Originally Published on NPR on March 14, 2011
When Frank Calabrese Jr. was a teenager, his father came home one night and took him into the bathroom for a chat.
"He used to like to talk in the bathroom with the fan going and the water running in case there was any kind of bugs in the house," says Frank Jr. "I could just see his adrenaline going. And he was telling me that they killed somebody, and the reason they did it was because the guy was dealing drugs and he was disobeying his boss. He's telling me this and I'm thinking, 'Is this what other kids hear when they come home and their father comes home from work?' "
But Frank Calabrese Sr. was no ordinary father. He was one of the central figures in the Chicago mafia, responsible for a series of loansharking and illegal gambling operations. He was also suspected of murdering several people — but the FBI didn't have the evidence to pin those crimes on him.
In 1997, Frank Sr. was sent to prison along with his brother Nick and Frank Jr. on a series of racketeering charges. The feds had enough evidence to keep him in jail for 118 months — meaning Frank Sr. would have been a free man when he turned 70.
But then Frank Jr. wrote a letter to the FBI, offering to help bring down his father's murderous Chicago crime family.
"[I wrote that] I didn't want immunity. I didn't want any kind of deal. I didn't want to lose any time, but I want[ed] to help [the government] keep my father locked up."
The reasoning, says Frank Jr., was that his father was dangerous and should never be a free man. He agreed to wear a wire while talking to his father in the prison yard about the Calabrese family's alleged crimes.
"I didn't push anything," he says. "And my father [had] taught me two ways to get a guy to talk: Either feed him a lot of liquor or get him mad. So we didn't have any liquor in jail, so I got my father mad. And the premise was that we were working on our relationship. So all this stuff he was talking about really wasn't forced."
During the recorded conversations, Frank Sr. admitted committing several murders "in great detail," says Frank Jr. He details his role in the sting that brought down his father in a new memoir, Operation Family Secrets.
The tapes Frank Jr. recorded resulted in the 2007 "Operation Family Secrets" trial in Chicago. Fourteen members of the Chicago mafia were indicted for a variety of crimes, including 18 murders and one attempted murder. Three defendants, including Frank Sr., were sentenced to life in jail. As part of the trial, Frank Jr. had to testify against his father. He says he felt confident the day he took the stand.
"I knew the day I wrote the letter that my life was going to change, and I knew that the day I did the letter that I would be sitting on the stand in the same room as my dad," he says. "What I never thought about was the emotion that would come over me as I walked in the courtroom after not seeing my dad. ... I wanted to run over and hug him. ... But after five minutes of being on the stand, it didn't take me long to have that love for my dad turn into hatred for my dad and remind me of what I [was] doing."