Monday, July 12, 2010

Schweihs report a missed opportunity

BY J.P. RICH Off The Cuff/

Throughout this past decade, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Steve Warmbir has covered the local mob very competently. From his contributions to the “Crime Inc.” series and “Chicago’s First Family of Clout” series to his coverage of the Family Secrets trial and its companion “The Outfit on Trial” blog, Warmbir has shown he’s the best mob reporter in Chicago today. His contributions make me think of late, legendary Chicago Sun-Times crime reporters like Sandy Smith and Art Petacque.

That said, I was disappointed by a recent article under Steve Warmbir’s byline.

The Sun-Times requested and received a 531-page FBI subject file of late, prolific Outfit enforcer Frank “the German” Schweihs. Still, with all that raw (albeit redacted) data on Schweihs, Warmbir spent most of his recently published article on Schweihs recalling past interviews, Family Secrets trial testimony, and recorded transcripts from the trial still available online.

In my opinion, what made it into print made this article a missed opportunity.

I expected something more along the lines of the in-depth article written by Warmbir on Joey “the Clown” Lombardo several years ago. Something more out of Schweihs’ FBI file that cannot be found elsewhere would have been nice. Warmbir included little from his background report, which — in my opinion — is always the best part of any FBI subject file. A background report allows a brief glimpse of how these gangsters ended up as . . . well . . . gangsters.

For example, I will note an FBI subject file I received two years ago on a fairly well-known mob leader.

Nothing was known about this particular unnamed mobster’s younger years from published accounts or accessible public records. His background report tells that story. It shows he had gonorrhea when he was 8 years old. He was still in the third grade (and illiterate) at 14 years old, at which time he dropped out of school. That tells a story. That tells you how that guy ended up as a career criminal. He obviously grew up really fast and likely spent the majority of his youth running around on the streets rather than going to school. It tells you how he ended up with an arrest record with more than 50 entries.

Now, what turned Schweihs in that direction? I don’t know. Perhaps this isn’t Warmbir’s fault. Perhaps his editor cut up his article to where it only contained previously known (and published) information on Schweihs. It’s not like Schweihs would sue for defamation of character. One, he’s dead; two, he tried to do that once before and failed.

Back in the early 1990s, Schweihs sued the author and publisher of a book claiming Schweihs killed Miami boat builder Don Aronow. It turns out Schweihs was innocent of this murder. As a matter of fact, the real killers were identified and arrested shortly after the book was published. It was a contract killing, but not a mob hit. A reputed drug smuggler allegedly hired an independent contractor to do the hit. Still, Schweihs lost his lawsuit because the judge ruled that (1) the lawsuit passed the deadline for a libel suit (Schweihs argued he was in prison and didn’t know about the book until the deadline passed) and (2) his character was so bad there was no way it could be defamed any further.

After Schweihs died in the summer of 2008, I debated whether or not to request his FBI file under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIPA), as the Sun-Times did. I decided not to at the time because I felt I had too many requests pending with the FBI and didn’t want to overextend myself financially.

Eventually, I might request Schweihs’ file once I get some other pending requests off the back burners. If anyone out there wants to make the request and pass along the results, visit the FBI FOIPA website for more information on how to do it. Requests cost 10 cents per page and the first 100 pages are free of charge. Therefore, Schweihs’ 531-page FBI file should cost $43.10.

Will I request it? I don’t know. Maybe some time in the future. Will you request it? If you do, let this site know what you find out. Pay close attention to his background report. There should be some good stuff in it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I admire Steve Warmbir’s reporting. Again, his editor may have trimmed his article down. Also, reporters don’t decide the length of an article. If your paper tells you to write a 1,000-word article, you do it. The Warmbir article on Schweihs comes in it at 912 words. It’s impossible to write anything in-depth on anyone in under 1,000 words. A missed opportunity.

Copyright © 2010, 2011 | J.P. Rich Off The Cuff. All rights reserved.

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