Do you remember your first bank?
“Yes, Gary, Indiana, the First State Savings and Loan. We walked in–I had a girl in the car, and I had another guy with me. And we walked right in and announced ‘This is a stickup.’ And I went to the president–she was an old lady, sitting at a table–and she had a button. I said to her, ‘Mama, if you touch that button we’re all gonna die here.’ So she took her chair and moved away. And we got the money, we walked right out, jumped in the car.
“I had the back seat fixed so we could raise it up and get in the trunk. So they were looking for two guys and a woman, and they never seen the two guys. They seen only the woman, and she had a baby, little Johnny, her baby son. And he was sitting in the front seat, and nobody paid attention to her. They had roadblocks, but we didn’t go on the road. We went to another guy’s house, went in the garage, closed the door, went down into the basement, split the money. Then one guy took the South Shore to Chicago. I sat in the back seat, and the girl drove right through everything back to Chicago.
“You just can’t rob a bank and get on the highway, because state police would have heard the broadcast on the radio. But we never went on the road until maybe two, three, four hours later. We go in a garage, a restaurant, a hotel, motel, whatever, and we split the money.
“I robbed banks all over. All small branch banks. Never nothing downtown, Loops and all that–too big. Chances are very slim that you will get away. You can do it, like you hand a note to the teller, but I didn’t go that way.
“I had one guy I used to work with–he’s dead now–his name was Alvin Boubede. He was a Frenchman. Very, very good. Come out of New Orleans. We worked real good, me and him. We would ride around in a small town, drive through it, look at it. Looks good. In them days they had a lot of rooming houses and motels, and we would stay in a rooming house. And next morning we would get up, soon as the door was open we would walk in, like customers. Look for the president, vice president, and operate right from there. Take the bank right away before the people come in. See, once the timer is off the vault, the vault would be open. But you got to come after nine. It wasn’t much–10,000, 5,000, 8,000–but it was a lot of money in them days.
“When I was starting it was hard for the police to get to you right away. Now they got computers. You can’t rob a bank like you used to.”
At 76, Jim Rini looks back on a lifetime of dishonesty. Despite 33 years in various prisons and more arrests than he can recall, he never found virtue. Today he is a tenant in a two-flat in Cicero, wealthy only in memories. He looks back fondly, without sympathy for his victims, without rancor at the police, the FBI, or his jailers. It was all one big racket to him, and he enjoyed himself, and the suffering that he inflicted along the way does not seem to plague his conscience.
“I was successful because I didn’t stay in one thing. I was a burglar, then I went into banks. I was a bank robber, and then I went into jewelry stores.” He was a stickup man and then an arsonist. He was an enforcer for the crime syndicate and then a con artist.
He was born May 13, 1918, to Italian immigrants Antonio and Josephine Rini. Antonio worked for the CTA and its predecessors for 35 years and spoke broken English his entire life. Josephine never mastered the new tongue, and spoke only Italian until she died. They were devout Catholics, and their other two children were never in trouble. Then along came Jimmy.
“I started off robbing dime stores–shoplifting, taking marbles–and I got away with it. And taking fancy hubcaps and hood ornaments. So I got away with all that stuff, and that taught me, ‘Hey, this is nice. I took this and got a dollar for it. Hey, this ain’t bad.’ Not thinking what it would bring me years later.
“All I wanted to do was get in trouble all the time. It was just action. I wanted excitement. I used to run through the alleys, stealing quarts of milk off a porch. They had iceboxes on porches–they didn’t have refrigerators when I was a kid. I’d open them up, get the meat, and take it home. I used to love to do that. We used to go underneath the el, start a fire, put a stick through the meat and cook it. People used to see me come down the street, they would take their kids and pull them in the house. I was a bad influence.
“I just didn’t like school. The teacher asked me–I will never forget her, her name is Miller–she said, ‘James, you take care of the fishbowl. You feed him every morning, you clean it, change the water, and everything else.’ And I didn’t like that. So I burglarized the school and killed the fish. I put all the ink in the fishbowl. Next morning I come to school, she says, ‘Your fish is all dead, James.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ But they found out through another kid that I had burglarized the school, and I had to go to the Audy Home.”
He cheerfully lists his other great juvenile crimes. He stole a horse from a fruit peddler and rode it around his backyard for a couple of days, telling his parents the horse’s owner had asked him to take care of it. At the age of nine he stole a beer truck, and a few years later he walked into a transit garage and stole a streetcar. He took a violin from a tenant who lived upstairs, and he and a friend, armed with tin cups, pretending to be blind, tried to play the instrument at an el station. At 11, in the course of taking another child’s marbles and money, he split his victim’s head open with a two-by-four. When he was still an adolescent a judge, reviewing Rini’s criminal history, predicted he would someday be strapped into the electric chair. “The judge,” says Rini, “was not far off.
“I was so wild I was always in trouble. Wouldn’t go to school. My dad used to beat me. He thought that was the way to cure me. He meant well. My mother used to chain me to a clothesline post. I couldn’t go from here to that step, 15 feet. That was it. Couldn’t even go out to the street. And then suppertime, when my dad come home, they let me go. I was about eight, nine years old. So my dad said, ‘Chaining don’t do no good.’ He told my mother, ‘I’ll beat the shit out of him with my strap all the time. I’ll learn him.’ He didn’t learn me. Made me worse. When you got a dog and you beat him and you chain him up, when he gets freedom he doesn’t come back.
“A priest came by my house, threw holy water on me, threw the smoke at me, said, ‘He’s got the devil in him.’ And my mother started crying. And I looked at that priest, I said to myself, ‘You’re crazy–“devil in me”–whatsa matter with you?’ Everybody was trying to help James Rini, and James Rini didn’t want nobody to help him. My father says, ‘Are you sick? Does something bother you? Whatsa matter? What makes you do all these things?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ That was the answer, ‘I don’t know.’ Anybody would say anything to me, I would say, ‘I don’t know.’ People were trying to find what was wrong with me, and all that was wrong with me was just the wildness in me. They didn’t know how to tame me. That was the problem.”
