Ben Stein Story

Outfit Pal Built a World Class Image:
The Late Ben Stein, King of the Janitors

Nothing carries as much weight in this world as power and money. Money talks and the “B.S” walks as so frequently expounded on the streets. The late Ben Stein, affectionately known around town as the “King of the Janitors” had both….in abundance.

Before he died, this table-hopping, social climber received laudatory mentions in the Chicago media, and the devotion of hundreds of society dilettantes including Harry Caray, the unofficial “Mayor of Rush Street” who came to know Ben Stein as a generous “Daddy Warbucks” benefactor to many charitable causes. Money you see, easily transforms the sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal pinned a bouquet of roses on Stein by calling him the “last of the [Damon] Runyon characters.” In a flattering column cooing his many good deeds over the years, Stein was touted as a great guy in a half-page editorial in the Sun-Times.

Steve Neal, Ben Stein’s celebrity pal Harry Caray, and the gang down at the Variety Club probably have never heard of Karen Lee Koppel, or they may simply choose to ignore her pathetic, and heart-tugging story. Perhaps, before a feature columnist praises Stein to the sky, he should first familiarize himself with the circumstances of her unusual disappearance before he issues another press release disguised as news “commentary” on the Sun-Times op-ed page. It is one that has gone by the wayside – unsolved – with the passage of time.

Ben Stein, an ex-convict whose firm United Maintenance Company, supplied janitorial services at McCormick Place and illegal gifts to union officials in violation of the Taft-Hartley Act, was romantically linked to Karen Koppel who mysteriously vanished the night of April 26, 1980.

The relationship between the (then) 34-year-old Koppel and the 67-year-old janitorial czar went sour after the troubled young woman realized that she had been deceived into believing that her wealthy boyfriend was estranged from his wife. Stein’s promises of marriage ended very quickly after Koppel became pregnant and was coerced to undergo an abortion. Shortly before her disappearance Koppel penned a note describing her mental anguish and some very real concerns about her own safety. “So now I understand how he hopes to hide behind the skirts of matrimony and/or the muscle of his colleagues. He has threatened that I don’t know what trouble is, that in defending myself I should take my best shot because it will be my last shot.”

Koppel turned up the heat on her paramour. Reportedly, she told her friends that she wanted $50,000 in return for her promise to get out of Stein’s life. If anything were to happen, she added, it could be blamed on one Rick Simon, a moonlighting cop then assigned to the East Chicago Avenue Station. Simon worked for Stein as a chauffeur and was positioned as a vice-president of one of the janitorial companies. Stein took Ricky Simon under his wing at a youthful age and the relationship that developed over the years was like that of a father to a son. The tough and street-wise Simon prospered through his acquaintance with Stein. He also was the last person known to have seen Karen Lee Koppel alive.

In a final attempt to mediate matters of the heart, Simon met with Koppel at Flapjaw’s saloon, 810 N. Wabash Avenue, the night she disappeared. According to published reports Simon offered Koppel $10,000 of Stein’s money and the free use of a Lake Shore Drive apartment in return for her agreement to exit quietly.

Koppel has never been seen before or since roaming God’s green pastures.

There was speculation at the time that the woman was murdered and dumped in the middle of Lake Michigan. However, the murky depths off of McCormick Place where the foul deed was alleged to have occurred, never yielded the body and this case, like so many others in Chicago’s lusty history still hangs out there.

Karen Koppel is a forgotten victim. Ben Stein however, made sure that his cash donations to a renowned orphanage and other acts of self-perpetuating generosity did not go unnoticed in the press.

Ben Stein’s company held the lucrative contract at McCormick Place in the 1960s. During this period the janitor king enjoyed close personal ties to syndicate hoodlums like Joe Glimco (nee: Giuseppe Glielmi), the long-time boss of Teamster’s Local 777 of the Taxicab Driver’s Union. Glimco was the outfit’s top labor czar who muscled into at least 15 different Teamster locals in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a power in the jukebox and coin machine industry for many years, with a well-deserved reputation for vicious cunning and ruthlessness. In a 30-year slant of Joey’s life he was arrested 38 times on a variety of charges stemming from armed robbery to murder. Appearing before the Kefauver Committee of the U.S. Senate in 1950, Glimco took the Fifth Amendment 80 times. Proving this was no fluke, Joey clammed up before another committee of note – the Senate McClellan Committee, citing his Fifth Amendment privileges 152 times.

Stein’s association with the diminutive and now deceased Glimco is well-documented. The U.S. Government indicted the janitor king in 1964 after it was revealed that he rewarded Glimco with a television set. Free airline tickets were given to Edward “Red” Donovan of Local 755 of the Teamster’s Union, and a health club membership was purchased for Harold Hawkins, business agent of Local 25 of the Janitor’s Union. Judge Richard B. Austin reviewed the evidence and found Stein guilty on six of the 10 counts listed in the indictment, and sentenced him to 18 months in a Federal prison.

