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

December 2010 Archives

Sarno trial recap

| 47 Comments | No TrackBacks

As U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Guzman read the guilty verdicts in the trial of reputed Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno, family members of the defendants let out sighs and gasps and began crying.

Mark Polchan, a high-ranking member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, began shaking his head back and forth and later was heard to accuse prosecutors of being liars as he was led out in custody. He faces about 50 years in prison.

Sam Volpendesto had his head in his hand as he began hearing the guilty verdicts. Volpendesto faces about 50 years in prison too, and at 86, that's a life sentence.

Sarno kept his head down just before his verdict was read then reared back and started bobbing in his seat as the guiltys rolled in. He looked over at his wife and daughter who were crying. He faces about 25 years behind bars.

As the judge announced he was guilty of racketeering conspiracy, Anthony Volpendesto held up a piece of paper with writing on it, but what was on it could not be determined. Volpendesto has filed a variety of unusual, unsuccessful motions contesting his innocence. He faces about 20 years behind bars.

Casey Szaflarski, the video poker king of the Chicago area, was stoic as the verdict was read, but his family and friends, who filled a row in federal court, began crying as well. Szaflarksi faces much less time than the other defendants because he wasn't charged with the racketeering count, but rather with illegal gambling and tax crimes, which carry lesser sentences.

While prosecutors weren't allowed to bring up organized crime at trial, expect them to use it at sentencing.

Reputed Cicero mob boss Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno took a big fall Wednesday after he was convicted in federal court of a racketeering conspiracy charge that could put him behind bars for 25 years.

"God!" Sarno's wife, Nicole, yelled out in the courtroom as a federal judge agreed to a prosecutor's request that the mobster, out on bond, should be taken into custody immediately, just three days before Christmas. His daughter, Angelica, a college student who attended many days of the trial, broke down, sobbing loudly.

Sarno, 52, was convicted along with his friend, Outlaw motorcycle gang member Mark Polchan, 43, as well as the video poker king of the Chicago area, Casey Szaflarski, 52, mob bomber Sam Volpendesto, 86, and his son, Anthony, 48, a prolific thief.

The centerpiece of the case was the bombing in 2003 of a storefront in Berwyn, targeting a businessman competing with Sarno in the video poker business. No one was hurt in the pipe bomb blast, but it gutted the building.

Authorities say the case showed the Chicago Outfit outsourcing some of its dirty work -- the bombing of a competitor and the later intimidation of a witness -- to a motorcycle gang during a time when the Outfit was under keen pressure from the historic Family Secrets mob investigation.

Over a six-week trial, federal prosecutors Amarjeet Bhachu, Tinos Diamantatos and Michael Donovan called more than 80 witnesses, played more than 70 audio or video recordings and entered more than 300 exhibits into evidence to show a wide-ranging conspiracy, that included a slew of home robberies and jewelry store burglaries, that was investigated by the FBI, ATF and IRS.

The jury's decision marks the third conviction for Sarno in an organized crime case. Sarno started his career in organized crime at 17 as an enforcer. Working his way up the ranks, Sarno -- about 6-foot-3 and topping 300 pounds at his heaviest -- has never been known as the brains of the mob but rather as a tough guy willing to inspire fear and snatch someone else's profitable scheme. While Sarno oversaw the criminal group, he likely won't face the most time in prison when the men are sentenced in May.

Polchan and Sam Volpendesto were convicted with taking part in the bombing of the Berwyn business and face mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years behind bars for that crime alone. Each man could be sentenced to more than 50 years behind bars -- a death sentence for Sam Volpendesto.

Jury note in Sarno case

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
The jury in the Sarno case sent a note out Wednesday morning asking for clarification on one of the key charges in the case: the 2003 bombing of a Berwyn video poker business. The jury had a question on Count 4 of the indictment in which Cicero pawnshop owner Mark Polchan and his associate, Sam Volpendesto, are charged with the crime. Jurors wanted to know if a defendant had to be present at the bombing in order to be found guilty of it. Prosecutors had an undercover informant secretly tape Volpendesto apparently admit to committing the bombing. Volpendesto also refers to Polchan, in code, and say he took part in planning the crime. To answer the jurors' question, U.S. District Court Ronald Guzman read to them the part of the jury instructions that referred to aiding and abetting a crime. In short, Polchan did not have to be at the bombing to be convicted of it, if jurors find him culpable. At trial, Volpendesto's attorney argued that his client is in his 80s and often was confused and spoke about things he did not know about. Polchan's attorney said his client had nothing to do with the bombing. It's unclear where the jury is in the deliberation process. It would be reasonable to speculate that Count 4 may be one of the first counts the jurors are tackling, since the bombing was the most significant crime they heard about and is central to the case.

