Balistrieri tugged at family crime ties
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Above Picture: Frank P. Balistrieri (center) was accompanied by his sons, John J. (left) and Joseph P., at the Federal Building in 1981. Balistrieri and his sons were convicted of extortion in 1984.Journal Sentinel Files
Joe rejected father, reputed boss
Oct. 26, 2010 The sins of the father became the sins of the son, in sharp contrast to what friends and colleagues say Joseph P. Balistrieri was like in his personal life.
Balistrieri died Monday. He was 70.
His father, of course, was the late Frank P. Balistrieri, long considered the Mafia boss of Milwaukee by federal authorities. Frank Balistrieri and his sons, attorneys Joseph and John, were convicted of extortion in 1984. Frank was sentenced to 13 years. His sons were sentenced to eight years and released after serving 39 months in prison.
The sons later publicly repudiated their father as an "evil force" who dragged them into his world and public ruin.
"He had made our births a scandal," Joe once said.
The convictions came after long years of investigation and sometimes charges by authorities. The 1984 conviction was the one that stuck. In addition to prison, neither practiced law again.
The legal evidence included FBI wiretap conversations between the two brothers.
"Brother John," Joe said at one point on the tape, "any hope of being legitimate is automatically erased . . . the time to make our move was in 1975 when we were absolutely clean."
"We had to do it his way," Joe added bitterly, "(and) we were absolutely corrupted."
On the surface, the details of his life seemed normal and even exemplary. He went to Catholic grade school and Marquette University High School. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, lettering twice in track, before earning a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965.
"I remember the first time I saw Joey after he became an attorney," said William Janz, who wrote about the Balistrieri family for the old Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He walked out of the judge's chambers and a state agent was sitting in the back of the courtroom and took pictures of him."
|Journal Sentinel files|
It was a harbinger of things to come.
He was a suave man, with a subdued sense of elegance and style. He loved the arts, especially opera, traveling overseas for concerts and even teaching classes on the subject.
By all accounts, Joe Balistrieri was also a gifted attorney.
"He was one of the brightest guys I've ever known," said attorney Gerald P. Boyle. "He was a first-rate lawyer . . . and he was very much a gentleman. Unfortunately, he was born into a culture that, I think, caused him to do things he might not otherwise have done."
"I think it was a consequence of culture, rather than greed or a need for power," said James Shellow, a criminal defense lawyer who represented Frank Balistrieri.
"If you listen to the wiretaps, Joe was the one who recognized that," Shellow said. "He was trapped . . . He didn't feel he could escape his destiny."
Janz recalled asking him how he was doing - "The dumbest question I ever asked him" - while Balistrieri stood alone outside during his trial.
Balistrieri answered with quiet gallows humor.
"As the man said after he jumped from the Empire State Building and passed the 76th floor, 'So far, so good,' " Balistrieri replied.
Contacted Tuesday, his brother declined to discuss any cause of his older brother's death - or any aspect of the criminal cases.
"He was a gentleman of exceptionally good character," John said. "He had a brilliant mind. He was respected and admired by his friends, not only in the legal community but the Italian community."
After prison, both returned to a life largely out of the news. Their father died in 1993. Joe Balistrieri remained an owner and operator of the Shorecrest Hotel, where he also lived.
Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Suminski Family Funeral Home, 1901 N. Farwell Ave. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Old St. Mary's Church, 876 N. Broadway.