Steven Mandell, convicted in 2014 for hatching a plot to kidnap, torture, extort and kill a Riverside businessman, will remain in custody at the nation’s highest security prison, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
In a unanimous opinion issued Aug. 17, Judge Ann Claire Williams, writing for a three-judge panel in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld the U.S. District Court’s denial of Mandell’s motion to suppress damning FBI surveillance video evidence.
The court also denied Mandell a new trial, despite his plea that a loaded gun found inside the torture chamber he had custom built for his lurid scheme had been planted there by someone else.
Mandell, a former Chicago cop with prior convictions for a Missouri kidnapping and a Chicago murder, was found guilty by a federal jury in February 2014 of a plot to extort money and property from Riverside resident Steven Campbell before planning to kill and dismember him inside the rear of a storefront he dubbed “Club Med” on Chicago’s far Northwest Side.
During the summer of 2012, Mandell met a real estate broker named George Michael – who had also run afoul of the law and was cooperating with the FBI. Michael was part owner of a suburban strip club and the two discussed a plot to kill one of the other strip club owners to increase Michael’s ownership.
They also discussed Mandell’s plot to extort and kill Campbell, something Mandell apparently had come up with on his own. At Mandell’s trial in 2014, it was revealed that he’d tried to lure Campbell as early as October 2011, when he left a hand-written note on his business card at Campbell’s home in Riverside.
Mandell rented a storefront through Michael and enlisted an accomplice to carry out the plot against Campbell. That accomplice, Gary Engel, had been convicted of kidnapping along with Mandell in 1990 in Missouri.
Those earlier convictions were later overturned as was a murder conviction against Mandell that had placed him on death row in the 1990s.
FBI surveillance video captured Mandell and Engel sitting inside Club Med discussing the Campbell plot and describing in chilling, lurid detail how they would carry it out. They are also shown discussing and handling the gun later found by the FBI inside Club Med.
The FBI arrested both men outside Michael’s real estate office, where they’d gone to kidnap Campbell. The two planned on posing as police officers and staging an “arrest.” Instead of meeting Campbell, who’d been warned of the plot, Mandell and Engle ran into a swarm of FBI agents.
Engel subsequently killed himself while in jail. Mandell later claimed he never intended to carry out the Campbell plot, a story the jury didn’t believe. He was acquitted of conspiring to kill Michael’s partner in the strip club.
Mandell argued that the FBI’s affidavit asking a judge to allow it wiretap Club Med was false and that the wiretap itself was unnecessary, because there were also phone conversations the FBI recorded between Mandell and Michael.
But the appellate court ruled the FBI’s wiretap application met federal requirements. The court also dismissed Mandell’s theory that someone had planted the gun at Club Med, especially in light of the fact that on the FBI video Engel is seen loading the gun and Mandell questions Engel about doing so.
“Why have it sitting around here unloaded?” Engle says in the video.
“Good answer,” Mandell replied.
Mandell was sentenced to life in prison plus five years.
He is being held at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. The prison is home to some of the most notorious prisoners in the nation, including Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber; Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of helping carry out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; Terry Nichols, convicted for his role in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City; and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sentenced to death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.