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Prolific mob hit man Frank Calabrese Sr. dies in custody

Frank Calabrese Sr.

Frank Calabrese Sr.

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Updated: January 28, 2013 3:44PM

He was a mob killer so loathsome that even his own flesh and blood betrayed him in the end.

But not quite the end.

That came for Frank Calabrese Sr. on Christmas Day — the prolific Chicago hit man’s favorite holiday — in a federal prison in North Carolina.

The remains of Calabrese Sr., 75, were expected to receive an external exam Thursday and possibly an autopsy, authorities said. The cause of death wasn’t determined, but Calabrese had been in poor health, suffering from a host of ailments, including heart disease.

News of Calabrese’s death initially left speechless a woman whose life he had destroyed.

“There is no happiness gained in his death,” said Ann Wenger, the widow of one Calabrese victim, Michael Cagnoni, a trucking executive who was blown up in his car in Hinsdale in 1981.

“Nothing will fill that void in my life and for those who suffered his wrath. Eternity is a long time, and in the end, he will get what he deserves,” Wenger said. “I would like to thank the courageous people who had a hand in his conviction and for giving the victims the closure we so desperately needed.”

Joseph “The Shark” Lopez, Calabrese’s former defense attorney, described the mobster’s passing as the end of an era.

“He’s the last of the Mohicans — no question about it,” Lopez said.

Chicago Crime Commission Executive Vice President Art Bilek boiled Calabrese Sr. down to a “‘dese-and-dems type thug” who never had the acumen to rise to the top of the Outfit.

“I would say that Frank was the last of his kind of fellow who came up the ranks the hard way: breaking people’s skulls and knees and graduating to murder. . . . He was the youngest of the old-timers, all but ending that generation.”

T. Markus Funk, a former federal prosecutor who helped put Calabrese Sr. away, said the mobster’s “lonely death, occurring on Christmas Day so far away from the city which he and his mob cohorts once held in their grip, is a regrettable testament to a life characterized by consistent cruelty and disregard.

“Most will find it challenging to muster much regret that this isolated ending now forms the final fragment of his legacy. He will be missed. But not by many,” said Funk, now in private practice at the law firm Perkins Coie.

At trial, Calabrese Sr. did not appreciate Funk’s blunt closing argument.

“You’re a f - - - - - - dead man,” Calabrese Sr. muttered at one point.

In 2009, a federal judge found Calabrese Sr. responsible for 13 murders as part of the historic Family Secrets mob case and sentenced him to life in prison. Because of the threat, Calabrese Sr. was held under the tightest security possible, usually reserved for terrorists.

Calabrese Sr. had testified in his own defense at trial — to disastrous effect with jurors.

At his sentencing — one of the most dramatic in recent memory — U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel called Calabrese’s crimes “unspeakable.”

One of his sons, Kurt Calabrese, testified as a victim, noting how his father would beat him “at a moment’s notice,” and how he had threatened to bite off his nose. The testimony prompted a memorable exchange between father and son.

“You better apologize for the lies you told,” Calabrese Sr. snapped at one point to his son.

On Wednesday, another of the hit man’s sons, Frank Calabrese Jr. ­— who risked his life and secretly recorded his father in prison as he bragged and laughed about mob murders — said he had “a lot of emotions” running through him.

“It’s very emotional right now because there were two sides to my dad, and I miss the good side,” Frank Calabrese Jr. said.

Calabrese Jr. was a key witness against his father at trial, along with Calabrese Sr.’s brother, Nicholas, who committed many of the murders with Frank Sr., but later decided to cooperate with the government and become a star witness at trial.

“I believe he was taken on Christmas Day for a reason,” Calabrese Jr. said. “I hope he made peace. I hope he’s up above looking down on us. . . . It’s always been hard for me that he had to be locked up like that. Then again, I didn’t forget a lot of the things that happened.”

One way or another, Calabrese Jr. said his father’s memory will remain with him.

“He’s either going to be haunting me or he’s going to be by my side,” Calabrese Jr. said.

Calabrese Sr. died on Christmas, which ironically was his favorite holiday, Lopez said.

“Christmas was his most beloved holiday,” Lopez recalled.

Lopez said Calabrese Sr. was a religious man who had a charming side, a man with “many different talents.”

“I don’t know if heaven has a gate for him, but I know he tried to make amends with God for the last 10 to 12 years,” Lopez said.

Lopez first met Calabrese Sr. about a decade ago, at the federal prison in Milan, Mich., as the Operation Family Secrets investigation was ramping up.

Calabrese asked Lopez if he believed in God, to which Lopez replied that he did. Calabrese said that was good, because they could never have a relationship if Lopez didn’t.

“This was a stubborn man,” Lopez said. “This was a guy who would never give up. . . . He prayed every day. He would never get depressed.”

Others, though, have questioned the sincerity of Calabrese Sr.’s religious side.

In 2011, despite the tight security for Calabrese Sr. , a priest was charged with passing messages for the mobster and helping him try to find a rare violin for him that had been hidden away.

While that violin was never found, the FBI did find a stash of jewelry and cash worth more than $1 million in a secret compartment behind a family portrait in Calabrese Sr.’s Oak Brook home, after he was sentenced to prison.

Lopez predicted that as word of the hit man’s death spreads: “A lot of people will be happy. A lot of people will be sad.”

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