Chaotic federal juice-loan case has links to FBI efforts against Chicago Outfit figures

The first objection in the recent extortion trial of Addison businessman Gene “Gino” Cassano came about five seconds into opening statements, when a prosecutor mentioned the term “juice loan.”

Three days later, the proceedings abruptly ended in a mistrial after an FBI agent testified he was assigned to investigate “organized crime,” a term the judge had explicitly barred to avoid prejudicing the jury.

By the time the agent uttered those words, though, the underworld flavor of the madcap case was hardly a well-kept secret.

For days, the jury had listened to testimony about high-interest loans, a brutal assault over one alleged debt, bookies, illegal sports gambling, and off-the-books gaming machines that populate Italian-American social clubs across the Chicago area.

While the charges against Cassano and his associate, Gioacchino “Jack” Galione, make no mention of the mob, records reviewed by the Tribune since the trial ended March 8 show the underlying investigation specifically targeted the dwindling upper-echelon members of the Chicago Outfit.

The FBI had been authorized to wiretap phones as far back as 2016 as it attempted to build racketeering cases involving the Outfit’s notorious Elmwood Park and Grand Avenue street crews, a federal judge revealed in an opinion last year in a related case against one reputed bookie.

Among those under investigation were a close relative of Outfit loan shark Joseph “Joe Gags” Gagliano, a twice-convicted mob bookmaker reputed to be a “capo” in the Elmwood Park crew, and gambling chief Marco “The Mover” D’Amico, the onetime second-in-command in Elmwood Park who died in 2020 at age 84, the records show.

The investigation was focused on two of the Outfit’s bread-and-butter rackets: Prostitution and gambling, according to the court records. It involved secret recordings of a now-convicted West Side madam who was suspected of paying protection money to an organized crime figure, wiretapped conversations between Cassano and other members of an alleged offshore sports gambling ring, as well as FBI surveillance of meetings where agents allegedly watched participants make cash pickups, the records say.

The hundreds of pages of Title III affidavits submitted by the FBI in 2016 also tied the current targets to the Outfit’s long and sordid history in Chicago, including some of the top mob bosses at the center of the landmark “Family Secrets” case.

In arguing last year for a hearing on whether the FBI misled the judge who approved the wiretaps, an attorney for accused bookie Michael Frontier said investigators relied on informants with sordid pasts who often gave conflicting accounts.

“If you look at the mob figures that they talk about, all the way back to Joey Lombardo and James Marcello and the murder of the Spilotro brothers, there’s pages and pages of their criminal history in there but they don’t give the same treatment to their informants,” attorney Francis Lipuma said, according to a transcript of the July 1, 2023, hearing.

Cases have emerged

So far, a handful of criminal cases have surfaced from the investigation, including the pending charges against Cassano, which allege he and Galione conspired to use extortionate means to collect a $10,000 juice loan from a victim who was allegedly beaten by Galione in 2016.

Also charged were the madam, Jessica Nesbitt, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to probation, and Frontier, an alleged member of a connected gambling ring who pleaded guilty in January and is awaiting sentencing, records show.

But no sweeping “Family Secrets 2” racketeering indictment tying those individual cases to organized crime was ever brought, and it’s unclear if that aspect of the probe is still ongoing.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

After Nesbitt was charged in 2019, her attorneys said she had a black book with more than 9,000 clients, including many from Chicago professional circles, including lawyers, government employees and police officers.

Nesbitt, who also goes by the name “Madame Priscilla Belle,” eventually admitted to raking in more than $1 million in payments from clients for sexual services over seven years through her business, Kink Extraordinaire.

But no evidence about payments to the mob ever surfaced in her case.

Nesbitt’s attorney declined to comment on the alleged Outfit connection Friday.

Frontier’s lawyer, Lipuma, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are expected to announce next week whether they plan to push ahead with a new trial for Cassano and Galione. Defense attorneys have said that if prosecutors do decide to go forward, they intend to file a motion to dismiss the case on double jeopardy grounds.

In their joint motion for a mistrial, the defense accused the government of trying to “inject organized crime gloss to this case from the jump.”

It’s a sentiment clearly shared by Cassano. Before U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman took the bench to declare the mistrial earlier this month, he stopped a Tribune reporter in the hallway outside the courtroom and said, “Three blind mice could figure this case out. Can you?”

“The government made up a crime,” Cassano said.

Trial evidence

Evidence at trial showed that Cassano, 55, was involved in sports gambling. But he also has operated a variety of legitimate businesses over the years, including restaurants, coffee shops and a logistics firm.

Cassano is also the president of Games Gone Wild, a company based in Norridge that leases so-called sweepstakes machines to area businesses.

Since the machines can be played for free, the machines are not considered gambling devices. But the machines are largely unregulated and have been known to have links to organized crime, a link that federal authorities were investigating around the same time Cassano was indicted in 2021.

