The letter that spilled the Outfit's Family Secrets arrived at the Chicago offices of the FBI in November 1998.
It was addressed to now-retired FBI supervisor Tom Bourgeois, who was then the organized crime section chief. It was from Outfit prince Frank Calabrese Jr., serving a prison sentence in Milan, Mich.Junior offered to implicate his father, Frank Sr., and uncle Nick in the unsolved murder of Outfit hit man John Fecarotta.
"It came in the mail. I couldn't believe it," Bourgeois told me last week during an interview with current FBI agents at the FBI's expansive new headquarters on the West Side. "We went to Frank to authenticate what he told us in the letter. And then we formulated a strategy on how we were going to approach this case. Strategy was the most important part here."
The recently concluded Family Secrets case took agents countless hours transcribing and decoding prison-house code, in which, for example "Zhivago" meant the two murdered Spilotro brothers buried in a cornfield. It also sent them reinvestigating cold Outfit hits from 30 years ago.
"It's hard to explain to the public how much work is involved," said James Wagner, president of the Chicago Crime Commission and a former FBI supervisor, who trained several of the agents.
"You have to sit and transcribe those conversations in paper format, and that takes days and days of work right there, a mountain of paperwork," Wagner said. "And go back and find old witnesses."
Family Secrets began long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There were two FBI squads working the Chicago Outfit then. One was working the Calabrese end, the family that ran the Chinatown crew through gambling, loan-sharking, extortion and murder.
But there was another FBI squad focusing on mob-boss heir apparent Jimmy Marcello of the western suburbs, who was preparing to get out of prison and run things the Chicago way.
Both squads folded into one after 9/11. Though resources were shifted toward terrorism, the Chicago FBI kept some of its top people on the Family Secrets case that many of you have been reading about this summer.
This weekend, thousands of words and hours of video will be devoted to great sports plays, the stupendous touchdowns and home runs, and all that pressure on the necks of the Cubs and Bears, professional athletes whose names are known to millions.
FBI agents on Family Secrets aren't on baseball cards. Their names are not known. Yet they're a team more important than a bunch of ballplayers.
The lead case agent was Mike Maseth, who knew relatively little about the Outfit when he was assigned the Calabrese case at its beginning. He spent nine straight determined years working the case and countless hours with Nick Calabrese after he flipped him.
And agent Anita Stamat, working on the Marcello angle, decoded the Outfit dialect with the help of Ted McNamara, the FBI's walking Outfit encyclopedia. Veteran John Mallul was the supervisor with the institutional memory who took over when Bourgeois retired.
"Ted McNamara was the mastermind with the code," Stamat said. "He's worked organized crime for 15 years. He helped guide us through the context of the prison conversations. We were recording them in the visiting room. There could be 200 people there, having their own conversations, and sometimes, Marcello would say, 'Cover your mouth,' to his brother Michael, thinking we were reading lips."
They didn't have to read lips, because they were listening and taping.
Other agents include Luigi Mondini, Chris Mackey, Christopher Smith, Tracy Balinao, Andrew Hickey, Mark Gutknecht, Dana DePooter, Trisha Holt and Tim Keese. And from the Internal Revenue Service, there were Bill Paulin, Laura Shimkus and Mike Welch.
You might not know their names, but mention Maseth or Stamat or Mallul or McNamara or the others around wise guys, and their faces freeze. The officials say is the new reputed Chinatown boss, Frank "Toots" Caruso, wouldn't be afraid of an NFL linebacker, but he'd tighten up if Ted McNamara came by for a pork chop sandwich at the Caruso polish sausage stand on 31st Street in Bridgeport.
Outfit bosses Joseph "the Clown" Lombardo, Frank Calabrese Sr. and Marcello will probably spend the rest of their lives in prison as a result of the case, and Paul "the Indian" Schiro might die inside too. The youngest person convicted in the Family Secrets trial is Anthony "Twan" Doyle, 62, not a boss but a Chicago cop who spilled police secrets about the Fecarotta murder to the Outfit.
Once the FBI flipped Nick Calabrese and began decoding the prison talk of his brother Frank and of Marcello, the case mushroomed. One phase is done. Other cases are being developed as you read this.
"I feel this is what the FBI does best," Mallul said, "good old-fashioned police work and investigations, combined with fortuitous events that align themselves."
Like a mob princeling sending a letter to the FBI.