DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Our guest today tells the story of a son who followed his tough and overbearing dad into the family business, then eventually found his father so cruel and abusive that to save himself, he had to betray his family and leave the enterprise.
What makes Frank Calabrese Jr.'s story so unique is that his family business was organized crime, and his path to freedom was informing on his father to the FBI.
Calabrese's father, Frank Calabrese Sr., was a member of the Chicago crime organization known as The Outfit, a syndicate once ruled by the legendary Al Capone. The elder Calabrese ran loan-sharking and gambling operations and became a go-to hit man when The Outfit needed somebody eliminated.
Frank Calabrese Jr.'s decision to inform on his father and others led to one of the biggest mob prosecutions in American history, in 2005. He tells his story in a book, called "Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime Family," written with Keith and Kent Zimmerman and Paul Pompian. It's out in paperback next week.
Calabrese gives an insider's account of life in the mob, including events dramatized in the Martin Scorsese film "Casino." I spoke to Frank Calabrese Jr. last March, and he began by talking about his childhood in a crime family.
Well, Frank Calabrese, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that you never saw your father kill anybody.
FRANK CALABRESE: Correct.
DAVIES: But you describe a moment once when he came back to the house just looking different, with the adrenaline pumping. Tell us about that moment, if you remember it.
CALABRESE: I do. I do remember that. We lived in a three-flat that we called the compound, and one night he came home, and I'll never forget this, and he used to like to talk in the bathroom with the fan on and the water running in case there was any kind of bugs in the house.
And I could just see his adrenaline going. And he was telling me - he was schooling me, and he was telling me that they killed somebody tonight. And, you know, and the reason they did it was because the guy was dealing drugs, and he was disobeying his boss.
And I remember looking at him while he's telling me this, and I'm kind of shocked because I'm like OK, you know, he's telling me this. And I'm thinking, is this what, you know, other kids hear when they come home and their father comes home from work? So you know, it kind of stuck with me all my life.
DAVIES: And how old were you then? Do you know?
CALABRESE: I was young. I was young. I want to say in my late teens.
DAVIES: And what was your reaction to the thought that your dad could kill somebody? Do you remember?
CALABRESE: Well, being around him more and more and slowly - see, that's where my father was a master manipulator - was that, you know, he just didn't come out of nowhere. He just kept slowly - you know, he - while I was watching his reactions, he was probably watching my reactions, too.
And he always made it sound like, you know, he was teaching me that - from right from wrong, and this is what you do. And your dad doesn't do anything wrong, but this is the way life is. So when I'm looking at him, I'm having mixed feelings because I'm like, well, if my dad is telling me this, and he's doing it, there must be something right about it.
DAVIES: So when you got a little older, and your father brought you into the family business, one of the first things you did involved pornography stores that your dad and his brothers were running. What did you do?
CALABRESE: I assisted my uncles in the operation of the stores, collecting the money.
DAVIES: Quarters, right, lots of quarters?
CALABRESE: Yeah, lots of quarters, and then there were cash, too, from magazine sales and VHS sales.
DAVIES: This was the days before, you know, the Internet porn and a lot of video porn.
CALABRESE: Correct, correct. At first - I started counting away from the stores at first. My uncles would bring the quarters, and I would be in a room, and at wherever we had a place at where we could count the quarters. And that was all I did at first.
Then I started going with my uncle once a week, my Uncle Nick, and we would go down there, and I'd start collecting the quarters with him.
DAVIES: Now these are quarters from little - what, arcades that would show a brief pornographic film?
CALABRESE: Yeah, they were - correct. They were booths. So we would go in there, and it was really - it opened my eyes to a world that was totally different than my normal, everyday life. Some of the things that went on in those booths, and in those back rooms, were kind of gross.
So yeah, I was introduced to all this at a real young age, you know, and - but then again, you know, hey, my father's telling me to do it and, you know, I'm starting to buy into it more and more. At that same time, I'm starting to spend more time with my father, and he's starting to pick up the pace a little bit on grooming me.
DAVIES: Now, you eventually get into the family's loan-sharking business. He was part of this crew - he had this crew. Tell us how the loan-sharking worked, and what your role was.
CALABRESE: Well basically, I started out as my father's right-hand man and basically, what I was doing is, I'd sit to my father's side, and he was showing me how to do the books. And it was ironic because I wasn't real good in math in school. And all the math I learned were from percentages from the juice loans. And to this day, I still laugh about it because that's how I got my math education.