But those bare-bones charges made no mention of sweepstakes machines, let alone the mob. Instead, Cassano and Galione, both of Addison, were charged with conspiring to collect a debt by extortionate means, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. Galione is also charged with using violence to collect a debt.

The charges focus on the Aug. 1, 2016, assault of Luigi Mucerino inside Galione’s garage in Addison, which prosecutors allege was over a $10,000 juice loan Mucerino had taken out from Cassano and failed to pay back.

Defense attorneys do not deny that Galione punched Mucerino in the face that night, breaking his nose and shattering more than a dozen bones in his face. But they denied the assault had anything to do with the collection of the loan — an element that prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

“This is not a whodunit, because, spoiler alert, Jack Galione punched him,” attorney Christopher Parente, who represents Galione, told the jury in his opening statement. “Should he have done it? No, of course not. … (But) they have taken a single punch thrown eight years ago inside a garage in Addison, Illinois, and they’ve made it into a federal crime.”

The unusual case saw turmoil throughout the leadup to trial, including an effort by prosecutors to revoke or tighten bond conditions for both Cassano and Galione following several alleged incidents of witness tampering last year.

In January 2023, prosecutors alleged, Cassano sent a series of text messages to an associate who frequents his social club that a key witness they both knew, Santo Perelli, was working with the feds.

“FYI your buddy is a paid FBI informant,” Cassano texted, according to prosecutors. “Information had to be disclosed to my legal team.”

After the associate responded with a wide-eyes emoji, Cassano allegedly replied Perelli would be testifying for the prosecution “With some BS that really don’t matter.”

That April, prosecutors alleged, Galione also tried to contact Perelli, going to his social club and asking about his whereabouts on several occasions. Perelli, who was out of town, heard of Galione’s attempts and reached out to the FBI “to express concerns for his safety,” according to prosecutors.

Perelli was instructed to get in touch with Galione and ask what he wanted. Since he didn’t have Galione’s phone number, Perelli asked a mutual friend to text Galione and see if it was OK to share Galione’s number with Perelli, prosecutors alleged.

Galione responded with a text stating, “I have all the FBI informants numbers,” along with a string of emojis including a police officer, an Italian flag and a rat.

Galione’s attorneys told the judge he had no intention of contacting Perelli, and had gone to the club to talk to someone else “about a union sponsorship for work purposes.” The text he sent with the rat emoji was in jest and actually showed he had no interest in contacting Perelli, the defense motion said.

In asking for tighter bond restrictions for Cassano, prosecutors cited another incident that occurred at Gino and Marty’s restaurant in the West Loop, where Cassano allegedly got into a verbal altercation with John Rainone, a convicted felon and son of feared Outfit enforcer Mario Rainone.

“According to an eyewitness and generally corroborated by video surveillance, Cassano and (Rainone) were yelling at each other, grabbing one another, and accusing one another of being FBI informants,” prosecutors wrote about the Feb. 4, 2023, incident. “Cassano was removed from the restaurant by security.”

Cassano also got into another altercation at Volare restaurant in Streeterville on May 11, 2023, when a dinner Cassano was enjoying at an outdoor table with several longtime friends “devolved into a violent street brawl” with men from another table, according to prosecutors. Cassano was seen on surveillance video getting knocked to the ground and injuring his leg, and he wound up in the hospital.

Ultimately, the judge imposed a curfew on Cassano and warned Galione about any future infractions, but allowed both men to remain free on bond pending trial.

More twists

Shortly before the original trial date in 2023, the defense accused prosecutors of intentionally withholding evidence that another key witness, Nello Pacilio, had confessed he had mental health issues before he was brought before the grand jury investigating the case.

Pacilio claimed that Galione told him Cassano had paid him to speak to Mucerino about the juice loan debt, but never ordered a beating, according to prosecutors. Pacilio, who also collected on juice loans for Cassano in the past, was expected to testify he told Cassano that “he was stupid for hiring Galione to collect his debts” because of his violent reputation.

“Cassano replied, ‘I know, Jack is even crazier than you are,'” Pacilio allegedly told investigators.

Defense attorneys asked for Pacilio to be barred from testifying, arguing that not only had his description of events changed over time, but prosecutors knew he was mentally unstable and could not be trusted.

“Instead of taking a time-out to determine if (the witness) was in a position to provide truthful testimony, the government coerced his appearance under threat of imprisonment” and then failed to disclose it to the other side, attorneys for Cassano and Galione wrote in a court filing.

The dispute over Pacilio’s testimony forced Coleman to scuttle the original trial date. The judge ultimately granted part of the defense’s request for sanctions, ruling that prosecutors could not use Pacilio’s grand jury statements at trial. But the issue never came up further because the mistrial was declared before he took the stand.

Once it finally got going on March 8, the trial was pure legal theater, with constant sparring between the two high-powered defense teams and prosecutors, who were forced to put on a parade of reluctant witnesses to prove their case.

Among them was the alleged victim himself, Mucerino, an admitted drug trafficker and marijuana abuser who also had to be granted immunity to coerce him to testify.

