Chicago Magazine

 

Mob Lite

 

The new, improved Chicago Outfit has turned smart and more sophisticated, experts say. It even seemed to have abandoned its violent ways. But then Ronald Jarrett took a walk in Bridgeport

 

 

By Robert Kurson

December 2000               

 

 

AT MIDMORNING LAST DECEMBER

23RD, just two days before the last Christmas of the millennium, Ronald Jarrett, a stocky, 55-year-old Bridgeport husband and father, buttoned his coat and pulled shut the front door of his Lowe Street bungalow. Holiday lights twinkled on the handrails of neighbors walkups while vacationing schoolkids bundled up for prelunch snowball fights. The winter air, crisp and clean, was caffeine to Jarrett's face as he walked to his vehicle. A relative was being buried, and Jarrett was on his way to an Orland Park funeral home to say goodbye.

 

Blocks away, a yellow Ryder rental truck began to roll through Bridgeport, a neighborhood so protective of its own that residents have been known to flag down unmarked FBI cars to demand an explanation for the intrusion. No one seemed to think twice about this truck, however, as it wound its way, silently along the side streets toward Jarrett's home.

 

The truck pulled up near Jarrett, and the man in the front passenger seat got out, brandishing a gun. He aimed the weapon at Jarrett's face and, without waiting for a reaction, squeezed the trigger over and over. Several bullets hit Jarrett in the shoulder, arms, and head. The shooter made no attempt to remove jewelry or cash from the gasping victim, but just returned to his seat in the yellow truck and shut the door. The vehicle took off moments later and, in a nearby alley, the shooter and the driver splashed gasoline to set it ablaze. With their fireball started, the men jumped into a Lincoln and sped away.

 

It was 10:18 a.m.; shopkeepers were conducting business, residents were leading lives, the daylight was broad. The first person to arrive at Jarrett's body was not a child or a neighbor. It was an FBI agent.

 

Jarrett (pictured in 1977) was "a real piece of work" said an FBI agent-a burglar, juice man, hijacker, thief, ringleader, fence.

 

For a month, Jarrett clung to life inside Cook County Hospital while police guarded his room, and hospital officials would neither confirm nor deny that he was there. Bridgeport residents agreed that there would be unpleasant consequences if Jarrett survived, but the issue was soon moot. Last January 25th, just over a month after being shot in cold blood, Ronald Jarrett died. So peaceful had been the streets of Chicago for the past several years that some innocents mistook this killing for an act of random violence. Those who knew better saw a signature on Jarrett's corpse that dated back to Al Capone.

 

EVEN AS JARRETT RODE IN THE AMBULANCE TO Cook County Hospital, organized crime experts in Chicago rushed to open their almanacs and began riffling pages. The shooting bore all the marks of a classic Chicago Mafia hit except one-the Mafia here doesn't whack guys anymore.

 

According to the Chicago Crime Commission, the Chicago Mob-or "Outfit," as it has been known in Chicago since the 1930s (no one seems to know the lineage of the term)-was responsible for 1,106 murders between 1919 and 1990, 75 in 1926 alone.

 

But from 1995 to Christmas 1999, the Outfit had not executed a single person, a statistic that might have caused Capone himself to cry. (The term "Outfit" in this story refers to the traditional, Sicilian-based Mob. Organized crime in Chicago is not limited to the traditional; see story, page 69.) The startling drop in Mob hits had led experts and the public alike to conclude that the Outfit had simply dried up and gone away.

 

If the recent lack of bodies was not proof enough, hard numbers seemed to back up the theory. While the Outfit once claimed hundreds of inducted, or "made," members, today that figure has dwindled to perhaps 50. The seven crews that had

historically controlled Chicago have been consolidated into three -North Side, South Side, West Side.

 

And there is evidence on the marquee, too. Since the 1992 death from natural causes of Mob boss Tony Accardo (who earned one of his nicknames, "Joe Batters," from an admiring Capone), no towering figure has emerged as the local leader.

 

Today, experts cannot even agree on who runs the Chicago Mob.

 

The Chicago Crime Commission claims it is John "No Nose" DiFronzo, 71, a man groomed in the style of Accardo who ascended through the Outfit's ranks with a toughguy reputation, but who now opts for the low-key, low-profile approach.

