Former cop guilty in murder plot, cleared in other case
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter February 21, 2014 1:36PM
Steve Mandell (left) leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2005 with his attorney Jon Loevy. | Sun-Times file photo
Updated: March 23, 2014 6:16AM
Former Chicago cop Steve Mandell dreamed that when it was all over, he’d be “the guy running down the beach with a smile on his face, and nobody knows why he’s smiling.”
Instead his nightmarish plot to butcher a suburban businessman in a specially built torture chamber means he’ll probably die behind the bars of a federal prison.
Convicted Friday of six felonies connected to that dastardly October 2012 plan, the 63-year-old now faces a likely life sentence.
Jurors’ decision to clear him of a second plot in which he allegedly had planned to murder an owner of an Outfit-linked strip club, won’t change that.
But his mesmerizing trial, which gripped courtroom watchers for two weeks with lurid tales of mobsters, genital mutilation and kidnap, served up one final twist Friday evening.
Just moments after the jury’s four-hour deliberations had come to an end and its verdict was announced, a juror who was being polled told Judge Amy St. Eve she didn’t agree with her fellow jurors’ decision to let Mandell skate on charges he planned to murder Polekatz strip club owner Anthony Quaranta and his wife.
In the confusion that followed, the jury was led from the courtroom, U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon huddled with his trial team, and the judge openly mulled declaring a mistrial.
But then the juror — who was of South Asian descent, and spoke with a thick accent — sent a note saying she’d misunderstood what was happening and that she agreed with the verdicts on all counts.
Mandell hung his head, knowing his fate was sealed.
It seemed an appropriately dramatic end to a roller coaster case, and, almost certainly, to Mandell’s long and colorful criminal career.
A onetime Death Row inmate, Mandell, of Buffalo Grove, is suspected of at least half-a-dozen unsolved murders going back nearly three decades. Sentenced to death for a 1990 murder, he was sensationally freed after that conviction was overturned, and in 2005 won a $6.5 million lawsuit for wrongful prosecution against the FBI, only to see that verdict also overturned on appeal.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Bob Holley Friday evening insisted the history of bad blood between the Mandell and the feds wasn’t behind the huge undercover effort to take down Mandell for good.
“Any pleasure I get from this is that an individual who was a threat to the community has now been found guilty of some very serious charges,” he said.
Evidence presented at trial however, demonstrated the lengths the FBI went to. More than 20 agents testified, and jurors saw video footage shot from an FBI surveillance airplane of Mandell as he drove around the northwest suburbs making his final preparations the day before he planned to abduct Riverside businessman Steve Campbell.
Most damning, though, was video shot on Oct. 25, 2012 — the day of the planned kidnap — by a hidden FBI camera, inside the torture chamber Mandell built on the Northwest side.
It showed Mandell and his accomplice, Gary Engel, laughing as they discussed how they’d slice Campbell’s penis into a “banana split” while they extorted him into signing over 25 buildings he owned, before killing him and chopping him up.
The meat cleaver and buzzsaw they planned to use for that macabre act were among the huge arsenal of torture implements and phony police IDs recovered from the chamber on the 5300 block of West Devon, which Mandell nicknamed “Club Med” in a move emblematic of his dark sense of humor.
The footage of Mandell and Engel inside “Club Med” was “so chilling, so grim, so progressively sad,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane McArthur told jurors during a powerful closing argument earlier Friday.
“Life is a gift to be valued,” she said. “But for Steve Mandell in 2012, it was something to be squeezed and drained.”
Defense attorney Keith Spielfogel had attempted to paint the murder plots as an elaborate “hoax” during his closing argument, claiming Mandell was trying to con the government’s wealthy but shady star witness George Michael out of cash by going along with the plots.
Michael, who was introduced to Mandell by alleged Outfit associates in the summer of 2012, risked his life by wearing a wire that provided hours of devastating evidence against Mandell.
Faced with that overwhelming evidence, Spielfogel couldn’t convince jurors that Michael was to blame for the plot to kill Campbell. But he successfully argued that prosecutors hadn’t proved Mandell’s “intent” to follow through on the second plot to kill Quaranta and his wife and seize control of Polekatz.
Michael had for years tried to seize control of Polekatz by fighting Quaranta in court, and Spielfogel expertly ridiculed the idea that Mandell could have met Michael “and within a week or two he’s telling him he’s going to kill his nemesis.”
Prosecutor Amar Bhachu had the last laugh, though, getting jurors to chuckle along with him as he called Mandell’s testimony that he was seconds away from backing out of the plot to kill Campbell when he was arrested, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“Killing is that man’s specialty,” he said, jabbing his thumb towards the soon to be doomed Mandell.
Speaking after the verdict, his boss, Fardon, preferred understatement.
“I hope people in the Chicago community sleep well every night knowing that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in this district are as professional as they are,” he said.
Mandell is due to be sentenced June 19.
His accomplice, Engel, hanged himself soon after their arrest.
Contributing; Tina Sfondeles