Chicago's biggest mafia trial in years opened today, with five reputed mobsters accused of being involved in a string of long-unsolved brutal murders, including one that inspired the Martin Scorsese movie "Casino."
Dubbed the "family secrets" trial because it may pit brother against brother and son against father, it's being hailed as one of the last great mafia trials in a city known for its colorful criminals, which include Al "Scarface" Capone and Sam "The Cigar" Giancana.
Watch Jim Avila's report on "World News With Charles Gibson" Thursday
"This is not 'The Sopranos.' This is not 'The Godfather.' These are real people, very corrupt and without honor," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Scully told the anonymous jury in his opening statement Thursday.
Though not the end of the mafia, the case could be one of the last major trials of a dying breed of aging reputed mobsters -- men with nicknames like "Tony the Ant" and "Joey the Clown."
"This is the final death knell" for the mob, Joe Tacopina, a New York criminal defense attorney, told ABC News. "But the mob as we know it has been over for quite some time."
The defendants, alleged members or associates of "The Outfit," Chicago's crime organization, are accused of racketeering, conspiracy and murder in 18 unsolved slayings stretching back more than 35 years.
The notorious murders include the death of Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, who was tortured before he was buried alive in an Indiana cornfield in 1986. The killing was the inspiration for the 1995 Scorsese movie "Casino," with Joe Pesci playing Spilotro.
Prosecutors are expected to rely on several mob turncoats to seal their case -- a dramatic change from 15 or 20 years ago, when prosecutors struggled to find mafia informants who were willing to testify against their own.
"I know too many guys who got whacked," Frank Cullata, an admitted hitman and the government's star witness, told ABC News. "If they want to hate me, they have the right to hate me."
"I can't say I am any better than them or any worse than them. We both did terrible things," Cullata said. "I would just say that I made the right decision."
Reputed mob boss Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo, 78; James Marcello, 65; Frank Calabrese Sr., 70; and Paul "The Indian" Schiro, 69, are all said to be the top members of "The Outfit." The fifth defendant is a retired Chicago police officer, Anthony Doyle, 62. All have pleaded not guilty.
In court Thursday, prosecutor Scully described the defendants as hardened killers, saying Calabrese strangled witnesses with a rope and cut their throats to make sure they were dead, The Associated Press reported.
Calabrese's brother and son are expected to testify for the prosecution. Calabrese's son, Frank Jr., allegedly wore a wire to secretly record conversations he had with his father while he was in prison.
But defense attorneys painted a very different picture of their clients. Calabrese's attorney, Joseph Lopez, told the jury that Calabrese was a religious man "who believes in peace" and loved his family.
Lombardo's attorney, Rick Halprin, defended his client. "When you're asking who is Joey Lombardo, he is not the head of the mob, and he is not who he is portrayed to be," Halprin told ABC News.
'A More Peaceful Mob'
The fight against the mafia today is not what it once was, said experts. Former Chicago FBI organized crime chief Lee Flosi said the bureau has focused more on fighting terrorism since Sept. 11.
The criminals have changed, too.
"It's a much more peaceful mob now than it was back in that era," Flosi told ABC News. "They want to ply their trade, make their money, live in the suburbs."
Defendants in the "family secrets" trial, though, fit the mold of flashy, colorful characters, with names like "Joey the Clown," "Frank the German," "Tony the Ant" and "Jimmy the Man." Joey Lombardo once took out a newspaper ad announcing he was no longer in the mob.
"He has this image. Some of it is due entirely to his demeanor," Halprin said. "He is funny."
Flosi, the former Chicago FBI agent, said, "If you rub it in law enforcement's face, they're going to give you the attention and then you're going to go to jail."
Racketeering Laws Key
State and federal racketeering laws have been the key to the mob's downsized influence, legal experts said.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, referred to as RICO, allows prosecutors to attack an entire organization instead of prosecuting each individual crime. It provided for enhanced sentences for organized crimes.
The RICO statutes also make it easier to convict the heads of organized crime families, who may not themselves get their hands dirty, for the crimes of the organization.
"RICO has been critical. Many of crimes we solved would have been impossible for us to prosecute if it were not for the RICO statutes," said Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor who handled mafia cases in New York. "It's incredibly effective and incredibly powerful."
Not the End
Still, the mob may be dying a slow death, and experts warn that organized crime is not going to disappear anytime soon.
"The mob's got a hundred year history," said Walden. "It's one of those organizations that, once you cut the head off, it grows a new head."
Flosi, the retired head of the FBI organized crime task force in Chicago, agreed. "When the heat is on, they change, they adapt," he said.
With reporting by Lauren Pearle, Elizabeth Tribolet, Hae Kim, Allison Battey, The Associated Press and the ABC News Law & Justice Unit.