He was thrown out of five schools. At the age of 14 he appeared before a judge who said he was going to send young Jimmy to the reformatory unless his parents could find a boarding school that would take him, and to that end Mr. and Mrs. Rini enlisted the aid of their parish priest, the clergyman who had attempted to expel the devil in young Jimmy with holy water and incense. The priest had a friend who ran Saint Coletta’s, a school in Jefferson, Wisconsin, which catered mostly to children who were mentally retarded and physically disabled, and Rini was sent there. He hated it. “See, it was a very religious place. Church every morning, church every night. Oh, God.”
He stole a truck. He robbed the office. The final straw came when he began relieving his fellow students of their money. “They had money in their pocket, I’d take it away from them. A regular bully. Some were retarded, they don’t know what is going on. I would take their money out of their pocket. So one of the kids told her mother, and the mother told the mother superior, and they called my priest up and said, ‘We got to get rid of him. He won’t listen. Can’t correct him.'”
And with that James Rini’s formal education ended. He was 15 years old. He had never learned to read.
“When I grew up I got married, and I was still getting in trouble. Matter of fact I went to the penitentiary when I was married with two kids. My dad says, ‘You know what I bought for you?’ I thought he was going to tell me something good. I said, ‘What did you buy me?’ He said, ‘I bought you a gun so you can shoot yourself.’ He says, ‘You’re no good. You’re no good.’
“My dad used to say, ‘If I put all the money that I spent on you on one side and put you on the other side, the money would weigh more than you. For lawyers. I had to pay this guy under the table. I had to pay this politician to keep you out of jail, to keep you from going to the penitentiary.’ Which is true.”
“I spent 33 years in prison, not counting reformatories, Saint Coletta’s, and the Audy Home. I was always in trouble. I was in and out, in and out. Got away lucky sometimes–lawyers, connections. Paddy Bauler helped me a tremendous amount. He was the alderman from the 43rd. In 1934 they got me for murder. I was about 15 years old. I had just got out of Coletta’s. They had me as a murderer, killed a bookie’s wife. But she was a very good friend of mine. I ran errands for her, cut her grass, washed her windows. They found her shot through the back of her head. Somebody said they seen me come out of the house, and they arrested me. And Paddy Bauler was the one that saved me. They were going to crucify me. But Paddy Bauler was real strong in the police department. And he got me out of it. He turned me loose.”
How did you know him?
“During the elections I used to break windows for him. Anybody that supported anyone opposing him, I’d break their windows. Give them flat tires. We used to call ’em: ‘Take that sign down. You better have Paddy Bauler’s picture up.’
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it Jimmy. Stick around here, I will make you something.’ He was always telling me that, but he told my father one time, ‘He is going to get the electric chair. He’s too crazy.’
“It wasn’t that I was crazy. I was illiterate. I was a head above a guy being crazy. Like this guy who was crazy, I was a little smarter than him, but not too much.”
Rini’s first stay in an adult jail was in 1937, when he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to a year in the Cook County House of Correction. He was 19 years old. “I met some people there–you always meet people from the neighborhood, and you hook up with them. And before you know it, you meet them outside, and then you start robbing with them. And then you meet someone else. Then when I went to the penitentiary I met some bigger people there, and I started doing bigger things.”
In those days Rini carried out burglaries all over the city and suburbs. He describes that era as the golden age of burglary. As a consequence of the many bank failures that occurred during the Depression, people were reluctant to deposit their cash and instead kept it in dresser drawers and cookie jars. Even into the late 1960s, he says, a burglar could still find cash hoards, and alarms were unsophisticated.
“All burglars are scared of dogs. Ain’t that funny? They will go in and stick up a place and not be scared of a gun, but they are scared of a dog. Human nature, you know. I wasn’t scared of ’em. Soon as I go into the kitchen, I see a dog, I pick up a chair. A dog will not attack you right away. He backs off to see what you gonna do. So I get my chair. And I just wheel him around just like they guide the lions at the circus, and soon as I got him to a toilet or bedroom I close the door on him. Then I go ahead and do the apartment. I like to get him in the toilet, because if I get him in the bedroom, I can’t find my goods, what I am looking for–’cause I ain’t going to be looking for nothing in the toilet. And I never been bit. If the dog is in the yard, it’s not nice to say, but I would get some meat and, if I wanted that house bad enough, I would poison the meat, put it in the yard. You put rat poison in it, and it burns his stomach. And if he goes for water it is just like a rat–he blows up, bang, that’s it. Some dogs won’t eat what you throw in the yard. Some dogs are trained not to touch nothing. They eat at a certain time and that’s it. And if that dog don’t bite, that means you ain’t goin’ in that house. Forget about it.
“A good burglar, he don’t stay in the same thing all the time. He skips around a little bit. Hit the gun once in a while. Then you hit the stores, then you hit the house. You switch around a little bit, and you got to keep moving, don’t stay in the same neighborhood. I never took TVs or that kind of shit. Mine was jewelry, cash, diamond rings, stuff like that–coins, antiques, watches, big clocks, stuff like that.
“Fly-by-night burglars will hit anything. Soon as they see a dark house, they break a window and go in. They don’t know if the people are sleeping or watching TV in the front room. No good. Good burglars case before they hit. And a lot of burglars work on 10 percent tips. You say to me, ‘Jimmy, I know my neighbor has a lot of money in their house. I don’t know where, but I know they got it.’ OK, I will sit on that house until I finally hit it, and you get 10 percent of the taking. You sit on it for a week, maybe two weeks, but eventually you will get it.
“I never carried burglar tools. I was smart enough to know that an ex-convict with burglar tools in his possession can get one to three. So wherever I went I bought. I went on the north side, I went in a hardware store on the north side. If I was in Joliet, I would not carry no crowbar or tools in my possession. And if I hear a noise, I am running. I got gloves, I drop my tools–they are all wiped off–and I go. My tools have no fingerprints on them. Never. I dropped a lot of tools and never had a fingerprint, otherwise they would have had me a long time ago. They go and take fingerprints if it is a big score. So you leave the tools there, throw them away–sometimes I throw them in a garbage can. Tools will only cost me what, $20 at the most? It could cost me three years of my life, so what is $20? For me it is worth it to buy them again. I bought many tools. I would like to have the money I spent on tools.