In a possible indication that the jury expects its deliberations to last at least through part of next week, it has asked the judge in the Sarno case to have Friday off.

The jury got the case for a short time on Monday, and its first full day of deliberations was Tuesday, when it asked to have Christmas Eve off.

Given that the jury has a ton of evidence to consider against the five defendants, four of who are charged with one of most complicated laws for a jury to grapple with, racketeering conspiracy, it's not surprising that the jury will need some time to do its job.

Of course, keep in mind that a jury's questions or requests to the judge may indicate one outcome, and then the precise opposite one comes about.

The attorney for Mark Polchan, Damon Cheronis, just wrapped up his closing argument in federal court, waging a frontal assault on the prosecution's key witnesses in the case.

"They lied," Cheronis told jurors. "They changed their stories. They had an opportunity and a motive to deceive you. And they did."

Cheronis was referring to the testimony of burglar Mark Hay, his protege and explosives expert Kyle Knight and former crooked Berwyn cop James Formato. Cheronis gave a laundry list of what he called inconsistencies in their statements.

Polchan, an allegedly high-ranking member of the Outlaw motorcycle gang, is accused of being the go-to fence for a burglary ring those three men were involved in, as well as taking part in a jewelry store robbery himself. Polchan also is tied to another defendant on trial, reputed Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno, who supposedly used Polchan to help distribute illegal video poker machines to bars.

Prosecution closing

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks

As the feds secretly listened in, Cicero pawnshop owner Mark Polchan griped to a friend about how tough his life is -- getting his kids up, taking them to school, then tending to his business.

"I take care of my boss, come here . . . do whatever else I do . . . Don't f------ tell me why am I coming home f------ miserable," Polchan said, according to a government transcript.

Which raises an interesting question, a federal prosecutor pointed out in his closing argument Thursday. If Polchan supposedly owns his pawnshop, who is he calling his boss? That would be Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno, federal prosecutor Tinos Diamantatos told jurors at the end of the five-week trial of Sarno, Polchan and three others. The feds have identified Sarno in court papers as the reputed head of the Cicero mob.

Using a multimedia presentation, Diamantatos on Thursday pieced together for jurors how Sarno allegedly led a racketeering conspiracy that included gambling, robbery and witness intimidation.

Sarno himself is cautious, once hanging up on a friend who named another reputed mobster during a cell phone call. So prosecutors used the secretly recorded words of others to show Sarno's true role in the conspiracy.

In one recorded conversation, an underling calls Sarno to get the OK to put video poker machines in a bar.

In another talk, a thief calls Polchan to see if it's OK to rob a dice game, and Polchan says he must check first with his boss -- Sarno, the feds say -- to see if it's all right. Sarno himself is caught on tape asking how various video poker machines are doing financially and ordering that another bar use only his machines.

In his closing, Diamantatos tried to tie together the wide-ranging conspiracy that involved all manner of crimes, from bombing a competing video poker business to robbing a string of jewelry stores. "Simply put, if there was money to be made, these five defendants did it regardless of the consequences," he said.

During the trial, the feds put on more than 80 witnesses, played more than 70 audio or video recordings and entered more than 320 exhibits into evidence. The defendants put on little evidence but relied on attacking the credibility of the three main prosecution witnesses -- a thief, his protégé who is also an explosives expert, and a dirty cop. Defense attorneys are expected to begin their closings this morning in federal court.

Federal prosecutor Tinos Diamantatos began around 11:20 a.m. Thursday what is expected to be roughly a 4-hour closing argument to the jury in the trial of reputed Cicero boss Michael Sarno and four colleagues.

"Simply put, if there was money to be made, these five defendants did it, regardless of the consequences," Diamantatos told the jury.

Diamantatos broke down the components of racketeering conspiracy law, which can be difficult for jurors - or even lawyer - to understand, and began the work of showing how the government proved each element during the trial.

The interesting twist to this closing? Diamantatos uses a multimedia presentation, where he is showing slides to a jury on an overhead screen but also incorporating audio from the FBI bugs on the defendants and video from a camera secretly installed in the Cicero pawnshop of reputed high-ranking Outlaw motorcycle club member Mark Polchan, who is a defendant in the case.