 

DiFronzo, whose latest conviction was in 1993 for federal extortion-related offenses, is said to have earned his nickname during a 1949 shootout, when a sliver of his nose was removed by a standard issue Chicago Police Department bullet.

 

John Flood, the president of the Combined Counties Police Association and an expert on the Outfit, believes that the current boss is Joe "The Clown" Lombardo, 71, long reputed to have ties to the Grand Avenue crew, who also worked his way up the system. Lombardo (whose nickname is said to honor his sense of humor) was last convicted in the famous Las Vegas skimming case in 1986, portrayed in the movie Casino.

 

Still on parole, he is forbidden to associate openly with known Outfit members. He, too, has maintained a low profile in recent years, as well as that sense of humor. Around the time of his parole in 1992, Lombardo took out this classified ad in the Chicago Tribune: "I am Joe Lombardo, I have been released on parole from federal prison. I never took a secret oath with guns and daggers, pricked my finger, drew blood, or burned paper to join a criminal organization. If anyone hears my name used in connection with any criminal activity, please notify the FBI, local police, and my parole officer, Ron Kumke."

 

One retired FBI agent with significant underworld contacts maintains that the current Outfit leader is 68-year-old Joe "The Builder" Andriacchi, another practitioner of the invisible style of leadership. Andriacchi's latest conviction was in 1965 for burglary. He earned his nickname through his connection to the construction business.

 

Such evidence suggests that the Outfit, like British royalty, has become little more than a tourist attraction. Chicago's organized crime experts, however, say that is sadly not so.

 

These days, they insist, there is a new Outfit, a sophisticated syndicate that operates in ways Capone never imagined, an organization that is smarter and leaner and possibly more profitable than its predecessors. These experts will pull out a mug shot of Ronnie Jarrett and tell you about an Outfit that can still reach deep into its history and pull a solution from the barrel of a gun.

 

TO MANY, THE NEW YORK MAFIA IS THE Mafia. But the New York and Chicago Mobs have differed fundamentally since the days of Capone. Five Mafia families control New York, and each in turn oversees certain businesses.

 

Only Italians are welcomed as New York members. The three crews of the Chicago Outfit all run similar businesses and ultimately answer to the same boss, who acts as a diplomat as much as an order giver.

 

The Outfit, unlike New York's La Cosa Nostra, has never been exclusionary. "They love anyone who can make a buck," says Wayne Johnson, the chief investigator for the Chicago Crime

Commission, a private organization funded by local businesses that dates back to Capone's early days.

 

"Murray `The Camel' Humphreys was Welsh, Gus Alex was Greek, Lenny Patrick was Jewish. These were high-ranking guys in Chicago, and no one had a problem. Chicago has always been unique for this."

 

The Outfit also seems to discourage flashy leaders. The fact that law enforcement agencies cannot agree on who is the leader of the Outfit is astounding to Howard Abadinsky, a professor of criminal justice at St. Xavier University in Chicago and the founder of the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime. "It's fantastic," he says.

 

"Unbelievable. The only parallel I can give you is this: In the late sixties and early seventies, the Genovese family in New York was able to put in a straw boss and confuse the federal government. But the Outfit has gone even further; they've purposely made no effort to designate anyone as boss, so no one really knows.

 

They realize that there's an inevitable conclusion to being a dapper don. Just look at [former New York Mafia boss John Gotti, who dressed fancy and became one of the most famous men in the country. He's in jail now for the rest of his life."

 

WITH ITS LEAN MEMBERSHIP ROLLS, THE current Chicago Outfit appears to be little more than a street gang whose members own nice suits. (Al Capone, by comparison, is said to have commanded an army of 7,000.) Yet the truths of Mafia mathematics are not always self-evident.

 

"Counting `made' members is not necessarily the best way to estimate the Outfit's reach," says Charles Rooney, the assistant special agent in charge of organized crime in the FBI's Chicago office. "The majority of their current influence comes more, from associates than members."

 

Associates may include lieutenants and soldiers-those who do the daily work of the Outfit, such as collecting, threatening, driving, and staging burglaries-as well as the legion of union officials, bartenders, bookmakers, politicians, even police who have some affiliation with the Mob.

