By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
"We not supposed to have that stuff down here," says the other man disapprovingly. "That breeds trouble."
Williams agrees: "The owner of that station was wrong for lettin' it continue."
The station's owner, Dave Chung, expresses great reluctance to talk about the incident, citing disruption of his business. He does, however, say that he was approached sometime in August by an African-American police officer who showed him a badge and asked whether he would be willing to lease the far end of his lot. "You talk to police about this," Chung keeps saying. "Not me."
The "toy salesmen," as it turns out, had set up shop in another nearby location, the Phillips 66 Service Center at 3720 Kingshighway, a few blocks west of Chung's Shell station. Thomas Puckett, owner of that station, says he was initially approached by a go-between, a local preacher whose name he cannot recall. "He offered to rent the lot for these guys," says Puckett. "He say, 'Let us set up here, we pay you $50. They'd come on a weekend -- three, four white guys -- and then I wouldn't see them for a month or two later." Puckett says he's sure the concession on his lot was the same one that set up "down there at the Shell lot when they had that trouble. But no, I never saw no gambling, nothing like that here. Long as they sat down there on the lot and done they stuff, I didn't have no complaint about them."
Puckett says he saw a vending license displayed on the concession but didn't pay much attention to it. Tiny, Jonathan and Big R say the same thing: They saw some sort of license displayed. This intrigues Stan Piekarski, the city's chief deputy license collector. Piekarski says that neither Haisch nor Royal had a vending license. It's a moot issue anyway, says Piekarski. Under the vending ordinance, revised in 2000, sidewalk or street vending is permitted only in special vending districts. The intersection of Marcus and Natural Bridge is not one of them. Nor may vendors set up shop on private property, he adds, "not unless they have a business license and an occupancy permit."
"It is obviously not a day-in, day-out operation," surmises Mel Harlston. "It looks more to be a roving crap game. Look at the sightings. We know about Marcus and Natural Bridge. We know about the Phillips 66 on Kingshighway. And I've been told [they were operating at] Lillian and Goodfellow. I've been told Grand and Gravois, the Vickers Station on Jennings Station Road, and the Post says that these people had been in East St. Louis. So if you got a map and put some pins in it, you've plotted out some of the lowest-income neighborhoods around. I mean, nobody has seen them in Creve Coeur, in which case they would really have to sell toys. These guys are real predators. You can imagine them grinning at these silly kids running around emptying their pockets to play this fixed game. And look at all the money it's separating from people. The foolish mind is out $300-$400 before they've even caught their breath, just because they had it in their pocket."
Matt Hely, a local sideshow performer, spent three years with Ringling Bros. Circus and, more recently, the Bobby Reynolds Sideshow, which performed in February at the City Museum. He has seen and studied carnival fraud in its various manifestations. Told of the game, he nods knowingly. "It's an old carny hustle," Hely, 42, remarks, "a sophisticated version of three-card monte. You don't see it worked too much anymore -- all the big carnivals these days are pretty much legit. But Royal American Shows used to do that stuff, and one of the last times they came through town, there was a guy got beat out of $1,000 on that scam." Hely says that the people who run such games travel from town to town and are called alibi agents. "An alibi agent is a guy that comes up with an alibi to convince you that, even though you're sure you won, you didn't. They're fast-talk artists, and they do their bit with the numbers real fast, and there's no way you're ever going to beat them out of the big prize, whatever that may be."
"It's really outrageous, when you think about it," says Mel Harlston. "It should have been shut down by the police. Instead it's protected by one under the color of his authority. How audacious is that? I mean, you wouldn't have a cop working security on a crack house. Why is this any different?"
In early October, the RFT asked St. Louis Police Chief Joseph Mokwa about the gambling game on the Shell station lot, as well as the allegation that one of his officers was complicit in the operation. Mokwa, who had been on the scene just after the shooting on Sept. 2, said this was news to him: "It's illegal, if that's what was happening, and that's why a lot of these kind of shows like Royal American that came into town 20 years ago are no longer allowed. I've never heard that this was happening, and I don't know that it was, but I'm going to find out."