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Frank Calabrese Jr. On 'Operation Family Secrets'

Frank Calabrese Jr. has written a memoir about brining down his father's murderous Chicago crime family. In Operation Family Secrets, Frank details how he helped the FBI convict his father of several murders by wearing a hidden wire and taping his father's conversations.

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How A Son's Betrayal Brought Down Chicago's Mob

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest today tells the story of a son who followed his tough and overbearing
dad into the family business then eventually found his father so cruel and
abusive that to save himself, he had to betray his family and leave the
enterprise.

What makes Frank Calabrese Jr.'s story so unique is that his family business
was organized crime, and his path to freedom was informing in his father to the
FBI.

Calabrese's father, Frank Calabrese Sr., was a member of the Chicago crime
organization known as the Outfit, a syndicate once ruled by the legendary Al
Capone. The elder Calabrese ran loan-sharking and gambling operations and
became a go-to hit man when The Outfit needed somebody eliminated.

Frank Calabrese Jr.'s decision to inform on his father and others led to one of
the biggest mob prosecutions in American history in 2005. He tells his story in
a new book called "Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son and the FBI
Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime Family," written with Keith and Kent
Zimmerman and Paul Pompian.

Calabrese gives an insider's account of life in the mob, including events
dramatized in the Martin Scorsese film "Casino." When I spoke to Frank
Calabrese, he began by talking about his childhood in a crime family.

Well, Frank Calabrese, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that you never saw your
father kill anybody.

Mr. FRANK CALABRESE JR. (Author, "Operation Family Secrets"): Correct.

DAVIES: But you describe a moment once when he came back to the house just
looking different, with the adrenaline pumping. Tell us about that moment, if
you remember it.

Mr. CALABRESE: I do. I do remember that. We lived in a three-flat that we
called the compound, and one night he came home and I'll never forget this, and
he used to like to talk in the bathroom with the fan on and the water running
in case there was any kind of bugs in the house.

And I could just see his adrenaline going. And he was telling me - he was
schooling me, and he was telling me that they killed somebody tonight. And, you
know, and the reason they did it was because the guy was dealing drugs, and he
was disobeying his boss.

And I remember looking at him while he's telling me this, and I'm kind of
shocked because I'm like, okay, you know, he's tell me this. And I'm thinking,
is this what, you know, other kids hear when they come home and their father
comes home from work? So, you know, it kind of stuck with me all my life.

DAVIES: And how old were you then? Do you know?

Mr. CALABRESE: I was young. I was young. I want to say in my late teens.

DAVIES: And what was your reaction to the thought that your dad could kill
somebody? Do you remember?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, being around him more and more and slowly - see, that's
where my father was a master manipulator was that, you know, he just didn't
come out of nowhere. He just kept slowly - you know, he - while I was watching
his reactions, he was probably watching my reactions, too.

And he always made it sound like, you know, he was teaching me the from right
from wrong, and this is what you do. And your dad doesn't do anything wrong,
but this is the way life is. So when I'm looking at him, I'm having mixed
feelings because I'm, like, well, if my dad is telling me this, and he's doing
it, there must be something right about it.

DAVIES: So when you got a little older, and your father brought you into the
family business, one of the first things you did involved pornography stores
that your dad and his brothers were running. What did you do?

Mr. CALABRESE: I assisted my uncles in the operation of the stores, collecting
the money.

DAVIES: Quarters, right, lots of quarters?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah, lots of quarters, and then there were cash, too, from
magazine sales and VHS sales. And the reason it came about was my father's ways
were to get his claws in a business and slowly, slowly drain that business, and
slowly force the people that had that business out.

And he'd start by offering them protection to get into the business. And what
was strange about the adult bookstore business was the guy that was running the
operation was this Italian guy and he liked my father, and my father just
slowly took more control of this business. And finally one day, when the guy
complained to my father, my father cracked him in the head.

It wasn't shortly after that that they guy took off with bags full of money,
and then we were left with all the bookstores. So that's when I started running
them with my uncles.

DAVIES: You started running the bookstores?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah.

DAVIES: What was that like? This was the days before, you know, the Internet
porn and a lot of video porn.

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct, correct. At first I started counting away from the
stores at first. My uncles would bring the quarters, and I would be in a room,
and at wherever we had a place at where we could count the quarters. And that
was all I did at first.

Then I started going with my uncle once a week, my uncle Nick, and we would go
down there, and I'd start collecting the quarters with him.

DAVIES: Now these are quarters from little, what, arcades that would show a
brief pornographic film?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah, they were - correct. They were booths. So we would go in
there, and it was really - it opened my eyes to a world that was totally
different than my normal, everyday life. Some of the things that went on in
those booths and in those back rooms were kind of gross.

So yeah, I was introduced to all this at a really young age, you know, and -
but then again, you know, hey, my father's telling me to do it, and, you know,
I'm starting to buy into it more and more.

