CHICAGO — Jurors have heard testimony about a Judas kiss like the one Michael Corleone gave his brother Fredo in “The Godfather.”
They’ve heard about mobsters initiated as “made guys” by getting their fingers cut and having holy pictures burned in their bare hands in secret ceremonies.
And they’ve heard about how those who crossed the “Chicago Outfit” sometimes ended up in the trunk of a car.
The city’s biggest mob trial in years, involving five men in their 60s and 70s accused of crimes ranging from loan sharking to 18 long-unsolved murders, has lifted the curtain on the secrets of the mob — as it was decades ago. Most of the allegations date to the 1970s and ’80s.
But what about today? Experts say the mob is alive and well in the town that was Al Capone’s.
“People say, ‘Look at how old these guys are on trial, it’s a geriatric organization,”’ said John Binder, author of “The Chicago Outfit.”
“What you’re seeing is just part of the organization,” he said. “They’re still doing gambling, they’ve still got some labor racketeering, they’ve got their hooks into some unions (and) they’re still doing juice lending.”
A few years ago, plans for a casino in the suburb of Rosemont were derailed amid concerns about mob ties in the village. And in the late 1990s, one of the nation’s largest unions, Laborers International, publicly launched an effort to drive organized crime out of its Chicago District Council.
Jurors in the latest trial heard a secretly recorded tape of one of the defendants, Frank Calabrese Sr., talking about collecting “recipes,” code for payoffs, in the late 1990s — while he was behind bars.
“What the trial has made clear is even when they are in prison they continue to exert influence and control,” said James Wagner, the head of the Chicago Crime Commission, who investigated the mob for years when he was an FBI agent.
And although the current trial’s defendants are aging, others point out that the Outfit still has people ready to step in and take over for the old mobsters, known as “Mustache Petes.”
“They’re still there, there’s still young guys coming up,” said Jack O’Rourke, a retired FBI agent who also spent years investigating the Chicago mob. “And they’re still powerful enough to kill guys.”
Binder compared the mob to a corporation.
“It’s important in management to groom people,” he said. “The Outfit is good at it; they’ve shown the ability to bring people up.”
Still, the Chicago Outfit is showing its age, say some who have studied it.
“The Chicago mob used to be big time, and now it’s just local thugs like Tony Soprano,” said Gus Russo, author of a best-selling book about the Chicago mob titled “The Outfit.”
“There’s no doubt they still have some cops on the take, some lawyers, a judge here and there and labor unions. But now they are just a local mob,” he said.
Chicago’s mob probably lost some of its power because many of the illegal activities it once made money from are now legal, like casinos and state-run lotteries.
In addition, Russo said: “They had pornography, and now that’s big business.”
The Outfit has other opportunities, however.
“They’ve still got the sports betting,” O’Rourke said. “They’ve controlled that forever and it is illegal.”
But even that business has changed, O’Rourke said, because they way they collect the money has gotten a bit more genteel than in the old days.
“Now with the gamblers, they don’t get tough any more and extort them,” he said. “Instead, they’re saying, ‘You can’t play any more.’ To the gamblers, that’s worse than getting beat up.”
Even though some of its influence may be waning, the trial suggests the mob can still pull off the kind of tricks that made it infamous.
After rumors that he would testify at the trial, reputed mobster Anthony Zizzo vanished last year.
Then in January, a deputy U.S. marshal was charged with leaking information to reputed mob boss John “No Nose” DiFronzo about the cooperation and travel plans of Nicholas Calabrese, a key government witness and the brother of defendant Frank Calabrese Sr.
“Now they are more surreptitious than ever before, more cunning and intelligent in the way they operate,” Wagner said. “They’re not less dangerous or influential.”