Arrested in West Side Outfit crew case

Robert Panozzo, 54, Paul Koroluk, 55, Panozzo's son, Robert Panozzo, Jr., 22, Maher Abuhabsah, 33, and Koroluk's wife, Maria Koroluk, 53. (Cook County state's attorney's office / July 19, 2014)

Members of a street crew with ties to Chicago’s Outfit that operated a sophisticated drug ring that posed as police officers to rob cartel stash houses of large amounts of drugs were arrested this week, prosecutors said Saturday.

Four men who were part of the Panozzo-Koroluk Street Crew were arrested Thursday after investigators set up a sting operation in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood, prosecutors said in Cook County Bond Court Saturday. The men tried to steal 44 kilograms of “a substance containing cocaine,” from what they thought was a drug dealer’s stash house in the 13000 block of South Brandon Avenue, prosecutors said.

Police had installed surveillance equipment in the house, however, and the crew was arrested as they brought the cocaine outside.

Robert Panozzo, 54, Paul Koroluk, 55, and Maher Abuhabsah, 33, and Panozzo’s 22-year-old son, Robert Panozzo, Jr., were held without bail in Cook County bond court Saturday.

Panozzo and Koroluk are part of a Grand Avenue Outfit crew run by Albert “Little Guy” Vena, according to sources and court testimony in the federal murder plot trial of Steve Mandell, a former Chicago police officer, earlier this year. The crew came to investigators’ attention in October 2013, when law enforcement found evidence that Panozzo Sr. tried to have a witness in a home invasion and kidnapping case murdered to prevent the witness from testifying at trial, prosecutors said.

Koroluk’s wife, Maria Koroluk, 53, was arrested Friday at the home she shared with her husband in West Town, where police found 200 grams of cocaine on her clothes and shoes, Morley said. She was charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver and held on $100,000 bail.

The men’s crimes included home invasions, armed robberies, burglaries, insurance fraud and prostitution, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said at a news conference after the crew’s bond hearings.

The crew conducted five  to six major drug-house “rips” per year, during which they posed as police officers to rob stash houses, Alvarez said. The crew used sophisticated methods, including attaching GPS trackers to dealers’ cars to find where they stashed their drugs.

 “I think this is a very organized crew and a dangerous crew,” Alvarez said. “They have a  history of burglarizing and being in and out of jail. Clearly it didn’t help. We are hoping under these charges they will be held accountable.” 

This is the second case charged under the State of Illinois’ Rico law that allows prosecutors to target the structure of a criminal organization itself so that a judge can see a complete picture of a gang’s criminal activity, Alvarez said.

“This is the perfect example of the type of cases we were looking to be able to handle under this new law,” Alvarez said.

During numerous search warrants into the mens’ homes executed as late as last night, Alvarez said, officers found police scanners, police vests, and real police badges that had been stolen from police officers’ homes.

“They have a long history, a history of burglaries and home invasions,” Alvarez said. “We are happy that this operation turned out the way it (did).”

During a home invasion in 2013, Panozzo Sr. sliced off the ear of a victim after he heard the man speaking English after he had claimed that he only spoke Spanish.

“Needless to say their methods involved extreme violence,” Alvarez said.

Panozzo and Koroluk have several burglary convictions and operated one of the most sophisticated burglary rings police have ever seen. Panozzo and Koroluk operated in the area of Grand and Western, Alvarez said. They are from the old Italian neighborhood known as the Patch on the near West side, where Joey the Clown Lombardo and many other mobsters are from.

The two are also part of the same crew as Louis Capuzi and Frank Obrochta, who are in jail facing burglary charges in both DuPage and Cook Counties.

The male defendants face 15 to 60 years in prison for racketeering as well as 15 to 60 years for drug conspiracy charges. Maria Koroluk faces up to 40 years in prison, Alvarez said.

mmrodriguez@tribune.com