In their pomp, the mere mention of their names was enough to strike fear into the hearts of law-abiding Chicagoans and criminals alike.
But inside the homes of Joey “The Clown” Lombardo, hitman Harry Aleman, street crew boss Frank Calabrese, Sr., and dozens of other mobsters, another, less celebrated name had the power to bring on a nasty case of agita.
Shapiro didn’t carry a gun with a silencer, or a piano wire in a gloved hand. He was armed only with a fine legal mind, the authority of the federal government and the tenacity to see the job through.
Now, after 42 years as a federal prosecutor, he finally has, retiring last week after a colorful and storied career in which he did as much as any one man to bring about the downfall of the Chicago Outfit.
Though the urbane, bespectacled 68-year-old would never be so gauche as to suggest the much diminished Outfit is dead — it’s still involved in bookmaking, juice loans and extortion, he says — and he’s quick to deflect the credit onto “the agents and assistant U.S. attorneys who did all the real work,” his colleagues are less shy with their praise.
More photos of Gary Shapiro
Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, one of three U.S. attorneys Shapiro served as first deputy, called him a “prosecutor’s prosecutor,” and this week the Chicago Crime Commission will hand Shapiro a rare honor, its lifetime achievement award for excellence in law enforcement.
His scalps include Lombardo, Calabrese, Aleman, “Rocky” Infelise and former Cicero Town President Betty Loren Maltese. He also helped “flip” Teamsters President Roy Williams and dirty lawyer Robert Cooley, who helped uncover judicial corruption in the early 1990s.
He even boasts a “Perry Mason moment” — when a defense witness switched sides on the stand under his cross-examination and implicated a defendant in an East Chicago, Indiana, sewer contracting scam.
But he’s leaving a far different Chicago from the one he arrived in as a newly minted lawyer from the University of Texas in 1972 — a time when he says he only needed to see the names of corrupt state court judges and attorneys in newspaper accounts to know that cases were being fixed.
“The mob were at the height of their power,” Shapiro said as he took a break from cleaning out his office this week.
“There were (Outfit) murders practically every week: I can’t remember coming into the office in the ’70s without there being a body that was just found — a guy who was in the chop-shop trade, or an independent bookmaker.”
Shapiro had a rude introduction to just how hard organized crime would prove to crack, when on the eve of his first mob trial in 1974, key prosecution witness Danny Siefert was murdered outside his plastics factory in Bensenville.
The murder caused the collapse of an embezzlement case against Lombardo — and had a chilling effect on witnesses in Chicago Outfit cases for years to come.
Prosecutors knew Lombardo was behind the killing but couldn’t prove it at the time.
But in 1984, Shapiro convicted Lombardo for attempting to bribe Nevada U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon, and later helped convict Lombardo and others for skimming millions of dollars from Las Vegas casinos, in a case that formed the basis of the plot to the Martin Scorsese movie “Casino.”
Shapiro’s parents came to Chicago to watch the trial, but Shapiro was aghast when, during a break in jury selection, he found Lombardo in the courtroom with his arm around Shapiro’s father, who was doubled over in laughter at Lombardo’s jokes.
“He’s not called “The Clown” for nothing,” said Shapiro, who was in charge of prosecuting all organized crime cases in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin in the 1980s and 1990s, and who also helped take down notorious hitman Harry Aleman.
It wasn’t until the spectacular and gruesome 2007 Family Secrets trial, which Shapiro supervised, that an aged Lombardo was finally held to account for Seifert’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.
“Talk about enormously satisfying,” Shapiro said. “To stick around long enough to see something like that happen — it’s the sort of thing you never forget, to have a witness killed on the eve of a trial.”
Family Secrets was seen by many as a near-fatal blow to the Outfit — something Shapiro says he never thought he’d live to see.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that with the old timers either dying or spending the rest of their lives in prison, the influence they had and the connections they had to judges, to law enforcement, to politicians, to the unions (has gone)… so much of that is personal and built up over decades and I don’t think they’ve been able to replicate it.”
By comparison, he said, the street gang crime U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon is today under pressure to tackle is a far harder problem.
“We were dealing with rational, professional criminals, mostly,” he said. While mobsters were “lionized” as “bizarre heroes” by many in their communities, the Outfit’s membership since the 1950s never exceeded 200 members, he added.
“But gangs are what, tens of thousands? It’s much more of a societal problem,” he said.
“It’s much more about education and jobs and neighborhoods and hopelessness and race and ethnicity than the Outfit ever was, and anyone who thinks law enforcement is going to solve it is crazy.”
Though he never sought the position, Shapiro served as acting U.S. attorney for a year after Fitzgerald left for private practice in 2012.
Nowadays, a U.S. Attorney’s biggest fear is a major terror attack, he said. Though a series of terrorism cases in recent years — including that of Adel Daoud, accused of plotting to blow a pair of bars two blocks from the Dirksen Federal Building — have dramatized the threat to Chicago, Shapiro said it’s the little things the public doesn’t see that brought it home to him.
Leaders in the U.S. Attorneys office carry satellite phones in case an attack takes out the cellphone network, while plans to reconvene the court system in Rockford in the event of a disaster “make it frighteningly real” he said.
While he was reluctantly serving in the top job, Shapiro would routinely bat away suggestions from reporters that he “send a message” to dirty Illinois politicians, telling them, “If you want to send a message, mail a postcard.”
After four decades in Chicago, the native Texan said he considers himself a Chicagoan, albeit one who is still confounded by the city’s tradition of political corruption.
“We do have some total buffoons who get elected to public office,” he noted. “How Rod Blagojevich got re-elected is something I will never understand.”
But, he said, anyone who has sat through a jury selection knows just how little the public knows, or cares, about even stories that dominate the news for weeks.
He has a similarly unidealized view of himself. Even in mobsters’ homes, he said, “I’m not so famous.”
“The ones that knew me are probably dead now or in prison for the rest of their lives.”
It’s not a bad epitaph for an award-winning crime-fighting career.