“I like the excitement. I like to go in the window or go through the door, and I like to go through the drawers. You’d be surprised what you would find in a house burglary. I found a woman’s sock one time. I look, I thought it was play money–$8,000 in a woman’s sock, in her hosiery. I dumped it on the bed. I said, ‘This has got to be counterfeit. How can people leave this kind of money around?’ They were saving their money to buy a house, the downstroke. And I caught them lucky, and I got their money. It was in the newspapers. Their life savings to buy a house. I hit the right house. Sometimes I find diamond rings, a carat, a carat and a half. Diamond watches, earrings. I like to go through the people’s drawers, look through their drawers. You would think that I was a freak or something, but that is exciting to me.
“There’s a lot of people that said, ‘You got to be crazy. Excitement? Going through a guy’s window, a guy’s door, you call that excitement?’ To me that was excitement. Action. Anybody else would say I was crazy. Even guys who were professional thieves, they’d say, ‘You got to be goofy, the things you are doing. Get the money and get out.’ I used to cook eggs, ham–this is a burglary in a guy’s house. I wasn’t crazy. I just liked to sit down and cook people’s food and eat. Put the toaster on. Then when I got through eating I go out the window or the door I come in. That was what they call crazy, but that was the way I operated.
“A stickup is all right, don’t get me wrong. Stickup is a fast take, in and out. Fur coats was a big thing in my day. What they call full-length minks, shorties, they were big money. Somebody would stop at a stoplight, a woman. We would pretend like we were going to cross the street. We open the door, push them over, drive the car. He gets in the front, I get in the back, take her fur coat and diamonds. The Gold Coast, Michigan Avenue, we used to take them. I took a lot of them. Lake Shore Drive was my meat years ago.
“I stuck up one church. Saint Vincent de Paul on Webster. I just walked in. The priest was countin’ the money, and he said, ‘This is the house of God you are robbing.’ I said, ‘You don’t hurry up and open that safe, you are gonna go see God upstairs.’ [Chicago Police detective Frank] Pate was on the case, ’cause the guy that was with me got caught on another thing, and he told I was the guy that robbed Saint Vincent de Paul. And they were looking for me, but they weren’t looking to get me, they were looking to kill me. Because Frank Pate, his daughter was becoming a nun, and he was against that–robbing the church. So everybody was against me, ’cause if you rob the churches everybody is against you. If my mother and father was living, they would have disowned me, ’cause my father and mother was very strict Catholic. But me, I wasn’t strict. I was where the money was.”
Where the money went is another matter. When it isn’t your money, Rini says, you feel no sense of loss when you spend it, and you throw it around without much thought. Rini says he blew it all in taverns and nightclubs, on women and tips, on lawyers and payoffs.
“In them days corruption was a great thing. Everybody was taking under the counter. Today everybody is scared that they are getting set up with microphones, tape recorders. In them days they didn’t have all that. At Summerdale [police station] there was a guy who was the chief of police there. Little bitty guy, and all he wanted was money. And he would say, ‘Get Jimmy, bring him in. We know he did this house, his trademark is there’–I had a trademark in how I did the locks to open the door. They pick me up, they take me to the police station, they say, ‘Well, what are you going to do? Are you going to come up with the money, or am I going to turn you over to the detectives at 11th and State? They are looking for you too.’ He wanted whatever I had in my pocket–it could be anything, they would take anything you got. Sometimes on a burglary I would get a nice diamond ring and I would keep it for myself, or a nice little diamond watch. In them days it was Hamiltons, Bulovas–nice, they cost money. They would take anything you got. I used to have to meet them at certain restaurants at certain times and come up with the balance, whatever they wanted, so that made me go out and steal more to get the money to get these guys to let me off the hook. So I was always stealing. Today it is a different story. Younger coppers today won’t do what they did years ago. They are scared. Them days it was all corruption. They once took my shoes off in a police station to see if I had money in my shoes.”
In 1941 Rini was convicted of a series of burglaries and armed robberies. He went to Stateville and did not get out for 11 years.
“Coming in, everybody is new to the place. They look around, they say, ‘What the hell?’ Then after a year you get used to the custom of how you live in there, and you’re OK. Like me, the first year I was there I was always in solitary. I wasn’t used to it. After I got used to it I lived the life like, ‘What can you do? You gonna do it. Do it.’ I seen guys commit suicide. They can’t do it. One guy–his name was Nitti, he was a good friend of mine–he had about 20-some years in and he wanted to call it quits. He jumped off the third floor with a Bible in his hand. I know he wanted to come back up, but when he started down it was too late. And he was hollering, ‘Lord I am coming,’ or something like that. Everybody started laughing. ‘There goes Nitti. He is going to heaven.’ He lived. He was all banged up for a long time. He never got back to normal.”
Rini had been given 10 to 25 years for the armed robberies and one year to life for the burglaries. In those days someone given an indeterminate sentence was at the mercy of the parole board. He could do a year, he could do life, or he could do anything in between. And the parole board did not like Rini because he was always in trouble inside the prison. When he was given a job as a dentist’s assistant he was caught stealing gold from the teeth of newly arrived prisoners. He was repeatedly caught stealing food.
“They had strict rules. No talking at any time, only in the yard and in your cell. Talking in the dining room line was punished–three days in solitary confinement. It’s cafeteria style–‘One dip, no lip.’ You can’t argue with the guy–‘Hey, hey, put some more on the plate.’ You can’t do that. There is a guard standing there. Say you got too much and you can’t eat it. When you get off the table to go to your cell the guard looks down the aisle to make sure you didn’t throw nothing on the floor. If you do, he’ll call you back. ‘Stand aside there. You’re going to solitary confinement for wasting food.’ That was during the war years. You couldn’t waste no food. Them days are gone. Now you can waste anything you want.
