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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

87, gangster in wheelchair faces at least 35 years in prison

13:29 | ,

87, Samuel Volpendesto's first criminal conviction will no doubt be his last.

After what prosecutors say has been a decades-long association with the Chicago Outfit — one that included numerous arrests but no convictions — the octogenarian faces at least 35 years in prison when he enters a federal courtroom in his wheelchair Wednesday.

The silver-haired Volpendesto slumped in his seat for most of his monthlong trial beside reputed mob boss Michael "The Large Guy" Sarno, scowling and wincing as prosecutors played recordings of him bragging about building a bomb that blew out the windows and front door of the headquarters of a rival to Sarno's video poker racket in 2003.

It was Volpendesto's raspy voice talking to wired-up informants that provided much of the evidence linking Sarno to the bombing. But on the recordings, Volpendesto also wistfully recalled the mob's glory days hanging out with gangland figures who were contemporaries of Al Capone.

But his attorney, Beau Brindley, insisted that Volpendesto began his life of crime only when he reached retirement age and after decorated service in World War II and work as a sculptor.

It's hard to say which tales have more blood-and-guts truth to them: Volpendesto on government recordings talking about watching a notorious mob hit man grinding up a corpse or his wartime accounts of saving crewmen on a sinking destroyer off Japan.

Brindley insists his client exaggerated his criminal past to impress his criminal friends. But Volpendesto's recollection of his war heroism has been consistent, he said.

"He certainly loves to tell stories. What you hear on these tapes were what informants wanted to solicit from him," Brindley said Tuesday. "These (World War II) stories are ones … that are on his mind right now."

In the undercover recordings, Volpendesto boasts about the 2003 bombing and complained about not getting any compensation from Sarno.

Volpendesto also is recorded reminiscing about gangland figures like storied hit man Sam "Mad Sam" DeStefano, who was gunned down in 1973. Volpendesto told an informant about walking in on DeStefano as the mob enforcer ground up the body of a murder victim with a meat grinder.

In a court filing, Brindley includes similarly gory detail describing a mission from Volpendesto's four years of combat duty in a forerunner of the Navy SEALs, a harrowing rescue of crewmen trapped inside a sinking destroyer as the ship was under attack by kamikaze planes.

"The ship was listing and sinking, but some men were still alive, trapped in a pocket of air in the galley," Brindley wrote. "(Volpendesto) and his unit swam up into the body of the ship underwater … The water inside the ship was red. Bodies hung from the ceiling and floated in the water. While he was working, the destroyer was hit again by a suicide kamikaze plane."

The ship was successfully towed out of harm's way, and Volpendesto was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroism, Brindley said. After the war, Volpendesto returned to Chicago but struggled to make a living as a sculptor, paying the rent by working at a knife factory, then as a cabbie and limo driver, the attorney said.

When he was fired by the limo company because he was too old to insure as a driver, Volpendesto began hocking his possessions and then working for the mobsters who ran the pawn shops, according to Brindley. Some of them were acquaintances from the neighborhood, he said.

But prosecutors and informants painted a picture of a man who remained active in the Outfit despite his advancing age. Co-defendant Mark Polchan ran several pawn shops, using them as fronts for the sale of stolen merchandise that included jewelry stolen by a robbery crew that included Volpendesto's son, Anthony.

In the 1990s, Volpendesto also was alleged to have been running a Cicero strip club and was charged with two of his bouncers for allegedly beating an FBI informant unconscious with a baseball bat. The charges, however, were dropped.

According to testimony at trial last year, Volpendesto also served as a wheelman in an armed robbery of a jewelry store in Michigan in 2003, gave the gang a tip that led to a $650,000 score later that year, and fired shots at a drug dealer who came home to find the crew robbing his Chicago apartment — all while he was pushing 80.

"Frankly, I find all that very hard to believe," Brindley said. "I would have liked the jury to get to know the man other than what was on these tapes."


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