Stein remained steadfastly silent and fiercely loyal to his pal Glimco throughout his court battle with the Feds. Wisely so. He rejected an offer of immunity in return for his testifying against Joey and decided instead to serve his time in Sandstone, Minnesota for violation of the Taft-Hartley laws.

In a published editorial, the Chicago Daily News called Stein a “….gambling fixer, an ex-convict and a recognized figure in hoodlum circles,” who “…testified that he got his job as chief of janitors in McCormick Place by sauntering into General Manager Edward Lee’s office and offering to help him. Evidence “….showed that Stein’s firm received $1,200,000 while Stein personally received another $120,000 in fees.”

Mr. Neal should have taken note – and exercised proper caution when writing about public figures linked to organized crime operatives. It is important not to downplay the significance of gangster relationships The “outfit” can only flourish in an environment of passive unconcern. It feeds upon its contacts with the press and the friendship and support of the politicians.

The Chicago Crime Commission, which closely monitored Steins’ dealings at McCormick Place back in the late 1960s, recounted his lavish lifestyle in one of their annual reports on organized crime activity in Northeast Illinois. “During the heyday of Stein’s regime at McCormick Place he frequently came to work in his private yacht which he docked near the 23rd Street hall,” the Commission reported.

Ben Stein emerged from prison unscathed and resumed his mercurial career as the head of United Maintenance Service. In 1980, Stein’s company was rewarded with a $1.27-million dollar contract to perform janitorial work at the Kluczynski Federal Building at the very same time the Feds were allegedly delving into his holdings for improprieties. No-one in the “G” saw anything wrong with the odd arrangements, nor did they seem to mind that Stein’s work crews had access to top secret areas within the building. United Maintenance work performance was deemed “satisfactory.”

The high-living Stein jetted around the country with his favorite baseball team, the Cubs, and was feted by the Variety Club of Chicago. Benny was a real man about town, who boasted of his humble beginnings. He liked to say he “pulled himself up from the bootstraps,” and “enjoyed” making large contributions to worthwhile causes. Except, that some of his business practices and choice of personal associates were highly questionable and the large cash “endowments” were not given without receiving something in return – in this case, prestige, social status, and image to help cover up Stein’s more unsavory associations.

In the mid-1970s for example, Stein and Dominic Senese, the mobbed-up boss of Teamster’s Local 703 dipped into the pension fund of Local 710 for several million dollars which they used to invest in the boarded-up, soon to be demolished Sherman House Hotel in order to provide a tax shelter that allowed them to pay no federal income taxes between 1970-1973. The site was later sold to the State of Illinois for development as a government office building. The James R. Thompson center today stands on Ben’s cash-fertile grounds.

Once again Stein profited from his association with Glimco. In the 1950s, Senese was a labor “slugger” and an underling to Glimco at the Fulton Street Market.

Rick Simon also profited from his ventures with Stein, whose various cleaning corporations contributed heavily toward James O’Grady’s campaign for Cook County Sheriff in 1986. Shortly after “Jimmy the Reformer” was swept into office, County Republican Chairman Jim “the Bohemian” Dvorak added Simon to the Sheriff’s payroll as a supervisor of part-time deputies. He was the perfect addition to an administration heavily tainted by the influence of organized crime, political chicanery, and ghost payrollers. Simon, quizzed by the Feds concerning several unsolved gangland hits, has been linked to the S.O.A. management team, the private security firm once spearheaded by the tainted O’Grady.

It would be interesting to hear what Simon has to say about several notorious gangland hits including Philip Goodman, a 73-year-old gambler and outfit “wannabee” who was found murdered at the Admiral Oasis Hotel in Morton Grove some years back. Philly was a fringe player – an associate of Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, who found employment in Las Vegas as a casino host at the Stardust.

Goodman was savagely beaten to death. The severity of the crime left no doubt that this was a pre-meditated mob hit. The motive for the crime was quickly established. Goodman had been a secret informant for the Chicago Police Department’s gambling unit. The information he supplied led to the arrest of Lenny Patrick, boss of the North Side gambling and bookmaking rackets. His murder was seen as retribution for the trouble caused the aging Patrick, Philly’s former friend and mentor. Regarding the Karen Koppel case, Simon simply refused to testify before the grand jury investigating the disappearance on the advice of his attorney. And that was that.

Ben Stein enjoyed his twilight years in the company of his old friends and new found respectability. His money bankrolled several posh Gold Coast restaurants including the Acorn On Oak. United Maintenance is under the direction of Ricky Simon, reportedly still on leave from the Chicago Police Department. .

The Variety Club’s “Standing Tall Award” bestowed upon Stein in 1987 – nine years before his death at age 82 in 1996 – is a gentle reminder that money can indeed give one social status, protection, and political clout. Karen Lee Koppel might still be around today if only she possessed but one of these attributes – in abundance.