Chicago Sun-Times
Inside the Family Secrets mob trial with Sun-Times reporter Steve Warmbir

November 2010 Archives

A federal judge reversed himself Wednesday, ruling that prosecutors could not bring out the alleged organized crime ties of reputed Cicero street crime boss Michael Sarno, despite Sarno's defense attorney opening the door for such at attack.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman ruled that such an admission could unfairly tar the four other defendants in the case.

Guzman had earlier ruled that prosecutors could not elicit information about the Outfit from their witnesses, unless defense attorneys aggressively questioned any witness on his expressed fear of Sarno.

Sarno's attorney, Terry Gillespie, did just that with prosecution star witness, Mark Hay, the judge ruled. The judge later considered that it wouldn't be fair for the other defendants to be splashed with the allegation of mob ties aimed at Sarno.

Prosecutors had suggested a conservative approach of following-up with Hay, concerning his fears over Sarno, with Hay expected to testify he knew Sarno was reputed to have the power to order people to go hurt him. But the judge ruled prosecutors would have to delve into why Hay believed that, and that would, inevitably, bring up organized crime.

On Tuesday, a federal judge indicated he would allow jurors to hear testimony linking reputed Cicero Outfit boss Michael Sarno to organized crime.

So far, jurors have not heard any evidence tying Sarno to the mob. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Guzman made the ruling out of fairness to Sarno, as long as defense attorneys did not strongly challenge the credibility of any witness testimony that they were afraid of Sarno.

In that instance, prosecutors would be able to elicit to Sarno's reputed ties to organized crime to explain why someone might be afraid of the man dubbed "The Large Guy."

On Tuesday, the judge indicated that Sarno's attorney, Terry Gillespie, opened the door when he cross-examined the government's star witness, Mark Hay.

Sparks flew this week between an attorney for Michael Sarno and Sarno's alleged victim when he took the witness stand.

Vincent Dublino, who acknowledges he still leases illegal video poker machines to bars, engaged in verbal combat with Sarno's veteran defense attorney, Terry Gillespie, as Gillespie tried to undermine Dublino's stories about being threatened by his client.

Dublino said that in summer 2002, Sarno accosted him outside the Berwyn bar that Dublino owned, called Forget About It, as Dublino was working to put his video poker machines into a business where Sarno already had his machines.

Dublino recalled that Sarno pulled up and screamed at him: "I want to talk to you, you f------ punk."

Dublino testified he swore at Sarno, then went across the street to talk to him.

"I swore at him because he called me a f------ punk," Dublino explained in the normally profanity-free environment of a federal courtroom in Chicago.

Sarno warned him not to put his machines in a restaurant in Lyons, but Dublino said he balked.

"I don't work for you. You go f--- yourself, fat ass," Dublino said he responded.

Gillespie approached Dublino on the witness stand and asked Dublino to simulate between the two of them how close Sarno supposedly was to Dublino during the argument.

Dublino hopped off his chair, and Gillespie went behind the witness stand, so there was no barrier in the way and the two men could stand toe-to-toe.

Dublino suggested Gillespie stand behind the witness chair and Dublino stand on a step below, since Sarno is quite a few inches taller than the 5-foot-9 Dublino.

Dublino then repeated for Gillespie what he told Sarno.

"You go f--- yourself," Dublino said, with great emphasis, before amending his testimony.

"I called him fat ass. I forgot."

Dublino agreed that Sarno never touched him or threatened him after the argument.

"Did he say 'go f--- yourself, shorty?' " Gillespie asked Dublino.

"No," Dublino said.

"Did he say go 'f' yourself, skinny?'" Gillespie asked.

"No," Dublino replied.

Later on, federal prosecutor Amarjeet Bhachu asked Dublino if Sarno needed to touch him to get his point across.

"No," Dublino said.

Dublino said he was scared of Sarno, but Gillespie pointed out that Dublino had bought a home only a half block away from where Sarno lives in the west suburbs.

Dublino, whose testimony was compelled by a grant of immunity, acknowledged walking his dog, Enzo, in the neighborhood and seeing Sarno but said he had no idea Sarno lived in the neighborhood when he bought the house.