“I got caught feeding the birds, the sparrows, one time. I brought some bread from the dining room to feed the birds that were comin’ in the window. And I used to put a slice up there, and they all used to come. So the officer wrote me up for bringing bread from the dining room. So the disciplinary captain got the report, and he said, ‘Well, I am going to put you in the hole for three days, see if the birds’ll bring you some bread.’
“You got solitary confinement for things like talking in line, gambling, or they had ‘insolence with the eyes.’ If the guard says, ‘Rini, go pick up that paper,’ and I look at him with my eyes crossed, that is what they call insolence with the eyes. They don’t have that anymore. You could get 15 days in solitary confinement for that. With two slices of bread and one cup of water per day. They feed at nine o’clock every morning. Once a day. No butter on the bread. Every third day they feed you whatever they had that afternoon in the dining room. Then you go three days with bread and water. The limit was 29 days. They got to let you out the morning of the 30th.
“Then they had what they called ‘the line,’ until some senator came through and said, ‘This is cruel, this ain’t right.’ You had a black line and you put your toes on the line. You started at eight o’clock in the morning. You put your hands behind your back, and you look straight ahead, and the officer is behind you. And you got off at three. And if you bent your knees, if you relaxed, you come back the next morning and did it over again. I have seen them fall flat on their face, their back. They got dizzy and sick, and they said, ‘Give me solitary confinement. I ain’t taking this line.’ A lot of guys would go into solitary for five days rather than do that eight hours. That is how bad it was. But I did it. I didn’t like to do it, but I did it because I didn’t want to go to the hole. Because the hole was very bad. There was supposed to be three guys, but they put it as high as seven in there. There was no toilet. You did all your duties in a bucket, and on the weekend they didn’t clean the buckets until Monday morning. So everybody would try to hold it because of the stink. My God, it was horrible. They did away with that. Now they got a toilet, and they got running water in the sink, and you wash yourself and everything else.”
The cells at Stateville were designed with glass doors so guards could see into each cell from a central command post. “At night when the lights go out they can see you, but you can’t see them. So if you are up on the cell floor, they will put the spotlight on you. If you are not doing your duty, you better get in bed. They don’t want you to be walking. If they catch you in an act of homosexuality, that was 27 months of your good time. So that was a very serious thing.
“Years ago they used to parade you with a dress around the dining room circle. They would dress you as a girl, so everybody knows that you got caught. Now you don’t know if the guy was pitching or catching, but he got caught in one of them.
“But the tough guys, who were supposed to be real tough in there, to keep them settled–which was wrong, I think–the captain would put a homosexual in their cell. And they would threaten him, say, ‘If you don’t behave we will take him out of there, and you won’t have no homosexual.’ So that was how they controlled some of these tough guys who was always fighting with the guards and stuff like that. They would bribe them that way. Some of them they would say, ‘Settle down, don’t cause us no trouble, and we will give you a good job.’ And they give him a pay job with the tailor shop, which would be like $18 a month. That was a lot of money in them days. And they would settle down.
“With me they couldn’t do none of that stuff. I didn’t play with homosexuals and I didn’t want no job, so I went my way all the time. See, I was more bitter of society, ’cause I was young and the judge gave me all that time. I didn’t think society was fair with me, so it made me bitter. So that is why I didn’t care anymore.”
With that attitude, Rini volunteered to be a subject in a medical experiment launched in Stateville to help the armed forces. The U.S. Army was trying to determine the most effective treatment for malaria, and to that end they came to Stateville and asked prisoners to volunteer to be given the disease. The men were told that it was dangerous, but that they would be helping with the war effort and would be given $100 for their participation. Rini signed up immediately.
“I figured if I died it wouldn’t be no loss–I had all this time anyway, I would never make it. Because if you got 10 to 20 years in prison in them days, the chance was you wasn’t going to make it. ‘Cause of the food, the treatment you were getting, the solitary confinement–everything was so against you.
“They had a little net and a little box, and they had the mosquitoes in that. And they put a flashlight on it, and they tease them. Then they put them on your arm, and he just digs in like an airplane.”
Rini, however, seemed to have a remarkable constitution. The first time he was bitten, 14 days passed and he remained unaffected. At that point the doctors brought in more mosquitoes and subjected him to another round. This time he came down with the disease. Other prisoners became deathly ill, and some had relapses for years. But Rini recalls that he was sick for only two weeks and never had a relapse.
The project was overseen by the late Dr. Alf Alving, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. Eventually 4,500 convicts participated, submitting to 54 different chemical treatments before a drug called primaquine was settled on as the most effective. In an informal document he left behind, Alving contended that no prisoners died, but Dr. C.W. Vermeulen, author of a history of the U. of C. Medical Center, indicates that Alving’s recollections were faulty in other details. No comprehensive scientific review was ever published.
In the end Rini’s sentence was reduced two years because he participated in the experiment. He was released in 1952.
Rini found that first 11-year term educational. He took a plumbing course and discovered he had some talent for the trade, which stood him well in his subsequent incarcerations. And from his fellow inmates he learned other skills. “I met a lot of professional thieves and burglars in jail that I operated with. Buddy Harlan, an Irish guy, he was very, very good on roofs. Cut through the roofs. Finally they caught him. They gave him so much time he died in prison. Lot of these guys died in prison, friends of mine that I worked with. But I worked with a lot of crews.
“On a roof you drill a hole first–gotta know where the joist is. You cut along the joist on both sides so I can put my rope around it. Then you cut a square like a trapdoor and peel it back. Then you put a rope around the joist or the air conditioner or a vent up there, and you let yourself down. And then the hole is big enough to bring the loot out. I don’t mean TVs, stuff like that. I mean jewelry. I’d say, ‘Bring the bag down’–it was a gunny sack with a rope attached to it. Then I put everything in the gunny sack, and Buddy would lift it up. Then when it was time for me to get out and there was an alarm on the door, I would crash the back door and let the alarm ring. But I am gone before the police get there. Ten seconds and I am gone. Plus I ain’t got no loot. He is gone already in the car, and I go last. I go out the back door, the alarm would go off, and I don’t care.
