Ron GrossmanContact ReporterChicago Tribune
Who needs Capone and Dillinger when you have the Polish Robin Hoods of Chicago?
Newspaper editors long indulged Chicagoans' fascination with bad-guy anti-heroes like Al Capone and John Dillinger. Yet few got as much ink as the Panczko brothers, the self-styled Polish Robin Hoods.
Joseph (Pops), Edward (Butch) and Paul (Peanuts) were a trio of burglars, adept at picking locks, popping car trunks, and getting charges dropped and trials postponed. From the 1940s through the 1980s, they generated headlines like: "Panczko Tries to Buy His Way Out of Jam," (1958), "Once Again Pops Panczko Beats the Rap" (1959) and "Butch Panczko Arrests Hit 78" (1960). The Chicago Crime Commission calculated that Pops got 119 continuances on felony charges in a 21/2-year period.
In fact, all of the brothers spent time behind bars: Peanuts served 26 years, and Pops was sent to prison 12 times. When they were scheduled to be released virtually simultaneously, the Tribune headlined the story: "Lock All Doors, Here Come the Panczko Boys."
Butch was in the clinker for only 10 days, suggesting he had the most adroit lawyers.
The mountain of pilfered goods they piled up was all the more remarkable considering those court-ordered timeouts. Summing up his career in 1986, Pops told a hushed courtroom: "All my life, I stole. That's what I do."
The brothers' heists were legion. They stole 12,000 electric razors from an Oak Park warehouse. Peanuts robbed a Florida jewelry shop, attempting to flee in a motorboat with $1.75 million worth of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Butch got caught trying to redeem 6,254 stolen trading stamps in a department store. Ever the Teflon brother, he was fined $1 for the caper. Arrested for a tavern brawl, Butch and the patron he was wrestling with told the judge they weren't fighting, they were dancing a waltz.
The son of Polish immigrants living on the Northwest Side, Pops, the oldest brother, came to his trade helping his parents make ends meet during the Great Depression. As an 11-year-old, he stole chickens at the Fulton Street market and peddled them to hard-pressed neighbors, three for a buck. Over the years, those childhood adventures ripened into the Chicago legend of Polish Robin Hoods.
U.S. District Judge Brian Duff didn't buy into it. He scoffed at the notion that Pops was "some sort of Robin Hood character" when sentencing him in 1986 to four years for stealing $250,000 worth of gems from a jewelry salesman's car.
Still, if the judge disdained Pops, the brothers were neighborhood celebrities. In 1957, a detective spotted Pops at Ricky's, a delicatessen at Division and California. When the cop tried arresting him, Pops responded with a shove to the chest. Butch happened upon the scene and joined in the fray. Customers and a waitress rooted for the bad guys and jeered the detective. The waitress tried to free Pop's arm from the grip of the cop, who told a Trib reporter: "I barely restrained myself from taking out my pistol and clouting her with it."
Years later, Peanuts married another waitress who worked at Ricky's, explaining that she sent him salamis while he was doing time in Tennessee. After her, he took a fourth wife, telling the Tribune: "She doesn't want anything from me. She just wants me out of crime."
Puzzled by Pops — "He bemoans his arrests but seems eager to boast about them" — a judge ordered a psychiatric examination. The shrink pronounced Pops a "sociopathic personality ... not amenable to treatment." Pops did exhibit wild, emotional swings. Escorted into one courtroom, he lightheartedly told a bailiff: "If you see a coat in here that you like, let me know and I'll steal it for you." Convicted of burglary, he left court morbidly thinking he'd die in prison. "You see me again at my wake," he called out to a relative.
The years were increasingly unkind to Pops. He was constantly tailed by the police and booked on the slimmest of evidence. It was said that the one name every Chicago cop could spell was P-A-N-C-Z-K-O. Once Pops was picked up because his car was parked in front of a jewelers convention. Another cop found a ring of auto ignition keys in Pops' pocket. At the time, he didn't have a car or a driver's license.
"The cops are driving me goofy, tailing me so I can't make a living," Pops complained to John O'Brien and Edward Baumann, Tribune crime reporters who chronicled the Panczko brothers.
Pops' family life went south. Butch died in 1978. Peanuts "flipped," testifying in 1986 against Michael Karalis, an accomplice of his and Pops in a jewelry robbery in South Bend. Pops also became a prosecution witness, explaining Karalis had denied him a fair share of the loot. "If he had given me the right cut, I wouldn't be here today," Pops said on the witness stand.
Peanuts disappeared into the federal government's witness protection program. Pops was sentenced to four years; Karalis got a suspended sentence, despite two previous convictions.
Pops emerged from prison in 1989, not so much determined as compelled to be an honest man. "I'm over with crime," he told O'Brien and Baumann. "I'm getting too old. My feet hurt."
Pops, who died in 2002, suffered a final indignity. He was living with a sister in 2000 when robbers posing as gas company workers conned their way into the home. A nephew chased them out, and the police theorized that Pops was targeted as being old and infirm.
"What goes around comes around," said Sgt. Richard Rybicki. "There is a God."