Geraldo Rivera, wrong time, wrong place.
Behind a family portrait on the wood-paneled basement wall of the suburban home of one of Chicago's most notorious mobsters, federal agents made a stunning find: a secret compartment containing almost three-quarters of a million dollars in cash, 1,000 pieces of stolen jewelry, and seven loaded firearms.
What may prove to be of even greater interest to authorities was the discovery that mob hit man Frank Calabrese Sr., a key figure in the Family Secrets trial, had secretly taped possible "criminal conversations" with other mobsters. Agents found recording devices, suction cups used to monitor telephone calls and about a dozen apparently used microcassettes, including one with the name of a convicted Outfit figure scribbled on it.
Also in the hiding place were handwritten notes and ledgers detailing suspected extortion and gambling activities, authorities said.
The landmark 2007 trial had riveted Chicago with lurid testimony about some of the most notorious gangland slayings in the past four decades. The tales read more like Hollywood scripts, and a mob turncoat — Calabrese's brother — gave chilling inside details of 14 murders.
The case took on even more lore with Wednesday's surprising new twist.
A law enforcement source said Wednesday that Calabrese may have taped other mobsters in incriminating conversations to protect himself against later retribution.
"I have no idea what those recordings are," said Calabrese's lawyer, Joseph Lopez, who was surprised at word of the search of Calabrese's Oak Brook residence. "For all I know, it's Frank Sinatra
In sentencing Calabrese to life in prison in January 2009, U.S. District Judge James Zagel had ordered him and co-defendants to pay a whopping $27.7 million in forfeiture and restitution.
According to court papers, deputy U.S. marshals and FBI
agents with a search warrant in hand showed up Tuesday morning at Calabrese's Oak Brook residence. His wife, Diane, voluntarily let agents in, they said.
Armed with knowledge from the trial that Calabrese liked to use hidden compartments and "stash areas" in his residences over the years, agents searched its nooks and crannies.
Agents lifted a frame containing a collection of family photos off the wall in the basement and noticed several screws in the wood paneling. They removed the screws and discovered the hidden compartment and its treasure-trove, authorities said.
Agents found about 15 manila envelopes stuffed with $728,481 in mostly $500 and $1,000 bills. The approximately 1,000 pieces of jewelry were still inside display boxes while bags of loose diamonds and other jewelry still contained store tags, authorities said.
The seven firearms were wrapped in clothing and towels, suggesting to authorities they may have been used in crimes. The wrappings would keep the gunman from leaving any fingerprints, they said.
Before the search began, Calabrese's wife and his son, Frank Jr., denied any knowledge of the cash or weapons, authorities said.
Yet federal authorities are clearly suspicious, citing in the court papers that Diane Calabrese paid for her two children's private schooling with cashier's checks even though she has no known legitimate source of income.
In addition, another $26,000 in bundled cash was discovered inside a locked desk drawer in her bedroom.
Lopez, Calabrese's lawyer, said his client hasn't had access to the residence since 1997 because he has been in prison since then for various offenses.
Lopez said the home had been searched by the FBI on a number of occasions over the years, and he expressed surprise that the stash wasn't uncovered in the past.
"Now that this is coming up, it leads one to wonder what is really going on in this case,'' he said. "I think everyone was surprised who heard of this."
For James Wagner, who headed the Chicago FBI's organized-crime unit for years, the landmark trial packed with behind-the-scenes details continues to surprise.
"I was frankly surprised that somebody was stupid enough to leave all of the things that they discovered in that house," said Wagner, who also once led the Chicago Crime Commission. "It really was one of the dumber things that I've heard them do. They knew that there was seizure and forfeiture. I figured that house would be empty, but, no, all of this wonderful stuff was waiting to be found."
Calabrese is serving a life sentence after the jury and judge found him responsible for 13 of the murders. Testimony indicated he fatally choked, slashed, shot, beat or bombed his victims.
The trial was highlighted by testimony by Calabrese's brother, Nicholas, and his son, who while cooperating with authorities had secretly recorded conversations in prison with his father.
Among the highlights, Nicholas Calabrese recalled how he wet his pants from fear while he helped bury his first murder victim with his brother; heard mobster Anthony Spilotro ask if he could pray before he was killed in a Bensenville basement; and used a rope to strangle another victim as "Strangers in the Night" played on a jukebox in a closed Cicero restaurant.
At the trial, Calabrese's brother and son both had testified that Calabrese often hid proceeds from illegal activities.
Last week, Zagel authorized federal agents to search Calabrese's home and any safes, compartments or storage areas, and seize property to satisfy the debt he owed.
Source - Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-family-secrets-search-20100324,0,1700576.story