 

The Chicago Crime Commission believes that as of 1997 there were between 700 and 1,200 active Outfit associates, though some estimates range even higher. More ominous, the shrinkage might be by design.

 

Abadinsky thinks the Outfit has deliberately moved into businesses that are less risky and that require far less man power. "When you have fantastically lucrative businesses like gambling, in which victims willingly participate and no one's getting beaten up or killed, it draws much less heat from law enforcement - no one's complaining," he says. "And when you're not shaking down every bookie or restaurant owner on every street corner, when you're not peddling drugs at the street level, you don't require nearly as many employees."

 

That means each member makes more money. "The Outfit is a business," he says, "and they've learned that having a smaller core is good business."

 

The leaner Outfit also registers a fainter profile on law enforcement's radar, creating the illusion-even among some lawmakers-that the organization is extinct.

 

"We're fighting that perception here," Johnson says. "We've seen stories in USA Today recently about the demise of organized crime, and I find that a real travesty because even law enforcement at certain levels buys into that."

 

It also reduces the risk that a member will betray the organization-an increasingly attractive option to mobsters, given recent increases in federal crackdowns, jail terms, and the use of federal racketeering statutes.

 

Even when the Outfit does expand by "making" a new member in Chicago, the induction includes none of the pinpricks, blood oaths, and two-cheek kisses immortalized in gangster films.

 

Rather, it is more likely to involve just a handshake and a "Welcome to this floor," or "You're going to be one of us now."

 

"That kind of quiet makes charting and estimating their numbers more difficult than in New York-they don't wear bull's-eyes here," Abadinsky says. "But that does not mean the Outfit's reach is any shorter. You must never mistake the Outfit's current size for weakness."

 

To maintain this potent brew of low profile and limited membership, experts say, the Outfit must avoid engaging in businesses that require constant coercion or violence. But isn't that the very essence of Mafia work?

 

Bill Roemer, the late FBI agent and the author of several works on the Chicago Outfit, wrote, "Murder and mayhem are part and parcel of the mob. They cannot enforce their edicts, they cannot extort and intimidate, they cannot infiltrate legitimate enterprises or command their own empires without resorting to violence."

 

And yet, since the early 1990s, avoiding routine violence seems to have been precisely what the Outfit has been about.

 

Between 1985 and 1990, the organization was believed to have been responsible for 16 murders; from 1990 to 1994, that number shrank to six.

 

The decline is due partly, Abadinsky says, to the Outfit's "very sophisticated" decision to remain distant from potentially lucrative but risky endeavors, such as street level narcotics dealing and the extortion of legitimate businesses. But the mobsters have also grown smarter about the way they do business. Take gambling, still thought to be the Outfit's largest source of income (though figures are not available).

 

In days past, a deadbeat football bettor might be visited by a member of the Outfit, who would politely explain why it was wise to pay one's debts. The penalty for refusing such advice could range from a beating to torture to murder. "But today," says Johnson, "because of increased government scrutiny, the risk is greater that an Outfit guy will be roughing up a guy wearing a wire. And the penalties for the rough stuff are greater."

 

It did not take long for the Outfit to realize that violence was not such good business - and that there were more effective ways to punish deadbeats. "Now the Outfit is more careful," Johnson says. "They won't take bets from just anyone, and when someone can't pay, the penalty will often be as simple as blacklisting the guy and letting everyone in the business know he's a stiff.

 

To an addicted gambler, that's a sentence worse than death." "Just because they don't whack guys the way they used to doesn't mean the Outfit doesn't strike fear into people's hearts," says the police association's Flood. "A guy who was 25 and working for a bookie that got whacked in 1985 is only 40 today. He remembers; he got the message about what happens if you don't pay the tax. It's intimidation; all you have to do is beat up one guy and the word gets around."

 

THE OUTFIT. HOWEVER. DOES NOT LIMIT ITSELF to gambling, loansharking, and vice crimes, even as it avoids the rough stuff.

 

"Their crimes are more complex now, and they are more subtle about them," says Mitchell Mars, the chief of the organized crime section at the office of the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Their crimes, it turns out, are often right under our noses.