DAVIES: Now you just used a term, juice loans. Explain that.
CALABRESE: OK. In Chicago, we call it juice loans, and a juice loan is a high-interest loan that's not through a bank or a credit card company. And you'd get it on the street, preferably from somebody like my dad or somebody from organized crime. In New York and some of the East Coast cities, they'd call it vig. So it's just a term that we use for juice.
DAVIES: So who were your customers? Who would borrow from you?
CALABRESE: You know, we had all kinds of customers. A lot of customers were degenerate gamblers that couldn't pay after they gambled that week. So we'd put them on juice right away. Or they were businessmen that needed some quick cash and didn't want to show it.
We used to have hundreds of guys on juice, some for as little as $100, some for as much as $100,000. And my father was - he taught me a lot of good stuff in that business because a lot of people would say: Well, if you don't pay, you're going to get your legs broken. And my father didn't look at it like that.
What he looked at was, if I break the guy's leg and it's going to scare him, how is he going to pay? So he'd always figure out different ways and show us different ways to present to the juice loan customer if he couldn't pay.
Say a guy had $1,000 and he was supposed to pay $50 a week, and he couldn't, he couldn't pay that $50 a week - and it was only interest. Well, what we would do is - my father would double the amount that he owes to $2,000, and he tells him: OK, you pay $10 a week, but you've got to pay every week, and that whole $10 comes off the $2,000.
So he'd never try to back guys in a corner, if he could.
DAVIES: But he's keeping them on the hook and, in the end, making a lot more money.
DAVIES: Right. But in the end, you do have to collect from people who are in a jam. What do you do then?
CALABRESE: The biggest problem where violence would come in is because you'd work with people, and they'd constantly lie to you or constantly try to avoid you.
And then that's when you either had to send them some kind of signal to let them know that they better pay, or they're going to have a problem - you know, if it was physical, to come and give them a crack in the head; you know, rough them up a little; sometimes if you had to take a baseball bat and hit them in the leg, sometimes just maybe throwing some dead rats or something on their car.
So there are always ways to show the person that they'd better start paying.
DAVIES: Now, was that your role, or did you just watch other folks do that?
CALABRESE: I had a role in that also.
DAVIES: Your father's enterprise was really profitable. Talk about some of the ways that he hid his assets, stashed money.
CALABRESE: He had many hiding places. He had legitimate bank accounts under other family members' names. And what he would do is he'd let them keep the interest.
He had safety deposit boxes full of cash. We had cash stashed in walls, in 55-gallon barrels in some garages. Anywhere you could think of, he would store cash, and he never liked to store it all in one spot.
DAVIES: Your father's crew didn't just, you know, run loan-sharking and gambling. They also became a hit squad for people in The Outfit, in organized crime who needed somebody taken care of. And there were a lot of cases that you describe. But let's just talk about one of them.
CALABRESE: The boss's house got robbed. And so what the boss wanted is, he wanted these crews to go around and grab all these thieves and torture them, torture them and leave them to be found so that the message would get out, and they...
DAVIES: Now these were thieves, but they were stealing from the wrong people, in other words.
CALABRESE: They stole from the wrong person, yeah, and a lot of people disagreed with the boss's decision because it seemed like it was going to - especially my father - because it seemed like it was going to be bad for business, all these bodies laying all over. It was going to bring in a lot of heat from the law enforcement.
So basically what they did was, they tortured these guys. They cut their throats. They beat them up. And they did that after or during - they were questioning them to find out exactly who was involved, even though they already had an idea of who was involved. So they were brutally tortured and killed.
DAVIES: And what was your father and your Uncle Nick's role in this one crime?
CALABRESE: Beat them, strangled them, and then my father - my father's way of making sure somebody was dead was that he would cut their throat from ear to ear. And I do believe in this one, I believe that he might have made my uncle do this one - the cutting of the throat. He did make my uncle do it in one of them.
But that was my father's way. My father was a hands-on guy and, you know, he loved to strangle people, and he loved knives. He had a whole big collection of knives. And to make sure they were dead, he'd cut them from ear to ear.
DAVIES: Now, in the book, you describe quite a few cases where they were involved in murders like these. In fact, I think you use the term, at some point, Calabrese necktie for the strangling and then the throat-slitting.
CALABRESE: Correct, correct.
DAVIES: Did you know about this? Did they talk about them at the time?
