BY FRANK MAIN AND FRANCINE KNOWLES
Two convicted burglars with reputed mob ties and an employee of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios have been snared in a racketeering investigation that found members of their crew engaged in murder and posed as cops to rip off drug dealers, prosecutors said Saturday.
Paul Koroluk, 55, his wife Maria Koroluk, 53, and Robert Panozzo, 54, are among five defendants charged in the case brought by Cook County prosecutors. Also charged were Maher Abuhabsah, 33, and Panozzo’s son, Robert Jr., 22.
Authorities said they launched “Operation Crew Cut” in October after Robert Panozzo Sr. and others tried to have a state witness killed. The witness was preparing to testify against members of the crew in a kidnapping and home invasion case, prosecutors said.
The investigation revealed evidence that the crew engaged in murder, home invasion, drug trafficking, burglary and weapons offenses, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, the crew routinely received information from gang members about the location and contents of drug cartel stash houses. They allegedly used GPS trackers and other equipment on drug dealers’ cars, then would enter the houses posing as police officers and steal the drugs inside.
During one home invasion and kidnapping in 2013, Panozzo allegedly sliced off the ear of a victim after he heard him speaking English. Panozzo was angry because the man said he only spoke Spanish, prosecutors said.
Panozzo stole more than 25 kilograms of cocaine and two cars in that home invasion, prosecutors said.
Paul Koroluk, Robert Panozzo, Panozzo’s son and Abuhabsah were ordered held without bail Saturday.
Paul Koroluk, Panozzo Sr. and Abuhabsah are charged with racketeering and drug conspiracy. Panozzo Jr. is charged with drug conspiracy.
Maria Koroluk, who was charged with possession with intent to deliver a Super Class X amount of cocaine, was ordered held in lieu of $100,000 bail.
Maria Koroluk works for Berrios as director of technical review with a salary of $97,304 a year, according to a Berrios spokesman, who was unaware of her arrest.
A task force composed of the Chicago Police, the Cook County Sheriff’s office, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI arrested Paul Koroluk, the Panozzos and Abuhabsah on Wednesday at a home in the Hegewisch neighborhood on the Southeast Side, officials said.
Authorities received court approval to rig the house with surveillance equipment and the men attempted to steal 44 kilograms of cocaine in the sting operation, prosecutors said.
Police also raided the Koroluks’ home in the 2100 block of West Race where they arrested Maria Koroluk, sources said.
Sources said police recovered weapons and large quantities of drugs in the raids.
On Saturday, Paul Koroluk’s attorney Joseph Lopez said, “There’s no questions it’s an FBI set-up. The FBI had the house wired up. The FBI had all kinds of electronic surveillance in this case. The FBI had wire taps.”
That may help his case, Lopez said, contending “Obviously a lot of people when they think about the [commitment] of crimes, they think about not the FBI setting it up. They think about people actually committing crimes ... The videotape shows that they engaged in this conduct at the behest of the FBI informant. . . .It shows the FBI set it up.”
Operation Crew Cut is the second racketeering case Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has brought under a new state statute. Last year, she charged leaders of a West Side street gang with violating the statute. It’s modeled after the 1970 federal racketeering statute that was used to target the Mafia.
“This case involves extremely serious allegations of dangerous criminal conduct,” Alvarez said at a press conference Saturday. “It is yet another example of the vital importance that our Illinois RICO law plays in our ability to combat violent organized crime here in the state of Illinois and demonstrates why it is an indispensable tool for law enforcement here ... This is a perfect example of the type of case that we were looking to be able to handle under this new law. It is so important that we as prosecutors have these tools.”
Paul Koroluk and Panozzo — convicted burglars — have been in the headlines for years for their reputed ties to the Chicago Outfit.
Eight years ago, they were convicted for their involvement in a crew suspected of stealing everything from jewelry to Lladros porcelain figurines from wealthy victims they allegedly targeted through limo drivers’ tips and yacht club listings, officials say.
Panozzo’s name surfaced recently in the trial of former Chicago Police Officer Steve Mandell, who was convicted in February of plotting to kidnap, kill and dismember a suburban businessman.
The star witness, former North Shore banker George Michael, said Panozzo introduced him to Mandell over lunch at La Scarola restaurant on West Grand Avenue. The FBI recorded the meeting.
Sources said Paul Koroluk and Panozzo are tied to the Chicago Outfit and the C-Notes street gang located in “The Patch” along Grand Avenue just west of the Loop.
The neighborhood has been home to some of the city’s most infamous mobsters.
Despite his criminal record, Koroluk once served as a local school council member in the neighborhood.
In 2006, Koroluk and Panozzo were both sentenced to seven years in prison in for burglary and possession of burglary tools. The crew was accused of breaking into north suburban homes and stealing jewelry.
Officers cracked the case when they tracked footprints in the snow from a burglarized Niles home to Koroluk’s car, in which they found two pillowcases filled with jewelry and cash, police said.
And in 1986, he was caught with thousands of videos that were allegedly stolen from stores on the West and Northwest Sides. At the time, he was running a video store near Chicago and Damen. Koroluk was convicted of burglary and sentenced to probation.
In the past, Koroluk and his associates were suspected of paying a Secretary of State’s employee $50 bribes to get personal information on victims. No one was charged in connection with that allegation. Sources said police are investigating whether the current case against the Koroluks and Panozzo also involves public corruption.