 

For years, the Chicago Outfit has earned staggering profits through its influence over-and in some cases control of-labor unions. According to the Chicago Crime Commission's 1997 report used by law enforcement worldwide to identify the power structure and current health of the Outfit labor racketeering continues to provide vast windfalls of money and power, even as the government muscles out the mobsters and attempts to cleanse the system. By putting its associates in powerful positions within labor unions, the Chicago Crime Commission says, the Outfit is able to gain control of pension funds, misappropriate dues, anoint cronies, dole out cushy jobs and benefits, and engage in other nefarious activities that effectively impose a "Mob tax" on U.S. consumers.

 

The issue was raised dramatically in 1999, when the Laborers' International Union of North America joined the Justice Department in a lawsuit to force a takeover of its own local.

 

The lawsuit alleged that the Chicago Laborers' District Council-a collection of 21 union locals with 19,000 workers (mostly in construction) and $1.5 billion in assets-had been systematically controlled by the Outfit since the organization's inception. The court instituted a monitoring system of the union, which is still in effect.

 

According to an article published by the Chicago Sun-Times on August 13, 1999, one man who had served as the union's Vice president shortly before the government filed its suit was John "Pudge" Matassa Jr., whom the Chicago Crime Commission identified as an associate of the Outfit's North Side crew.

 

The Outfit is not the sole practitioner of labor racketeering, but it might be the most ingenious. In New York, for example, the Mafia influences labor unions by brute force, intimidating or corrupting union officials.

 

"But in Chicago," Abadinsky says, "you get labor officials who are, in fact, Outfit people." The distinction is critical, he says, because it gives the crooked union representative here a legitimate reason to be in contact with elected officials-long the essence of the Outfit's power base in Chicago.

 

The differences don't stop there. In New York, the Mafia profits in construction by arranging for several companies to submit excessive bids on contract work, then steps in to slightly underbid and win the business.

 

The Outfit, according to Abadinsky, does not bother with such complex and risky collusion. Instead, it uses its control of the unions to provide Outfit connected businesses with competitive advantages. "For example," Abadinsky says, speaking hypothetically, "an Outfit guy who controls the union that delivers food might ask a Chicago restaurant owner to buy office supplies from an Outfit-controlled supplier.

 

Is that illegal? He didn't say he was going to call a strike. He didn't shake the restaurant owner down. But the guy would have to be a complete idiot if he didn't throw the Outfit the office supply business."

 

The New York approach is clearly illegal, Abadinsky says. The Outfit's approach, via its influence in labor unions, is "remarkably sophisticated."

 

BEYOND LABOR UNIONS, THE OUTFIT HAS increasingly invested in and purchased legitimate businesses, where benefits abound. "Straight businesses are a very effective way for the Mob to launder their money," says one retired FBI agent who has worked on several Outfit cases.

 

 

"They love restaurants, especially the North Side crews, and gentlemen's clubs-any cash business where they can launder their dirty money is a potential investment."

 

The agent also reports that recent windfalls in the financial and real estate markets have been sweet music to the Outfit, which has invested heavily in real estate and stocks. Many experts also believe that the Outfit has associates entrenched in Chicago's financial exchanges, where suspected activities range from booking high-dollar sports bets to making juice (high-interest) loans to manipulating the price of stocks.

 

The Outfit also continues to control concerns west of Chicago. That fact emerged during the infamous Las Vegas skimming case in the 1980s and resulted in the murder of Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, whose underwear-clad body turned up in an Indiana cornfield.

 

(The New York Mafia controls territory east of Chicago, the retired FBI agent says, with the Mob in both cities sharing Florida and Las Vegas.) And for those who believe that Las Vegas was cleansed of Outfit influence when corporations took ownership of the casinos, the agent begs to differ, offering this hypothetical: "They may no longer control the games, but who brings in the food? Who does the valet parking? Who controls construction?

 

The labor unions have a lot to say about these things, and the Outfit may try to influence labor unions."

 

At the street level, experts agree, the Outfit mostly avoids dealing in narcotics, thinking them too risky and high profile. But according to the Chicago Crime Commission's 1997 report, high-ranking Outfit members continue to bankroll large narcotics purchases by street gangs and other organized crime groups.

