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1 of 2 reputed mobsters makes plea deal in robbery plot trial

By Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Reputed mobsters Joseph Scalise and Arthur Rachel pulled off one of the more memorable heists in Chicago mob lore, donning disguises to rob the egg-shaped Marlborough diamond from a London jewelry store.

The two were caught after an eagle-eyed accountant, who happened to be passing by, grew suspicious at Rachel’s drooping fake moustache and jotted down the license plate of their rental car. By the time the two walked off their plane at O’Hare Airport hours later, the FBI was waiting for them.

They ended up serving a 13-year sentence for the heist of the still-missing diamond.

Wednesday morning Scalise and Rachel, now in their 70s, once again stood together in a Chicago courtroom. Both faced trial on charges they plotted a series of strong-armed robberies, including the takeover of an armored car.

But this time the longtime friends would go their separate ways.

Scalise accepted an eleventh-hour plea deal from federal prosecutors, admitting his guilt and opting instead to close this latest, intriguing chapter of his criminal life in Chicago.

“It would have been a very interesting trial,” said a seemingly relaxed Scalise, 73, outside U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber’s courtroom. “I think I would have won … (But) you just got to be realistic.”

In the rare exchange with reporters, Scalise had little to say about the missing Marlborough diamond, worth an estimated $960,000 at the time of the robbery in 1980. A reporter queried if anyone could recover the gem.

“If Lloyd’s (of London) wanted to pay enough money, maybe they could,” he said with a smile in reference to the insurance company that covered the loss of the diamond. “You guys will have to wait until the book comes out.”

On the other hand, Rachel, determined to fight the charges, turned down the plea deal and announced he would return to the courtroom Thursday for what could be a two-day trial before Leinenweber.

“He is a tough, proud old-timer,” Terence Gillespie, Rachel’s attorney, said. “And if the government wants to put him in jail for the rest of his life, they are going to have to prove the charges.”

A third defendant, Robert Pullia, 70, joined Scalise in pleading guilty Wednesday. Under the deal with prosecutors, the two face each about 9 to 10 years in prison. Sentencing was set for May 10.

In addition to the armored car break-in, prosecutors charged that the trio targeted the residence of deceased mob leader Angelo “The Hook” LaPietra in 2010 for a home invasion. Prosecutors contended the three hoped to find a secret, hidden stash of valuables — much like the highly publicized discovery days earlier of three-quarters of a million dollars in cash, stolen jewelry and guns by federal agents behind a portrait during a search of imprisoned mob hit man Frank Calabrese Sr.’s house.

From the start, the case fascinated the public in part because of their alleged mob ties and senior citizen status.

Federal agents arrested the three outside LaPietra’s Bridgeport, Ill., home under the cover of night in dark clothing and armed with a police scanner, drill tools, a ladder, flashlights and a tool box containing Mace. Weapons also were recovered from a separate location.

Since the late 1950s or early 1960s, the three men have been arrested numerous times and convicted of burglary and other charges, according to court documents.

“Their rap sheets read like a Who’s Who in burglary and robbery in the United States,” Gary Shapiro, then an assistant U.S. attorney and now the No. 2 prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office, said in 1980 when Rachel and Scalise were arraigned in Chicago on the Marlborough diamond charges.

The Marlborough diamond caper remains a compelling part of Scalise’s story, in part because of the lingering mystery over the missing gem and the brazen strong-armed tactics he and Rachel used.

Press reports at the time described how they used a grenade and a revolver to force staff and customers to the floor of Graff’s jewelry store in London’s fashionable Knightsbridge.

Jack O’Rourke, a retired FBI agent who attended the London trial and interviewed Scalise in a British prison, recalled in a recent interview that the two had worn traditional Arab robes.

“Scalise was a master of disguises,” O’Rourke said.

The two robbers might have eluded authorities but for the accountant who, according to wire reports at the time, became suspicious after noticing a fake beard slip from Rachel’s chin as he and Scalise fled the jewelry store.

O’Rourke said a license plate recorded by the accountant traced back to Scalise and Rachel because they had rented a car in their own name. Scotland Yard soon was ringing up the Chicago FBI office.

“Do you lads know Jerry Scalisee?” O’Rourke recalled London police asking his boss.

O’Rourke later traveled to Britain to interview both Rachel nor Scalise, but neither would talk.

Rachel was more curt, refusing to even sit with the two, O’Rourke remembered. Scalise sat down to chat, but he never answered questions about any of the ongoing FBI investigations raised by O’Rourke — or for that matter the whereabouts of the diamond.

In fact, after the visit from the agents, Scalise mailed a letter to his attorney at the time to emphasize this: He didn’t say nothing to nobody.

That much still rings true about the man.

After Scalise and Pullia entered their guilty pleas Wednesday, Pullia asked his attorney to convey a message to the judge.

“Mr. Pullia is not cooperating,” announced attorney Marc Martin.

A few hours later, after press accounts highlighted Pullia’s refusal to cooperate with investigators, Scalise sent word to a reporter through his attorney.

He is not cooperating either.

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