Murder-extortion suspect blasé while checking out torture chamber
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter February 13, 2014 8:16PM
Steve Mandell (left) leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2005 with his attorney Jon Loevy. | Sun-Times file photo
Updated: March 15, 2014 6:35AM
There were just two days left until the murder was supposed to go down, and Gary Engel wasn’t impressed with the torture chamber that had been built for the sinister plot.
“Does it got cable?,” the former Willow Springs cop sniffed as he toured the dark chamber his alleged accomplice Steve Mandell had designed for him on the Northwest Side.
The lack of TV options wasn’t the only thing that failed to meet Engel’s standards, according to a video that was filmed with a hidden FBI camera inside the torture chamber on Oct. 23, 2012, and screened Thursday for federal court jurors during the third day of Mandell’s double murder-plot trial.
“Look at this b------- plumbing,” Engel complained to Mandell about the pipes that ran from the sink the Feds say Engel and Mandell planned to use to drain a murder victim’s blood.
Engel, 61, hanged himself in McHenry County Jail soon after he and Mandell were arrested by the FBI.
They were nabbed just moments before they were allegedly about to abduct Riverside businessman Steve Campbell, bring him to the torture chamber, then extort him into turning over 25 buildings he owned, and kill him.
But the chilling video may prove the most damaging piece of evidence to the 62-year-old Mandell’s defense — that the plots to kill Campbell and Polekatz strip club owner Tony Quaranta that he was caught discussing on other tapes with informant George Michael were all “BS.”
Mandell’s attorney Keith Spielfogel told jurors on Tuesday that Mandell was simply trying to con the government’s key witness out of cash and would never have followed through on the “fantasy” plot.
But Michael says he never met Engel, and he isn’t in the video of Engel touring the torture chamber.
Nor does Michael appear in a video shot on the eve of the planned abduction, in which an unaccompanied Mandell appears to give the torture chamber, nicknamed “Club Med,” a final prep.
Though it isn’t clear on the video what is in the bags Mandell unpacked in the dark room, the Feds say they found a meat cleaver, Ambien sleeping pills and a switchblade when they raided “Club Med” the next day.
Despite the grisly content, the videos played Thursday had plenty of moments of dark comedy.
In one, Mandell tries to mollify Engel, telling him the problems at “Club Med” are the fault of “F------ alcoholic workers” who always “call in sick.”
And the videos may have stolen the limelight from what had been expected to be the theatrical centerpiece of Thursday’s testimony — Spielfogel’s cross-examination of Michael.
The defense attorney scored points by forcing Michael to go over details of how he cheated on his Lake Bluff property taxes by claiming his lakefront mansion was an Armenian church, and how he’d been booted out of the banking industry for dishonest practices.
And Spielfogel suggested that Michael had directed Mandell to tail Michael’s business rivals, including a banker to whom Michael owed $11 million, and that he’d ignored the directions of his FBI handler.
He also ridiculed Michael’s allegation that Mandell planned to risk the ire of the Chicago Outfit by killing Quaranta and seizing control of Polekatz, sarcastically asking Michael if Mandell had a “suicide wish.”
But Michael made a new disturbing allegation Thursday — that Mandell also planned to kill Campbell’s college-age daughter.
And Assistant U.S. Attorney Amar Bhachu allowed Michael a dramatic final say.
Bhachu asked Michael whether it was he who had brought a meat cleaver, Ambien, and a switchblade to the torture chamber.
“No sir,” Michael answered each time.