At that same time, I'm starting to spend more time with my father, and he's
starting to pick up the pace a little bit on grooming me.

DAVIES: Right. Now, you eventually get into the family's loan-sharking
business. He was part of this crew. He had this crew. Tell us how the loan-
sharking worked and what your role was.

Mr. CALABRESE: Well basically, I started out as my father's right-hand man, and
basically what I was doing is I'd sit to my father's side, and he was showing
me how to do the books. And it was ironic because I wasn't real good in math in
school. And all the math I learned were from percentages from the juice loans.
And to this day, I still laugh about it because that's how I got my math
education.

DAVIES: Now you just used a term, juice loans. Explain that.

Mr. CALABRESE: Okay. In Chicago, we call it juice loans, and a juice loan is a
high-interest loan that's not through a bank or a credit card company. And
you'd get it on the street, preferably from somebody like my dad or somebody
from organized crime.

In New York and some of the East Coast cities, they'd call it vig. So it's just
a term that we use for juice.

DAVIES: So who were your customers? Who would borrow from you?

Mr. CALABRESE: You know, we had all kinds of customers. A lot of customers were
degenerate gamblers that couldn't pay after they gambled that week. So we'd put
them on juice right away. Or they were businessmen that needed some quick cash
and didn't want to show it. We had all kinds.

And, you know, at the - we used to have hundreds of guys on juice, some for as
little as $100, some for as much as $100,000. And my father was - he taught me
a lot of good stuff in that business because he had all these little sayings,
and the way he did that business is, you know, because a lot of people would
say: Well, if you don't pay, you're going to get your legs broken. And my
father didn't look at it like that.

What he looked at was if I break the guy's leg, it's going to scare him, how is
he going to pay? So he'd always figure out different ways and show us different
ways to present to the juice loan customer if he couldn't pay.

Say a guy had $1,000 and he was supposed to pay $50 a week, and he couldn't, he
couldn't pay that $50 a week, and it was only interest. Well, what we would do
is - my father would double the amount that he owes to $2,000, and he tells
him: Okay, you pay $10 a week, but you've got to pay every week, and that whole
$10 comes off the $2,000.

So he'd never try to back guys in a corner, if he could.

DAVIES: But he's keeping them on the hook and, in the end, making a lot more
money.

Mr. CALABRESE: Exactly.

DAVIES: Right. But in the end, you do have to collect from people who are in a
jam. What do you do then?

Mr. CALABRESE: The biggest problem where violence would come in is because
you'd work with people, and they'd constantly lie to you or constantly try to
avoid you.

And then that's when you either had to send them some kind of signal to let
them know that they better pay, or they're going to have a problem. You know,
if it was physical to come and give them a crack in the head, you know, rough
them up a little, sometimes if you had to take a baseball bat and hit them in
the leg, sometimes just maybe throwing some dead rats or something on their
car.

So there are always ways to show the person that they'd better start paying.

DAVIES: Now, was that your role, or did you just watch other folks do that?

Mr. CALABRESE: I had a role in that also.

DAVIES: Okay. Your father's enterprise was really profitable. Talk about some
of the ways that he hid his assets, stashed money.

Mr. CALABRESE: Oh, he had many hiding places. He had legitimate bank accounts
under other family members' names, and what he would do is he'd let them keep
the interest.

He had safety deposit boxes full of cash. We had cash stashed in walls, in 55-
gallon barrels in some garages. Anywhere you could think of, he would store
cash, and he never liked to store it all in one spot.

DAVIES: And he also had this fascinating getaway plan, right, in case he was in
a jam. Tell us about that.

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, the getaway plan was, you know, he had about 11, 12
different identities, credit cards, drivers' license from different states, and
he had a van that he had about $300,000, $400,000 stashed in the walls of the
van. He had a spot set up where - actually more than one spot set up under
different names in different cities in case he had to hide.

DAVIES: Now, your father's crew didn't just, you know, run loan-sharking and
gambling. They also became a hit squad for people in the Outfit, in organized
crime who needed somebody taken care of. And there were a lot of cases that you
describe. But let's just talk about one of them.

Mr. CALABRESE: The boss's house got robbed. And so what the boss wanted is he
wanted these crews to go around and grab all these thieves and torture them,
torture them and leave them to be found so that the message would get out, and
they...

DAVIES: Now these were thieves, but they were stealing from the wrong people,
in other words.

Mr. CALABRESE: They stole from the wrong person, yeah, and a lot of people
disagreed with the boss's decision because it seemed like it was going to -
especially my father because it seemed like it was going to be bad for
business, all these bodies laying all over. It was going to bring in a lot of
heat from the law enforcement.

So basically what they did was they tortured these guys. They cut their
throats. They beat them up. And they did that after or during they were
questioning them to find out exactly who was involved, even though they already
had an idea of who was involved. So they were brutally tortured and killed.

