, but you can follow a real life mob drama now unfolding in a Chicago courtroom. Jury selection begins today in the federal racketeering and conspiracy trial of five reputed Chicago area organized crime figures. They're charge in connection with a wide range of crimes and more than a dozen previously unsolved murders.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: When they appear in court this morning, the defendants in this sweeping conspiracy case won't seem too imposing. Joey "The Clown" Lombardo is now 78 and using a wheelchair. The rest are in their 60s, and some of these reputed tough guys while awaiting trial in jail have reportedly requested dentures and hearing aides. But at the time of their arrests in April of 2005, Robert Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office, said all were at or near the top of the ruthless Chicago mob's power structure.

Mr. ROBERT GRANT (FBI): For the first time we have the heads of multiple crews indicted in one indictment.

SCHAPER: Federal prosecutors allege Lombardo, Frank Calabrese Sr., and James Marcello each headed street crews or divisions of the Chicago branch of the mob called the Outfit, and that Marcello was in charge of the Outfit. They and others are charged with overseeing and carrying out organized crime activities over several decades on behalf of the Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra or LCN. The charges include plotting and carrying out 18 murders dating back to 1970. Again, the FBI's Robert Grant.

Mr. GRANT: This is the first investigation that I can recall - indictment that I can recall that involved so many murders, which really gets to the heart of what the LCN is, and that is a bunch of murderous thugs.

Mr. GUS RUSSO (Author): Historically this will be a very big trial - very important.

SCHAPER: Gus Russo, whose books about the Chicago mob include "The Outfit" and "Supermob," says the trial could solve decades-old mysteries about some of the most notorious mob hits in recent Chicago history, including those of the Spilotro brothers. Joe Pesci's character in the 1995 movie "Casino" was based on Anthony Spilotro, who headed the mob's Las Vegas operations.

He and his brother Michael were beaten to death in 1986 and buried in an Indiana cornfield. The key witness is Nicholas Calabrese. He's pleaded guilty to taking part in 14 mob murders and is now cooperating with the government and will testify against his brother Frank and the others. Again, author Gus Russo.

Mr. RUSSO: By having Calabrese to flip and to cooperate - this could be huge, because my understanding is he was very high up in the power structure and he would know the answers to these crimes.

SCHAPER: That such a high-ranking member of the mob would talk is a sign of the times, Russo says. The Outfit today doesn't have the power, reach and loyalties it once did. Russo and others say this could be the last big mob trial in Chicago for a long time, though no one expects organized crime to disappear. Joey "The Clown" Lombardo's attorney, Rick Halprin, says his client is not guilty.

Mr. RICK HALPRIN (Attorney): Joey Lombardo may have associated with a lot of these people - some of them he grew up with. He may have done certain things in the past with these people, but he was never, and I repeat, never, a made man or a boss.

SCHAPER: A made man is someone who's taken an oath of loyalty to the Mafia. Halprin says the government's case is built on inferences and relies on cooperating witnesses who will say anything to save their own skin. Of the 14 originally indicted, five others have also pleaded guilty though are not cooperating; two have died, and another is too sick to stand trial. Jury selection is expected to take up to two weeks, and the trial could last four months.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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