According to his own testimony, Mucerino smoked marijuana every day of his life, and even showed up high multiple times to interviews with investigators, something he said he stopped after being admonished by a prosecutor.

During a lengthy cross examination that stretched over two days, Mucerino acknowledged he deliberately misled Addison police and later the FBI about the reasons behind the attack, telling them at first that he owed a gambling debt to Galione and making no mention of Cassano at all.

“I took a little bit of the truth and made it sound good enough where I thought maybe the FBI would leave me alone,” Mucerino told attorney Damon Cheronis, who represents Galione, during his cross examination.

“You’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?” Cheronis shot back. “Taking a little bit of the truth, throw in a dash of a lie, right?”

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Mucerino said.

Mucerino also admitted under questioning by Cassano’s attorney, Todd Pugh, that he was likely high for his early interviews with the FBI.

“Did you call up the prosecutor and say, ‘You know what? I think I’m gonna burn up a few joints on my way down to the interview. Good idea or bad idea?’ Did you do that?” Pugh asked.

“I did not,” Mucerino said as some members of the jury appeared to be stifling smiles.

Pugh also grilled Mucerino about his report to Addison police the day after the assault, which Mucerino said he made only at the insistence of his wife. Mucerino said he wound up “leaving there in handcuffs” because he had a warrant for his arrest for driving on a suspended license.

When Pugh suggested Mucerino forgot to go to court because he was too stoned, Mucerino appeared to smirk.

“You’re smiling because you’re remembering that (Afroman) song, ‘I was gonna go to court before I got high?'” Pugh asked. “Was it one of those moments for you?”

“No,” Mucerino said.

The social club

The trial also featured extensive testimony about Cassano’s social club, a members-only neighborhood spot located in an unmarked, strip mall storefront in Addison where patrons — mostly first- or second-generation Italian immigrants — pay $50 a month to belong.

Along with playing cards, drinking and talking about soccer, several witnesses testified that Cassano’s club was populated with off-the-books video gaming machines.

One of them was Perelli, 40, who testified that he was running social clubs in both Addison and Chicago when he became a paid FBI informant about four years ago. Perelli testified agents showed him pictures of Cassano and seemed very interested in his activities, though he did not testify whether he was told the investigation had anything to do with organized crime.

Perelli described Galione as “a tough guy from the neighborhood, someone not to be messed with.” He said Galione bragged to him and another friend about the Mucerino beating, even giving them a little walk-through of the incident in his garage.

“He says, ‘Right here is where I knocked out that fat (expletive),'” Perelli testified. He said Galione also said Mucerino “owed Gino money” and that he was supposed to collect.

Things grew heated on cross examination when one of Cassano’s attorneys, Thomas Breen, pressed Perelli on his memory of events, which, like Mucerino, had changed over time to include new details of Cassano’s alleged involvement.

Then, during a seemingly innocuous line of questioning about where Perelli was currently living, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Guzman objected and asked for a sidebar, which the judge refused to grant.

Before the questioning could continue, Guzman blurted out that the government had “security concerns” over Perelli disclosing where he lived, prompting the defense to object furiously and later lodge the third of its half-dozen motions for a mistrial.

“Such a statement by a federal prosecutor standing just feet away from the jury was completely inappropriate and certainly suggested the government believed the witness’s life could be endangered if he answered what state he was living in,” the defense wrote in a motion.

Coleman let the trial continue, but struck Guzman’s comment from the record and ordered the jury to disregard it.

The spectacle continued, however, when prosecutors later that day called Mucerino’s father, Salvatore, to testify about Cassano allegedly calling him one day and asking if he could help pay back his son’s $10,000 debt.

The 71-year-old father, an immigrant from Naples who ran a popular Addison restaurant for years, grew so agitated under defense questioning about his son he had to be banished to the hallway to calm down.

“Why he lies?” Mucerino blurted out in a thick accent about a defense lawyer at one point. Turning back to the lawyer, he threw up his hands and said, “You get paid to represent a criminal!”

Coleman tried to calm the witness. “These are lawyers. They are doing their job,” she scolded.

“I know but I don’t want him talking about my family,” Mucerino replied.

Another outburst followed on the next question, and a seemingly exasperated Coleman ordered Mucerino out of the room and huddled with lawyers in sidebar for nearly 10 minutes. When the parties returned, Coleman said they would bring Mucerino back in “and find out how he’s going to behave.”

Mucerino wound up apologizing and his testimony continued. But the trial was about to go off the rails one last time.

Shortly after Mucerino left the witness stand, prosecutors called FBI Special Agent David Patch to give routine testimony about a download from a witness’s cellphone.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan, Patch told the jury he’d worked in the FBI Chicago field office for his whole career and investigated national and international “organized crime matters.”

Several members of the defense teams immediately shouted objections, prompting Coleman to abruptly end the trial for the day.

The next morning, Coleman said she had “no choice but to declare a mistrial.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com