DAVIES: And what was your father and your Uncle Nick's role in this one crime?

Mr. CALABRESE: Beat them, strangled them, and then my father - my father's way
of making sure somebody was dead was that he would cut their throat from ear to
ear. And I do believe in this one, I believe that he might have made my uncle
do this one, the cutting of the throat. He did make my uncle do it in one of
them.

But that was my father's way. My father was a hands-on guy, and, you know, he
loved to strangle people and he loved knives. He had a whole big collection of
knives, and to make sure they were dead, he'd cut them from ear to ear.

DAVIES: Now, in the book, you describe quite a few cases where they were
involved in murders like these. In fact, I think you use the term, at some
point, Calabrese necktie for the strangling and then the throat-slitting.

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct, correct.

DAVIES: Did you know about this? Did they talk about them at the time?

Mr. CALABRESE: Some I did know about, and some I didn’t know about until later
on, okay. A handful of the murders, I was actually, you know, deep in at that
time, at that time, so they - my uncle and my father would talk in front of me,
and, you know, I was in on everything as far as the conversations and stuff.

The involvement, I was not involved directly because they didn't want me to get
involved with the Outfit. They only wanted me to be involved with the family,
our family.

So if there was something that was going to be done for our family, I was going
to be involved. If it was something done for the Outfit, I would just stay in
the background.

DAVIES: Our guest is Frank Calabrese. His book "Operation Family Secrets."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Frank Calabrese. He was part of
an organized crime family in Chicago. He wrote a book about informing on his
father and others. It's called "Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son
and the FBI Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime Family."

You know, it's - you're probably a free man today because you never actually
killed anybody, but there was this one occasion where it could have happened,
John "Big Stoop" Fecarotta. Do I have the name right?

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct.

DAVIES: Yeah. Now, why was that different? What was your role there?

Mr. CALABRESE: Okay, I was - I had bought into everything at that point. And,
you know, I was ready to follow my father no matter what. Whatever he said, I
would do.

And why I was so gung-ho about this one is because John had, in one of the
other murders in Las Vegas, the murder that they showed in "Casino" with the
two Spilotro brothers, my uncle was out there, part of the crew.

And he would come back and report to myself and my father to let us know what
was going on while they were trying to get Spilotro and kill him. And John
Fecarotta was breaking all the rules while he was out there.

He was in charge. He brought his girlfriend. He was spending a lot of the money
that they were sending out there. He wasn't supposed to. But the big thing he
did was he had my uncle sign a gambling slip. And that was a big no-no because
now it shows they're all out there under fictitious names, and my uncle signs
under his real name.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is your uncle, Nick, who...

Mr. CALABRESE: My uncle, Nick.

DAVIES: Your father's brother. And you say he signed a slip. You mean Fecarotta
was out there, he had some actual, legitimate gambling winnings, and he wanted
your uncle Nick to sign the slip for the IRS. Is that what we're talking about?

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct, correct. You had to sign it to collect. So he needed my
uncle's signature.

DAVIES: Not something you would want to be doing if you were out there doing
mob business.

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct. And the fact that he made my uncle sign it, he had no
regard for my uncle's safety. He just didn't care. He was only concerned about
himself.

And then he started to go, and he started to do what we would call arm and
threaten, which, you know, you basically threaten some of our juice loan
customers to start paying in and screw us.

So when my father and my uncle found out about this, for me, I was so gung-ho
because this is family. I don't care about organized crime. I don't care about
that other stuff. But this is family.

And so the problem was John was an old-time gangster. And he was smart. He
carried a gun on him all the time, and he could catch what we call plays. If
somebody was up to something, he could catch on real quick.

So my father knew that John Fecarotta had a sense that the bosses were mad at
him, and everybody was mad at him. So he had his guard up. And if my father and
my uncle were in the car together, he knew that there would be some kind of
play. So it had to be done without my father being there.

And so while we were practicing and coming up with the way it was going to go,
it was going to go - my father was playing John Fecarotta in our little role,
and my uncle was sitting in the passenger seat, and the idea was that he had a
bag that looked like it was going to be explosives that we were going to send a
message to a dentist.

And then I would sit in the backseat, and then I would shoot John in the back
of the head.

DAVIES: So they were setting this up so that you were going to actually shoot
this guy, right?

Mr. CALABRESE: I was going to shoot this guy. And then my uncle kept trying to
tell me that, you know, not in front of my father but away from my father that,
you know, you can't do this. I mean, basically he saved my life. You can't do
this. If you do this, you're going to cross that line. There's no crossing
back.

And the line he's talking about is the line that now I'm in debt to my dad
because now I've performed a murder, and he owns me. I can't say one day, ah, I
don't want to do this no more. So there's no ceremony involved or anything.
It's just the fact that I cross that line with him.

