Ex-Chicago cop has an answer for everything at murder plot trial
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter February 20, 2014 1:27PM
Updated: March 22, 2014 6:25AM
In the end, it was the cucumber salad that did Steve Mandell in.
He had sat calmly in court for two weeks, watching secretly recorded videos and tapes of himself discussing a gruesome trio of murder plots in a torture chamber he had built.
He had smiled at a surveillance film, shot from an FBI airplane, of himself planting a bug and destroying evidence, knowing it could doom him to life in prison.
And on Thursday, he spent more than an hour confidently sparring with prosecutors, telling jurors that charges that he planned to murder strip club owner Tony Quaranta and his wife and to kill Riverside businessman Steve Campbell were “preposterous and ridiculous!”
But as his dramatic testimony came to a close, the former Chicago cop and onetime Death Row resident broke down in tears on the stand Thursday afternoon as his attorney read a prison letter in which Mandell had described his 83-year-old wife’s “gourmet” cooking and “incredible salads” made with “cucumber and dill.”
It was a fittingly bizarre end to evidence in one of the wildest trials heard in Chicago’s federal court in years.
Mandell, 63, of Buffalo Grove, took a risk that defendants rarely take by testifying. But the weight of evidence against him left few options.
And he had an explanation for almost everything.
Knives, a meat cleaver, Ambien sleeping pills, handcuffs and other tools that the FBI found at “Club Med,” the torture chamber he built on the Northwest Side in late 2012, were “props for a supposed killing that was never going to happen.”
Videos of Mandell inside the torture chamber — shot with a hidden FBI camera on the day he allegedly planned to abduct and torture Campbell into turning over 25 properties, then kill and butcher him — showed him “role playing” with his alleged accomplice, Gary Engel, he said.
Mandell and Engel didn’t know the FBI was watching, Mandell admitted. But they believed the government’s star witness, real estate mogul George Michael, was watching via a hidden camera, so they put on a “show” to con him out of money, Mandell said.
Michael, who testified last week, was paying Mandell to spy on business rivals, including Quaranta, from whom he was “obsessively” trying to wrest control of Polekatz strip club, and Chaim Kohanchi, a banker to whom Michael owed $11 million, Mandell said.
He had been introduced to Michael by Michael Swiatek — an Outfit associate, according to the government — and planned to steal from Michael by overbilling him for spying and by stringing him along with the murder plots, Mandell said.
He used his unpaid job at civil rights law firm Loevy and Loevy to research Michael’s rivals, he said.
But when Michael gave him a gun, Mandell got cold feet, he claimed. He was driving to Michael’s office to tell him the plot was “over with” when he and Engel were arrested by the FBI, he said.
“No way, no how” would he actually have killed Campbell, he boomed.
“Not in a million years” would he ever have actually killed Quaranta.
Mandell ridiculed his own secretly taped claims that he sought approval from Outfit bosses to kill Polekatz’s owners, then seize control of the Bridgeview club.
“I wouldn’t know who to go to,” he laughed.
“What, go out on the street, ask someone to serve up a mobster?” Mandell said. “I mean, how crazy is that?”
Under cross-examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney Amar Bhachu, though, he admitted he dined regularly with Albert Vena, the reputed boss of the Outfit’s Grand Avenue crew, and had written a letter to a pal from prison calling Michael a “cheese eating rat.”
He also struggled to explain why he called his wife from prison and asked her to “clean up” his alleged getaway car, tearing up as he testified about her old age and health problems.
And Bhachu seemed to have the better of several exchanges in which he questioned Mandell’s honesty.
In one, Bhachu read back a transcript of Mandell coaching Michael how to lie to the FBI, then asked Mandell, “only an idiot would admit he’s guilty of a crime, right? You’re not an idiot are you?”
Mandell replied, “No, at least, not completely.”
Jurors will soon decide if Mandell — who was sent to Death Row for a 1990 murder, only to have that conviction overturned on appeal — is telling the truth.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Friday.