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Priest charged with running mob killer’s treasure hunt for violin

Eugene Kle(right) was charged with one count conspiracy defraud United States one count attempting transfer Frank Calabrese Sr.’s (left) personal

Eugene Klein (right) was charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and one count of attempting to transfer Frank Calabrese Sr.’s (left) personal property to prevent its seizure by the government in a two-count indictment returned late Wednesday by a federal grand jury.

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Updated: August 3, 2011 6:35PM

A mob hitman who killed 13 people, held under the tightest prison security.

A Catholic priest who traveled the world doing different jobs but who found work he loved tending to some of the most brutal men alive, behind bars.

And a scramble for a rare violin, hidden by the hitman and maybe worth millions. Or maybe not.

Those were some of the startling details behind criminal charges revealed Thursday against former prison chaplain Eugene Klein, who is charged with passing messages for prolific mob hitman Frank Calabrese Sr. — out of what is supposed to be the tightest prison security possible in the nation.

Klein then allegedly led a treasure hunt with two Calabrese pals for the violin, which Calabrese Sr. had called a Stradivarius. He had kept it as collateral for a juice loan, then stashed it in his Wisconsin vacation home. Calabrese Sr. worried the feds would find it.

The charges against Klein, who turns 63 Friday, stunned those who knew him as a big-hearted, funny priest around the Springfield, Mo., area. Klein treasured his job as a chaplain at the high-security prison medical facility, where he came across Calabrese, New York mob boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric who plotted a series of bombings in New York.

Klein is “just a wonderful man,” said Tina Mallian, 80, who was to have lunch with the priest on Tuesday with her women’s church group. But Klein never showed.

He is expected to appear next week in federal court in Chicago. In the case prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu, Klein faces charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and attempting to transfer Calabrese Sr.’s property before the feds could seize it to help satisfy a $4.4 million judgment.

Klein knew Calabrese Sr. was under special security imposed after the mob killer threatened to murder a prosecutor, authorities said. That meant that only Calabrese Sr.’s attorney, his chaplain and a few family members could see him. Except for legal communications, any message from Calabrese Sr., could come under the scrutiny to prevent him from plotting from prison.

But that’s exactly what happened with the priest’s help, the feds say.

Klein had regular access to Calabrese Sr. — and the mobster had found religion.

In March, through the food slot in his prison cell, Calabrese Sr. passed the priest a map of where the violin was supposedly hidden in Calabrese Sr.’s former vacation home in Williams Bay, Wisc., authorities said. The feds had already seized and searched the home.

In April, Klein allegedly met in suburban Chicago with two Calabrese friends, a successful northwest suburban restaurateur and a private investigator, to hatch a plan to get the violin. Neither friend was charged nor named by the feds.

Klein allegedly called a realtor, pretending to be a buyer for the house so the men could get in and conduct a search.

It’s unclear what happened to the violin, or if it was a Stradivarius.

In a search of Calabrese’s Oak Brook home in 2010, agents found documentation on a violin made in 1764 by Giuseppe Antonio Artalli.

Attorney Joseph “The Shark” Lopez said his former client, Calabrese Sr., referred to a violin he owned as “Liberace’s violin,” but Lopez had no idea what he meant.

“With Frank, it could be code for anything,” Lopez said.

Liberace, of course, played the piano. His brother, George, played the violin.

Lopez blasted the feds for charging a priest, saying, “What an unholy thing to do.”

Frank Calabrese Sr.’s son Frank Jr. recalled Thursday that his father decades ago referred to a violin, perhaps worth $70,000 then, that he had received as collateral. Calabrese Jr., who testified against his father and help send him to prison, said he was concerned his father got messages out but was not surprised since his father had conned another chaplain years ago into letting him use an unmonitored phone.

“Every time something like this comes up, I tell them he’s a very dangerous and manipulative person,” said Calabrese Jr., who wrote a best-selling book on his father and is now a motivational speaker.

The priest, Klein, lived modestly, and seemed to have no hunger for riches. His older brother, Jay Klein, visited him just a few months ago, and had never seen him happier.

Eugene Klein was ordained in May 1974 and is a priest assigned to a Minnesota diocese. He was considered a visiting priest in Missouri, even though he had been a chaplain there since May 2006.

Klein took a sabbatical for more than two decades from the priesthood for personal reasons not believed to be related to misconduct. He entered the Navy, later delivered Winnebagos, ran a bowling alley in Georgia, worked in Korea and Italy on slot machines on military installations, and toiled on a family peach farm before returning to the priesthood, his brother said.

Eugene Klein told everyone how satisfying his chaplain job was, even talking to church groups about it.

A person identifying himself as prison chaplain Eugene Klein wrote a website comment disputing a New York Daily News story in 2007 that portrayed the prison death of the mobster Gigante as lonely.

“It’s a special privilege I have working with each and every inmate in this institution — you never know the story unless you are actually HERE!” the comment reads.

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