My uncle wasn't as fortunate enough to be slowly groomed as I was with my dad
because as soon as my uncle got involved with my dad, they committed a murder
immediately. And so he was in. And he kept wanting to pull away because he
didn’t like what he was seeing, either. But he was in on two ends. He was in
with my dad, plus he was a made man in the Outfit now. So, you know, he was
trying to help me get away from it.

DAVIES: So they want to get this guy Fecarotta, and the drill is Uncle Nick is
going to be in the front seat, you're going to be in the back with the gun. So
how did it actually happen?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, what had happened was, my uncle says, you know, I can do
this. I can do this. I don't need Frankie in the car. I can do this. And my
father somehow agreed with it and - which is a big no-no because of the fact
that, you know, it would've been much easier with two guys. And if there was a
problem, you have two guys against one instead of one.

And so there was a problem. John Fecarotta caught the play when my uncle pulled
the gun, and my uncle wound up shooting himself in the arm in the process of
shooting John.

John jumped out of the car, ran in the street, and the kind of guys that my
father and my uncle were is that, you know, my uncle knew he had to finish
this. And it was kind of almost like a scene out of "Scarface," where Al Pacino
runs out in the middle of the street to gun down the guy in the head, down in
Miami.

My uncle did the same thing. He crossed the street, walked up to him, put a
bullet in his head to make sure he was dead right in front of - it was ironic
because he did it right in front of the bingo hall where my grandmother played
bingo all the time.

DAVIES: Now throughout all these years, you had a difficult relationship with
your father and wanted to break away at times. And there was one moment that
you describe, when you overslept and missed a meeting with your father. How did
he react to that?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, my father used to like to do all our meetings under the
cover of darkness and in the middle of the night. And so when we did this, what
he would do is we'd set this meeting up days before, and he'd pick me up.

I'd walk out the back of my house. I'd walk down a couple of alleys, and he'd
be sitting on a side street. I'd get in his car. We'd take off, drive the car,
park a few blocks from the office where we were going, and then we'd go down in
the basement, and we'd do all our book work for the week.

Well, I happened to oversleep. And so I got up, and I hurried up, and instead
of not going, I just decided okay, let me get there. I'm just going to go
through all the motions that I would if I was with my dad but by myself.

So I go through all the motions, park away, walk. I'm coming down into the
basement, and, you know, I look at my dad. I'm like: Hey, Dad, sorry I
overslept. And he got up, and all of the sudden, he started punching me with
lefts and rights to the head and knocked me to the ground.

And I couldn't believe it. I mean, all this because I was a few minutes late.
And my uncle's looking at him, and he couldn't believe what he was doing,
either. You know, in my father's eyes, he's got that glassy, thousand-year,
thousand-yard killer look in his eyes.

And he's just beating the crap out of me. I could tell he can't control
himself. And I'm not feeling it physically because I'm so numb mentally that my
father's beating me up for being 15 minutes late.

All of the sudden he catches himself. He catches his - and he says: Here, go
wipe your face. Come on, let's get on with this. Well, in the meantime, my
uncle ran out of the basement while he was beating me, and he called my father.
You know, he goes: You're a nut job. I can't believe you're beating him. And
took off out of the basement.

But these were the multiple personalities that my father had. I mean, he
couldn't control his temper. And for the littlest things, he'd just beat you,
and then two minutes later, he's fine.

He did it another time to me in front of my daughter. And this is when it
really started bothering me because now I'm adult. Now I'm an adult, and I'm
risking my life for him, and I'm giving him my life, and he's still going to
beat me. And I'm not raising my hands to him. And I'm doing whatever he asks me
to do.

And one day, whenever - we had pagers back then. There were no cell phones yet.
And he paged me, and I was supposed to call him. But when you call him, you're
supposed to go out of your house, go so many blocks, find a phone and call him.

Well, I was babysitting and my daughter was young and I'm home alone. So I
can't call him. So he comes to the house, and he thinks I'm avoiding him. So
when I open the door, he cracks me in the face. Well, he didn't see my daughter
standing next to me.

And it just made me so angry. And he looks down. He's like - oh, laugh like
it's a joke. Laugh like it's a joke. Your daughter's standing there. It just -
you know, after a while he could not control his hands. He couldn't control the
beatings.

DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr.'s memoir is called "Operation Family Secrets."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest today, Frank Calabrese, Jr., grew up in a Chicago crime family and
ultimately helped the FBI put his father and his associates away for good. He
tells his story in a memoir called "Operation Family Secrets." From an early
age, Calabrese worked in his father Frank Sr.'s loan sharking operation and
eventually became a full-time criminal.

When you look at other memoirs of organized crime folks like Henry Hill, whose
story "Goodfellas" is based on, one of the things that he says at the end of
the movie is, and at the end of the book is, when it's over what he really
missed was the life, that there was a day when he had all the money and all the
cars and all the feminine companionship he wanted and could take what he wanted
and bully anybody he wanted and it was great. Did you feel that?

