Mob bosses find out in the open is often best place to hide

  • Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo

    Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo

  • James 'Whitey' Bulger

    James 'Whitey' Bulger AP Photo/WBUR 90.9

Updated 6/26/2011 5:33 PM

There is a place on the West side where Chicago, Oak Park, River Forest and Elmwood Park meld into Mobdom's Mecca. It is the most hallowed ground that white patent leather loafers can walk. At least once in his lifetime, every wiseguy worthy of wearing Ban-Lon must pay homage to the sacred home of so many bosses.

Five years ago, who would have thought that Joseph Lombardo would have been found there?


You may remember the festive day in 2006 when Mr. Lombardo, known as "the Clown," was arrested by the FBI as he went about his business in Elmwood Park. Lombardo hadn't been seen in nine months, since the day that he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Operation Family Secrets.

The Clown, who was 77 years old at the time, had lived his entire professional life along a mobbed-up stretch of Grand Avenue.

Even though he wasn't very worldly, the wisdom of law enforcement was that Chicago's highest ranking crime boss wouldn't want to remain in the oven when the heat was being turned up.

They figured he had stashed enough organized crime cash to escape for a year or 20, perhaps to Cuba where the Mob once had a comfortable vacation retreat until President Kennedy messed things up. Or maybe Curacao in the western Caribbean, where a fellow Grand Avenue hoodlum had started a profitable resort and casino business.

So, as the feds in Chicago were closing in on Lombardo with their racketeering/murder case, he needed a plan.

Can there be any doubt that the Clown found such a plan in the vanishing act that been pulled by his counterpart in Boston, James "Whitey" Bulger?

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Lombardo and Bulger were both born in 1929 and graduated from the same criminal class. They were closely connected to certain corrupt organized labor unions, and both eventually controlled illegal rackets in large cities by corrupting law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors.

In 1995, when Bulger was about to be charged for racketeering and murder in a case very similar to the one that would be Chicago's Family Secrets, he was tipped off to the impending indictment and disappeared. Chicago was the last place he was actually known to have visited.

In 2006, when Lombardo needed a role model, there was no one better suited than Whitey Bulger, who had successfully defeated the FBI and humiliated them in their efforts to find and arrest him.

"Jimmy? ... Lumbo," the phone call from Lombardo to Bulger would have begun. Mobsters generally don't use their media-generated nicknames, so it would have been unlikely that such a call started with: "Whitey, it's the Clown calling."


Based on what we now know, if Lombardo and Bulger spoke about how to pull off a successful disappearing act, it wouldn't have been a lengthy conversation:

"They think we're smart" Bulger would have said of the FBI. "So you have to do something stoopid. Just live out in the open. Keep to yourself. And grow a beard."

And so, like his mobmate Whitey Bulger was doing, that is just what Joe Lombardo did. He grew a beard and lived among his own people, out in Elmwood Park.

It worked just fine for nine months, as FBI agents seethed and the media had a grand old time noting that the Clown was making a fool of justice by evading authorities.

Such deception skills are not widely taught. The proof is in the number of local, state and federal fugitives arrested each year: about 100,000. But most of them are nobodies, lowlife common criminals who complicate their escapes with cellphone calls, Internet searches and contact with old friends.

So what could have been worse than when Joey "the Clown" turned up living in the Mob Kingdom of Elmwood Park? Authorities found out last week when Whitey Bulger was found living in an ocean-view apartment, just four miles down the road from FBI headquarters in Los Angeles. Whitey was right under their noses and he'd been there for most of the 16 years he was fugitive.

It isn't just mobsters who know that the most unbelievable plan is often the most successful. When former Denver Broncos star John Elway goes out in public, he has a simple way of escaping the throngs of celebrity seekers and autograph hounds. The Hall of Fame quarterback wears a Denver Broncos jersey with his name emblazoned on the back.

"I do that all the time here" Elway has been quoted as saying. "They know it's not me because they say there's no way Elway would be wearing his own jersey in the mall. So it actually is the safest thing to do."

Osama bin Laden did the same thing for 15 years, hiding in plain sight while the U.S. searched in caves and cubby holes.

And of course, bin Laden had quite a beard.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at and followed at