“Once you hit the street you ain’t got nothing on you–no gun, no wrench, no pliers, no burglar tools. I walked right to my car. And while the police go into the back and then go through to the front, I am gone already. They are looking for a guy who is going to come out with his loot, whatever it is, but they don’t know until they see the hole in the roof that them son of a guns are gone.
“I had a friend of mine–he is dead also–we used to fence all the stuff to him. All the jewelry, gold, and coins, and we would bring it to him. And then the FBI got wind of that and started setting those guys up. This guy’s name is George Burnett–they call him Dr. Foo. We celled together in the penitentiary, and he said, ‘When I get out, Jim, I’ll have a jewelry store someplace. And you contact me, and I’ll buy all your stuff.’ Which we did. I contacted him after I got out. The Maller’s Building, 5 S. Wabash. We used to take salesmen from there. They would drive up, we’d pop their trunk and take their suitcase out. You don’t see that anymore. Them days are gone.
“I masterminded a lot of robberies that I wasn’t on. I looked for them–how to do it, how to get away. Like guys in Chicago would say, ‘Jimmy, we know this jewelry store has got a lot of stuff. You make an entrance for us, and we will give you 10 percent of the take.’ I would make an entrance for them, and an entrance is nothing to me. An entrance is you go and open the doors for them, and then you leave. And they will do the rest. They will pop the safe or clean the counters or whatever. They would ask me to pick the lock or come through the wall. Say you’ve got a jewelry store or something with a lot of money in it. I go in the store next to it and cut through the wall with a Sawzall [a reciprocating saw]. They have a blade for concrete, one for drywall. I learned how to do it in prison.
“I also learned a lot of things about safes. How to knock the dial off and punch through, how to burn ’em. You knock the dial off, there is a pin that holds the arm, and you hit it. And you bust that pin through and the arm falls and the door opens. If you can’t get to the pin, you burn the handle with a small acetylene torch. You got to put up a blanket or a chair or something so they don’t see the sparks when you are cutting. It would take–at the most–eight minutes. If it takes more than that it would be what they call niggerheads, because they are hard–years ago, a nigger’s head was supposed to be hard, you know. And they burn: get a flame on it, turn up your gauges, get a hotter fire, and it will cut right through.
“There is so many ways. You can peel a safe. The back of the safe, you can peel them. You get the corner started, you get it hot enough–all it is is welded to the frame of the safe. You get the corner of it and you keep peeling it on the top all the way across. Then you peel it down, you put your hand in there. Usually you take them out–if it is a small one, a 400-pounder–you can take it out, take it to a garage, and peel it.
“I was with a guy one time, a cell partner of mine, he says, ‘You want to go on a job tonight?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ And he had nitroglycerine–you boil dynamite and you get the nitroglycerine from it. And he had it in a bottle and he was driving, and I was so scared that he was going to hit a bump or something. And we went to this spot, and he got the safe. And this guy took the bottle out, took this eyedropper, and he was putting all that stuff all along the edge of the safe–putting drops on it. Then he put putty on it, and he went all the way around. He put the whole bottle in there. It was a big safe. And I said to him–his name was Rivers–I said, ‘Rivers, do you know what you are doing?’ ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it.’ Anyway, he put the wires in there and we went way in the back. And he had a battery control–and he blew the whole front of the building out. He said, ‘I must have put a little too much.’ I says, ‘You silly son of a so-and-so. What the hell? Where is the safe at?’ He says, ‘Out there.’ The safe was like somebody had picked it up and threw it out the window. We got outta there. We blew that job.
“He says, ‘The next one I know what to do.’ I said, ‘You never did this before. One of your cell partners told you how to do this stuff, and you ain’t doin’ it right.’ The second one was outta town. The door blew open. They had a money box in it, and all the money got kinda wrinkled. It was like shrapnel, it just made all kinds of holes in it. We took it to a guy, he said, ‘Yeah, give it to me. I will pass it someplace else, and it is going to cost you a little bit.’ I said [to Rivers, ‘That ain’t too bad.’ But that was the last time. I didn’t like to go with him anymore. Then they finally killed him. They killed him on 31st and California in one of them trucking depots where they load up the trailers. They were waiting for him. He got the guard all right, but when he brought the guard in they blew him away. Cops blew him away. They told him drop his gun. He wouldn’t drop his gun, they blew him away.”
Rini was arrested for burglary on October 17, 1952, just a few months after his release from his first long stretch in the penitentiary. He ended up back in Stateville with a three-to-five-year sentence. He was arrested for burglary again in April 1957. He made bail, and two weeks later he was arrested for grand larceny–he had hijacked some pinball machines in Des Plaines.
The pinball hijacking came about while he was in the employ of the crime syndicate, a job the normally voluble Rini doesn’t talk about because he fears his life wouldn’t be worth much if he did. Some of his activities, however, were fairly well documented by reporters for various Chicago newspapers. They described a partnership between Rini and Alex Ross, working as a team of enforcers. Physically the duo called to mind Laurel and Hardy, with Rini slight of build and Ross with the physique of a balloon.
The Tribune first heard of the pair in February 1958, when a distraught saloon keeper called the paper and begged for help. Rini and Ross were then in the business of visiting taverns whose owners had pinball machines, bowling games, and pool tables that were not “licensed” by the Chicago Independent Amusement Association, a crime-syndicate front. The association wanted all those saloon keepers to pay dues, and to that end Rini and Ross would visit a tavern, have a drink, and sidle over to the unlicensed machines or tables, at which point Rini would pour acid on them. Sometimes the two men used more violent means. In one south-side tavern they destroyed a machine with an ax. In a tavern two blocks from Mayor Daley’s home the two enforcers drew revolvers and riddled a machine with bullets.
In its coverage of the tavern attacks the Tribune implied that the Chicago Police Department wasn’t trying too hard to identify the culprits. After Captain William Balswick, aide to Police Commissioner Timothy O’Connor, said he had conducted a “thorough” investigation but no one had been able to identify the culprits, two Tribune reporters fingered Rini and Ross without much difficulty. Reporting on Rini’s background, the Tribune noted that in 1941 the young thief had boasted to arresting officers that he was “the best burglar in the country.”