Mr. CALABRESE: No I didn't.

DAVIES: Was it an exciting life?

Mr. CALABRESE: It could be. It could be. I got caught up in it a little bit. I
did. I bought into it for a while and got caught up in it. And I understand
what he's saying because sure, I mean, you know, you walk in a room, you know,
and everybody is coming up hugging and kissing you. You had all this easy, fast
money so you didn't respect the money. You drove nice cars. You vacationed a
lot. Sure, but it's almost like a drug too.

But my problem was in order to be in that life you have to be a mean, mean
person. I'm - by heart, I'm not a mean person so at, you know, at first when I
was getting into that life it wasn't about me becoming, I could never be in the
mob because I'm half Irish. So I could never be a made man. And my father's
goal for me wasn't to be in the Outfit. We call it the Outfit in Chicago, la
Cosa Nostra, Mafia, but in Chicago the term we use is Outfit.

And he wanted me, he preached to me about being part of the family. The family
meant me, my brothers, my uncles, you know, our family our blood family and
that, you know, when I did stuff for him it was - I felt I was doing it for the
family. So whenever, I used to watch a lot of organized crime guys out there,
Outfit guys and, you know, I didn't like a lot that I'd seen. A lot of them
were real mean, a lot of them were unfair, so I really didn't want to be like.

DAVIES: Well, to move the story along a little bit here, you spent years
working with - in your father's crew. You married. You had two kids. You had a
lot of difficulty dealing with this, wanted to break away from your father. You
got into cocaine using, some dealing, right, which was utterly unbidden in your
father's crew.

And then there comes a point in the 1990s when a guy that the family had dealt
with named Matt Rousseau(ph) goes to the FBI and the result is indictments
against you, your dad, your uncles, others on loan sharking for a racketeering
indictment, not for the murders. And so you end up going to a prison but for a
few years. Now what was your plan for your life as you were entering prison?
How did you look at this?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, I looked that I had two demons in my life. I had two big
demons: cocaine and my father - and basically breaking away from my father. And
it wasn't just me wanting to break away from my father. It was my brother. It
was my uncle. It was anybody in the family around my father that he was just
getting out of control. But, you know, it's your father and you love your
father. And it was almost like we were codependents because we, every time
something would happen we would think oh, you know what, now this happened so
now he's going to change.

And going to prison, I wanted to change my life and in order to change my life
I had to get away from my father and I had to get away from cocaine. So going
into prison, I was prepared for it. I couldn't wait to get in there. I needed
it. I really, really needed it bad so I could get my life back in order.

And when I got in prison the - I went in early so I can get the drug program in
prison. They had a great drug program in the federal prison. Not only is it a
great program but you also get time off for it. You get a year of good time
plus six months halfway house, so that you get 18 months to be on the street
earlier.

DAVIES: Now you ended up, I think against your preferences, in the same prison
as your father. And the federal investigation that really ended up bringing
down this family - and it was one of the most important criminal investigations
probably in certainly in Chicago history, probably in American history - really
begins with you sitting down and typing a letter to an FBI agent because you
want to inform on your father. Tell us what made you do that.

Mr. CALABRESE: I'm down for a year and I'm with my father for eight months
every day and I really want to work out this relationship. We had made some
promises to one another in the lawyer's office the day I was reporting him and
I wanted to keep my end of the bargain but I wanted to make sure my father was
going to keep his end.

DAVIES: And what promises did you make to each other?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, I promised that I would never touch drugs again and I keep
that promise to this day and until my dying day I will. His promise was that he
was going to change his ways. He was going to back away from the mob because
you can never leave but you can retire. And we were going to work on our
relationship and be honest with one another. And I thought this is great, you
know, I'm going to be away from my dad for a while. When we get done, we get
out, I'm going to be a better person, he's going to be a better person and we
are going to work on our relationship.

So when I sit down to write this letter after eight months of trying daily to
work out my relationship with my dad, what I did was I used everything my
father taught me against him to see if he was telling the truth. And at this
time in life my father didn't draw no lines no more. He didn't care who he
manipulated. He didn't care if it was me or my brother or my uncle, it was
always for his benefit.

You know, and I can give you one great example of that is there's a play around
the country called "Tony and Tina's Wedding."

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CALABRESE: OK. In the Chicago version my brother was a partner there. But
my brother didn't put his name on anything, my brother Kurt, because he didn't
want my father to know about it because if my father knew about it my father
would want some of it. That's how my father was; he'd extort us.

And so my father sent - he thought Kurt had something to do with it and Kurt
was trying to break away from him, so he sent some of his guys to the play to
extort the owner, my brother's partner. Well, what my father didn't know was
that there was cameras there for security and when the guys that came my
brother recognized them because he was in the back, just happened to be there
that day and seen them on camera. So my father always denied that he had
anything to do with it.

