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Interview: The Tribune's Jeff Coen Relays "Family Secrets"

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on May 19, 2009 5:00PM

Photo by Alex Garcia
By day, Jeff Coen is the federal court reporter for the Chicago Tribune. But by night over the last year and a half, he's been putting together a historical account of one of the biggest mob trials in this city's - and nation's - history. Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob gives the reader an inside look into the trial that brought down the Chicago Outfit, a wide-reaching mob that controlled not only the Chicago area, but reached all the way to Las Vegas (and was the inspiration for the Martin Scorsese movie Casino). Using source material like police reports, interviews, and court transcripts, as well as his own notes from covering the trial, Coen recreates not only the trial of mobsters Frank Calabrese, Sr., Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, James Marcello, Paul Schiro, and Anthony "Twan" Doyle, but he gives us a significant look at Nick Calabrese, Frank Sr.'s brother and Outfit hitman, whose turning states evidence gave us incredible testimony and an unprecedented look into the inner-workings of the Outfit.

Weaving his report of the trial together with separate narratives that explore specific killings and incidents that were at the heart of the Family Secrets trial, Coen creates a comprehensive examination of the trial and the key players without reading like simply a rehash of information. Instead, Coen's narrative is compelling even when covering material where we already know the trial's outcome and gives the participants - from lawyers to prosecutors to defendants - a rich, full rendering which is no easy feat. As Coen continues to tour locally behind the book, we talked to him about crafting his narrative, the colorful characters of the trial, and even touched a smidge on Twitter's emergence in how he covers stories for the Tribune.

Jeff Coen, reading and signing Family Secrets:

Thursday, May 21, 7:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble at Webster Place, 1441 W. Webster Ave.
Saturday, May 23, 2 p.m., Borders in Oak Park, 1144 Lake St.

Chicagoist: What led you to focus more on the trial rather than a chronicle of the Outfit’s history? I ask that acknowledging some of my favorite parts of the books were the interstitial chapters that chronicled specific events that led to the trial.

Jeff Coen: First of all, as a journalist, I went through what I had to bring to the table on this particular case. I witnessed the entire thing. I had so many people tell me along the way that they would take an early lunch and come sit in for 15 minutes to see what Joey “The Clown” [Lombardo] was like or hear the testimony for part of the day. There was just a lot of interest in the trial itself. I guess I felt like it needed to be preserved as well, from a historical perspective, that it’d be good to have all the material in one place. Especially the second half of the book when you’ve got three made members of the mob testifying. It’s pretty difficult to top that and I wanted to give the people who didn’t get to see any of it a chance to feel like they got to be there in court and experience it themselves.

C: Especially considering - and I didn’t realize it until I was deep into the book - how much of the Outfit has made it into pop culture via Scorsese’s Casino.

JC: When you start talking about “juice loans” and things like that, it’s amazing how many people know what you’re talking about. So much of it is just part of our culture and it was one of the most interesting parts to me was the glimpse that this offered into the day-to-day workings inside the Outfit. Especially Nick [Calabrese] on the stand, talking about picking up money from debtors and running the sports books. Just this nitty-gritty, day-in, day-out stuff you don’t usually get to see.

C: As to those interstitial chapters, how did you decided which specific incidents to use for those parts of the book?

JC: It’s like a chronological overlay, I guess, and I thought the highlight of the material was from Nick. So two things are going on. Number one, I wanted to give people a background and build toward the trial, through the investigation, and the tapings, so that had to be in the introductory chapters. But I also didn’t want people to be waiting around to chapter nine or ten before they get to experience anything from Nick. Those interludes were a way for me to pull some of that material forward. Even though it starts with the last murder, it then resets and goes back to his first one and proceeds chronologically. And I didn’t actually quote him until he takes the stand himself so the first time you actually hear his voice is when he’s testifying. So it sort of builds on itself. It seemed the best way to me to do that. And by the time I’ve got Nick, Frank Sr., and Joey on the stand, [continuing those interludes] felt like interrupting the flow, because that’s just so incredible to have three made members testifying that I sort of broke that off after the making ceremony; it just went back to the trial from there.

C: When I was in graduate school, studying the “creative nonfiction” genre, a topic that came up again and again was truth over style. For example, some memoirs have fudged the truth a little bit for the purposes of improving the narrative or even some historical books have done the same. In the introduction to this book, you were very explicit that you were faithful to the facts, the transcripts, the police reports, etc. Knowing what kind of scrutiny you faced for recreating these scenes from the source material, how difficult was that process for you when writing those interludes?

2009_05_19_coen2.jpg JC: I did try to be as truthful as I possibly could. I think what I tried to do in those instances is treat the trial as source material. I couldn’t interview Nick myself - I tried to - but that left me to use the questions that were asked of him in court as if I were asking them and gathering his answers. You could tell his reactions to things, you could tell what bothered him by the tone of his voice, you could see him concentrating when he was trying to remember something. I don’t think I took too many leaps in terms of communicating what I thought he had experienced. It really wasn’t that difficult for me to build narrative and get inside his head and thoughts because he was pretty clear on the stand what he was thinking and feeling at times.

C: Did you take a similar approach for creating this prose narrative from the court transcript? Because it works quite well on the page.

JC: Yeah, it really was the same approach. The second half of the book is mainly trial stuff and a lot of that is outgrowth of our coverage of the trial at the time. The trial took place over a summer and we went into thinking, “You know, let’s make this a series of stories about a trial. Let’s not just cover the trial, let’s boost up who these characters are,” to get into more of a feeling where people could read a story and feel like they saw the testimony themselves. So that second half of the book which is so trial-heavy was my effort to get everything that took place into the book. Writing a newspaper story every day, you only have so much space. This trial, at the end of the day, it was almost an exercise in “What 80 great things do I leave out and what 20 great things do I leave in there?”