 

"They'll invest," says Abadinsky, "but they won't ever be in possession directly or indirectly. That they've managed to stay out of street-level drug deals is an amazing success story for the Outfit; the temptation, the money, is so incredible. This is true discipline."

 

The Outfit also continues to find new ways to do traditional business. Video poker machines-legal in taverns and places of amusement until a payout is made-have generated whopping profits (and produced arrests that could culminate in one of the biggest trials in years involving reputed Chicago Mob

associates).

 

Customers insert money, then press buttons that produce a cartoonish poker hand on the machine's video screen. The customer plays the hand, and the machine rewards winning hands with points. These points can be exchanged by the proprietor for cash after the player's session.

 

The alleged scheme is simple:

 

The Outfit places the machines in taverns, makes regular rounds to empty the games' guts of money, and reimburses the tavern owners for winnings paid plus a substantial share of the profits.

 

The Sun-Times cites federal records showing that 73 bars and restaurants had about 500 video machines generating millions of dollars in profits between 1980 and 1998. Johnson claims that a single machine is capable of gobbling profits of more than $100,000 a year.

 

The FBI's Rooney says that truck hijackings are not a big problem with the Outfit, "but if you look at the number of losses that happen in interstate commerce, often organized groups affiliated with the Outfit are behind it."

 

Prostitution and pornography are not the businesses they once were, perhaps because law enforcement tolerates prostitution, while the Internet has made porn widely and cheaply available.

 

The one Outfit business that mobsters nurture at all costs is the care and feeding of politicians. "They still maintain and guard very jealously their political connections; that's what gives them their strength and their ability to continue,"Mars says.

 

According to the Sun-Times, federal officials have charged that Outfit payoffs to local elected politicians and police officials have allowed video poker to flourish for as long as 20 years.

 

Among those awaiting trial for their alleged role in video gambling operations are Anthony Centracchio, a reputed Mob crew boss; Stone Park mayor Robert Natale; and former Franklin Park police officer Robert Urbinati. "And this is the main difference between them and the street gangs-ties to governmental power," Mars continues. "We can only hope the gangbangers don't start establishing political connections."

 

And this past October, federal authorities charged William Hanhardt, a former high-ranking Chicago police official and legendary cop, with heading a nationwide jewelry theft ring that allegedly included Outfit associates.

 

No person or agency, it seems, can put a figure on the extent of the Outfit's operations. "I don't know of any numbers," Mars says. "And how would you measure it: by dollars, volume, arrests, bodies?

 

There's no perfect way to measure it or compare it to other times." Rooney suggests this anecdote to provide at least a context for the magnitude of the operation:

 

"In the early nineties, Citibank lost $10 million in a five-month period from computer hacking, and that was just a little scam from the Russian Mob. If they're losing that much in just a scam, I'd say it's almost impossible to come up with a figure to adequately measure the profits of the Chicago Outfit."

 

RONALD JARRETT HAD LONG BEEN "A REAL piece of work," as one FBI agent put it. Reportedly, he had worked for more than 30 years-much of the time as a supervisor with the 26th Street crew-as a burglar, juice man, hijacker, fence, coordinator of

thieves, and driver and bodyguard for the reputed Outfit adviser Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra.

 

By the time he was convicted in 1980 for his role as the mastermind behind the Orange Blossom jewelry store stickup in Oak Lawn, Jarrett's rap sheet listed 58 arrests, including 13 convictions.

 

His resume, however, was not what qualified Jarrett as a real piece of work. It was his style. "Jarrett was a classic sociopath who threw his weight around and even beat up police," says the retired FBI agent. "My contacts tell me he put people on juice and began forcing them to pay old debts.

He might even have told people that he would be taking over the South Side crew.

 

Either way, he inflicted terror on the neighborhood, and there were lots of [Outfit] associates who complained." Wayne Johnson of the Chicago Crime Commission suspects as much himself. "A lot of the people in power positions don't like this flamboyant crap," he says, "people acting like tough guys and scumbags. This is a business, and if this guy has a key role, like Ronnie did, they expect him to act like a businessman."

