I-Team: Chicago Mafia Figures on Trial For Spilotro Murders - 8 News NOW

The Mob in Las vegas

I-Team: Chicago Mafia Figures on Trial For Spilotro Murders

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Anthony "Tony The Ant" Spilotro in the middle. Anthony "Tony The Ant" Spilotro in the middle.

Federal prosecutors are ready to drive what may be the final nail into the coffin of the country's most powerful Mafia family. It's the most significant prosecution of the Chicago outfit in history.

Fourteen suspected Mafia leaders are charged with numerous crimes, including the murders of suspected mobsters who controlled street rackets in Las Vegas.

This week marks what would have been Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro's 69th birthday. He was a feared man in the '70s and '80s, but was murdered in 1986 along with his brother Michael. Murders that were made famous by the movie "Casino."

The case was never solved but now federal prosecutors are going after some of the men they believe were involved, men whose criminal enterprises are inextricably linked to Las Vegas.

On the wall of defense attorney Rick Halprin's Chicago office is a newspaper cartoon, which pokes fun at how Joey "The Clown" Lombardo got his nickname. While in federal court one day, and to avoid being photographed, Lombardo made a mask out of a newspaper. People thought it was clownish.

In the big-shouldered city of Chicago, where organized crime has been a fact of life since before Al Capone, everyone knows Lombardo's name. For more than 30 years, the word "reputed" has been attached to it.

Rick Halprin, Lombardo's defense attorney, said, "Without question, when you walk down the street, if you ask a citizen about the case, the mob case, the only name they know is Joey Lombardo."

Defense attorney Rick Halprin knows that overcoming Lombardo's longstanding reputation, as a top boss of Chicago's outfit will be his major challenge in the upcoming trial based on the FBI's "Operation Family Secrets."

Click here to view the names and grand jury charges.

Lombardo is one of fourteen Windy City Mafia figures charged with a vast assortment of serious crimes, including eighteen unsolved murders. More than 1,000 murders have been attributed to the Chicago outfit over the years. Fewer than twenty have been solved. This massive indictment represents the most serious assault on the mob since Capone was put away.

Rick Halprin continued, "The interest is intense, and the pressure -- it's very, very big 'cause you' re talking about Chicago. You're talking about an indictment that goes back 63 years."

A document known as a Santiago Proffer outlines the government's case. It reads like a Mario Puzo novel. Much of the information is so sensitive, involving protected witnesses, which the government blacked it out. What's clear from the case is the symbiotic relationship between mob bosses in Chicago and their emissaries in Las Vegas.

Loans from the Mafia-controlled Teamsters pension fund built much of Las Vegas. The loans came with strings attached. The mob not only used Nevada casinos to launder money from illicit businesses, they skimmed tens of millions of dollars from the countrooms, money that found its way back to Chicago. In the 1980's, Joey Lombardo was one of several mobsters convicted in a federal skimming case. Those prosecutions spurred many of the murders that only now might be resolved.

John Flood, a former Chicago lawman, said, "Any outfit murder out of Chicago, Lombardo would have been involved in it."

John Flood spent more than 30 years chasing mobsters in Chicago. He says Lombardo once tried to kill him by running him down with a car. He and others believe that Lombardo would have had to okay all of the murders mentioned in the indictment, including those of brothers Tony and Michael Spilotro.

Tony was Chicago's main man in Las Vegas. He protected the skim and allegedly oversaw a criminal operation known as The Hole in the Wall Gang. The murders of the Spilotro brothers were immortalized in the movie "Casino." One man who agrees that Lombardo played a role is Frank Cullotta, a Spilotro soldier who turned government witness and who is likely to be called in the Chicago trial. Cullotta gave the I-Team an exclusive interview earlier this year.

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp: "Joey Lombardo?"

Frank Cullotta: "He was Tony's boss and he was my boss."

George Knapp:  "You guys reported directly to him."

Frank Cullotta: "Tony did. I reported to Tony, so Joe relayed messages to Tony. Do I think Joe Lombardo was involved in it? I think they would have to go to him for an okay."

Cullotta has written a book about his life with the mob. It's due out in a matter of weeks. Rick Halprin thinks Cullotta is a flawed witness. However, he admits the government has stronger witnesses, including two members of the Calabrese family, made members of the mob who agreed to testify.

They've already given tips that led to the search for buried remains of murder victims. But don't count the Cagey Lombardo out. He's ready to spring a unique strategy called the withdrawal defense. After his release from prison in the '90s, he took out an ad in a Chicago paper announcing his formal withdrawal from the mob. It's not a joke.

Rick Halprin said, "So, ultimately we have to let the jury decide whether: a) Lombardo was involved in a conspiracy at all, which we say he wasn't, and b) if he was, did he withdraw from the conspiracy? And the government would like to prove that he did not."

The trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday, May 15th but has been delayed for another two weeks. The notoriety of the Spilotro murders means those slayings will play a central part in the government's case. But the version we've all seen is not how the murders went down at all.

In Part 2, the I-Team will hear more from witness Frank Cullotta, and from another wise guy who thinks Cullotta is full of it.

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Email your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp.

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