In February 2003, Dublino's video poker machine business in Berwyn was destroyed in a pipe-bombing the feds link to Sarno, who is on trial with four other men.

Dublino indicated at trial that various people had tried to intimidate him, but none mentioned Sarno's name.

When he was competing with Sarno, he indicated he got threatening phone calls, including one caller who threatened to put him "in a box."

Another time, two men came into his bar and threatened to have the clocks run backwards. Dublino was not allowed to explain to the jury what he thought that meant.

Well after the bombing, when the criminal investigation into it got some publicity, a group of bikers came into his bar, which did not cater to that clientele, he said. One man, who identified himself as Big Pete, went into the women's restroom and yanked open the door of a stall with a woman inside, shocking her. Dublino testified he got into an argument with Big Pete. The group eventually left without hurting anyone.

On Friday, key prosecution witness Mark Hay, a career burglar, hit the stand to detail his role in a crew that hit jewelry stores and which sold its goods allegedly to Mark Polchan, another defendant on trial with Sarno.

The Sarno trial so far

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The trial is getting off to a deliberate -- some might say slow -- start as prosecutors call a series of bar owners who essentially are testifying to essentially the same facts.

They operated a few video gaming machines in their bar and paid out on them illegally while also cheating on their taxes. Bringing in the machines, servicing them and doing weekly or bi-weekly collections was Casey Szaflarksi, the witnesses say.

Szaflarksi's defense is that while he may have dealt with money, he never told anyone to pay out from the machine and never approved such payouts.

On Monday, the defense opening statements contained some colorful details and statements. You can check the Sun-Times story out here.

The Sarno trial on Monday

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On Monday, the trial will begin with the opening statements of the attorney for Mark Polchan, Damon Cheronis, a rising star in the Chicago defense bar.

Polchan is a member of the Outlaw motorcycle club and allegedly played multiple roles in the racketeering conspiracy he is charged with. He ran a pawnshop in Cicero, which prosecutors allege was the base of operations for a robbery crew. Polchan is accused of helping oversee jewelry store robberies and fencing the stolen goods. He also stands accused of working with the reputed head of the Cicero mob street crew, Michael Sarno, to put video poker machines in the Cicero area. When one business began competing with Sarno's machines, Polchan allegedly helped bomb the building.

The FBI put a bug in Polchan's pawnshop, so expect the jurors to hear recordings of Polchan as he goes about his criminal business -- at least that's what the prosecution will argue.

Polchan's attorney will take about an hour to do his opening. Expect him to note to the jury the credibility of the government's main witnesses, many of who are criminals themselves.

The Sarno trial on Friday

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Mark Polchan, a reputed fence for stolen goods and an Outlaw motorcycle gang leader, had asked an employee to send a money order to a burglar in prison that Polchan suspected was ratting him out, a federal prosecutor said Friday.

Polchan, of course, didn't want to be tied to the $50 money order, so he was none too happy when he learned his employee had put Polchan's name on it.

"Are you f------ retarded or what?" Polchan asked his employee, according to a transcript of the conversation from a FBI bug in Polchan's pawnshop business in Cicero.

"You told me to put it on there," the employee said.

"I didn't say put my f------ name on there. What the f--- is wrong with you?" Polchan asked, worried he could be accused of tampering with a witness.

A federal prosecutor on Friday described a crew of men, including Polchan, and reputed Cicero street crew boss Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno, who are on trial for racketeering conspiracy involving a host of crimes, from jewelry store burglaries to an illegal video poker empire of more than 100 machines -- all helped along by crooked suburban cops on the lookout for nosy FBI agents. Also on trial is Casey Szaflarski who is charged with running the video poker empire day-to-day.

"It was an enterprise ruthlessly devoted to making money," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Donovan told jurors Friday in his opening statement in the trial of five men.

A Berwyn business began providing video poker machines to bars in the territory controlled by Sarno. Sarno asked the owner to stop, and when the owner refused, Sarno was "very angry about it," Donovan said.

So the business was blown up, prosecutors say.

