CHICAGO -- Frank Calabrese Sr. would seem to have plenty to talk to a priest about.
The feared Outfit hit man is serving a life sentence for killing more than a dozen people -- a conviction based largely on testimony from his own brother and son at the landmark Family Secrets trial.
Since his conviction, investigators have liquidated much of his ill-gained wealth, even finding nearly $1 million in cash and jewels hidden behind the walls of his former suburban home. Inside federal prison, the 74-year-old mobster lives in extraordinary solitude, forbidden from speaking to other inmates or guards because of allegations he tried to have a federal prosecutor killed for putting him there.
On Thursday prosecutors alleged that Calabrese used those rare moments of human contact to entice a most unlikely target to join in his criminal schemes -- the Rev. Eugene Klein, then chaplain and one of very few people allowed to speak to Calabrese at the federal prison in Springfield, Mo.
Klein, 62, was charged with delivering messages that Calabrese had secretly passed him through his food slot and even helping with a plot to steal an 18th century violin hidden in Calabrese's former vacation home in Wisconsin.
"There are a lot of unprecedented parts of this case. This is another one," retired FBI agent James Wagner said of the Family Secrets investigation. "I would guess this is not the first time this has happened, but this is the first time I can remember a priest getting indicted for it."
Prosecutors' tale of a corrupted man of the cloth is just the latest chapter in a case that has been filled with unlikely twists. Operation Family Secrets began when Calabrese's son, Frank Jr., turned against him and wore a hidden wire for the FBI as he conferred with his father in prison.
As the investigation deepened, a federal marshal protecting another high-ranking turncoat, Calabrese's brother, Nick, was discovered feeding information to the mob.
The Family Secrets trial riveted Chicago in the summer of 2007 with its gruesome details of decades-old gangland slayings. During closing arguments, Calabrese allegedly mouthed a death threat toward Assistant U.S. Attorney Markus Funk and then at his sentencing shouted at another son, Kurt, when he accused his father of lifelong physical abuse.
Calabrese's attorney, Joseph Lopez, who denies his client threatened the prosecutor, said the attorney general in 2008 ordered that Calabrese be confined in prison under "Special Administrative Measures," or SAMs. The highly restrictive conditions are reserved for just 42 of the more than 200,000 federal inmates nationwide, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
"He can only talk to his lawyers, his doctors, the warden and his priest," said Lopez, who indicated Calabrese had never met Klein before entering prison.
"Frank is just a very persuasive person," Lopez said Thursday. "He's a charismatic man. He's a strong-willed individual. He can do what he wants to do, come hell or high water."
Before the start of the special conditions, prosecutors have said, Calabrese talked with co-defendant Anthony "Twan" Doyle about his plan to harm Funk and also passed messages to associates through his wife. In a bid to seize Calabrese's assets so the survivors of his 13 murder victims could be compensated financially, federal agents raided his former home in Oak Brook last year and discovered a cache of guns, $750,000 in cash, jewelry and loose diamonds behind a hidden panel.
According to Thursday's charges, Klein was recruited by Calabrese during prison visits to help search for a violin the mobster thought was a Stradivarius worth millions and was hidden inside his former vacation home in Willow Bay, Wis. Since the house was up for sale by the government to pay a $4.4 million judgment Calabrese owes his victim's relatives. Klein was to meet up with two Calabrese associates and pose as prospective buyers, the charges alleged. While one of them distracted the realtor during a tour of the home, Klein and the third individual planned to search for the violin, authorities said.
Lopez said the violin had belonged to Calabrese's father, and before that, Liberace. Frank Calabrese Jr., who was also reached by phone Thursday, said he recalled his father talking about the violin and believed it was collateral for a juice loan from the early 1990s.
The younger Calabrese said authorities questioned him recently about the violin's whereabouts as well as how his father still seemed able to get messages to associates outside prison.
"(They) asked if I had it," Calabrese said. "...I was told if I did have it and tried to sell it, there would be a problem. I told them I don't have it."
In searching Calabrese's home in Oak Brook last year, federal agents found paperwork concerning a rare violin. The certificate had a "Stradivari" emblem on it, but a description indicated the violin was actually made in 1764 by a less-famous artisan, authorities said.
In March, Calabrese told Klein about the violin, and Klein agreed to travel to Illinois to meet with the two undisclosed associates of the mobster, the charges alleged. On March 7, Calabrese allegedly passed Klein a handwritten note through the food slot in Calabrese's cell -- a note that listed several questions for one of the associates and the location of the violin.
Klein met the two associates in Barrington in April to discuss finding the violin, and Klein made an appointment to visit the house with a realtor. It is not clear from the indictment whether Klein and the others kept the appointment or made the search, but Klein called the realtor to set up a viewing. The house sold in April for $285,000.
Bureau of Prisons records indicate Klein's last day as chaplain was May 31. Diocese officials said he held the post since 2006. Calls to Klein's residence in Springfield, Mo., were not returned, and relatives also did not respond to interview requests.
Klein, a priest for nearly 40 years, will likely face arraignment next week in federal court in Chicago.
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