CALABRESE: Some I did know about, and some I didn't know about until later on, OK. A handful of the murders, I was actually, you know, deep in at that time, at that time, so they - my uncle and my father would talk in front of me and, you know, I was in on everything as far as the conversations and stuff.
The involvement - I was not involved directly because they didn't want me to get involved with The Outfit. They only wanted me to be involved with the family, our family.
So if there was something that was going to be done for our family, I was going to be involved. If it was something done for The Outfit, I would just stay in the background.
DAVIES: Our guest is Frank Calabrese. His book is "Operation Family Secrets." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Frank Calabrese. He was part of an organized crime family in Chicago. He wrote a book about informing on his father and others. It's called "Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime Family."
You know, it's - you're probably a free man today because you never actually killed anybody, but there was this one occasion where it could have happened, John "Big Stoop" Fecarotta. Do I have the name right?
DAVIES: Yeah. Now, why was that different? What was your role there?
CALABRESE: OK, I was - I had bought into everything at that point. And you know, I was ready to follow my father no matter what. Whatever he said, I would do.
Why I was so gung-ho about this one is because John had, in one of the other murders in Las Vegas, the murder that they showed in "Casino" with the two Spilotro brothers, my uncle was out there, part of the crew.
And he would come back and report to myself and my father, to let us know what was going on while they were trying to get Spilotro and kill him. And John Fecarotta was breaking all the rules while he was out there.
He was in charge. He brought his girlfriend. He was spending a lot of the money that they were sending out there. He wasn't supposed to. But the big thing he did was, he had my uncle sign a gambling slip. And that was a big no-no because now it shows they're all out there under fictitious names, and my uncle signs under his real name.
DAVIES: Yeah, this is your Uncle Nick, who...
CALABRESE: My Uncle Nick.
DAVIES: Your father's brother. And you say he signed a slip. You mean Fecarotta was out there; he had some actual, legitimate gambling winnings; and he wanted your Uncle Nick to sign the slip for the IRS. Is that what we're talking about?
CALABRESE: Correct, correct. You had to sign to collect, so he needed my uncle's signature.
DAVIES: Not something you would want to be doing if you were out there doing mob business.
CALABRESE: Correct. And the fact that he made my uncle sign it, he had no regard for my uncle's safety. He just didn't care. He was only concerned about himself.
And then he started to go, and he started to do what we would call arm and threaten, which, you know, you basically threaten some of our juice loan customers to start paying him - and screw us.
So when my father and my uncle found out about this, for me, I was so gung-ho because this is family. I don't care about organized crime. I don't care about that other stuff. But this is family.
The problem was, John was an old-time gangster. And he was smart. He carried a gun on him all the time, and he could catch what we call plays. If somebody was up to something, he could catch on real quick.
So my father knew that John Fecarotta had a sense that the bosses were mad at him, and everybody was mad at him. So he had his guard up. And if my father and my uncle were in the car together, he knew that there would be some kind of play. So it had to be done without my father being there.
And so while we were practicing and coming up with the way it was going to go, it was going to go - my father was playing John Fecarotta in our little role, and my uncle was sitting in the passenger seat. And the idea was that he had a bag that looked like it was going to be explosives, that we were going to send a message to a dentist.
And then I would sit in the backseat, and then I would shoot John in the back of the head.
DAVIES: So they were setting this up so that you were going to actually shoot this guy, right?
CALABRESE: I was going to shoot this guy. And then my uncle kept trying to tell me that - not in front of my father but away from my father - that, you know, you can't do this. I mean, basically he saved my life. You can't do this. If you do this, you're going to cross that line. There's no crossing back.
And the line he's talking about is the line that now I'm in debt to my dad because now I've performed a murder, and he owns me. I can't say one day, ah, I don't want to do this no more. So there's no ceremony involved or anything. It's just the fact that I cross that line with him.
My uncle wasn't as fortunate enough to be slowly groomed as I was with my dad because as soon as my uncle got involved with my dad, they committed a murder immediately. And so he was in.
And he kept wanting to pull away because he didn't like what he was seeing, either. But he was in on two ends. He was in with my dad, plus he was a made man in The Outfit now. So you know, he was trying to help me get away from it.
DAVIES: So they want to get this guy Fecarotta, and the drill is Uncle Nick is going to be in the front seat, you're going to be in the back with the gun. So how did it actually happen?