 

ABC-Channel 7 reported that after LaPietra died of natural causes in 1999, Jarrett coveted his reputed position as crew boss. Johnson speculates that the Outfit might have suspected that Jarrett was skimming gambling proceeds, or that he sought to climb the ladder of succession too quickly after the death of LaPietra, or that he had a serious disagreement with a high-ranking member.

 

Whatever the motive for the shooting, a larger truth emerged as Jarrett lay in critical condition under police guard at Cook County Hospital: Just as the public and even some law enforcement officials considered the Outfit to have been declawed, authorities suspected that it had called on tradition and solved a problem the old-fashioned way.

 

As of late September, according to sources, the investigation into Jarrett's murder held promising leads. As for Jarrett, his demise hardly seemed to register in the public consciousness.

 

The Chicago Tribune reported the death the next day, then never mentioned it again. But those who know the Outfit have not forgotten Jarrett's shooting so quickly.

 

Perhaps it is an aberration, they say; perhaps the Outfit had nothing to do with it. But no one really seems to believe that. And no one seems willing to concede that the peace in Chicago's streets will last forever.

 

Abadinsky invokes the example of the Philadelphia Mob, a Mafia family with close parallels to the Chicago Outfit.

 

For more than 20 years under boss Angelo "The Quiet Don" Bruno, the Philadelphia family ran its business modestly, with few murders. "Then Bruno is killed by some family faction," Abadinsky says, "and the Philadelphia family becomes known as one of the most violent in America. These kinds of sudden cycles occur in organized crime, and they can happen in Chicago, too."

 

"If the right guy rises to the top," says the retired FBI agent, "the Outfit will go back to enforcing by violence tomorrow. All they need is a guy who is so inclined." And might such a person rise in the ranks of the Outfit again? "Stand by," the agent says. "Stand by."

 

Tracking the Outfit

 

John J. Flood is 60 years old, has fluffy white hair, and wears slippers at home. He also is the one man in Chicago you would want at your side in a barroom brawl. Or if the Outfit came calling.

 

Flood is the president of the Combined Counties Police Association, an Illinois police union he started 32 years ago because of all the corruption he saw.

 

Through a career in law enforcement devoted largely to battling organized crime, Flood became an esteemed expert in the ways and means of the Outfit, advising author and former FBI agent William Roemer on its history, and nearly losing his life while foiling an Outfit hit as a 25-year-old sergeant with the Cook County Sheriffs Police-a story that is still legendary among his peers.

 

According to his biography on the Illinois Police and Sheriffs News Web site, Flood was nearly killed by two Outfit hit men, one driving a car, the other lurking in a motel parking lot. "in one brief, athletic move," the narrative says, Flood knocked one hit man to the ground while simultaneously dodging the car that intended to kill him.

 

Flood disputes any suggestion that organized crime has moved away from its violent nature. Instead, he points to the African American and Hispanic street gangs as proof that organized crime in Chicago still pivots around the bullet.

 

"`Street gangs' is a misnomer," Flood says emphatically. "Street gangs are organized crime. It's just that they're not Italian or Jewish or Irish; they're not goodfellas the way we see in the movies, so we don't connect them to organized crime.

 

The only difference between them and the Outfit is that they've never gotten their leadership together; they've never had [a legendary New York kingpin like] Lucky Luciano or Meyer Lansky put together a national cartel. But in the African American and Hispanic communities, don't think the

street leaders aren't in touch with traditional organized crime, especially as it relates to narcotics coming in.

 

"The black and Hispanic street gangs are just like the Irish and Russian and Italian immigrants were in the early 1900s," Flood continues. "No one paid attention to their crimes and their killings; they were removed from our comfortable existence. And while no one cared, their activities exploded and they rose to become organized crime as we know it."

 

Law enforcement experts agree that organized crime does not stop with the Outfit. The Chicago Crime Commission produces a publication devoted to street gangs, and more than half of its 1997 report is dedicated to Asian, eastern European, Russian, Nigerian, Polish, South American, and other "new faces" of organized crime. The FBI currently dedicates half of the bureau's organized crime resources to nontraditional groups.

 

"If you think organized crime isn't violent today," Flood says, "you're looking in the wrong place, my friend."

 

                         -R. K.


Return to Laborers.org