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At issue in a new trial is whether Gary Engel was harmed by an alleged law enforcement crusade in the late 1980s and early 1990s to imprison another man, Steve Mandell.

New civil trial offers prequel to last year’s gruesome ‘Club Med’ case

SHARE New civil trial offers prequel to last year’s gruesome ‘Club Med’ case
SHARE New civil trial offers prequel to last year’s gruesome ‘Club Med’ case

Chicago crime lore might always remember late ex-cop Gary Engel as the sidekick to a sadistic “psychopath” known as Steve Mandell.

The former Willow Springs officer hanged himself after his arrest with Mandell, an ex-Chicago cop, in 2012 for allegedly planning to kidnap, torture and kill a businessman. So Engel never lived to see himself portrayed at trial as the man who joked with Mandell about planning to slice the businessman’s genitals like a “banana split” in a Northwest Side torture chamber dubbed “Club Med.”

But a federal civil trial set to begin Monday could put Engel at center stage in a prequel of sorts to “Club Med.” It will take court observers back 31 years, and lawyers for Engel’s survivors will work to portray him as an innocent man set up by the FBI.

Not only that, but the story could come full circle to “Club Med.” The feds say a brief comment caught on video in 2012 harkened back to a similar, decades-old crime. Engel’s lawyers insist he never implicated himself in that crime despite the hours of covert recordings that caught the “cryptic” comment.

At issue in this new trial is whether Engel was harmedbyan alleged law enforcement crusade in the late 1980s and early 1990s to imprison Mandell. Since Engel is now dead, his son has taken up his case in federal court.

Engel served 19 years for a 1984 Missouri kidnapping until that state’s supreme court reversed his conviction in 2010 for due process violations. He sued FBI agent Robert Buchan and others claiming he’d been framed. Engel claimed that he was set up for the kidnapping as the feds pressured him to give them incriminating evidence on his colleague, Mandell.

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Steve Mandell leaves the Dirksen Federal Building. | Sun-Times file photo

If anything, Engel family lawyers have said his 2012 arrest shows prison “hardened” Engel “and turned him into a different person.” But the feds hope to undermine Engel’s claims of innocence in the Missouri kidnapping.

Engel’s life story is intertwined with Mandell, who federal prosecutors called a “psychopath.” U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly has said the Outfit-connected cop and one-time death row inmate will likely invoke his right not to testify if called to the stand.He was sentenced last year to life plus five years for his plan to kidnap a businessman, torture him in Club Med, steal his property then kill him.

Engel family attorney Jon Loevy contends Mandell was also once an FBI informant. Court filings lay out the story from there:

Three decades ago, Mandell was known as Steve Manning. And after a jewelry-store burglary conviction cost him his job as a Chicago cop, he helped the feds solve a burglary involving a “truckload” of cash registers and imprison a man named Anthony Mammolito.

Mandell cut ties with the FBI and sued its agents, triggering Buchan’s crusade against Mandell, Loevy alleged. Then officers investigating a separate murder turned to Mammolito, who Loevy said was ready for payback.

Mammolito told officers Engel and Mandell helped him kidnap two drug dealersin Missouri in 1984, Loevy wrote.Men posing as DEA agents had held the victims for ransom. They were released in a cemetery once the ransom was paid.

Buchan later helped question Engel, who claimed he’d never been to Missouri and had nothing to do with the kidnapping, according to Loevy. Engel refused to implicate Mandell, and Buchan helped arrest Engel on July 26, 1990.

Engel’s attorney said the FBI paid for the local prosecution, securing Engel’s conviction on June 27, 1991. But Loevy contends evidence was withheld, and the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the conviction 19 years later.

Meanwhile, prosecutors finally convicted Mandell for the 1984 kidnapping and the 1990 murder of James Pellegrino in Illinois. Higher courts tossed those convictions, and Mandell walked free.

With both of them free men after their court rulings, Engel and Mandell came together inside “Club Med.” A hidden FBI camera caught them there planning on Oct. 24, 2012, to kidnap, torture and kill a Riverside businessman while posing as law enforcement officers.

That’s when Mandell dropped a name from the past.

“Remember Mammolito?” Mandell said. “Participated, he didn’t know half the sh–.”

“Yeah,” Engel replied.

The feds say that was potentially damning, but it’s unclear if the comment will be used in the trial.

Loevy contends the comment simply mirrored Mammolito’s Missouri testimony. Mammolito admitted on the stand that he participated in the 1984 crime, Loevy wrote.

But he claimed he “did not know the half of it.”

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