By Bob Uphues
No one was buying what Steven Mandell was selling Thursday morning.
In a rambling, disjointed harangue lasting more than a half hour in front of U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve, Mandell argued he'd been framed — that the government twisted an admittedly mischievous plot to wring some money out of a drug- and booze-addled real estate magnate with delusions of grandeur and turned it into a "phantasmagorically ridiculous" plot to kidnap, torture, extort, kill and dismember a Riverside businessman.
"It's insane, unrealistic baloney," Mandell said.
The government did it, Mandell said, to prevent a lawsuit filed against the FBI by his co-conspirator Gary Engel from going forward.
"Helen Keller could plainly see this," Mandell told St. Eve.
Instead, St. Eve sentenced the 64-year-old Mandell to life in prison plus five years for the plot, which she said was "deliberately and methodically planned to kidnap and kill an innocent victim."
She said the hours of audio and video evidence showed beyond a doubt that Mandell and Engel intended to follow through with their plan.
"Your actions in this case were evil and showed a complete disregard for human life," St. Eve said.
Mandell, a disgraced former Chicago cop who once served time on death row in Illinois for murder and served several years in Missouri state prison for kidnapping — both convictions were later overturned — was convicted in February.
He and Engel conspired to lure Riverside resident Steven Campbell to a Chicago Northwest Side real estate office where they would kidnap him and take him to a place they called "Club Med," an office-turned-torture chamber disguised as a "Christian Counseling" operation.
In FBI surveillance video, the two could be seen talking about the plot and about how they'd torture Campbell — including lurid descriptions of genital mutilation — in order to extort from him both cash and commercial properties. They planned to pose as police officers and drew up a phony arrest warrant.
FBI agents arrested Mandell and Engel outside the real estate office on Oct. 25, 2012, the date they'd set to kidnap Campbell. The two were driving a police-style vehicle outfitted with lights and a siren and were carrying phony law enforcement identification when FBI agents, one of whom was dressed in one of Campbell's Hawaiian shirts and his trademark straw fedora and driving his car, swarmed them.
Engel killed himself in jail shortly after the arrest.
St. Eve took special note of the "thrill" Mandell got by contemplating torturing Campbell.
"The pure delight you showed came through loud and clear," St. Eve said. "It was chilling to watch you and Engel engage in these discussions."
Campbell, reached by the Landmark after the sentencing hearing, agreed with St. Eve's description of Mandell and his actions.
"He is as close to evil incarnate in a human body as any of us has ever seen," Campbell said. "It was an honor to participate in the team that was there to put this guy away."
Exactly how Mandell came to target Campbell is still something of a mystery. At the sentencing hearing, Mandell appeared to claim that the government's star witness, a Northwest Side real estate mogul named George Michael, learned of Campbell through a trusted associate named Charlie Bosco, who Mandell said lived and worked in the Riverside and Brookfield area.
Michael, said Mandell, told him about Campbell in June 2012. But during the trial, prosecutors proved that Mandell had been tracking Campbell's movements as early as October 2011, when Mandell left a hand-written note on his business card at Campbell's Riverside home, inquiring about a Brookfield property Campbell owned.
During the trial, it became clear Mandell was convinced Campbell was a drug dealer who had wads of cash stashed inside his home. After kidnapping Campbell, the plan called for Engel to torture Campbell while Mandell drove in one of Campbell's cars to Campbell's home to look for the cash. He had parked another vehicle nearby, so he could leave Campbell's car at his home to delay suspicion of Campbell's disappearance.
After his capture by the FBI, Mandell called his wife from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago and directed her to have someone drive her to Riverside so she could clean out that vehicle and get rid of it.
Also while in the MCC, Mandell reportedly tried to arrange for someone to kill Michael. As a result, Mandell has spent most of the past two years in solitary confinement.
Mandell's attorney, Francis Lipuma, argued for a lighter sentence — all the while maintaining his client's innocence — and asked the judge to take into account Mandell's age, his health, his military service and the fact that he had already spent 14 years in prison in Illinois and Missouri for convictions that were later overturned.
But Assistant U.S Attorney Amarjeet S. Bhachu, who called Mandell "a psychopath," scoffed at those arguments, calling him the "mastermind of a truly barbaric crime."
He also waved aside the vacated convictions for murder and kidnapping, saying Mandell's innocence in those cases was never recognized. A court later refused to declare Mandell innocent of the murder, and Mandell directly referred to the victim of the Missouri kidnapping on an FBI recording made while agents were investigating his plot against Campbell.
"This isn't the first time he's done something like this," Bhachu said. "Only a village idiot would think the defendant didn't commit major crimes like the one in this case."
In handing down a life sentence, St. Eve agreed with Bhachu, saying that even though he spent time on death row, Mandell was not deterred from hatching the gruesome plot against Campbell.
"I don't think anything will deter you," St. Eve said.
Lipuma announced that it was "very certain" Mandell would appeal the jury's guilty verdict. He has 14 days to file a notice of appeal, St. Eve said.
In the meantime, Mandell requested that he be allowed to serve his sentence at the USP Coleman II high-security federal prison in Sumterville, Florida, in order to be closer to his wife, who is in her 80s.
St. Eve said she could request the location, but that the Federal Bureau of Prisons would make the final determination.