While the prosecutor described a violent crew to jurors, he did not paint a picture of criminal masterminds. One of the reputed burglars on trial, Anthony Volpendesto, allegedly blew his nose in a tissue at the crime scene and late was connected by DNA evidence.

The trial continues Monday with attorneys for the defendants making their opening statements.

Joseph Jerry "The Monk" Scalise and his friends were caught on about 469 secretly recorded conversations by the FBI from March 17 to April 8 this year, according to a new court filing in Scalise's criminal case.

Scalise is charged with two cohorts, Robert Pullia and Arthur "The Genius" Rachel -- all of them senior citizens -- with allegedly planning to rob an armored car outside a bank in LaGrange. One of the critical elements of the government's case is hours of recorded conversations the men had while driving around in Scalise's van, which the FBI had bugged. Some of the conversations last but a few seconds; the longest stretches three and a half hours.

The new details came to a light in a court filing by attorneys for the men asking the government to produce transcripts of the conversations they intend to use at trial, so the defense has time to prepare.

The chief judge of the federal court in Chicago signed the order on March 5 this year, allowing the government to bug both Scalise's van and Pullia's vehicle, but agents were unable to put a listening device in Pullia's vehicle.

Regular readers of the blog will recall that mobbed-up thief Scalise is well known for stealing the Marlborough Diamond in England with Rachel and later acted as a consultant to Michael Mann for his move, "Public Enemies," about John Dillinger that was shot in and around Chicago.

Check out an interesting interview by ABC 7's Chuck Goudie of former Chicago mob prosecutor T. Markus Funk, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys in the Family Secrets case.

The trial of reputed Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno is off today for Veteran's Day, and jury selection continues Friday.

At the pace jury selection is going, I wouldn't expect open statements any sooner than Monday.

The trial of reputed Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno is being delayed for two days after the wife of one of the defense attorneys in the case gave birth. The trial starts 8:30 a.m. Wednesday with jury selection. Defense attorneys tried to get the trial delayed because of a story in the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday that detailed Sarno's reputed criminal career. The judge denied their request. You can read the story here.

A federal judge ordered a defendant in a Chicago mob trial removed from the courtroom Thursday morning after the man threatened to have all the attorneys disbarred and loudly noted he did "not consent to any of these proceedings."

The disruption happened in the case of alleged Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno, who will soon stand trial with four other men, including Anthony Volpendesto, who created the disturbance and has been custody since his arrest.

Volpendesto is charged with racketeering for allegedly being part of a jewelry store robbery crew with ties to organized crime.

Volpendesto, who is not a lawyer, has filed numerous legal motions in the case on his own, which have advanced unique legal theories concerning his innocence or how the court has no jurisdiction over him. His attempts so far have not been successful.

Volpendesto referred to himself in court Thursday as "the executor of the Anthony Volpendesto estate" and repeatedly interrupted U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Guzman during a status hearing.

Volpendesto warned all attorneys in the room at one point, "either dismiss or disbar."

"I have no further business with this court," he said at another point, but continued talking anyway.

"I do not consent to any of these proceedings," he said, apparently unaware that his consent is not required.

The judge had deputy U.S. Marshals take Volpendesto away. He could still be heard chattering away in a holding cell as the door to the area opened and closed.

Volpendesto's talkativeness may come back to haunt him and some of the men on trial with him. He apparently made phone calls from jail after he was arrested for one of the jewelry store robberies, and prosecutors had indicated they will introduce recordings of some of those calls at trial.

Also on trial is Volpendesto's 87-year-old father, Sam, who is accused of helping bomb a video poker business in Berwyn in 2003 that was competing with a mob-sanctioned business. Prosecutors say Sam Volpendesto ran a Cicero house of prostitution and once had a suspected government cooperator beaten with a baseball bat, but he hasn't been convicted of either crime.

Guzman said he planned on having the younger Volpendesto brought over to the courtroom on Friday to remind him of the rules of conduct in court and work to obtain his cooperation during trial. If he refuses to come, deputy U.S. Marshals were ordered to use reasonable force to bring him.

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