CALABRESE: Well, what had happened was, my uncle says, you know, I can do this. I can do this. I don't need Frankie in the car. I can do this. And my father somehow agreed with it and - which is a big no-no because of the fact that, you know, it would've been much easier with two guys. And if there was a problem, you have two guys against one instead of one.
And so there was a problem. It did get - John Fecarotta caught the play when my uncle pulled the gun, and my uncle wound up shooting himself in the arm in the process of shooting John.
John jumped out of the car, ran in the street, and the kind of guys that my father and my uncle were is that, you know, my uncle knew he had to finish this. And it was kind of almost like a scene out of "Scarface," where Al Pacino runs out in the middle of the street to gun down the guy in the head, down in Miami.
My uncle did the same thing. He crossed the street, walked up to him, put a bullet in his head to make sure he was dead right in front of - it was ironic because he did it right in front of the bingo hall where my grandmother played bingo all the time.
DAVIES: Now throughout all these years, you had a difficult relationship with your father and wanted to break away at times. And there was one moment that you describe, when you overslept and missed a meeting with your father. How did he react to that?
CALABRESE: Well, my father used to like to do all our meetings under cover of darkness and in the middle of the night. And so when we did this, what he would do is we'd set this meeting up days before, and he'd pick me up.
I'd walk out the back of my house. I'd walk down a couple of alleys, and he'd be sitting on a side street. I'd get in his car. We'd take off, drive the car, park a few blocks from the office where we were going, and then we'd go down in the basement, and we'd do all our book work for the week.
Well, I happened to oversleep. And so I got up, and I hurried up, and instead of not going, I just decided OK, let me get there. I'm just going to go through all the motions that I would if I was with my dad - but by myself.
So I go through all the motions, park away, walk. I'm coming down into the basement and, you know, I look at my dad. I'm like: Hey, Dad, sorry I overslept. And he got up and all of a sudden, he started punching me with lefts and rights to the head - knocking me to the ground.
I mean, all this because I was a few minutes late. And my uncle's looking at him, and he couldn't believe what he was doing, either. You know, in my father's eyes, he's got that glassy, thousand-yard killer look in his eyes.
And he's just beating the crap out of me. I could tell he can't control himself. And I'm not feeling it physically because I'm so numb mentally that my father's beating me up for being 15 minutes late.
All of a sudden he catches himself. He catches his - and he says: Here, go wipe your face. Come on, let's get on with this. Well, in the meantime, my uncle ran out of the basement while he was beating me, and he called my father. You know, he goes: You're a nut job. I can't believe you're beating him - and took off, out of the basement.
But these were the multiple personalities that my father had. I mean, he couldn't control his temper. And for the littlest things, he'd just beat you, and then two minutes later, he's fine.
He did it another time to me in front of my daughter. And this is when it really started bothering me because now I'm an adult. Now, I'm an adult, and I'm risking my life for him, and I'm giving him my life, and he's still going to beat me. I'm not raising my hands to him. And I'm doing whatever he asks me to do.
And one day, whenever - we had pagers back then. There were no cell phones yet. And he paged me, and I was supposed to call him. But when you call him, you're supposed to go out of your house, go so many blocks, find a phone and call him.
Well, I was babysitting, and my daughter was young, and I'm home alone. So I can't call him. So he comes to the house, and he thinks I'm avoiding him. So when I open the door, he cracks me in the face. Well, he didn't see my daughter standing next to me.
And it just made me so angry. And he looks down. He's like - oh, laugh like it's a joke. Laugh like it's a joke. Your daughter's standing there. It just - you know, after a while he could not control his hands. He couldn't control the beatings.
DAVIES: When you look at other memoirs of organized crime folks like Henry Hill, whose story "Goodfellas" is based on, one of the things that he says at the end of the movie is - and at the end of the book - is when it's over, what he really missed was the life, that there was a day when he had all the money and all the cars and all the feminine companionship he wanted, and could take what he wanted and bully anybody he wanted, and it was great.
CALABRESE: I got caught up in it a little bit. I did. I bought into it for a while and got caught up in it. And I understand what he's saying because sure, I mean, you know, you walk in a room, you know, and everybody is coming up hugging and kissing you. You had all this easy, fast money so you didn't respect the money. You drove nice cars. You vacationed a lot.
But my problem was, in order to be in that life you have to be a mean, mean person. I'm - by heart, I'm not a mean person. You know, at first when I was getting into that life, it wasn't about me becoming - I could never be in the mob because I'm half-Irish. So I could never be a made man.
