A man with a sordid criminal past, including convictions for insurance fraud, burglary, and robbery, was sentenced this week to life in prison, plus five years following his conviction in the U.S. district court in Illinois for plotting in 2012 to kidnap, torture, extort and murder a businessman and then take control of the man’s real estate holdings. Steven Mandell (FNA Steven Manning) was arrested in October of 2012 and convicted in February of this year. At the sentencing hearing, the judge told him his actions were “evil” and that he “had a complete disregard for human life.” Mandell and his co-defendant, Gary Engel (61) were captured on video plotting the crime in a prearranged sting operation set up by the police; a former business associate of Mandell, while working undercover, helped to arrange for the use of a building which the defendant then equipped with torture devices, including a sizeable butcher-block-styled bench capable of supporting several hundred pounds. Mandell can be heard joking and laughing about his victim’s envisioned fate on the tape. The plan was interrupted beforehand by the police, and both men were arrested and held in jail without bail. Engel escaped prosecution by hanging himself in his jail cell, Mandell proceeded to trial.
Mandell had been a Chicago police officer for approximately 10 ten years when he was forced to resign following his conviction for insurance fraud in 1983. He was again convicted for burglary in 1987. On June 3rd, 1990, the body of Jimmy Pellegrino was found floating in the Des Plaines River near the Lawrence Avenue Bridge near Chicago; his wrists and ankles were bound together with duct tape. The autopsy revealed that Pellegrino had been shot in the back of the head a few days before. Mandell was charged with the murder on the theory that he killed Pellegrino for money and to avoid a drug debt he owed him. The victim’s wife, Joyce Pellegrino, testified that Mandell owed her husband a large sum of money and that he was going to get it back from him. He made plans to meet up with him, and before he left the house, he told her “that if he turns up dead”, she should tell a particular FBI agent that Mandell killed him. Another witness, Ronald Tyrakowski, testified that he was a long-time friend of the victim and he was serving a reduced prison sentence in exchange for his “ongoing” cooperation in criminal investigations. He admitted to selling drugs in the 1990’s along with the victim in multiple kilo amounts; Tyrakowski essentially fronted the money and Pellegrino bought the drugs from Mandell. In one particular transaction, Tyrakowski had fronted Pellegrino $25,000 who gave the money to Mandell- but he didn’t produce the drugs. Later, the two agreed to another transaction where he would buy two kilos for $52,000 and Mandell would throw in a third kilo to make good on the first deal. Once Pellegrino was given the money, he left for his meeting with Mandell and was never seen alive again. Another police informant, Thomas Dye, testified that he was in the defendant’s cell division pending trial, and that he wore a wire which recorded about six hours of conversations he had with Mandell; he was cooperating in exchange for a reduced sentence on an unrelated case. Most importantly, he was permitted to testify that the defendant had asked if he could provide an alibi for the instant case. Mandell was convicted of murder committed during the commission of a felony and sentenced to death.
On appeal from his murder conviction and death sentence, Mandell argued that the alibi conversations he had had with Dye at the jail, and the wife’s testimony concerning the “if he turns up dead” matters, denied him a fair trial. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed and ordered a new trial based upon the erroneous admission of this testimony. The court also noted that while the evidence pointing to Mandell’s guilt survived a “sufficiency of the evidence” challenge, it “was not ample or overwhelming.” The state decided not to retry him. If Mandell’s conviction is upheld in the present case, he will die in prison.