In July 1958 Rini and Ross also tried to intimidate the 21-year-old editor of the Edison Norwood Review, a weekly paper that was investigating the pinball business in suburban Niles. The intimidation attempt came nine months after the disappearance of Molly Zelko, a Joliet journalist who had campaigned against the pinball industry in Will County. In the wake of her disappearance it was widely speculated that the crime syndicate had decided to have her eliminated. Rini and Ross became suspects in the Zelko case and attracted the attention of Robert F. Kennedy, then counsel to the Senate rackets committee, which was investigating the crime syndicate’s role in private industry. Kennedy eventually hauled Rini and Ross to Washington, where they appeared before the committee. Kennedy asked Rini if he was being paid $150 a week for his tavern raids, if his nickname was “the Green Hornet,” and if he had scars that resulted from an incident in which a bottle of acid broke in his pocket. In refusing to answer those and all other questions, Rini invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Today Rini denies any involvement in the Zelko case. He acquired the “Green Hornet” nickname, he says, after one of his burglary victims saw him dash out a window and in a statement to a reporter compared the smooth exit to those executed by the Green Hornet of radio fame. He declines to talk about the rest of his crime-syndicate work, but does admit to having an acid scar on his backside. “See I had the acid in my pocket. I had a little bottle. Years ago, before they put the lids on bottles, they sealed them with little corks. So I had it in my back pocket, and when I sat down in the backseat it came apart. And then I burned my ass and my pants and everything. The acid was so strong. You put it on the pool table it would eat all the felt.”
While doing his muscle work for the crime syndicate, Rini was also running various con games. His favorite was selling whiskey to saloon keepers who believed they were buying stolen goods. Rini would tell the publican that he had cases of whiskey to sell–Johnnie Walker, J & B, Cutty Sark–and that he would part with them for $5 a bottle. He would sometimes show them a single case. Interested parties would then arrange for delivery at an address where Rini told them he kept the liquor. Rini would meet the buyer, take his cash, and then tell him to pull around to the overhead garage door so they could more easily load the cases he had purchased. Rini would pretend to be going to the side door to open the garage, but would instead walk through the yard to the front of the building, where he would jump in a waiting car. The saloon keeper would wait for the overhead door to open, then would begin pounding on it, and eventually would learn that it was a garage Rini had no connection to at all.
One man who declined Rini’s offer of whiskey mentioned that he needed some cement. “I said, ‘Cement? I got a friend of mine, he’s got all you want. C’mon.’ We stopped on Diversey and Sheridan–they were doing construction there and had 100-pound bags of cement. And there was a trailer with a guy inside, a watchman. And I told him, ‘There is all the cement you want. Just pull your car in and take all the bags you want. Give me the money, a dollar a bag.’ He gave me a hundred dollars, and I left. And he went across the street and pulled the tarp over, and the watchman said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I bought this cement.’ ‘You didn’t buy this cement.’ They called the cops, and they arrested him.”
When Rini’s picture appeared in the newspapers and on television in connection with his terrorization of tavern owners, the cement buyer recognized him and called the police. A warrant was issued for Rini’s arrest on charges that he was running a confidence game.
In the meantime some buyers of the phantom whiskey had also tracked Rini down. On September 7, 1958, three men, their faces covered with handkerchiefs, jumped out of an alley off Wilson Avenue, stabbed Rini, and beat up his girlfriend. He recovered in a few weeks, just in time to attend his sentencing on charges of burglary, robbery, larceny, malicious mischief (for the attacks on the tavern machines and tables), conspiracy, possession of burglar tools, and conducting a confidence game. He was sentenced to 10 to 14 years.
While he was serving time on those charges, he was indicted again. His partners in the robbery of the savings and loan in Gary had been arrested for robbing a bank in Newport, Kentucky, and in negotiations with prosecutors they offered Rini’s name on the Indiana job. As a result, Rini served an additional three years.
He can no longer recall exactly when he was released, but he thinks it was in 1968. His rap sheet shows that he was arrested for burglary in 1971, 1975, 1976, and 1978.
“Prison is like a world itself. It’s a town. I was a plumber, emergency plumber. If a toilet broke and kept running, somebody couldn’t sleep, they would open my cell at two in the morning. I was everyplace. That is the first job I always get when I go to prison. Plumbing is a hell of a gimmick in the penitentiary.
“I had a truck and everything. I used to work in the captain’s house, in the guard’s house. You know they trusted me, ’cause they look at your record and they see you got any rape, they won’t send you out there. ‘Cause they had women out there, the guards’ wives and stuff like that. So they knew I was not a rape fiend. All my criminal record is burglary, robbery, burglary, robbery, and so on. So I would take the truck and go to the captain’s house, the lieutenant’s house, the guy who did all the purchases, and stuff like that. They would say, Jimmy, I got a leak here, I got a leak there. And I would fix it.
“I also worked in the inmate cemetery. They got their own boot hill. A friend of mine died. He was my cell partner. His name was Joe Lombardo. So there is a private cemetery across the way from our cemetery, and one day they had a burial there and they had a lot of flowers. So after they left I went over and grabbed one of those big stands, and I brought it over to my friend’s. So a captain went by–they got a captain who goes cruising around the walls all the time–and he stopped and he said, ‘Hornet, where’d those flowers come from?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ See, if you leave our boundaries, our premises, to go across that road, that is escaping. So naturally I wasn’t gonna tell him I stole them. So he said, ‘I think I am going to have to write you a disciplinary ticket.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘Well, you take care of this here ground for the convicts.’ I said ‘Yeah, but somebody must’ve brung it, maybe last night. When I come here this morning it was there.’ ‘I don’t believe it. I patrol this and two hours ago that flower wasn’t there.’ Anyway, he wrote me a disciplinary ticket. Next morning I went inside, and captain said, ‘Well Hornet, you got a bad report here. Leaving the state premises, going into a private cemetery, stealing the flowers–that is bad.’ ‘Cap, I don’t know who put that there, but I didn’t put it there. I don’t even know the guy. Why would I put the flowers?’ He said, ‘Well, I got some work that has to be done out at my house, otherwise I’d lock you up. I am going to let you con me out of this one.’ So anyway, I went back out there.”
