The life and legend of Tony Spilotro have generated reams of newspaper copy, several books, and even the Scorsese blockbuster, “Casino.”
Just when the terrible tale of the 1986 murders of Spilotro and his brother, Michael, was detailed in a Chicago federal courtroom and appeared near its closure, there’s a twist that gives the story of profound violence a poignant ending.
It’s not the story of “Tough Tony” and his cocky kid brother, and how their criminal life in Las Vegas finally caught up to them when they were done in by their own partners in the Chicago Outfit. It’s the story of Park Ridge, Ill., dentist Patrick “Pat” Spilotro, who vowed to his elderly mother that he would find out who killed Tony and Michael no matter how long it took.
Over the next two decades Pat Spilotro did just that, slowly piecing together hints, clues and details of the crime from a variety of sources and eventually giving that information to the FBI, which was putting together the broad-ranging “Family Secrets” case. The dentist even wore a wire for the government when the occasion called for it.
Law enforcement was also simultaneously searching for its top targets, reputed Chicago mob boss Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo and Frankie “The German” Schweihs, and Tough Tony’s unassuming older brother played an integral part there, too. In all, the defendants are accused of having a hand in 18 murders.
Who is Pat Spilotro?
He’s not a private investigator or Outfit associate. He’s a 70-year-old dentist, a taxpayer, a good Catholic and family man with a dozen kids who went to college and avoided the street.
He’s a big brother who lost two brothers to murder. He’s a law-biding citizen who found that few members of law enforcement cared whether the killers of a couple Spilotros were caught.
His recent testimony in the “Family Secrets” trial figures to end any dreams Lombardo, Schweihs, and their fellow co-defendants had of escaping justice. That’s in large part because Pat Spilotro wasn’t a tainted cooperating informant, but a professional with a familial connection to the case. He also was the dentist of Lombardo and other hoodlums and their wives.
In January 2006, Lombardo was in hiding from the government, but when an abscessed tooth began bothering him he went to Pat Spilotro’s office. During previous visits, Lombardo had always said he didn’t know details about the murders, but assured the dentist they wouldn’t have happened if he’d been out of prison in 1986. According to Spilotro’s testimony, Lombardo said, “Doc, you get an order, you follow that order. If you don’t follow the order, you go too.”
When Lombardo made a second appointment to see the dentist, the FBI was notified. A nine-month manhunt ended.
“The men who did this are chemo-synthetic parasites, worms living off the dead material at the bottom of a garbage can,” Spilotro told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed recently. The dentist was unavailable Friday at his Park Ridge office. “But finally, we are coming to justice.”
After 21 years, the truth has materialized like a couple of ghosts in a Chicago courtroom.
Pat Spilotro also worked another end of the investigation. Using his personal contacts, he gathered cell phone information that helped lead the FBI to Schweihs’ hideout in Kentucky, according to published reports.
A Las Vegan who was an acquaintance of Patrick Spilotro remembers the time when the dentist traveled to Las Vegas during the height of his notorious brother’s time on the street. Tony had been placed in Nevada’s casino Black Book, and his attorney, Oscar Goodman, was fighting the constitutionality of the state’s List of Excluded Persons.
The authorities were anxious to nail Spilotro and thought they spotted him at Sam’s Town. When the call came in that Spilotro was sitting with Goodman in a cafe at the Sahara, the police rushed over and made the arrest. In what had all the earmarks of a clever setup, police mistook Patrick Spilotro for his notorious brother and arrested the wrong man.
Spilotro was eventually placed in the Black Book, but by 1986 that was the least of his worries. He not only was running out of luck in the courtroom, but mob bosses in Chicago had lost their patience with him for a variety of reasons. The call went out, and Tony and Michael were called back to Chicago for a meeting. They never returned and their bodies were later uncovered in an Indiana cornfield.
The press had a field day with the whole sordid story. By 1995, Scorsese’s “Casino,” based on the best-selling book by Nicholas Pileggi, with plenty of cooperation from Spilotro’s old partner Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, helped the legend of Tough Tony grow to epic proportions. Although never convicted of such crimes, he was known as a cold-blooded hitman, extortionist and racketeer.
Back in Chicago, Pat Spilotro never stopped asking questions, and never stopped listening to the relatives of the men he suspected were behind the murders.
“What people don’t understand is, this was a very, very close-knit family,” a Spilotro associate says. “Their father died when the brothers were still young, and Pat was the real success story in the family. He was a dentist, and although he loved his brothers he didn’t follow them. He did his own thing, and he was very protective of his brothers and family.”
That love of family resulted in a 21-year quest for justice.
“When Tony and Michael disappeared, everyone figured the FBI really knew who did it,” said one former Spilotro associate. “They had them under surveillance day and night. When nothing happened after their bodies were found, Pat went after the killers himself. He was angry all those years, and then they made the movie ‘Casino’ about his brother, and he got even angrier.”
Instead of letting the anger eat at him, he risked his own life in the pursuit of justice for his brothers. After 21 years, the ghosts are finally being put to rest.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.