Despite Threats, Frank Calabrese Jr. Takes Elmhurst College Audience on a Journey to 'the Dark Side’
"Organized crime corrupted his soul," Calabrese said of his father.
It wasn’t the mob scene one might have expected.
With appearances at Borders book stores in Oak Brook and Chicago canceled because of a threatening phone message, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see an overflow crowd at Elmhurst College Tuesday afternoon—for the curiosity factor, alone.
That’s where reputed Chicago crime-family member Frank Calabrese Jr. launched a series of public appearances. Calabrese helped put his infamous father, Frank Sr., and a lot of other members of the Chicago Outfit behind bars for life, and he’s written a book about it: Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster’s Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago’s Murderous Crime Family.
The message received by Borders on Monday said something to the effect of “rats can’t sign books here.” That was enough to put the kibosh on Calabrese’s visit.
But there was plenty of breathing room at the Mill Theatre. Campus security officers were standing guard at the entrance, and Calabrese brought his bodyguard, but the crowd of 100 or so included mostly students—and Chuck Goudie of ABC 7 News.
English Professor Ron Wiginton, who moderated the panel discussion with Calabrese, said the college had not widely publicized the event.
But that wasn’t by design, Elmhurst College Managing Director of Public Affairs Desiree Chen said.
“We weren’t trying to keep the public out, and it wasn’t out of security concerns,” she said. “It was more that this was treated as an educational opportunity for our students, so the focus was on drawing students to the event. That’s also why the focus was on the panel discussion format.”
Wiginton invited Calabrese to be a part of the discussion, and he did so with the college leadership’s full knowledge. No one was opposed, Chen said.
The other members of the panel included Loyola University organized crime scholar Arthur Lurigio and Elmhurst College criminal justice professor Richard Greenleaf, who provided the historical and sociological aspects of organized crime.
“Frank Calabrese added a compelling, first-person dimension,” Chen said.
Just the Bottom-feeders are Left
Say what you want about the junior Calabrese—he’s a liar and a thief, he did drugs, all by his own admission—but he’s definitely not hiding in the shadows.
An audience member asked him if he was offered a chance to go into the witness protection program.
“I was constantly offered that,” he said. “I’m not standing here saying I’m a tough guy. It’s a personal decision. I can’t run and hide.”
Another audience member said, “I’m not sure that’s the right approach.”
Calabrese said he hears that comment all the time. But “I have to live my life,” he said.
“The way the laws are now, they’ve really knocked down the Outfit quite a bit. What you have is kind of like the bottom-feeders that are left,” he said. “And there’s not much money there anymore, not much opportunity.”
Calabrese lives in Arizona now. He said there would be one of two reasons for the Outfit to send someone out there from Chicago to kill him.
“One, if I’m standing in their neighborhood and getting in their face, or two, if I’m taking money out of their pockets,” he said. “I’m living my life, I’m a normal guy, I work 9 to 5, work two jobs.”
But those associated with him still are looking over their shoulder.
“My ex-wife to this day fears my father,” he said. “My brothers fear my father.”
Calabrese also has a grown son and daughter. He said his life is a living example to them of what can go wrong “when you don’t do the right thing.”
As for his father, Frank “the Breeze,” he is locked up in a maximum security prison in Springfield, Mo., for the rest of his life for murdering at least 13 people. Joey “the Clown” Lombardo and many other Chicago crime bosses also were put away. It was through evidence obtained by the junior Calabrese wearing a wire that the convictions were possible.
Calabrese, who is not allowed to talk to his father, said before cooperating with the FBI, he had hoped his father would make good on a promise they both made while in prison on racketeering charges.
“Me and my father made a promise to one another that we were going to change our lives,” he said. “And I’ve kept my promise to this day. I spent eight months in prison with my dad, trying to work on our relationship. Every time I turned around, he wasn’t being sincere. I (realized) he was not going to change.”
He said he had two choices: Wait for him to get out of prison and confront him or cooperate with the government. With the first option, it was a kill-or-be-killed situation, he said.
“Either I was going to be a cold-blooded killer, or I was going to be a rat,” he said.
In the Chicago Outfit, ratting someone out was the “worst thing you could do,” he said.
His father’s method of killing people was “strangling them first, then cutting their throat from ear to ear,” he said.
“I needed to fix myself and I needed to keep this man locked up,” he said. “I wish it could be another way, but I knew in my heart that it couldn’t be."
He said he still loves his father.
“I never wanted to be in the Outfit. I wanted to be in my father’s favor,” he said. “I cherished and loved him. I thought he had my back. I thought he was looking out for me and my brothers. At one time he did. But organized crime corrupted his soul.
"It breaks my heart every day.”