He spent four years fighting what were likely the wildest allegations ever leveled against a holy man in a Chicago courtroom.
But on the morning of his long-awaited trial, Catholic priest Eugene Klein finally owned up to acting as a imprisoned mobster’s secret messenger.
“The plea is guilty,” Klein told U.S. District Judge John Darrah on Wednesday. “It is entirely voluntary.”
Klein, the 66-year-old former prison chaplain at the Federal Penitentiary in Springfield, Mo., admitted he’d tried to help prolific mob hit man Frank Calabrese Sr. recover a rare, multimillion-dollar violin reputedly once owned by Liberace.
Wearing his clerical collar and black priestly garb, Klein later nodded his solemn agreement as his attorney Thomas Durkin told reporters that he had “made an error of judgment.”
It’s a mistake that could cost him as many as five years behind bars.
Calabrese — sentenced to life in prison at the 2007 Family Secrets mob trial and held responsible for 13 murders — was being held in solitary confinement, under the strictest security in the U.S. prison system when Klein befriended him in 2011.
Though he was banned by prison rules from communicating with others on Calabrese’s behalf, Klein admitted that he “conspired to defraud the United States” when he passed on messages that Calabrese hid in religious texts and passed through the food slot in his cell door.
One gave directions to a rare violin, which Calabrese said he had hidden at his Wisconsin vacation home. The violin was made by Stradivarius, was once owned by Liberace’s family and was worth millions, Calabrese told Klein.
The feds had already seized the home, which they were selling to pay compensation to Calabrese’s victims. Calabrese, who died in prison on Christmas Day in 2012, wanted Klein to grab the violin before authorities found it.
Klein took the message to an associate of Calabrese’s in Chicago. But their plot to pose as potential buyers of the Wisconsin home then distract the realtor and snatch the violin, was foiled when the home sold before they could take a tour.
Caught on a prison security camera accepting what he said was a candy bar from Calabrese, Klein admitted to the feds that he’d passed the message on to Calabrese’s associate at a Barrington restaurant.
But — until Wednesday — he continued to deny he’d broken the law, arguing that the charges he faced were vague and based on a misapplication of the law surrounding the strict “special administrative measures” under which Calabrese and a handful of dangerous terrorists and organized crime figures were held.
Durkin said Klein changed his mind on the eve of his trial after a series of rulings by the judge badly hurt that defense.
The 13-page plea deal Klein agreed with prosecutors Wednesday allows him to withdraw his guilty plea if the U.S. Court of Appeals overturns those rulings.
If that happens, prosecutors could still force Klein to stand trial. They declined to comment Wednesday.
But speaking after the hearing, Durkin described the case as “a conspiracy over nothing” and questioned whether the violin, which was never recovered, ever even existed. He added that looking for it was “kind of like looking for a unicorn” and he ridiculed the $26 million valuation the government put on the instrument.
“How do you value a unicorn? I’m not quite sure,” he said.
He added that Klein “made a mistake — he’s acknowledged that and he’s lost a job over it.
“He was a very good chaplain and you don’t find a lot of Catholic priests who are willing to go and be chaplains in penitentiaries, particularly with maximum-security inmates.”
That’s an argument he’s likely to rehash when Klein is sentenced June 23.