And my father's goal for me wasn't to be in The Outfit. We call it The Outfit in Chicago - la Cosa Nostra, Mafia - but in Chicago, the term we use is Outfit. And he wanted me - he preached to me about being part of the family.
The family meant me, my brothers, my uncles, you know, our family, our blood family. You know, when I did stuff for him it was - I felt I was doing it for the family. So whenever - I used to watch a lot of organized crime guys out there, Outfit guys and, you know, I didn't like a lot that I'd see. A lot of them were real mean, a lot of them were unfair. So I really didn't want to be like that.
DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr.s memoir, "Operation Family Secrets," is out in paperback next week. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Davies filling in for Terry Gross. We're listening to my interview recorded last year with Frank Calabrese Jr., who grew up in the Chicago crime family and ultimately helped the FBI that his father and his associates away for good. He tells his story in a memoir called "Operation Family Secrets," which is out in paperback next week.
From an early age, Calabrese worked in his father Frank Sr.'s loan sharking operation and he eventually became a full-time criminal.
Well, to move the story along a little bit here, you spent years working with - in your father's crew. You married. You had two kids. You had a lot of difficulty dealing with this, wanted to break away from your father. You got into cocaine using, some dealing - right - which was utterly forbidden in your father's crew.
And then there comes a point in the 1990s when a guy that the family had dealt with, named Matt Rousseau(ph), goes to the FBI. And the result is indictments against you, others on loan sharking for a racketeering indictment, not for the murders. And so you end up going to a prison but for a few years. Now what was your plan for your life as you were entering prison? How did you look at this? How did you look at this?
CALABRESE: Well, I looked that I had two demons in my life. I had two big demons: cocaine and my father - and basically breaking away from my father. And it wasn't just me wanting to break away from my father. It was my brother. It was my uncle. It was anybody in the family around my father that - he was just getting out of control. But you know, it's your father, and you love your father. And it was almost like we were co-dependents because we - every time something would happen we would think oh, you know what? Now this happened, so now he's going to change.
And going to prison, I wanted to change my life. And in order to change my life, I had to get away from my father, and I had to get away from cocaine. So going into prison, I was prepared for it. I couldn't wait to get in there. I needed it. I really, really needed it bad so I can get my life back in order.
I went in early so I can get the drug program in prison. They had a great drug program in the federal prison. Not only is it a great program, but you also get time off for it. You get a year of good time plus six months halfway house, so that you get 18 months to be on the street earlier.
DAVIES: Now you ended up, I think against your preferences, in the same prison as your father. And the federal investigation that really ended up bringing down this family - and it was one of the most important criminal investigations, probably, in - certainly in Chicago history, probably in American history - really begins with you sitting down and typing a letter to an FBI agent because you want to inform on your father. Tell us what made you do that.
CALABRESE: I'm down for a year, and I'm with my father for eight months, every day, and I really want to work out this relationship. We'd made some promises to one another in the lawyer's office the day I was reporting him. And I wanted to keep my end of the bargain, but I wanted to make sure my father was going to keep his end.
DAVIES: And what promises did you make to each other?
CALABRESE: Well, I promised that I would never touch drugs again. And I keep that promise to this day - and until my dying day, I will. His promise was that he was going to change his ways. He was going to back away from the mob because you can never leave but you can retire. And we were going to work on our relationship and be honest with one another. And I thought, this is great, you know, I'm going to be away from my dad for a while. When we get done, we get out, I'm going to be a better person, he's going to be a better person, and we are going to work on our relationship.
So when I sit down to write this letter after eight months of trying daily to work out my relationship with my dad, what I did was, I used everything my father taught me against him to see if he was telling the truth. And at this time in life, my father didn't draw no lines no more. He didn't care who he manipulated. He didn't care if it was me or my brother or my uncle; it was always for his benefit.
You know, and I can give you one great example of that - is, there's a play around the country, called "Tony and Tina's Wedding."
CALABRESE: OK. In the Chicago version, my brother was a partner there. But my brother didn't put his name on anything - my brother Kurt - because he didn't want my father to know about it because if my father knew about it, my father would want some of it. That's how my father was; he'd extort us.
