Two days before they allegedly intended to torture, kill and dismember a suburban businessman, Steven Mandell and an associate were clearly unhappy with the renovations they’d requested as they did a walk-through of the rented Northwest Side storefront where the murder was to take place.
The industrial sink they planned to use to allegedly drain the body of blood wasn’t draining. The water pressure was low. Light fixtures had yet to be completed, and loose wires were hanging out of the bare cinder block wall.
“Look at this (expletive) plumbing!” the associate, Gary Engel, said on the undercover FBI video played in federal court Thursday at Mandell’s trial. “...What in the (expletive) is this (expletive) abortion? This sink has no drain. Water’s just going right through it.”
The faded videos, recorded with a camera secreted in a wall, were played for jurors after the government’s star witness, real estate mogul George Michael, completed three days on the witness stand earlier Thursday. During cross-examination, Mandell’s attorney, Keith Spielfogel, sought to paint Michael as an unscrupulous businessman and liar. Earlier he’d told jurors that Mandell’s seemingly endless talk of torture and murder was just a way to string Michael along and squeeze some money out of him.
But the videos appeared to show more than just talk – a plan to kidnap and kill Riverside businessman Steve Campbell seemed to be playing out for jurors to hear. Inside the stark space –furnished with only a square table and three straight-backed chairs -- Mandell and Engel can be seen pacing the floor, scoping out the best area to carry out the alleged torture of Campbell, whom they called “Soupy.”
“We want to be able to secure him while he’s sitting down,” Mandell told Engel at one point, pointing to a corner in the building the two referred to as “Club Med.” “We don’t want him laying. We’re not doing spread-eagle...We’re going to keep him here, secure to here. OK?”
On Friday, prosecutors plan to play more videos from Club Med in which Mandell and Engel – both former cops-turned-reputed underworld associates -- allegedly talk about the best torture techniques to use on Campbell to get him to give up his cash and sign over quit-claim deeds on his real estate.
The two were arrested the next day as they allegedly showed up at Michael’s realty office to kidnap Campbell by posing as cops “arresting” him on a drug warrant. When agents searched Club Med, they found sleeping pills to sedate the victim as well as zip ties, a knife and a meat cleaver, prosecutors said.
Engel hanged himself in his jail cell soon after the arrest. Jurors have not been told of his death, however.
Prosecutors also played undercover tapes Thursday in which Mandell appears to formulate a plot to kill Campbell’s estranged daughter to keep her from claiming her father’s properties after his disappearance. In one conversation, Mandell suggested to Michael they “strike while the iron is hot” and lure the daughter to Club Med to be murdered.
Mandell is also charged with planning to kill Anthony “Tony Q” Quaranta, who worked as a highly paid “consultant” at the mob-connected Polekatz Chicago Gentleman's Club in Bridgeview. In one recording played for the jury Thursday, Mandell told Michael that reputed Outfit boss Albert Vena should have been tapping the club for more money and that by not doing so he was showing weakness.
On cross-examination, Spielfogel quickly focused on Michael’s history of shady dealings, financial problems and the litany of people who have claimed Michael ripped them off, including one banker who is owed more than $10 million.
Looking relaxed on the stand, Michael acknowledged that he had created the “Armenian Church of Lake Bluff” in 2006 by drawing a cross onto a photo of his $7 million lakefront mansion and placing pews on the home’s racquetball court. He was “ordained” as a priest by clicking on a web site called the Church of Spiritual Humanism. The Illinois Department of Revenue bought the scam and granted Michael an $80,000-a-year property tax break.
“But the Village of Lake Bluff didn’t like that, did they?” Spielfogel asked. Michael, wearing a light gray sweater, paused for a second before answering, “No.”
Michael testified the village filed a myriad of lawsuits against him and that an administrative law judge later ruled the whole thing was a sham. He lost the tax break and filed for bankruptcy at about the same time, but he still lives in the home, although it is up for sale.
When Michael first began working with the FBI in 2009, agents questioned him if he had paid a $10,000 bribe to a Deerfield businessman in order to secure the tax exemption. Michael said he denied ever paying the bribe.
Spielfogel also questioned Michael at length about Citizens Bank. He founded the bank with his brother in 2000, but federal regulators eventually seized control after they were accused of violating banking practices.