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An alleged Outfit soldier has pleaded guilty to a state racketeering charge more than four years after he was caught posing as a cop to rip off a drug stash house on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Robert Panozzo Sr., a reputed member of the Outfit’s Grand Avenue crew, was sentenced Thursday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building to 18 years in prison. But he could be paroled in just 4 ½ years because of credit for time already served and expected day-for-day credit.
Panozzo still faces separate federal charges of extortion for the alleged beating of a McHenry County man. Cook County records indicate his sentence in the racketeering case will run concurrent with his federal sentence and that the time will be served in federal prison — likely indicating he also intends to plead guilty in federal court.
Panozzo and longtime associate Paul Koroluk are part of a crew run by Albert “Little Guy” Vena, according to sources and court testimony in the federal trial of Steven Mandell, a former Chicago police officer who was convicted in a grisly plot to kill a suburban businessman.
The sweeping racketeering charges allege the crew participated in wide-ranging crimes, including home invasions, armed robberies, burglaries, insurance fraud and prostitution. They allegedly carried out five or six major “rips” a year, robbing drug stash houses while posing as police officers.
The case against Panozzo and his associates was the second Cook County case brought under a state law modeled after the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Many of Panozzo’s associates, including his son, Robert Jr., previously pleaded guilty to RICO-related charges. Koroluk was also sentenced to 18 years in prison. The crew’s purported “computer guy,” Maher Abuhabsah, still has a pending case, according to court records.
Panozzo and Koroluk were arrested in a dramatic sting in 2014 after the two posed as cops to rob what they thought was a cartel stash house on the Southeast Side. They kicked in the door and grabbed stacks of drugs — only to be arrested by Chicago police and federal agents who had wired the house for audio and video surveillance and watched from above with an FBI spy plane. Koroluk wore a police star dangling from his neck, authorities said.
Prosecutors allege the crew participated in several other elaborate schemes targeting drug dealers, many of which involved tracking their targets with GPS to find where they stashed their product.
Raised in the old Italian-American enclave known as “the Patch” on the Near West Side, Panozzo and Koroluk have criminal histories that stretch back decades, court records show. In 2006 they were both sentenced to seven years in prison for a string of burglaries targeting tony north suburban homes that netted millions of dollars in jewelry and other luxury items. Police at the time described the burglars as some of the most sophisticated they’d ever seen, from the disabling of state-of-the-art alarm systems to the cutting of phone lines.
According to court records, Panozzo got his start as a juice loan collector under former Grand Avenue boss Joey “The Clown” Lombardo, who was convicted in the landmark Operation Family Secrets trial.
Before his arrest in the racketeering case, Panozzo was operating a house of prostitution masquerading as a massage parlor in the 800 block of West Superior Street, according to the charges.
The racketeering charges also alleged that Panozzo has a history of violence. Panozzo has often bragged to associates that he threw an elderly woman down three flights of stairs to her death in 1987 after tricking her into signing over ownership rights to her three-flat in the 2300 block of West Ohio Street, authorities alleged.
Court records also allege Panozzo discussed arranging the killing of a witness in a kidnapping case against one of the crew members.
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