It will not be a particularly merry holiday season in certain wings of the mob in Illinois. The noose appears to be tightening around the neck of Chicago mafia captain and Outfit street boss Albert (Albie the Falcon) Vena. For the last three years, Vena and his Grand Avenue crew have been the focus of an ongoing multi-agency probe into mob affairs on the Windy City’s Westside.

A number of Vena’s key lieutenants have gone down, most recently this week when Vena’s brother-in-law and high-ranking Grand Avenue crew member Charles (Chuckie the Electrician) Russell, was arrested on firearm violations for trying to purchase a cache of illegal weapons from an undercover ATF agent. More charges will probably follow in the near future – he’s suspected of heading a sadistic burglary gang and is being looked at by organized crime investigators in the Chicago Police Department for a murder committed last month. Unfounded rumors of an indictment featuring Vena as the headlining defendant circulated in 2015.

“Albie knows we’re chipping away, eliminating the layers of insulation between him and his men to ultimately take him down,” one local law enforcement source said. “Chuckie Russell now and Bobby Panozzo, Paulie Koroluk and the kid Hollingshead a couple years ago, those guys are as close as you get to him, there aren’t many guys that had better access. Them being gone, off the street, hurts Albie’s bottom line. He’s scrambling and we know it. Everybody knows it.”

Outfit soldier Robert (Bobby Pinocchio) Panozzo, categorized by some as Vena’s “chief of staff” in the early 2010s, was nailed in 2014 for allegedly running a vicious burglary, home invasion and racketeering ring with his buddy and mob associate Paul (Big Paulie) Koroluk, a revered professional thief in Windy City underworld circles who pled guilty to the charges earlier this year and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Panozzo’s driver and bodyguard Jeff Hollingshead flipped in December 2013 imprisoned on kidnapping and home invasion charges of his own. Panozzo is awaiting trial.

Russell was recorded bragging to the undercover fed introduced to him by a criminal associate of his turned informant in the weeks before Thanksgiving of this year of leading a violent band of burglars that he claimed pulled hundreds of jobs the past half-decade, his intention of robbing a suburban Chicago attorney thought to have a safe with three quarters of a million dollars in cash sitting in it, proudly intent on using a blow torch as his primary enforcement tool, and killing an African-American man in November by riddling his car with automatic weapon fire, offering a photo and the victim’s driver’s license of the piece of work as proof. The Chicago PD confirms a homicide matching that description taking place last month.

With the tape rolling, Russell described to the ATF agent the intense excitement he got from armed robberies.

“Nothing gets my juices flowing like putting a gun to someone’s head, taking their stuff and making it mine,” he told the wired-up fed. “The fun for me is the score. That’s how I get my adrenaline. You know how long it takes to come down from a job? One night, (I was so charged up) I sat at my kitchen table counting money until my hands were filthy (and you could see the sun).”

The 67-year old Russell was busted back on Wednesday at a deli in the South Loop, where he thought he was picking up an order of high-performance weapons (Uzi sub machine guns, AK-47s) and left in handcuffs instead. On Thursday, he was ordered held without bail until a January evidentiary hearing.

According to an indictment unsealed Thursday, Russell met and talked business with the undercover ATF agent on at least three occasions this month: once at a coffee shop on Taylor Street in Little Italy, once at a trendy bar called the Boundary Tavern in artsy Wicker Park and finally once just this week at the Gale Street Inn restaurant in Jefferson Park, a mainly-Polish neighborhood on the city’s Northwest side. Police in Jefferson Park started investigating a home-invasion ring in the area back in the fall with suspected ties to Russell, a convicted felon and sex offender released from a near 20-year prison sentence for aggravated sexual criminal assault in the spring of 2011.

Chuckie Russell

Russell’s current set of charges bring 10-year terms behind bars, but could wind up harsher for him considering his status as a repeat offender. The FBI is said to be preparing a future racketeering case centered around the activities of the Russell-led burglary crew and the Chicago PD are actively working the November murder Russell spoke of and took credit for to the undercover ATF agent.

Per mob sources and Chicago Crime Commission documents, Russell learned how to steal and how to kill from legendary Outfit enforcer and hit man Francis (Frank the German) Schweihs, the bodyguard, collector and all-around right-hand to longtime Grand Avenue capo and eventual consigliere Joseph (Joey the Clown) Lombardo. Schweihs and Lombardo were indicted together in 2005 in the epic Operation Family Secrets case. Joey the Clown was convicted at trial in 2007 and is serving life in prison, while Frank the German was felled by cancer before he made it front of a jury.

“In the 1970s and 80s, if you saw Chuckie or the German lurking around your neighborhood you knew you were in trouble,” recalled one source. “They liked their work….. I told my daughter and wife, you see these two characters driving by the place, you go inside, lock the door and call the cops right away.”

Upon Lombardo and Schweihs getting taken out of action in 2005 by Family Secrets – both went on the run and were caught within the year – according to CCC records, Albie Vena, 68, assumed acting capo duties on Chicago’s Westside, which included all the territory on the Northside too where Vena had cut his teeth on the local gangland scene. The CCC records point to Outfit elder statesman Joseph (Joe Kong) Cullotta as Lombardo’s official replacement, however note he was filling the role of a more titular figure head and advisor to Vena until Vena got his feet wet in the post.

Vena, per the records, took over as official captain of the Grand Avenue crew in around mid-2008 or early 2009. His elevation to the Outfit’s overall street boss came in the last two years, according to sources. A convicted felon, he hasn’t faced criminal charges since the 1990s when he beat a murder rap in court, acquitted in the first-degree murder of Chicago mob bit player and drug dealer Sam Taglia in a 1995 trial.

Besides Vena, other yet-to-be-touched “big-fish” targets of the Westside federal inquiry reportedly include his reputed second-in-command Christopher (Christy the Nose) Spina, former consigliere John (Pudgy) Matassa, Jr. and one-time acting boss Michael (Fat Mike) Sarno. Spina is alleged to be Vena’s go-between to the street and for pending matters, specifically Chuckie Russell and his prolific burglary ring, per sources. Matassa, according to these sources, middles for Vena with the city’s labor unions. Sarno, serving 25 years in federal prison for extortion and from the crime family’s Cicero crew, has been named a prime suspect along with Vena in the 2006 disappearance and murder of Outfit underboss Anthony (Little Tony) Zizzo.

Russell, per sources, is the Grand Avenue crew’s connection to Chicago’s African-American and Hispanic street gangs. The nickname “The Electrician” spawns from the fact that in his early days as an Outfit up-and-comer, he used to tell people he was an electrician when asked by everyday civilians what he did for a living.

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