The Grave Robbing Mobsters

The Grave

Avron Goldbogen or Michael Todd started in the construction business and then got his start in the film industry when he worked on soundproofing stage sets when the pictures changed from silent to talking films. He would go bankrupt during the depression but soon rebounded first ventures into the construction business.¬†After WW II, Michael Todd worked on a new big-screen film process called Cinerama. He then broke off and developed another Widescreen film process that would become known as Todd-AO. His first success was a film version of a popular musical, Oklahoma. His next big hit was Around the World in 80 days, which would win an Academy Award for the Best Picture of 1957.¬†In 1958, Michael Todd was killed in an airplane crash. He was at the high point of his career.¬† At that time, he was married to the most popular and beautiful actress in Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor. They lived the Hollywood legend throwing grandiose parties on a lavish. After he died, Michael Todd left an estate estimated from $3 million to $5 million. After his death and internment, a story circulated that Elizabeth Taylor placed a 10-caret diamond ring valued at $100,000.00 on her husband’s finger before his burial.¬† Anyone who did even a little research about the accident could figure out that Michael Todd hadn’t enough body left for Elizabeth to put any ring.¬†Reporters questioned the manager of the Albuquerque, N.M. funeral home that processed Todd’s body immediately after the crash, and they learned that Todd’s body had been burned “100 percent” and had to be identified by dental charts.¬† He said, “We did not attempt to embalm Mr. Todd’s body.” A spokesman for Miss Taylor said that to their knowledge, there were no valuables in the grave.¬†After a well-attended funeral in Todd’s native Chicago, the family buried his few remains inside a full-size casket for the show: this was in the Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park.

The Crime

In June of 1977, 20 years later, a lady visiting a nearby grave noticed a recently open grave under the headstone containing the names of Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen and Michael Todd. Responding authorities quickly learned this was the grave of the famous movie director, Michael Todd, and the third husband of movie star Elizabeth Taylor.¬†The Chicago police described this grave as being 100 feet south of Roosevelt Road, just west of Des Plaines Avenue. They found that unknown persons had opened the casket, and the remains of Mr. Todd were missing. They speculated the graverobbers had to do their digging sometime between 5 p.m. Friday, when the cemetery closed, and Sunday morning when it reopened. Their investigation noted the gravediggers buried the casket only about 4 ¬Ĺ feet deep in the Congregation Beth Aaron section of the cemetery.¬†Hidden by large branches they placed near the gravesite, the thieves pried open the coffin’s bronze lid and smashed through a glass case to remove the remains. Crime scene technicians could not find any fingerprints, and searchers found some digging tools they believe were used by the graverobbers.¬†Forest Park police received no other complaints about disturbing graves in the cemetery. The cops got in touch with Elizabeth Taylor and learned she had received no threats or ransom demands, and, in an unusual coincidence, she visited the grave the previous Friday was the first time in years. She said she had some time to kill between flights at a stopover at O’Hare International Airport. Within a couple of weeks, the famous Hollywood private eye, Anthony Pellicano, got involved. He claimed he received instructions from an informant on where to find the body.¬†He directed cemetery workers to a plastic body bag with human remains inside hidden under a pile of branches and leaves in an out of the way section of the Jewish Waldheim cemetery. Of note, they could see a heavy canvas web belt like an airplane seatbelt inside the bag with the remains. An investigation determined these were the remains of movie producer Michael Todd.¬†Pellicano told police his informant suggested that the thieves may have removed the body in the belief that they might find a 10-carat diamond ring on Todd‚Äôs finger. Ms. Taylor and the rest of the family reassured police that Mr. Todd was not buried with any jewelry.

