Ex-cop, once on death row, convicted in kidnap-murder plot
A former Chicago police officer who spent years on death row before his murder conviction was overturned has been found guilty of a grisly plot to kill and dismember an Illinois businessman.
CHICAGO — Nine years ago, former death-row inmate Steven Manning stood in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago and praised a federal jury’s finding that two FBI agents had framed him for a murder, saying it was “a long, long way from death row to complete vindication.”
On Friday, a jury in the same courthouse sent Manning — now known as Steven Mandell — a far different message, convicting him on charges that he plotted to kidnap, torture, kill and dismember Steve Campbell, a well-to-do suburban businessman. Mandell faces up to life in prison. Authorities say he planned to torture Campbell and force him to transfer ownership of 25 buildings to him.
Mandell was acquitted of a separate alleged plot to kill an associate of a strip club to take over the lucrative business.
Authorities say Mandell and former Willow Springs police officer Gary Engel were about to carry out the crimes when they were arrested in October 2012. Engel committed suicide soon after their arrest.
The trial ended after two weeks of evidence that included an undercover informant, cloak-and-dagger footage from an FBI spy plane, connections to the Chicago Outfit crime syndicate and dozens of secret recordings in which Mandell discussed torture and murder with apparent glee.
As six guilty counts were read in U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve’s courtroom, Mandell, 63, a former Chicago police officer, pursed his lips and shook his head slightly.
It was the latest — and likely last — fall from grace for Mandell, a reputed underworld figure long considered by law enforcement to be a dangerous killer and elusive target. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 19 for conspiracy to kidnap, extortion conspiracy, obstruction of justice and weapons charges.
After the verdict was confirmed, the jury left the courthouse without comment. In the lobby, Robert Holley, who heads the FBI’s Chicago office, said Mandell’s conviction had “made a community safer.”
The jury convicted Mandell of planning to kidnap Campbell, of Riverside, extort him of cash and real estate and then kill him and chop his body into pieces at a vacant storefront that Mandell called “Club Med.” The jury also found Mandell guilty of calling his 82-year-old wife from jail after his October 2012 arrest and asking her to destroy evidence that was in a car parked near Campbell’s home.
The foundation of the government’s evidence were the dozens of recordings made by Chicago real-estate mogul George Michael, who wore a concealed wire while working undercover for federal authorities. The FBI also installed bugs in Michael’s office and at Club Med, which Mandell had outfitted with an industrial sink, butcher’s table, saws and other equipment needed to dispose of Campbell’s body.
In her closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane MacArthur said the footage jurors saw of Mandell laughing about torture and planning Campbell’s dismemberment was “so chilling, so grim ... it’s almost stunningly hard to believe.”
“There are things in this case that sink into your mind and are hard to shake out,” MacArthur said.
Mandell’s attorney, Keith Spielfogel, told jurors that the conversations were “ridiculous and absolutely never should have happened,” but none of the government’s evidence constituted proof beyond a reasonable doubt. He said Mandell was working as a paid investigator for Michael and wanted to impress him but never intended to kill anyone.
Mandell took the rare step of testifying in his own defense, telling the jury Thursday he “never in a gazillion years” would have followed through on the plans.
In his rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amar Bhachu asked why — if it was all a big hoax — Mandell would stock Club Med with weapons. Bhachu mocked Mandell’s assertion that he was just flinging “BS” with Michael.
“The BS is what came from the defendant yesterday (on the witness stand),” Bhachu said Friday.
Mandell was acquitted of plotting to murder Anthony “Tony Q” Quaranta — and his wife if necessary — to take over Quaranta’s stake in the PoleKatz strip club in Bridgeview.
Years ago Mandell had been sent to death row for the drug-related 1990 slaying of a trucking-firm owner. After his murder conviction was overturned on appeal, he won a landmark $6.5 million verdict in his suit against the FBI. A judge, however, later threw out the verdict, and Mandell never collected any money.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.