Gary Engel

For the better part of four hours Thursday afternoon, Steven Mandell tried to convince jurors that he was a liar.

Mandell, 63, is accused of plotting to kidnap, extort and kill a Riverside businessman and planning to kill the owner of a Bridgeview strip club, along with his wife. But Mandell says it was all a sham.

“It’s absolutely preposterous,” said Mandell when asked by his attorney, Keith Spielfogel about secretly recorded phone conversations with North Shore real estate mogul George Michael, who was wearing a wire for the FBI and had been cooperating with the feds since 2009.

 In one conversation, Mandell tells Michael that he would kill Polekatz strip club owner Tony Quaranta and his wife while the couple’s children were at school and then swoop in and take over the allegedly mob-connected club.

Mandell said he wouldn’t have carried out the murders “in a gazillion years, because it made no sense at all.”

As for Riverside businessman Steven Campbell, Mandell told the jury that there was “no way in the world, no how, no way” that he would have kidnapped, tortured and killed him in order to get to what he allegedly believed were hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and property holdings.

Rather, he told Michael those things in order to keep getting the $100 per hour Michael was paying him to investigate the backgrounds of Michael’s business rivals and other figures, some of them mob-related, and perform surveillance on them. Michael paid Mandell more than $25,000 between the end of July and beginning of October of 2012 for his services.

That included a lump sum payment of $20,000 in September 2012, a portion of which was used to buy a white Ford Crown Victoria, which Mandell had fitted out with police-style emergency lights and sirens.

“Mr. Michael was obsessed with getting in the strip club,” said Mandell. “I’ll tell him exactly what he wants to hear.”

U.S Attorney Amar Bhachu, however, scoffed at Mandell’s claims.

“You’re quite good at lying when it suits you,” said Bhachu.

Bhachu ticked off other instances in which Mandell allegedly lied. In a court affidavit seeking a public defender after his arrest, Mandell did not mention the income he had received from Michael, said Bhachu.

Bhachu also said Mandell lied when, upon his arrest, he allegedly told FBI agents he was a police officer. Mandell denied stating that to the agents. Bhachu also confronted Mandell with the fact that Mandell had a “mistress,” unknown to his wife.

Mandell admitted the extramarital affair, calling the relationship “a romantic involvement.”

Bhachu told Mandell that only an idiot would admit to committing a crime.

“Do you think you’re an idiot?” Bhachu asked.

“Not completely, at least,” Mandell replied.

At the end of his cross-examination, Bhachu intimated that by facing a long stretch in prison if he was convicted, Mandell had every motivation to whitewash the truth.

“You have nothing to lose by getting on this witness stand and lying,” Bhachu said.

As for the torture chamber located in an office building in the 5300 block of West Devon Avenue in Chicago, which Mandell had specially outfitted with an industrial sink a large countertop allegedly for chopping up Campbell’s body after he was killed, it was all an act to impress Michael, he said.

And what of the equipment in the room — plastic sheeting to protect against squirting blood, saws, zip ties, duct tape, a wheelchair where the 64-year-old Campbell was to be restrained?

“They were all props for a supposed killing that was going to take place,” said Mandell, who often looked directly at jurors and smiled as if incredulous of the far-fetched plan himself. But, asked Spielfogel, would it have taken place?

“Never in a gazillion years,” Mandell replied.

The .22-caliber pistol found inside the torture chamber? That was a plant, said Mandell, an item he found in a bag given to him to by Michael.

Mandell claimed he and his accomplice, Gary Engel, were on their way to Michael’s office at about 6 p.m. on Oct. 25 to call off the whole charade. That, coincidentally, was the time Campbell was supposed to be at Michael’s real estate office not too far from the Devon Avenue office building. That meeting had been set up allegedly for the two men to kidnap Campbell and whisk him to the torture chamber, which they had dubbed “Club Med.”

Instead, FBI agents swarmed the Crown Victoria and arrested Mandell and Engel, who were outfitted with phony law enforcement IDs and a fake arrest warrant for Campbell. Just two weeks after being arrested, Engel hanged himself inside his jail cell.

Toward the end of his time on the witness stand, Mandell choked up and brushed away tears as Spielfogel read a letter Mandell sent to a friend from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago where he was being held after his arrest.

In the letter, which attempted to show how much he cared for his 84-year-old wife, Mandell asked his friend to visit his wife, befriend her and take care of her. His wife was a good cook, he wrote, and two would become fast friends.

Mandell wrote that letter to his “mistress.”