So when we were in prison I confronted him on it, and I told him, I says I
can't believe that you would extort your own family. He says what are you
talking about? I says you extorted Kurt at the play. I did not. I saved him. I
says no, I says we have on tape your guy walking in there and extorting him.
And my father's jaw dropped. What are you talking about? Who's taping who? I
says look, Dad, I says this is the way it is. And he gave me this long story.
So that was another strike against him. And there were a lot of other stories
like that.

DAVIES: So you decided, based on these conversations and other things you
learned, that your father wasn't getting out. He wasn't going to back away from
the mob. He fully intended to be just as involved.

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct.

DAVIES: And you had to do something.

Mr. CALABRESE: Right. And you got to understand, this case, we're in jail. The
FBI thinks they got us. We're done. They barely touched us and all this all
comes out later on, you know, and I'm looking at what choices I have here. You
know, I mean the choice that I wanted was the agreement I made with my dad:
We'd both go to prison, we, you know, we do what we promised and we get out.

But now I look and I'm like OK, no, I can only think of two choices that that I
have and one choice is to cooperate with the government, which we were always
100 percent against, or my other choice is wait till he gets out and let's see
what's going to happen and knowing that what's going to happen is either I'm
going to wind up dead or he's going to wind up dead and the other one is
probably going to wind up in jail.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Frank Calabrese. He has written a book about his
experiences in organized crime and informing on his father. It's called
"Operation Family Secrets." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Frank Calabrese. He was part of
a Chicago organized crime crew and informed on his father and led to his
conviction. He's written a book about his experiences called "Operation Family
Secrets."

So you write a letter to this FBI agent and you say come talk to me and he
does. And what do you tell him?

Mr. CALABRESE: OK. Well, when I wrote this letter, you know, I wanted to do a
business agreement with the FBI. I didn't want, I wasn't looking, you know, I'm
not a victim here. I was a bad guy. I belonged in jail. But I needed to keep
him in there because I knew I wasn't going to a bad guy when I got out. So I
needed to work out a business agreement with the FBI.

And you've got to understand the FBI. I mean all of the sudden here you get
back from lunch and all of a sudden you've got this letter on your desk. They
couldn't believe it. There was a lot of legalities that we had to go through. I
couldn't reach out to my lawyers. I couldn't trust nobody on this. So I was on
my own. I didn't want immunity. I didn't want any kind of deal that I was
indebted to anybody. I just wanted to work in a business agreement. I don't
want to lose no time, but I want to help you keep my father locked up. And at
first I decided that I would just feed them information so that they can get my
father.

After the fist meeting and I went back to my cell and I sat there and I laid in
my cell and I thought about it. I says, you know, I need more than that. If I
need to wear a wire I'll have to do it. I cannot draw no lines. I can't make no
boundaries in doing this. If I'm going to do it I have to do it a hundred
percent.

DAVIES: So in the end you said you will wear a wire and you will go and try and
talk to your father and get him on tape admitting to some of the awful things
he's done for the FBI. Now it's dangerous doing that outside the walls. Being
in prison must have presented special obstacles, right?

Mr. CALABRESE: Oh, yeah. Yeah, well, the biggest obstacle was for me to even
get to the room that the FBI agents were in. If I was seen going anywhere near
that area and I didn't know somebody seeing me my life's in danger. I mean I'm
going out on the prison yard, OK, you know, you can't trust - I don't know who
I can trust in prison. I don't know what guards I can trust so it was really
hard.

Plus, there was no monitor on me. So when I got wired up and I left that room,
those FBI agents sat there for as many hours, sometimes as many as five hours,
not knowing what's going on. They're not listening because they can't. And
they're just waiting to see me come back or waiting for the prison alarm to go
off that somebody's down, meaning I'm probably dead or beat up or stabbed.

DAVIES: Now your father was always very careful about talking business. Even at
home he used a lot of code words and liked cover noise. How did you approach
getting him to talk about some of his criminal past?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, I didn't push anything. What I used was he had this
jealousy of our relationship - mine and my brothers with my uncle. And he
thought that my uncle was trying to take his place as a father and it wasn't
the case. He was just – he just had our backs. My uncle had our backs. He was
an uncle. And my father taught me, you know, two ways to make a guy talk.
Either feed them a lot of liquor or get them mad. So we don't have no liquor in
jail. So I figured let me use my uncle to get my father mad and the premise
that we were working on our relationship. So all this stuff he started talking
about, you know, it really wasn't forced. If it was forced would have caught
the play. My father was good at catching plays.

DAVIES: And so you get him to talk about a lot of stuff, murders, right?

Mr. CALABRESE: In detail. In detail. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe
the way he was talking.

