By John Rice
I admire William "B.J." Jahoda as one of the unsung heroes of Forest Park. He was also an unlikely hero. To say he had a troubled past would be an understatement. To recount how he turned that troubled life around is an inspiration. The former-mobster-turned-informant died in 2004, but his name recently surfaced in the news. A Sun-Times story by Carol Marin and Don Moseley described Jahoda's remarkable friendship with a Dominican nun.
Sister Pauletta Overbeck was drawn to Jahoda as a comrade in combatting the expansion of legalized gambling. This was a long way from his days as leader of the Chicago mob's gambling operation. The Forest Park native became a bookie in 1968 and joined a "street crew" led by Ernest "Rocky" Infelise in 1979.
At that time, Jahoda and his wife, Shirley, were raising three children in town, Tom, Jennifer and Andrew. He arranged a "friendly" divorce with Shirley to shield his family from his mob activities. These activities included setting the odds for the mob's multimillion-dollar sports betting operation. It also involved Jahoda in luring three defaulting bookies to their deaths.
As troubling as this was for Jahoda, the final straw came when the crew killed one of Jahoda's close friends. He began wearing a wire in 1989. He taped conversations with his mob associates for the next six months. His testimony later led to convictions of 19 members of the Chicago mob.
I helped cover this trial for the Review. For weeks, Jahoda calmly gave testimony to Federal Prosecutor Mitchell Mars, backed up by the taped conversations. When it came time for the mob's defense attorney, Bruce Cutler, to cross-examine Jahoda, I saw more pyrotechnics than I've ever witnessed in a courtroom.
Cutler showed nothing but contempt for the trial's star witness. At times, he looked like he was going to explode out of his suit. His theatrics included screaming questions and turning questions into speeches. He pounded tables and called Jahoda a cheat, liar and a bum. Judge Williams was so exasperated by Cutler's antics she slapped him with a contempt citation.
Jahoda took all of this calmly and Cutler could not shake his testimony. The sentences were handed down, but Jahoda was spared any prison time. Mars later said he had never had a witness so eloquently present a firsthand look at mob operations, how they flaunted the law and made human life cheap. After the trial, Cutler returned to New York, where he was suddenly barred from representing mob figures. A judge ruled that Cutler was acting as "house counsel," allowing lesser mob figures to be convicted to protect their superiors.
Following his testimony, Jahoda entered the federal witness security program. He was separated geographically and emotionally from his family in Forest Park. While in the program, the former altar boy suddenly had an epiphany. He became a very vocal anti-gambling advocate. He courageously crisscrossed the country giving anti-gambling speeches at college campuses. Sports Illustrated ran a story praising Jahoda's efforts to steer college kids away from gambling.
On Jan. 6, 1997, Jahoda's speaking tour took him to Springfield, Illinois. That was the day the former mobster met 88-year-old Sister Pauletta. The pair quickly bonded and Sister Pauletta did Jahoda a considerable favor by letting him stay overnight at the Sacred Heart Convent. This was much-appreciated because Jahoda was well-known in the state capitol and didn't want to risk staying at a hotel.
Next week, I will tell you more about what brought Jahoda and Sister Pauletta together and how their message is still timely for Forest Park.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com