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CHICAGO -- Organized crime has toned down its image since the colorfully notorious era of high-profile bosses and public violence, says Wayne Johnson.

But the man who has tracked Chicago mobsters for more than two decades says even though they avoid screaming headlines and dramatic photos, they are as active as ever, busily looting union benefit funds, loan-sharking and fleecing the suckers with video poker games that rake in millions.

"The mob is a very wealthy, powerful entity -- its tentacles go everywhere," declares Johnson with all the gusto of an old-time homicide detective kicking in a door.

In two decades as a cop and four years as chief investigator for the Chicago Crime Commission, Johnson has immersed himself in the twilight world of hit men, racketeers and sleaze merchants of "the Chicago Outfit."

"On the street, the mob's not what it used to be; the violence, the shootings, the bodies in trunks," he says.

His job is to frustrate their efforts nowadays to keep out of sight.

"The mission is to monitor organized crime for the public, to give the public a real, concise definition of organized crime and the problem associated with it," he says.

And that means the business executives who bankroll the crime commission, established back in 1919, still have plenty to worry about, he says.

At 50, Johnson still looks the part of the Chicago police detective he once was. Before coming to the crime commission, he was supervisor of the organized crime section of the intelligence division.

Contrary to one story, Johnson as a street cop did not walk up to a car, grab the driver by the hair and pull him out through the window.

His partner did. The man couldn't fight back because Johnson was standing there, pointing a gun at him.

The man had shot and severely wounded another officer.

"It was the arrest of a lifetime," Johnson recalls proudly.

In his current role, Johnson has co-authored a 122-page volume published by the commission titled "The New Faces of Organized Crime."

It includes the latest version of the crime commission's traditional organizational chart of "the Chicago Outfit's" hierarchy, starting with reputed top boss John "No Nose" DiFronzo.

Johnson has also produced a detailed history of mob influence in the corruption-plagued suburb of Cicero, starting with Election Day 1922 when hoodlums working for Johnny Torrio and Al Capone shot up the town.

"He is the ideal combination of a street cop and a book cop," says crime commission member Richard Lindberg, the author of 11 books on the crime, corruption and dirty politics that saturate Chicago's history.

More important, says Lindberg, is Johnson's "absolute fearlessness ... He is an investigator completely free of entanglements, who had the guts and courage to go after corrupt police officers and identify mob infiltration into the casinos."

Some powerful people are angry at Johnson these days because of his remarks in January before the Illinois Gaming Board concerning the planned Emerald riverboat gambling casino in tiny suburban Rosemont.

Rosemont had been picked as the casino site by a measure passed by the Illinois legislature and signed into law by Gov. George Ryan. It was guaranteed to make investors rich and the well-heeled investors were sitting expectantly, waiting for the board to issue the casino license.

To their horror, Johnson sat down and began to denounce Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens as a man who associates with organized crime figures.

He pointed to Peter DiFronzo, brother of "No Nose," as a contributor to Stephens' campaign fund and owner of a trucking company that had a contract to haul materials during the casino's construction.

He mentioned mob boss Sam "MoMo" Giancana, killed while sauteeing spinach and sausages in his kitchen.

"Until his assassination in 1975 he had business dealings with Mayor Stephens," Johnson went on.

There was even a Stephens associate who, according to Johnson, was known in police and mob circles as "The Beast."

The gaming board denied the license, citing among other reasons "the insidious influence of organized crime." The board mentioned two investors but said nothing derogatory about Stephens. It has its own investigators and could have reached its decision without Johnson.

But his remarks provided drama and public backup to the decision. It made him some outspoken friends.

"I choose my words carefully because I am a Vietnam veteran," says the Rev. Tom Grey, an outspoken critic of legalized gambling. "But if I were going to war and I could have only one guy with me in that foxhole, that guy would be Wayne Johnson."

Stephens disagrees.

"I think the guy's pathetic," Stephens says. He says he never knew Giancana but did buy real estate from his nephew. He says he has met Peter DiFronzo twice but has had no improper dealings with him. As for "The Beast," he says he ran into him once in a Rosemont restaurant.

Johnson is an encyclopedia of mob lore with vivid stories about the colorful mobsters of yesteryear. There was "Mad Sam" DeStefano, a loan shark who blended clownish antics with extreme physical cruelty.

"They used him to terrorize people," Johnson says. But he says by far the worst mobster he ever met was Lenny Patrick, a former boss of North Side vice who once testified that he bumped off six victims.

"If he killed six, he killed 30," Johnson says. "With him there was no terror, no torture. Just whack 'em and be done with it. I had the distinct pleasure of locking him up in 1995." But charges were dropped.

It was mob boss Anthony "Big Tuna" Accardo, a soft-spoken little man who told investigators he was a simple retired beer salesman, who came up with the low-profile concept, says Johnson.

"He kept his wits about him and never got into a dispute with law enforcement officers the way Giancana did," he recalls. "Giancana used to go out and scream and yell -- he was a hothead."

Accardo used to wave to the investigators tailing him, he says. He died without ever spending a night in jail.

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