DAVIES: Were there ever any moments when you thought he might be on to you?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah. There was one moment during a conversation, I had gotten a
tattoo and he just got done explaining to me in detail who was there when the
Spilotro brothers got killed. And I just all of the sudden seen a funny look on
his face and he's like let me see your tattoo. And my tattoo was on my upper
right shoulder and I got a sweatshirt on and I'm on the yard. And that day,
which was ironic, was because the recording equipment they gave me was last
minute from Detroit because the stuff they brought malfunctioned. So I was
wired up like a Christmas tree. If I take off that shirt or even move it, it
was - he would have known right away. And I'm on the yard and I'm standing in
an area with a lot of Italian guys, a lot of Outfit guys, a lot of biker guys,
a lot of everybody. If that wire is spotted and I'm friendly with everybody in
that prison then, you know, I don't think I'm making it back.

So he went to grab my shirt and I grabbed him and I says no, I can't show you
this. I said there's guards standing right there. If he sees it I'll go to the
hole and I says and you've seen it already. So, you know, I didn't know if he
really wanted to see the tattoo and there was a lot going through my head right
then. What do I do? Do I run? There is a long way, probably a couple hundred
yards to the door. I probably won't make it. And, or do I punch him? You know,
and so I just stood my ground and ironically, he didn't pursue it.

DAVIES: Now, when you talked about what you knew about these murders to the
FBI, that meant you had to also tell them about the role of your uncle Nick,
who you loved and respected, right?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah.

DAVIES: You were in effect informing on him as well. And the FBI then brought
him in. There were a pair of bloody gloves from an earlier murder and he was
going to have a problem. And you make an interesting point in the book that you
uncle Nick wouldn't necessarily have cooperated. He might've told them to go
jump, but the right approach mattered, that a lot of FBI guys have the wrong
approach. Could you explain that?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah. You know, my uncle was really sorry about a lot of stuff
he did. My uncle was not like my father. He didn't lose his soul. He didn't
kill just because he got mad. He didn't hurt because he got mad or over money.
My uncle was more like a soldier, you know, and when he was ordered to do
something he'd do it, he'd do it right. But when he started realizing that the
people giving the orders were wrong, he wanted out. And, you know, but I don't
think he wanted out the way that he got out with me implicating him.

And, you know, the way he was approached in prison, you know, at first, you
know, he, very stubborn, didn't want to talk to them at all. After a while they
were certain agents that he liked and certain agents that he didn't like, and
certain people that can come across a certain way. And one of the agents, Mike
Maseth, my uncle happened to - he happened to like him. The prosecutor, Mitch
Mars, very very smart man. Very smart man, very nice guy. He doesn't come in
and threaten and raise their voice and talk down to you and all. That was good
with my uncle.

DAVIES: Let me ask another question about him. When you made the decision to
inform on your father, I mean you know how this works. The FBI is going to want
to know everything you know and a lot of what you know involved your Uncle
Nick, who you loved and respected. And you were going to implicate him. That
must've been hard.

Mr. CALABRESE: It was hard. It was hard. I, you know, I mean he's never done
nothing to me. He's never done nothing but look out for me. I can't sit here
and give any reason why it was right for me to implicate him. The only thing
was there was - I never had thought about that far down the line and then when
it came up there was no way around it and I had to do it.

I believe that I saved his life. I believe that I saved my life. I know I saved
a couple guys in our crew’s life because my father talked about killing certain
guys when I got out. So, you know, had I not implicated my uncle, had I not
went against my dad, there would have probably been a blood bath on the street.

I'm not happy I did it. Not till this day at all. I wish I could do his time
for him. It ain't going to happen. But he's going to be out soon and he's going
to be able to see his kids again and he's going to be able to get on with his
life. And I know he's sorry for those people that – especially the innocent
people that he killed.

DAVIES: Our guest is Frank Calabrese. His book is called “Operation Family
Secrets.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Frank Calabrese. He was a
member of an organized crime family in Chicago. His account of testifying
against his father for the FBI is called “Operation Family Secrets.”

Eventually, there are indictments against your father and a lot of other
members of the Chicago Outfit. And there is eventually, of course, a trial. And
while you've given the FBI its choice evidence in these tapes, these recordings
of your father implicating himself, that’s not enough. You've got to go take
the stand at the trial, tell the jury the story of your getting the tapes, and
also to translate the code that your father uses as he speaks to you. So that
means you're going to have an extended stretch on the stand face-to-face with
your father. How did you feel approaching that?

Mr. CALABRESE: I felt confident. I knew the day I did the letter my life was
going to change and I know that the day I did the letter that I would be
sitting on the stand in the same room as my dad going through all this. So I
knew it was going to happen, it's just a matter of time, it's just a matter of
waiting.

What I never thought about was the emotion that would come over me when I
walked in that courtroom from not seeing my dad. I want to say probably for
about a good five years hadn't seen him. And there he is sitting over there,
he's aged and, you know, I walk in the room and I just - didn’t stare at him,
but out of the corner of my eye I could see him sitting there and I could see a
dad looking at his son and me looking back at him.