So my father sent - he thought Kurt had something to do with it, and Kurt was trying to break away from him, so he sent some of his guys to the play to extort the owner, my brother's partner. Well, what my father didn't know was that there was cameras there for security, and when the guys that came - my brother recognized them because he was in the back, just happened to be there that day and seen them on camera. So my father always denied that he had anything to do with it.
So when we were in prison, I confronted him on it. And I told him, I says, I can't believe that you would extort your own family. He says, what are you talking about? I says, you extorted Kurt at the play. I did not; I saved him. I says, no. I says, we have on tape your guy walking in there and extorting him. And my father's jaw dropped. What are you talking about? Who's taping who? I says, look, Dad. I says, this is the way it is. And he gave me this long story. So that was another strike against him. And there were a lot of other stories like that.
DAVIES: So you decided, based on these conversations and other things you learned, that your father wasn't getting out. He wasn't going to back away from the mob. He fully intended to be just as involved.
DAVIES: And you had to do something.
CALABRESE: Right. And you got to understand, this case, we're in jail. The FBI thinks they got us. We're done. They barely touched us - and all this all comes out later on, you know. And I'm looking at what choices I have here. You know, I mean the choice that I wanted was the agreement I made with my dad: We'd both go to prison; we, you know, we do what we promised; and we get out.
But now, I look and I'm like, OK. You know, I can only think of two choices that that I have. And one choice is to cooperate with the government, which we were always 100 percent against, or my other choice is wait 'til he gets out and let's see what's going to happen - and knowing that what's going to happen is either I'm going to wind up dead, or he's going to wind up dead - and the other one is probably going to wind up in jail.
DAVIES: So you write a letter to this FBI agent and you say, come talk to me. And he does. And what do you tell him?
CALABRESE: OK. Well, when I wrote this letter, you know, I wanted to do a business agreement with the FBI. I didn't want - I wasn't looking - you know, I'm not a victim here. I was a bad guy. I belonged in jail. But I needed to keep him in there because I knew I wasn't going to be a bad guy when I got out. So I needed to work out a business agreement with the FBI.
And you've got to understand the FBI. I mean all of a sudden here, you get back from lunch and all of a sudden, you've got this letter on your desk? They couldn't believe it. There was a lot of legalities that we had to go through. I couldn't reach out to my lawyers. I couldn't trust nobody on this. So I was on my own. I didn't want immunity. I didn't want any kind of deal that I was indebted to anybody. I just wanted to work in a business agreement. I don't want to lose no time, but I want to help you keep my father locked up. And at first, I decided that I would just feed them information so that they can get my father.
After the first meeting - and I went back to my cell and I sat there, and I laid in my cell and I thought about it. I says, you know, I need more than that. If I need to wear a wire, I'll have to do it. I cannot draw no lines. I can't make no boundaries in doing this. If I'm going to do it, I have to do it a hundred percent.
DAVIES: So in the end, you decide you will wear a wire, and you will go and try and talk to your father and get him on tape admitting to some of the awful things he's done - for the FBI. Now, it's dangerous doing that outside the walls. Being in prison must have presented special obstacles, right?
CALABRESE: Oh, yeah. Yeah, well, the biggest obstacle was for me to even get to the room that the FBI agents were in. If I was seen going anywhere near that area and I didn't know somebody seeing me, my life's in danger. I mean, I'm going out on the prison yard, OK,? You know, you can't trust - I don't know who I can trust in prison. I don't know what guards I can trust. So it was really hard.
Plus, there was no monitor on me. So when I got wired up and I left that room, those FBI agents sat there for as many hours - sometimes as many as five hours -not knowing what's going on. They're not listening because they can't. And they're just waiting to see me come back, or waiting for the prison alarm to go off that somebody's down - meaning I'm probably dead or beat up or stabbed.
DAVIES: Now, your father was always very careful about talking business. Even at home, he used a lot of code words and liked cover noise. How did you approach getting him to talk about some of his criminal past?
CALABRESE: Well, I didn't push anything. What I used was, he had this jealousy of our relationship - mine and my brothers with my uncle. And he thought that my uncle was trying to take his place as a father. And it wasn't the case. He was just he just had our backs; my uncle had our backs. He was an uncle. And my father taught me, you know, two ways to make a guy talk. Either feed them a lot of liquor, or get them mad. So we don't have no liquor in jail. So I figured, let me use my uncle to get my father mad - and the premise that we were working on our relationship. So all this stuff he started talking about, you know, it really wasn't forced. If it was forced, he would have caught the play. My father was good at catching plays.