The jury returns at 1:30 p.m. to hear more.

The defense for all five defendants in the trial of reputed Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno lasted less than an hour Wednesday as all but one defendant rested without presenting a witness.

Alleged high-ranking Outlaw motorcycle gang member Mark Polchan presented one witness to give a more innocent cast to a conversation the feds secretly recorded in Polchan's pawnshop in Cicero.

Lawyers for the other defendants read stipulations -- statements that both sides agree to regarding what a certain witness would say or what a piece of evidence would show -- into the record before the jury. Some of the stipulations tried to bring out some of the inconsistent statements made by a key prosecution witness, burglar Mark Hay.

Federal prosecutors in the Michael Sarno trial said Tuesday they expected to rest their case with 30 minutes to an hour of possible testimony and playing of secret audio recordings.

The defense will present little in the way of witnesses with reputed Cicero mob boss Sarno presenting possibly one witness, and Outlaws motorcycle member Mark Polchan presenting another. The other three men on trial, reputed video poker king Casey Szaflarski, and father and son Sam and Anthony Volpendesto, will present no witnesses.

Closing arguments are expected to begin with prosecutors on Thursday morning. Depending how long the closings go, the jury could begin deliberations Friday.

Readers, you asked for it, you've got it. Here, after the jump, are the transcripts from reputed Cicero mob boss Michael Sarno chastising his pal not to mention any proper names in conversations over cell phones.

A man of many criminal hats, Kyle Knight, took the stand late Tuesday afternoon in the racketeering trial of Michael Sarno.

Knight, a career thief and former drug user, will be a key witness for the government as he describes how he and another government informant, Mark Hay, robbed jewelry stores and brought their stolen diamonds to Mark Polchan, who owned a pawnshop in Cicero and is a codefendant in the case.

Knight pleaded guilty in September 2008 to providing the powder that was used in making a bomb that gutted a business in Berwyn that was competing with a mobbed-up video poker company. Knight also admitted to robbing a variety of jewelry stores. His plea agreement calls for a serious reduction in his prison sentence in exchange for helping the government.

Prosecutors are also using Knight to show the men on trial along with Sarno knew one another and worked together. This is being done to help them prove the racketeering conspiracy charge against four of the five defendants.

Like many star witnesses in government mob cases, Knight has his problems. He has a history of using cocaine and crystal meth. He has committed so many home burglaries that he lost count. He has an unusual speaking voice on the witness stand that is, at times, reminiscent of the Dustin Hoffman character from the film, "Rain Man."

Defense attorneys will certainly pounce on his criminal background and likely question his memory given his drug use. Prosecutors, in turn, may point out that Knight is the guy who many of the defendants on trial chose to hang out with. Prosecutors, in short, didn't pick him; the defendants did.

Knight's direct testimony will continue 9:30 a.m. Thursday in federal court in Chicago. For all the trial buffs who have written in to the blog, wondering when the good testimony will happen, this should be interesting for much of the day.

Remember, no names

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

A handy tip: When on a cell phone call with reputed Cicero mob boss Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno, don't use proper names.

That's what an associate learned when he called Sarno, according to a government transcript of a secret recording of the phone conversation on Oct. 17, 2007.

The audio recording of the conversation was played Wednesday to the jury in Sarno's racketeering case.

"How you doin', buddy," Sarno asked his friend, David Kantowski.

"Good, I'm sitting here with ah Frank Caruso..." Kantowski said, possibly referring to the reputed mob street boss of the 26th Street Crew, then naming two other men.

"Oooh, oh you, oh boy," Sarno said, obviously upset.

Sarno ended the call quickly, and Kantowski called him back in another hour on a different phone line, which the feds were also recording.

"I appreciate everything you are doing for me buddy, but please stop with the names on my phone, please," Sarno asked.

He added: "I know I'm paranoid, but I got good reason to be."

Kantowski appeared not to have realized immediately what he did, but he apologized profusely when it hit him.

"Oh s---, you know what, I wasn't even thinking, Mike. I, I apologize, I wasn't even thinking about that, god------."

"Believe me," Sarno said, "it's a shame we got to be like that, but we do."

The conversation appears to have involved some sort of business deal, but it is not detailed.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2010 is the previous archive.

January 2011 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.