C: It’s fair to assume your covering the trial made it pretty easy to get this book written and turned around in a timely fashion.

JC: Yeah, it did make it a bit easier. The parts that were harder were the parts we talked about earlier where it was more of a narrative and building up to the trial. But then, when I was going into notes from the trial, and transcripts and putting together things I had just witnessed myself, then it went a lot faster. It helped a great deal and I had a lot of the material already in hand - my notes and background material - and what I didn’t have was a lot of the context and the thought process of the lawyers as they went through the trial. So when I would get to a certain spot and wonder something like, “Well, what was Rick Halprin trying to do there?” I was lucky in that the agents and lawyers involved in the case agreed to nice, long interviews and those helped me round out that kind of information.

C: What was the biggest obstacle in writing this book?

JC: Well, first, just trying to feel like I was doing the story justice. Going into it, I realized what a piece of Chicago history this was and so much great stuff - as a writer, you don’t want to screw it up. At the end of the day, it’s so good that it’s a matter of just getting it organized correctly. So writing something that did the story justice and something that could be part of the city’s historical record.

Second was just time because I didn’t really take a lot of time off. I just took a few vacation weeks here and there so most of it was nights and weekends while I was still trying to do my regular job.

C: One thing I appreciated about the way you wrote the book, there are so many people to cover - the agents, the Outfit members, the defendants, their attorneys, the prosecutors - but the main role-players stood out while the ones that didn’t stand out, it was because they didn’t warrant quite the same attention. Which of these main characters did you find yourself most intrigued by?

JC: Probably Nick, because he’s such an amazing character, when you think about a guy who admits to killing 14 people. I think one of my take-away moments from the trial was when he first came out. I wrote my feelings about that in the beginning of that chapter. We didn’t know what to expect, so when he came out, the place was silent. You don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s an absolutely genuine mob hitman so you’ve got all these expectations of what he’s going to be and he blew us all away by how he was such the silent type, all introspective. We joked he had more the personality of a watchmaker than a killer, and when you heard him describe these murders, you could see where that part of his brain translated into that because there was so much planning and patience that went into [the killings]. Maybe one day somebody will get 50 or 80 or 100 hours to interview him because it’s definitely a story you could tell again just from his perspective. I’m sure the book would have been very different if I’d gotten a 20 hour interview with him.

Another one was [Frank Calabrese, Sr.’s attorney] Joe Lopez just because he was so fun to cover and fun to write about. He was so over the top. The trial could have been a different experience but I think when you talk about - pardon the expression - a “mob lawyer type” in Chicago you expect a certain amount of bluster and fun and he certainly brought that to the table.

C: The defendants just recently received their respective sentences. Are there any plans to update the book, maybe the paperback edition, with a section on this?

JC: I think I probably will depending on how the book does. But I would like to [the publishers] have an interest in getting something in there, an addendum. Nick’s sentencing hearing in particular was really dramatic with the victims’ families upset about what he got [Nick was sentenced to 12 years and four months]. I thought the judge [Judge James Zagel] did a good job to take the time to explain that no one present was going to like what he was going to do in giving him 12 years for 14 murders. I thought he did a good job talking to the families and also to the public explaining how you have to give a guy like this a break or the next Nick Calabrese never decides to come forward.

C: You’re presently focusing on the Blagojevich trial for the most part, correct?

JC: Yes, I’m still covering federal court for the Tribune so for the past almost year as that investigation has been going on it’s been almost wall-to-wall Blagojevich.

C: It’s worth pointing out that we’re from two different ends of the current spectrum, me being a “blogger” and you a print journalist. And you’re filling one of those roles that’s hard for blogs to really cover, being down at the federal courthouse day-in and day-out for coverage and to get to the meat of these stories, you and others like the Sun-Times’ Natasha Korecki. And this is hard to touch on without getting knee-deep in the whole online vs print media argument, but do you think that’s something that will always be needed and might help print?

JC: Yeah, when people talk about the service that newspapers do, you’re probably correct. Someone has to physically go to these things and be present and witness it themselves and turn around and write about it and explain it to other people. It’s one of those core city beats: somebody has to go to court, somebody has to be at City Hall, boots on the ground. I think we’re trying more with online media. I know Natasha is blogging the Blago case and we’re both on Twitter now, trying to bridge that gap and be on the web as much as possible. But at the same time is that core idea that somebody has to be there.

C: That’s just one of those topics we have to be careful about at the risk of going off-topic for 45 minutes or longer and things get away from us and we open a new can of worms…

JC: Who knows? In the future, as blogs grow or as newspaper become more like blogs or vice-versa, we may have more situations where blogs are staffing that kind of position. Maybe you’ll be in federal court in a few years (laughs).

C: (laughs) Well, I follow both you and Natasha on Twitter and now there are even politicians like [Cook County Commissioner] Tony Peraica and [Alderman] Manny Flores who have taken to it as well and there’s this new immediacy. The first things we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks from the Blagojevich hearings have been you or Natasha Twittering from the courthouse, so it’s definitely

JC: It’s definitely evolving and doing that is something new that’s developed over the past few months. I saw [Twitter] as a place to put court news out and book updates, like when I have readings, so I’ve used it in that sort of combination. Our paper really concentrates on it now. Different reporters who are proficient in it now will give little seminars on it and they’re trying to get as many of us on there as possible. It’s a way to drive traffic to our website and boost our exposure. I think that’s part of what the landscape of new media is about: using different platforms and products to saturate the market, to be available to people when they want it.