DAVIES: And so you get him to talk about a lot of stuff -murders, right?
CALABRESE: In detail. In detail. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe the way he was talking.
DAVIES: Were there ever any moments when you thought he might be on to you?
CALABRESE: Yeah. There was one moment during a conversation - I had gotten a tattoo, and he just got done explaining to me in detail who was there when the Spilotro brothers got killed. And I - just all of a sudden seen a funny look on his face. And he's like, let me see your tattoo. And my tattoo is on my upper right shoulder and I got a sweatshirt on, and I'm on the yard. And that day -which was ironic, was because the recording equipment they gave me was last minute from Detroit because the stuff they brought malfunctioned. So I was wired up like a Christmas tree. If I take off that shirt or even move it, it was - he would have known right away. And I'm on the yard, and I'm standing in an area with a lot of Italian guys, a lot of Outfit guys, a lot of biker guys -a lot of everybody. If that wire is spotted and I'm friendly with everybody in that prison then, you know, I don't think I'm making it back.
So he went to grab my shirt, and I grabbed him. And I says no, I can't show you this. I said, there's guards standing right there. If he sees it, I'll go to the hole. And I says, and you've seen it already. So you know, I didn't know if he really wanted to see the tattoo - and there was a lot going through my head right then. What do I do? Do I run? There is a long way, probably a couple hundred yards, to the door. I probably won't make it. And - or do I punch him? You know, and so I just stood my ground and ironically, he didn't pursue it.
DAVIES: Now, when you talked about what you knew about these murders to the FBI, that meant you had to also tell them about the role of your Uncle Nick, who you loved and respected, right?
CALABRESE: Correct. Yeah.
DAVIES: You were, in effect, informing on him as well. I mean, you know how this works. The FBI is going to want to know everything you know, and a lot of what you know involved your Uncle Nick. And you were going to implicate him. That must've been hard.
CALABRESE: It was hard. It was hard. I - you know - I mean, he's never done nothing to me. He's never done nothing but look out for me. I can't sit here and give any reason why it was right for me to implicate him. The only thing was, there was - I never had thought about that far down the line. And then when it came up, there was no way around it. And I had to do it.
I believe that I saved his life. I believe that I saved my life. I know I saved a couple guys in our crew's life because my father talked about killing certain guys when I got out. So you know, had I not implicated my uncle, had I not went against my dad, there would have probably been a bloodbath on the street.
I'm not happy I did it. Not 'til this day - at all. I wish I could do his time for him. It ain't going to happen. But he's going to be out soon, and he's going to be able to see his kids again, and he's going to be able to get on with his life. And I know he's sorry for those people that especially the innocent people that he killed.
DAVIES: Our guest is Frank Calabrese. His book is called Operation Family Secrets. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Frank Calabrese. He was a member of an organized crime family in Chicago. His account of testifying against his father for the FBI is called Operation Family Secrets.
Eventually, there are indictments against your father and a lot of other members of the Chicago Outfit. And there is eventually, of course, a trial. And while you've given the FBI its choice evidence in these tapes, these recordings of your father implicating himself, that's not enough. You've got to go take the stand at the trial, tell the jury the story of your getting the tapes, and also to translate the code that your father uses as he speaks to you. So that means you're going to have an extended stretch on the stand, face-to-face with your father. How did you feel, approaching that?
CALABRESE: I felt confident. I knew the day I did the letter my life was going to change, and I know that the day I did the letter that I would be sitting on the stand in the same room as my dad, going through all this. So I knew it was going to happen, it's just a matter of time; it's just a matter of waiting.
What I never thought about was the emotion that would come over me when I walked in that courtroom from not seeing my dad - I want to say probably for about a good five years, I hadn't seen him. And there he is, sitting over there, he's aged and, you know, I walk in the room and I just - didn't stare at him, but out of the corner of my eye I could see him sitting there. And I could see a dad looking at his son, and me looking back at him.
And at first, you're just looking to see how they look or what's going on with them, you know, and I wanted to run over and hug him. I really wanted to go over there and hug him. And it killed me.
And so that first day on the stand - I only was on the stand for a half-hour because it was towards the end of the day. But I'll tell you, after five minutes of being on the stand, it didn't take me long to have that love for my dad turn into hatred for my dad and remind me of what I'm doing. And I'm sitting up there, doing it.
DAVIES: And explain the transformation. Was it the questions you had to answer?
