CHICAGO (AP) — A plot twist in a legal drama featuring a mobster and a violin played out Wednesday when a prison chaplain announced in court minutes before his trial was to start that he was guilty of trying to help an imprisoned mob hit man recover a hidden Stradivarius.
Eugene Klein, a Roman Catholic priest, was accused of scheming with Chicago Outfit enforcer Frank Calabrese Sr. to find a rare, 250-year-old violin Calabrese hid years earlier in his Wisconsin summer home to keep authorities from selling it. They believed it might be worth $26 million.
Klein, 66, of Mesa, Arizona, wore a clerical collar and gripped a cane as he walked into court, where half a dozen witnesses sat on a back bench ready to testify in the long-planned trial. But the clergyman surprised the courtroom by saying he wanted to forgo the trial and plead guilty.
Several minutes later, he did just that. He answered calmly when U.S. District Judge John Darrah asked him if he did what prosecutors accused him of doing. He leaned forward and responded, "I'm guilty of the offense."
The offense itself is the stuff of Hollywood films.
Prosecutors say the plot was hatched in 2011 when Klein was administering communion to Calabrese at a prison in Springfield, Missouri. Calabrese had been sentenced to life in 2009 for 13 killings, including strangling some victims with a rope, then slashing their throats to ensure they were dead. He was also ordered to pay $4.4 million in restitution. He died in a federal prison in North Carolina in 2012 at age 75.
After Calabrese's imprisonment, authorities continued to search for his assets. Prosecutors say Calabrese wanted to ensure agents could never get ahold of the violin that once belonged to entertainer Liberace, saying he'd rather the priest profited from its sale.
Prison authorities kept Calabrese in isolation after he was accused of threatening a prosecutor during his trial in the same Chicago courthouse, allegedly mouthing to the government attorney: "You are a ... dead man."
According to prosecutors, Klein broke prison rules by accepting a note from Calabrese wrapped in religious materials and pushed through the food slot of his cell. It directed Klein to look in a pull-out door and against a wall in the home in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
"That is where the violin is," the note said.
One concern about passing on notes from a locked-up hit man, attorneys have said, is that references in it could be code for something sinister, including an order to attack a rival. Klein disclosed the contents of Calabrese's message to one of the mobster's former associates over a meal at a suburban Chicago restaurant, according to filings.
Prosecutors say Klein even called a real estate agent selling the home, posing as a potential buyer. The plan was for another unidentified conspirator to distract the agent during a tour of the house while Klein helped retrieve the violin.
A federal search in 2010 did turn up $1 million in cash, diamonds and other valuables in a wall behind a family portrait in Calabrese's Chicago-area Oak Brook home. But despite searches in Wisconsin, no violin was ever found.
Klein pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the United States. Klein, who is free on bond, will be sentenced June 23; he faces a maximum five years behind bars.
In the Oak Brook search, prosecutors found a certificate indicating the violin may have been a much less valuable one made in 1764 by Giuseppe Artalli, and not by the renowned Italian Antonio Stradivari.
Asked Wednesday outside court what motivated him to help a notorious hit man, Klein declined to speak. His attorney, Thomas Durkin, said his client made "an error in judgment," though added Klein is partly being made to pay for his good work providing spiritual guidance to convicts, like Calabrese.
"This," Durkin said about Klein's prosecution, "ranks right up there with no good deed goes unpunished."
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