To make money in Stateville Rini worked several scams, chief among them a booze-making operation. “I would get the raisins. A guard would bring me the yeast. Maybe I would give him ten pair of socks, inmate socks. They are crooks too, you know. Heavy-duty socks. I would give him six in a bundle, and he would put them around his waist and put his jacket on and go home with them.”
For containers, Rini collected wax milk cartons. “I make the stuff right upstairs. Get gallons of water, put the prune juice in there–or whatever I was going to make–put the yeast in there, the sugar in there, the raisins, one slice of potato. Then you seal it–have a little opening so when it is fermenting it won’t explode. And I would put it on top of the catwalk where all the radiators and steam pipes are and squirt bug juice around there so you don’t get the odor. The guards are walking all the time on the catwalks, counting you, checking you out. They can’t smell it. The bug juice was real strong.” After seven days, Rini says, the liquor was ready, and he would make the rounds of his hiding places, staple the containers shut, and put them in his toolbox. Then he would call on his customers.
“In the center of the cell house is a tower, and I just motion to the guard in it. He knows I got my toolbox, I am a plumber, everybody knows who I am. ‘Open this one here, number nine.’ He opens the door–it is all electronic–and I walk in. And when the guard isn’t looking I take the liquor and give it to him. He gives me my cigarettes or my cash, whatever he is going to give me. Knock on the glass, [the guard] opens the door, I walk out, go to another one. I would have maybe 12 quarts–three gallons–and I would save a quart for me. It tasted good.
“I would have all the customers ready, mostly the holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s. Everybody is drunk on New Year’s. The guards would say, ‘How come these guys are acting crazy? What’s wrong with them?’ And the old-timers would say, ‘Well, they’re drunk. We can’t catch these guys. We know who is doing it, we can’t catch him.’ They knew I was doin’ it.”
For a while Rini also sold cigarettes. He would buy a packet for 15 cents, then sell the 20 cigarettes for a penny apiece. At one point inmates discovered that the inhalers sold for sinus relief in the commissary contained an amphetamine strip that, if chewed, induced a certain high. Rini began hoarding the inhalers, buying as many as he could as soon as the shelves were restocked and then selling them to other inmates at inflated prices.
Rini also worked as a pimp. The homosexuals who worked in the laundry would ask him to find them a customer for their sexual services. The going rate was a carton of cigarettes, of which half would go to Rini. Rini didn’t smoke cigarettes, but he would trade them for cigars.
“So there is a gimmick to everything. So you see even in prison I got to the point where I said, well I am doing time here and I got to make some money here. They can’t lock me up, I am in jail already, I am used to solitary confinement, I can lay on the concrete floor with a blanket.
“When I went back to Stateville the last time, in 1971, I was more settled. They didn’t bother me, I didn’t bother them. I didn’t go to solitary confinement once in the 18 months I was there. Things had changed. There was them gangbangers there and all them gangs–the Latin Kings, the Stones, the Disciples. You go to the commissary, you got these gangbangers saying, ‘Hey, give me a carton of cigarettes–protection money.’ Otherwise they rip your cell off, take everything anyway. So you might as well pay them. This way you have something. It’s a rough deal. But they didn’t bother me. There were some old-timers there, they used to tell the young kids, ‘Hey, don’t bother that old guy there. He’s father time. He was here when you weren’t even born.’ The old-timers still had a lot to say in there. I didn’t have no trouble.”
When he was released from Stateville on March 15, 1973, he was 54 years old. He eventually got into the board-up business in Maywood, working for two off-duty Maywood policemen who ran the firm. On the side Rini did a little plumbing and ran a used-furniture business. He also fenced stolen goods and did the occasional burglary.
While in prison he had picked up another trade–arson–and after his release he also developed that sideline. “I learned everything in prison from other arsonists, and they told me how to do it without gettin’ hurt.”
How did you get business?
“See, the people, like everybody in the underworld, knows I am an arsonist. Crooks, thieves, they know I am an arsonist. From the grapevine, it travels around. People talk. ‘Well I know a guy that is an arsonist–he’s real good. I’ll talk to him, see if he wants to take the job.’ So if the money is good and I go look at the place and see what it is, I set everything up, make sure there is nobody around. If there is somebody around, that means it was a setup–the guy is working as an informer with the G, with the state, whatever it was. I might do it a week later. I got your money–you’re chasing me, I ain’t chasing you. OK? So when I get to the point I’m ready, I see everything is clear, then I go ahead and do it.
“As you know there is no statute of limitations on arson. Murder, arson, treason, stuff like that, no statute of limitations. But what I am trying to say is this: arson is fast money, but it is dangerous money. A fireman could get killed, and that is what the courts look at. You are jeopardizing the firemen, jeopardizing somebody going by the house. The explosion could be too much. You got to know how much to put in and how much not to put in. If I put ten gallons of gas in this house, what do you think would happen? It would blow it right off the foundation. A certain amount of gas is all you need. Or I can go ahead and do it another way, without gas.
“Arson is big money, but it is a lot of time when you get caught. Twenty thousand dollars to $30,000 to burn a building. But when you say burn a building, now you don’t put a little smoke in the building–you got to total it before the man pays you. He gives you a downstroke, but you gotta total it before he pays the rest of it. That is the bad thing. Every building that I was involved in or knew about, the people were out of the house. Mostly it was merchants, like grocery stores, stuff like that. Houses, forget about it. Kids are involved. They don’t want to hurt nobody. But merchants, chances are nobody is in there, the place is locked. You burn it, and you get your money.
“I remember a guy told me, ‘I will give you $10,000 to burn my restaurant.’ I said, ‘Nope, it ain’t enough.’ It was a big restaurant. Well, he did it. Know what happened? Couldn’t get out, burned himself alive because he didn’t know what he was doing.”