CALABRESE: No. No. It was my father sitting over there, the gestures he was making and trying to stare and it was my, you know, being in a room with my father you could – it didn't take long because I knew him and I knew what he was doing. I knew what he was trying to do.
DAVIES: What gestures do you mean?
CALABRESE: Yeah. He laughed. He shook his head when I talked. He bounced around in his chair. He tried giving me, you know - and I won't look at him. I won't give him the satisfaction.
DAVIES: The other thing is, there was a huge volume of material that you had to present to a jury in a calm and convincing way.
CALABRESE: Yeah. And, you know, it wasn't hard because I lived it and I knew the codes and, you know, once I settled in, I knew I had a job to do. And I could tell you that when I - every day that I went home from the court - and I might have slept an hour a night. I cried. I paced. You know, and it wasn't about what I had to do in court.
It was about, you know, it's my father. You know, I love him dearly to this day but I didn't love his ways, and I still don't understand why he didn't have mine and my brothers' backs ever. Why? Every time - through years and years, I look back - and every time I look, he'd never have my back. We always had his back. I mean, I was willing to kill and die for this man, you know. It was a tough time.
CALABRESE: And at the end of the trial, the biggest thing that bothered me was, you know, when I went back upstairs and I sat down, and one of the agents walked in the room and he goes, you OK? And I says yeah, but this is probably, you know, this is probably the last time I'm ever going to see my dad alive. I'm losing my dad right now, and I'm part of it.
DAVIES: And do you think about him much these days?
CALABRESE: I do. I do. If they let him out, he'll come after me in a second. I think about him all the time. I keep a picture of him in my wallet. Sometimes on TV I'll watch certain things, and it'll trigger tears in my eyes. You know, it's been rough.
DAVIES: When you undertook the step to testify against your father – and we ought to say not just your father. I mean, other people went down. This was a huge indictment, a massive case. You chose not to go into the witness protection program. You didn't want to be cut off from your family. You wanted to be able to be honest and earn a living in some way. What can you tell us about your life today?
CALABRESE: Yeah. The witness protection, I've caught a lot of flak for not going. But I have to be here. I have to be here. I have to give my father that chance of getting revenge on me if he needs to. And I didn't want to bring my kids into that program. I know nobody is going to bother my kids, and I don't want anybody to bother my brothers. So they know where I'm at.
My life today is I'm just a simple, plain Joe. I work. I work hard. I work two jobs. And you know, I'm just a 9-to-5 guy living on a budget, and I'm enjoying life. I have MS. I've had it for a while so my legs are a little screwed up, but I deal with it. We all have our little problems in life that we have to deal with.
DAVIES: That's MS, multiple sclerosis.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. Did you just say that you had to give your dad the chance to come after you if he wants to?
DAVIES: What do you mean?
CALABRESE: Well, I feel that there's a difference between - you know, one of the names that they like to tag people with is rat. And, you know, I don't feel I'm a rat. A cooperating witness, I am a turncoat. I mean, you could call me a lot of different things. But rats run and hide, and I couldn't run and hide.
I don't want to stand on a corner in the neighborhood and raise a flag and flex my muscles and challenge people because there's some tough people there. But what I'm saying is hey, I'm living my life out here. This was between me and my dad and, you know, my dad has made many attempts to scare my brothers, especially my one brother Kurt, and intimidate them.
And so I just want him to know that, leave them alone. They didn't bother you. Here I am.
DAVIES: Hmm. You know, Frank, when I read the beginning of your book - and it begins with you writing - you're in prison, and you write the letter to the FBI saying I want to talk to you about this. And you explain your motivation at the beginning of the book, that you wanted to help them make sure that your father was kept in prison the rest of his life.
And I read that and thought, that can't be the real reason. Whenever anybody in organized crime testifies or informs on people, it's because there's something in it for them. They want a reduced sentence. They want immunity. They want a deal. You didn't get any of that, did you?
CALABRESE: Oh, what I got is a chance to live my life free and clear of my dad, so I did get something. And a lot of people around me also got to live their lives free of him, too. But to this day, my father - sitting locked behind three doors - still instills fear in a lot of people. People are still scared sometimes to mention his name.
DAVIES: Well, Frank Calabrese, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CALABRESE: Thank you.
DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr.s memoir, "Operation Family Secrets" is out in paperback next week. Coming up, David Edelstein's review of the new animated film "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax." This is FRESH AIR.
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