And at first you're just looking to see how they look or what's going on with
them, you know, and I wanted to run over and hug him. I really wanted to go
over there and hug him and it killed me.

And so that first day on the stand - I only was on the stand for a half-hour
because it was towards the end of the day. But I'll tell you, after five
minutes of being on the stand it didn't take me long to have that love for my
dad turn into hatred for my dad and remind me of what I'm doing and I'm sitting
up there doing it.

DAVIES: And explain the transformation. Was it the questions you had to answer?

Mr. CALABRESE: No. No. It was my father sitting over there, the gestures he was
making and trying to stare and it was my, you know, being in a room with my
father you could, it didn't take long because I knew him and I knew what he was
doing. I knew what he was trying to do.

DAVIES: What gestures do you mean?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah. He laughed. He shook his head when I talked. He bounced
around in his chair. He tried giving me, you know, and I won't look at him. I
won't give him the satisfaction.

DAVIES: The other thing is there was a huge volume of material that you had to
present to a jury in a calm and convincing way.

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah. And, you know, it wasn’t hard because I lived it and I
knew the codes and, you know, once I settled in I knew I had a job to do. And I
could tell you that when I - every day that I went home from the court and I
might have slept an hour a night. I cried. I paced. You know, and it wasn't
about what I had to do in court.

It was about, you know, it's my father. You know, I love him dearly to this day
but I don’t, I didn't love his ways and I still don't understand why he didn't
have mine and my brothers' backs ever. Why every time through years and years I
look back and every time I look he'd never have my back. We always had his
back. I was willing to kill and die for this man. You know it was tough time.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. CALABRESE: And at the end of the trial the biggest thing that bothered me
was, you know, when I went back upstairs and I sat down and one of the agents
walked in the room and he goes you okay? And I says yeah, but this is probably,
you know, this is probably the last time I'm ever going to see my dad alive.
I'm losing my dad right now and I'm part of it.

DAVIES: And do you think about him much these days?

Mr. CALABRESE: I do. I do. If they let him out he’ll come after me in a second.
I think about him all the time. I keep a picture of him in my wallet. Sometimes
on TV I'll watch certain things and it'll trigger tears in my eyes. You know,
it's been rough.

DAVIES: When you undertook the step to testify against your father – and we
ought to say not just your father – I mean other people went down. This was a
huge indictment, a massive case. You chose not to go into the witness
protection program. You didn't want to be cut off from your family. You wanted
to be able to be honest and earn a living in some way. What can you tell us
about your life today?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah. The witness protection, I've caught a lot of flak for not
going. But I have to be here. I have to be here. I have to give my father that
chance of getting revenge on me if he needs to. And I didn't want to bring my
kids into that program. I know nobody is going to bother my kids and I don't
want anybody to bother my brothers so they know where I'm at.

My life today is I'm just a simple plain Joe. I work. I work hard. I work two
jobs. I, and, you know, I'm just a 9-to-5 guy living on a budget and I'm
enjoying life. I have MS. I've had it for a while so my legs are a little
screwed up, but I deal with it. We all have our little problems in life that we
have to deal with.

DAVIES: That’s MS, multiple sclerosis.

Mr. CALABRESE: Correct.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. Did you just say that you had to give your dad the chance
to come after you if he wants to?

Mr. CALABRESE: Yeah.

DAVIES: What do you mean?

Mr. CALABRESE: Well, I feel that there’s a difference between, you know, one of
the names that they like to tag people with is rat. And, you know, I don't feel
I'm a rat. A cooperating witness, I am a turncoat. I mean you could call me a
lot of different things but rats run and hide and I couldn't run and hide.

I don't want to stand on the corner in the neighborhood and raise a flag and
flex my muscles and challenge people because there's some tough people there.
But what I'm saying is hey I'm living my life out here. This was between me and
my dad and, you know, my dad has made many attempts to scare my brothers,
especially my one brother, Kurt, and intimidate the. And so I just want him to
know that leave them alone. They didn't bother you. Here I am.

DAVIES: Hmm. You know, Frank, when I read the beginning of your book and it
begins with you writing - you're in prison and you write the letter to the FBI
saying I want to talk to you about this, and you explain your motivation at the
beginning of the book, that you wanted to help them make sure that your father
was kept in prison the rest of his life. And I read that and thought that can't
be the real reason. Whenever anybody in organized crime testifies or informs on
people it's because there's something in it for them. They want a reduced
sentence. They want immunity. They want a deal. You didn't get any of that did
you?

Mr. CALABRESE: Oh, what I got is a chance to live my life free and clear of my
dad, so I did get something and a lot of people around me also got to live
their lives free of him too. But till this day my father sitting locked behind
three doors still instills fear in a lot of people. People are still scared
sometimes to mention his name.

DAVIES: Well Frank Calabrese, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CALABRESE: Thank you.

DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr.’s book is called “Operation Family Secrets.” You
can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can
download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
134425257

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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