As a favor to a friend, Rini hired a man named David Fritz to work with him on board-ups in 1983. Fritz was in a halfway house, on release from the penitentiary. In late March he came to Rini with an offer to burn a warehouse in Hammond, saying he’d been offered $10,000 to do the job. By April 1 Fritz had the $5,000 down payment. Rini put it in his pocket and drove to Hammond to do the job.
The owner of the warehouse had arranged for a rear window to be left open, and Rini climbed in, set down his gas can, and unlocked the loading-dock door so he would have an exit. “When I came back, the lights all came on. I thought I was in Hollywood making a picture–I’ll tell you there was a lot of light in there. Someone hollered, ‘FBI. Put your hands on your head.’ I tried to lie my way out, but I knew I was dead.” The FBI had caught on to Rini, had used Fritz to catch him, and had arranged for the job to be done in Hammond so that Rini would cross a state line and thereby commit a federal offense.
Given the evidence against him, Rini decided to plead guilty. U.S. District Court judge John Nordberg handed down a five-year sentence, but also ordered that some schooling be provided for Rini. Nordberg had learned that the 65-year-old arsonist could not read.
At the federal prison in Milan, Michigan, Rini discovered that instruction was taken seriously. “I had to go to school all the years I was there. I went every day. Started in the third grade and went all the way to the eighth grade. They have outside teachers coming in, and they don’t monkey around with you. In Stateville they had convicts–and they used to have a blackboard, and they used to draw a picture of a safe, and they used to teach you how to get into the safe. That is what the schools were in Stateville in the 40s. But in the federal prison they were outside schoolteachers. And I couldn’t miss school because in jail you can’t miss. You can’t say you are sick, none of that bullshit. You can’t do that, you had to go to the school.
“You learn there. I couldn’t read, couldn’t write. When I was in prison and I’d get mail, I had somebody read it for me. ‘Hey, read my mail. What did my sister or my mother or my brother tell me?’ Guy would read my mail. That is how bad I was. Hell, the highest I could count was a hundred. You said a hundred and one, I didn’t know what you was talking about. If you gave me a $20 bill and said, ‘Change it,’ I couldn’t change it for you, ’cause I didn’t know how. But you can’t gyp me now.”
While in Milan, Rini used his improved reading and writing skills to take a correspondence course offered by the Universal Life Church, based in Modesto, California. When he passed the course, he became an officially ordained minister. Not long thereafter, he performed a marriage ceremony for two gay prisoners, and he has since married two heterosexual couples.
“I wanted to come out and be a priest. I was hoping to get a tent and start giving sermons and see if I could make some money by frauding the people like Jim Bakker did. But when I got out I said, no, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to take people’s nickels and dimes. But a friend of mine, a black guy, he had a church in Maywood, he says, ‘Why don’t you go with me? You got the white, I got the black.’ I backed off of that. I don’t know why. I’d have been better off. I would at least have been taking people’s money legit. Do a little sermon, you know. But I didn’t want to do that.”
Rini was released from the federal penitentiary in 1986. He returned to Cicero, where he lives today in modest circumstances with his fifth wife. “I am retired from everything. The only thing I do now is plumbing jobs. I come home, and I know everything I got is legit, I didn’t steal nothing. I am 76 years old, I am ready to shove off any day, and I want to go out clean. I don’t want to die in jail.
“You know what happens if you die in jail? I took care of the cemetery out there. If you ain’t got anybody to claim your body, you are in trouble. They put you in what they call the icebox, the morgue. You have an autopsy, find out how you died, and then if nobody claims it they put you in a box. It’s not a coffin, it’s more like a box. The inmates make them in the furniture store. They take you out to potter’s field, the inmates’ cemetery. We dig it, we put ’em in, and we fill it up again.
“I know a few guys where the relatives said, ‘No, we don’t want them.’ I remember when I first went in, guy said to me, ‘Who do you want to notify if you die?’ I said, ‘The undertaker.'”
But that’s Rini in a mellow mood. On other days he is not so sure about this life on the straight and narrow.
“I have a lot of offers. A lot of guys say, ‘Jimmy, what are you doing?’ I say, ‘I am doing a little work here and there, keeping my nose clean.’ ‘I know a good score.’ ‘No.’ I will not go with no gun–that is out. First of all I am too old, I can’t see too good, and I can’t run too good. When you are younger you can run. But a burglary–it would have to be a lot of money and nobody can get hurt. I just walk in and walk out. Lot of guys say, ‘Hey, I am working for this guy–here is the key. He has a safe in there. Here is the key to the place–go in and open the safe.’ ‘No.’ First of all, I met him in the penitentiary. I don’t know him that well to deal with him. ‘Cause you never know what his setup is with the FBI, police department. So I am scared of that last setup. Very careful.
“Maybe if somebody came along and told me there was so much money in this particular house and I don’t have to hurt nobody, I would have to sleep on it. I wouldn’t say to you or anybody else that I wouldn’t do it, because I would be lying to myself. I would say that I would think it over, I’d look it over, and then see what would happen.
“You know, I told the FBI–his name was Scott Jennings–I said, ‘I am not mad at you. You had your job to get me. My job is to beat you. So if I made a boo-boo it is my fault. You’re a good guy–you did your job, you got me.’ After I got my time he came into the bull pen, he said, ‘Jimmy, I want to ask you one question. What I want to know is, when you get out–if you live to get out–will you commit another arson if the price is right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He went out the door shaking his head, ‘That’s it, that’s it.’ He turned around and said, ‘I am an FBI and you gonna tell me that?’ I said, ‘That’s right. You asked me, and I answered you.’ He said, ‘I can’t believe it. People say you’re crazy. I think you’re nuts.’
“I said, ‘I am not nuts. I am just frank about it. You gotta catch me the next time.'”
In the last year Rini’s plumbing shop was burglarized three times. He recently closed it and now operates from his apartment. He did not press charges against the burglars and even declined to identify one of them.
A few months ago he bought a VCR from someone he met on a street corner near his house. The man said that he worked for Silo, that he had just stolen the VCR from the back room, and that it was brand-new, still in the carton. Rini paid $150 for it.
When he got home and opened the box, he found it was filled with bricks.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg, UPI/Bettmann.