By Bob Uphues
From the beginning of his two-week trial, Steven Mandell maintained that his elaborate plan to kidnap, torture, extort and murder Riverside businessman Steven Campbell was just one big hoax.
In the words of Mandell's lawyer, Keith Spielfogel, Mandell was "just flinging B.S."
But on Friday evening in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve, a jury of nine women and three men told Mandell he was full of it.
The jury convicted Mandell, 63, on six out of eight counts against him, including the most serious ones — conspiracy to kidnap Campbell, conspiracy to extort from Campbell money and property, attempted extortion, using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, possession of a firearm by a felon, and attempted obstruction of justice.
The jury found Mandell not guilty on two murder-for-hire charges related to a plot to kill the owner of a reputedly mob-controlled strip club in suburban Bridgeview.
Two of the convictions — kidnapping and a felon possessing a firearm — carry prison sentences of up to life in prison. He will be sentenced on June 19.
Mandell betrayed no emotion as the verdicts were read aloud in court by St. Eve. His face bore the scowl jurors and court observers witnessed throughout the trial.
For Campbell, who learned of the plot against him just two days before it was to take place in October of 2012, the verdicts were a relief.
"I'm glad he won't be around and menace me or my daughter," said Campbell, referring to statements Mandell made in secretly recorded conversations that he would kill Campbell's daughter if she attempted to claim her father's fortune in the event of his death.
"What's getting even is knowing he's getting put away and won't menace anyone else," Campbell said.
It's not the first time Mandell has faced a long stretch in prison. He was previously convicted of murder and sentenced to death only to have that conviction overturned by an appeals court. He was later convicted of kidnapping in Missouri and sentenced to life in prison, a verdict that again was overturned on appeal and never re-prosecuted.
He did serve time for burglary and was also convicted of insurance fraud in the 1980s, the latter forcing him out of his job as a Chicago police officer.
Mandell and his attorney tried to convince jurors that his plots to kill the strip club owner and Campbell, whom he referred to in recordings as "Soupy" and "Soupy Sales," were to scam real estate mogul-turned-FBI-informant George Michael, who befriended Mandell in July 2012.
The FBI amassed hours of audio and video from secretly taped phone calls and meetings. The FBI employed vast resources in the case, including more than two dozen agents and surveillance teams who trailed Mandell for months on the ground and in the air.
Mandell said Michael paid him tens of thousands of dollars to investigate and do surveillance on Michael's many business rivals and enemies. Michael was "obsessed" with gaining control of the strip club's profits, said Mandell, so Mandell would tell him whatever he wanted to hear to remain in his employ.
Part of that scheme to impress Michael was an elaborate plan to lure Campbell, 64, to a business meeting at Michael's realty office on Chicago's Northwest Side. At that meeting, Mandell and an accomplice, 61-year-old Gary Engel — dressed as undercover police and driving a police-style Ford Crown Victoria decked out with emergency lights and a siren — would snatch Campbell and take him to a specially built torture chamber they had dubbed "Club Med" a few blocks away in the 5300 block of West Devon Avenue.
But while the jury may have believed Mandell's story about Michael's "obsession" with the strip club, Campbell was Mandell's idea. Mandell had been trying to lure Campbell into a trap for almost a year prior to Michael meeting Campbell.
In October 2011, Mandell left a hand-written note and his business card inside the storm door of Campbell's home in Riverside. Campbell called the number and talked to Mandell twice, briefly. But Campbell suspected something wasn't right.
On the following day, Campbell turned the letter and business card over to Riverside police, who kept it until prosecutors obtained it for evidence just weeks ago.
"I knew that letter was going to be important," Campbell told the Landmark. "I just didn't know how and where."
When Mandell met Michael, a real estate broker, in July 2012, he found his way to finally lure Campbell, a man who was looking to rent property. Mandell then got Michael to find him the perfect spot for the place where he'd finally gain control of all the money Campbell appeared to have, and he hastily built his torture chamber there.
The chamber Mandell ordered was outfitted with a heavy-duty sink and countertop and a wheelchair, which would be secured to the ground by metal anchors. There were zip ties to secure Campbell to the wheelchair, a ski mask to cover his face, knives to mutilate his genitals and a loaded pistol in case it was needed.
Mandell and Engel planned to threaten and torture Campbell into revealing where he hid cash and to sign over deeds to his two dozen Brookfield commercial and residential properties.
The countertop was bedecked with knives, hands saws and a power saw. Sleeping pills nearby would be used to sedate Campbell before they sat him in the sink and slashed his arteries.
Rolls of plastic sheeting would cover the walls to prevent blood from spattering all over the brick interior as they dismembered Campbell's body to get rid of it.
On Oct. 25, 2012 just before 6 p.m. — the date and time Michael had set to meet Campbell — Engel and Mandell left Club Med in the Crown Vic.
"Let's roll," Mandell said as he left.
As Mandell and Engel arrived at Michael's office, FBI agents swarmed the Crown Victoria and arrested the two. Two weeks after his arrest, Engel hanged himself inside his cell at the McHenry County Jail where he was being held.
Mandell was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, where he called his wife, who is in her 80s, numerous times. He told her to pick up a Nissan he had parked in Lyons near Campbell's home and "clean it out." Authorities recorded those phone calls as well. Mandell had planned to drive the Nissan back to Club Med after driving Campbell's car back home to avoid arousing immediate suspicion if anyone noticed Campbell was missing.
Mandell told the jury that Michael had planted the gun. He told them he believed Michael was bugging Club Med with surveillance cameras and that he and Engel were merely play acting to impress him.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Amar Bhachu ridiculed Mandell's story on Friday, calling it "stupid."
"That testimony? That was garbage," said Bhachu while rebutting Spielfogel's closing argument, which maintained Mandell never intended to carry out any of his plots.
"The B.S. came from the defendant," Bhachu said to the jury. "It was testimony of a man who lied under oath and has the greatest reason to lie to you."