Joseph DiLeonardi, citywide homicide commandor for Chicago Police Department, in 1975. Sun-Times File Photo.

Ex-Police Supt. Joe DiLeonardi, Chicago’s ‘Kojak,’ dead at 84

SHARE Ex-Police Supt. Joe DiLeonardi, Chicago’s ‘Kojak,’ dead at 84
SHARE Ex-Police Supt. Joe DiLeonardi, Chicago’s ‘Kojak,’ dead at 84

Joseph “Joe D” DiLeonardi looked like a TV detective with his brushed velvet fedora cocked on his head, his tailored suits and the cigar in his mouth.

In the summer of 1979, when then-Mayor Jane Byrne promoted him to acting police superintendent, one newspaper dubbedhim “Chicago’s version of Kojak.” Mr. DiLeonardi already was known for being the flamboyant head of the city’s homicide unit.

But he and Byrne clashed after he publicly accused two mayoral aides of urging him to oust his chief of the organized-crime unit. Some believe the aides were trying to protect the Outfit.

Afteronly five months as the city’s top cop, Mr. DiLeonardi was ousted and found himself running the police detail at O’Hare Airport. In 1991, after a career of nearly 36 years, he retired from the police department.

He worked briefly as a supervisor in the Cook County sheriff’s office. Then in early 1994, he was appointed by then-President Bill Clinton as the U.S. marshal in Chicago —a position he held until 1999.

Mr. DiLeonardi died on Sunday. He was 84.

His wife, Carol DiLeonardi, said her husband was a tireless homicide detective with a soft touch.

“Joe was pretty good at going back again and again and befriending suspects. He wouldn’t take the first answer. He would go back and dig a little deeper. A lot of times they were caught off guard by that,” she said.

He investigated many high-profile cases, including the still-unsolved killing of Valerie Jean Percy, the daughter of then-Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charles “Chuck” Percy.

Joe DiLeonardi in 1980. Sun-Times File Photo.

Joe DiLeonardi in 1980. Sun-Times File Photo.

But in newspaper interviews, he said his most satisfying caper was the murder of salesman Peter Saisi, who was shot to death in 1958. Saisi’s wife said strangers killed her husband, but her story didn’t add up.

“The old ESP alarm bells kept ringing,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in a 1971 profile.

Mary Saisi and a boyfriend confessed and went to prison for killing Peter Saisi to collect insurance on his life.

When he was acting superintendent, Mr. DiLeonardi promoted black and Hispanic officers into exempt-rank positions, something “Joe never really got enough credit for,” his wife said.

“The exempt ranks were all white,” she said. “One man he promoted asked him, ‘Can you actually do that?’ The man sat there and cried in the office as Joe promoted him.”

Joseph DiLeonardi. File Photo.

Joseph DiLeonardi. File Photo.

Carol DiLeonardi said her husband always publicly thanked Byrne for giving him the chance to serve the city.

“Joe is not a vindictive person,” she said. “He was not one to get even. Obviously he didn’t like the demotion, but he chalked that up to ‘that’s life.’ ”

Although he was often compared with Theo Kojak, the fictional New York police investigator in the 1970s television series, Mr. DiLeonardi told reporters that TV shows don’t show detectives knocking on 50 doors and working through the night to solve murders.

“Let me point out there are no Kojaks in this business,” he once said.

Mr. DiLeonardi was an early critic of violence on TV, which he thought prompted people with “impressionable minds” to carry out copycat crimes.

Mr. DiLeonardi, who grew up near Belmont and Central on the Northwest Side and attended Steinmetz High School, was a lifelong fitness buff. He ran dozens of marathons —the last one while he was in his 70s —and he didn’t stop jogging until about three years ago when he began to suffer from heart disease, his wife said.

He was a member of the University of Illinois at Chicago Baseball Hall of Fame and earned the school’s most valuable player honor in 1950 and 1951. His baseball career ended when he was struck in the eye by a baseball during a tryout for the New York Yankees, his wife said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. DiLeonardi is survived by a son, Joseph DiLeonardi Jr.; brothers Arthur and George DiLeonardi; sisters Gloria Malnak and Joyce Cox-Cunningham; and two grandchildren. Visitation is 3-9 p.m. on Wednesday at Cumberland Chapels, 8300 W. Lawrence, in Norridge, and 9-10 a.m. on Thursday at Holy Name Cathedral at 735 N. State, with a funeral mass to follow. The burial is private.

Former Chicago Police Supt. Joseph DiLeonardi, center, at the Dirksen Federal Building in 1998. File Photo by Rich Hein-Sun-Times.

Former Chicago Police Supt. Joseph DiLeonardi, center, at the Dirksen Federal Building in 1998. File Photo by Rich Hein-Sun-Times.

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