Who Done It

Three years later, in an unrelated situation, authorities will be able to solve this crime. In 1980, after being caught with a load of stolen furs, FBI agents turned Chicago Outfit thief Sal Romano into a government witness and undercover agent. The agents assigned Romano to infiltrate Tony Spilotro’s Hole in the Wall Gang. As we have talked about several times in the podcast, Frank Cullotta was the street boss of this gang. He took Romano in for a big score despite his suspicions – because Spilotro demanded it. He wanted Romano in his band of thieves because of his expertise with electronic alarms like motion detectors and other sophisticated devices. ¬†Another Chicago Outfit thief and gang member named Peter Basile vouched for Romano because they had stolen together before. On the 4th of July weekend in 1981, Sal Romano came out of the closet. Sal set up the gang for the Las Vegas Metro Intelligence Unit and the FBI Organized crime surveillance squad. They had a big burglary score planned. When Frank Cullotta and his Hole in the Wall Gang entered Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings through the roof, the waiting cops and agents swooped in, and Sal Romano disappeared.¬†When FBI agents thoroughly debriefed Sal of all the crimes, he claimed that Peter Basile bragged about robbing the grave of Michael Todd. Romano alleged that Basile told him right after the incident that Salvatore Romano, a government informant, now claims that Basile told him in 1977 that he and Glen DeVos had gone to Todd’s grave and dug up his body in search of the rumored ring.¬† Frank Cullotta, another hole in the Wall member who turned informant, reported that Basile told him the same story in 1982. Romano claimed that Peter Basile told him he had heard about the 10-caret diamond ring buried on Mr. Todd’s hand and that he found the gravesite and then took a very drunk Glen DeVos along to help dig up the body. Reportedly Basile made Devos do the digging. He also confirmed that Basile told him that after they rummaged through the burned decomposed remains of Mick Todd, they found no ring. He did say that they saw what looked like a web strap like an airplane seatbelt. ¬†According to Romano, Basile said that after the graverobbers uncovered the casket, they broke through the top of the casket. They rummaged through a body bag containing Todd’s body and were unable to find the ring.

The Informant

A little more about Sal, he testified at the Family Secrets trial, and he said he had a “rather good” childhood and ran into the right people to become involved in burglaries. “Locks and alarms fascinated me,” he testified, telling jurors he would buy locks and take them apart to see how they worked. “I developed skills in those things.” ¬†Romano said, ‚ÄúAt 26 or 27 years old, I began burglarizing different types of coin-operated machines around Chicago.‚ÄĚ If he got caught, he would pay off the police or the court officials. Romano testified. “You indirectly paid the lawyer they requested you get.”

The Mastermind

In regards to Peter Basile, he did not go on the Bertha’s score, but law enforcement looked at him for various other crimes besides the grave robbing. They learned he might have been involved in a conspiracy to commit robbery in a 1983 attempted robbery of the Balmoral Racetrack at Crete, Illinois. An Outfit burglar named Paul Peanuts Panczko had worn a wire on another Outfit killer and thief named Gerald Gerry Scarpelli connected with this robbery. FBI agents learned that Scarpelli and Basile had committed several Brinks armored car robberies, and Scarpelli was nervous about him. When they told Basile that Scarpelli planned on killing him, he realized he had no other choice but to break the Mob’s code of silence.

For 16 months, he wore a wire and helped the FBI listen in on his chats with Scarpelli and other associates before serving a few years in prison for the race track robbery and slipping into a witness protection program in the early 1990s. During one of his recordings of Scarpelli, the FBI first learned of the famous mob graveyard in DuPage County. Basile later took them to the site. The FBI heard there could be as many as seven bodies buried in the field. They would eventually find three bodies, I think.¬†Basile went into witness protection and re-emerged briefly in June 1996 at a U.S. Senate judiciary committee hearing. “I finally decided to do something because it seemed there was no way out,” he testified. “I began informing on the mob.”¬†The secret tapes Basile made led to Scarpelli’s arrest in July 1988. Scarpelli committed suicide in Cook County jail a year later. He gave a 500-page confession that exposed many mob secrets. He also admitted to 10 murders, including some in the Family Secrets trial.

Show Notes by Camillius Robinson

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