‘Nightmares never stopped’ for son of mobster Frank Calabrese Sr.
BY STEVE WARMBIR Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org January 27, 2013 7:46PM
Kurt Calabrese in Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 1, 2013 7:07PM
The son had to see his father’s remains.
His father had haunted him his entire life, first when he was a child with routine beatings and belittlings, then later as an adult, with more of the same but with greater intensity, culminating in bullying him into a family business he wanted nothing to do with.
Even after his father had been held responsible for 13 mob murders in a historic trial in Chicago and had been sent hundreds of miles away to be locked up in the tightest security possible, Kurt Calabrese still couldn’t escape his father, Frank Calabrese Sr.
His father lingered in his memories.
And he never left his nightmares.
“The nightmares have never stopped,” Kurt Calabrese told the Sun-Times in a recent interview, his first extensive remarks after the death of his father on Christmas Day at the age of 75.
Calabrese Sr. died from heart disease after spending much of his life making millions of dollars for the mob and terrorizing people wherever he went, from street corners to the corner bar to his own kitchen table.
His downfall was how he abused his family. His oldest son, Frank Calabrese Jr., decided he would cooperate with the FBI and secretly record his father while both were in prison on a juice loan case, a prosecution that would also land Kurt Calabrese behind bars for playing a minor role.
Frank Calabrese Sr.’s brother, Nick, who also committed murders for the mob, some with his brother, also testified against Calabrese Sr. at the Family Secrets trials.
Kurt Calabrese, 51, did not testify, even though his father tried to bully him into doing so.
But he did speak at his father’s sentencing hearing, as a victim, in January 2009.
It was the last time he would see his father, and it did not go well.
Kurt Calabrese described to the court how his father would beat him at a moment’s notice.
In court, Frank Calabrese Sr. scoffed at his son, said he had been treated like “a king” and demanded he apologize.
A federal judge found nothing Frank Calabrese Sr. said credible and sentenced him to life in prison.
Kurt Calabrese reached out to his father while in prison, to talk to him, but he was having none of it.
Then, just after Christmas last month , with a phone call from the federal Bureau of Prisons, it fell to Kurt Calabrese to decide whether he wanted to step up and take responsibility for disposing of his father’s remains.
His father had made millions for the mob, developed so much influence, but no one had bothered to make arrangements for what to do with the dead mobster’s body.
Frank Calabrese Jr. got the first call from the feds, and he passed on the job.
So next up was Kurt Calabrese.
He didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t believe no one had set up the details beforehand.
Kurt Calabrese had long stopped considering Frank Calabrese Sr. much of a father.
He wasn’t interested in paying his respects. Throughout his life, Frank Calabrese Sr. often confused fear and respect, especially when dealing with his son, Kurt.
Kurt Calabrese felt he had no compassion left for the man.
But he had unfinished business with him.
And if he didn’t take responsibility for his father’s remains, he would never get the chance to complete it.
So on a recent Saturday, he took a flight to Raleigh-Durham Airport, N.C., to see the body of his father one last time and have a conversation with him that he could never have with him when he was alive.
“I don’t want to say I needed to see him dead,” Calabrese said.
“I didn’t want to do this. I had to have some sort of closure to this. I needed to see the body.”
He had been warned over the phone by federal prison officials that his father’s body had deteriorated in the few weeks after he had died. No mortician had worked his magic to make his father look good. Kurt Calabrese said he understood.
From the airport, he hopped into a cab and went to a ranch home doubling as a mortuary that was near Duke University.
The red front door was already open, and he walked inside.
Two men were waiting to greet him. The mortician and an official from the Bureau of Prisons.
Again, they told him his father’s remains had deteriorated.
They made him sign a paper, acknowledging he had been notified of that fact.
Are you ready, they asked him.
Kurt Calabrese said he was.
They walked him into a room with several bodies, covered up and laid out on long tables. The two men left to give him time alone.
One body was covered up with an old blue blanket up to the chest.
On the body was a piece of white paper with a name written across it in black marker.
Frank Calabrese, it said.
“I was shocked to see him, still knowing it wasn’t going to be pretty,” Kurt Calabrese said.
His lips were puffy, his head was scabbed, his chin and cheeks covered in white stubble.
In life, Frank Calabrese Sr. had always taken care of himself and worked to look good.
On the table, he looked like a homeless man, Kurt Calabrese said.
“And that’s not how I wanted to remember my father.”
Calabrese started to get upset for other reasons as well, and started having feelings he didn’t expect to have.
At first, he didn’t want to get close to the body. But there appeared to be water — it looked like a tear — coming out of his right eye.
It made Calabrese think about a time in 1980, when he was walking the family’s two German shepherds outside the family home, and his father came out to walk and talk with him.
“We never had a relationship where we would walk and talk,” Calabrese said.
Frank Calabrese Sr. told him how his own father was dying of cancer, and there was nothing Calabrese Sr. could do about it.
His father had tears in his eyes, Kurt Calabrese recalled.
It was the only time he can remember when his father actually talked to him like a son.
The memory upset him, Kurt Calabrese said. “I wished I had times like that when he would talk to me. I saw a human side, I hadn’t seen before or since.”
In the mortuary, Kurt Calabrese needed to get some things off his chest, so he started talking to his father. He’s not a religious person, but he hoped his father somehow heard him, he said. Near his father’s head was a large cross on a stand.
“I asked him to let go,” Kurt Calabrese said.
“To let the people he’s affected in his life have some peace. Me, my family, my mother, the victims’ families, everyone.”
Kurt Calabrese figured he’d spend about 15 minutes with the body.
He would up spending about an hour, he said.
He got to have a conversation with his father he had never had the chance to do in real life.
“He didn’t stop me. He didn’t cut me off. He didn’t interrupt me. He didn’t throw something at me or try to hurt me. It’s not him yelling and screaming at me.”
He asked his father why they couldn’t have a normal father-son relationship.
He asked his father if he hadn’t been a good, loyal son.
“I want to believe he heard me. I want to believe that down the line, he will realize that I was a good son, and that he wasn’t a great father,” Calabrese said.
Something surprised him as he stood talking to his father.
“I didn’t feel I had any more compassion for my father,” Calabrese said. “I had a lot more compassion left.”
The visit accomplished something else important for himself, he said.
He’s beginning to forgive his father for what he did to him — the beatings, the mental torture, the bullying.
“Forgetting it, that’s another story. Forgiving, I have to. I need to be the best dad I can be, and I can’t do that with having hatred for my father,” Calabrese said.
When Frank Calabrese Sr. was alive, he was sucking the life out of his son.
Now, Kurt Calabrese feels like he’s starting to get his life back.
“This is the way I needed to handle it,” he said. “Just to close it.”
For his entire life, Frank Calabrese Sr. tried to control every aspect of his son’s life.
In the end, in front of the body of his father, Kurt Calabrese made his own decision and found some way to find some measure of pity for the man who had tried to destroy him.
“Every day brings a different emotion, in a good way,” Calabrese said.
His nightmares, for now, are gone.
Frank Calabrese Sr. was cremated.
Kurt Calabrese doesn’t know what he will do with the ashes.