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Informant says Outfit burglar bragged of murder, but autopsy raises questions

Robert Panozzo Sr.

Robert Panozzo Sr.

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Updated: September 10, 2014 6:04AM

Did reputed Outfit burglar Robert “Bobby” Panozzo really kill an elderly lady by tossing her down her stairs again and again and again?

According to a government informant, cited in a court filing, Panozzo claimed he pushed the woman down the stairs three times until she died after he and a pal conned her into signing over her property.

Panozzo supposedly joked about how hard it was to kill an elderly woman.

But Cook County medical examiner’s records say the woman — Lydia Minnici — died of natural causes on Dec. 17, 1987, in her home at 2347 W. Ohio. She didn’t have a bruise on her body, according to an autopsy report reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Investigators are now left to sort out whether the informant’s harrowing tale is true.

It was included in a 63-page affidavit a Chicago Police detective filed in Cook County Criminal Court last month to obtain a warrant to search the homes of Panozzo and four other defendants in a racketeering investigation.

Panozzo, 54, and co-defendant Paul Koroluk, 55, are allegedly tied to Albert “Little Guy” Vena, the reputed capo of the Grand Avenue mob. They’re considered leaders of a crew involved in murder, drug rip-offs, insurance fraud, kidnapping and prostitution, Cook County prosecutors say.

The brazen Panozzo-Koroluk crew even burglarized police officers’ homes to steal badges they later used to pose as cops while committing other crimes, the affidavit said. But one of the most stunning allegations in the case — dubbed Operation Crew Cut — involves Minnici’s supposed murder, which investigators haven’t confirmed, sources say.

Cook County property records show she signed a quit-claim deed on Oct. 19, 1987, giving Panozzo’s friend Steven Brantner the right to take possession of the home when she died. When she died almost two months later, Brantner became the owner.

The autopsy report said Minnici died of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease — heart disease. She “was found unresponsive in bed, demonstrating no skin bruising,” the report said.

According to medical examiner’s records, an unidentified friend found her body in bed and called 911. She was wearing brown trousers, two shirts and brown socks.

Minnici was just 4-foot-6 and weighed only 75 pounds with her clothes on. Investigators were unable to locate any of Minnici’s family members. A neighbor described her as a “loner” who lived in the building for about 1½ years.

Minnici was “somewhat older looking than the stated age of 58 years,” the autopsy report said. Other public records list her as being either 77 or 88 when she died.

Brantner, a convicted burglar, was killed almost four years after Minnici died. On Oct. 14, 1991, he was shot twice in the chest at 2035 W. Ohio in the Chicago Outfit stronghold called “The Patch.”

Medical examiner records say Panozzo discovered Brantner’s body lying in the street and drove him to the hospital. The records described Panozzo as a friend of the 33-year-old Brantner.

Brantner, who was dressed in a black jacket, a black T-shirt and blue jeans when he was killed, had about $23 in his pockets. He also had “multiple possible chronic needle tracks” on his arms, indicating he was a heroin user.

Medical examiner’s records said Brantner was a property rehabber, but sources said he was a narcotics addict and dealer. He may have been killed in a dispute over a “street tax” mobsters were charging him on his drug sales, sources said. No one was arrested in his murder.

Sources say the informant who provided the story about Minnici’s death is Jeffrey Hollinghead — listed in the case as “Individual H,” who was facing kidnapping charges when he decided to cooperate with investigators against Panozzo and the rest of the alleged crew.

Hollinghead was arrested in 2009 for his role in kidnapping a wheelchair-bound gang member to obtain a ransom. He was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison.

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