By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
[This is the beginning of a two-part story. To read Part 2, click here.]
Jennifer Anderson had only recently landed a gig at the Golden Eagle Saloon in Belleville when her boyfriend broke her heart and moved to Florida. But it didn't take long for the strong-willed young bartender with the wide-set brown eyes to catch the attention of 61-year-old Thomas Venezia, a down-on-his-luck ex-con who was lending a hand at the neighborhood tavern.
The past seven years had not been kind to Venezia. The man federal prosecutors claimed once helmed a $48 million gambling empire now lived in a dilapidated house at 311 Mascoutah Avenue, next door to the Golden Eagle.
His pauper status must have grated on Venezia, who in the mid-1990s boasted a weekly income of $16,000 and a payroll that included politicians, chiefs of police and a small army of strippers, bouncers, route men and tavern owners spokes in the wheel of his criminal enterprise. In the words of one Washington Park police officer, "Venezia did run the city of Washington Park."
Or he did until 1995, when federal prosecutors unveiled a ten-count racketeering indictment that eventually ensnared the Venezia family, area businessmen and Washington Park Mayor Sylvester Jackson. The imbroglio also spawned the federal conspiracy trial of Venezia's attorney, Amiel Cueto, which reverberated 850 miles away in the nation's capital when prosecutors named Jerry Costello, a Democratic Congressman from Belleville, an "un-indicted co-conspirator."
Tried, convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, Venezia served seven years and returned to Belleville in 2002 a changed man. The mogul who'd once spent his mornings gliding from tavern to tavern in the air-conditioned comfort of a Lexus sedan now drove a car on loan from his friend Robert Staack, who ran the Golden Eagle. Gone was the midnight glamour of Cheeks, Main Street and Club Exposed, the topless nightclubs the feds seized from Venezia. In their place were a diagnosis of throat cancer, a "consulting" gig with his buddy Staack and a monthly income of $387.
But there was one thing the government couldn't take away from Tom Venezia: his charm. It was Venezia's fabled charisma that wowed the power brokers of southern Illinois, and it was that same magnetism that wooed Jennifer Anderson, a 2002 grad of Belleville East high school who was now dabbling in the area's seamy underworld.
Born the third child of four to a working-class family, Anderson was athletic and outgoing, with a soft spot for life's underdogs. She had straight brown hair, an enigmatic smile and a well-toned physique. She also had a wild side. The girl who'd been nicknamed "Froggy" by her fast-pitch softball team in junior high (for her prowess at catching flies) was a knockout at 21 and quickly became a favorite at the Golden Eagle. Within months of signing on in late 2004, she was living next door with Tom Venezia and managing the bar, which one co-worker describes as "the Coyote Ugly of Belleville."
The wiry-haired Venezia, on the other hand, had never cut the figure of the stereotypical mob don. At the height of his power he'd favored tailored suits, driven luxury cars and was never without a fat roll of cash. But he stood five-foot-seven. A thick bush of a mustache punctuated his elongated face, and watery brown eyes were framed in oversize glasses.
"He could somehow make her feel important. He knew what carrots to put in front of her," says Jennifer's father, Michael Anderson, who still puzzles over his daughter's attraction to a man 40 years her senior. He adds that Jennifer told him and his wife, Cynthia, that Venezia had promised to give her the Golden Eagle. "She had us snowed."
But the Andersons could hardly have imagined how their daughter's relationship with Tom Venezia would end. A few hours after midnight on the morning of July 19, police say, Venezia shot Anderson and then turned the gun on himself.
Jennifer Anderson was shot execution-style, with a single .38 caliber bullet to the base of her skull. Venezia's death was more gruesome: He was discovered seated in a bedroom recliner, dead from one pointblank shot to the temple, the bullet lodged in a nearby door.
Toxicology reports would reveal traces of alcohol in Anderson's system, while Venezia had been legally drunk. Police promptly ruled the deaths a murder-suicide and closed the case. Statistically, Anderson became Belleville's seventh murder in a year during which residents have seen their small town morph into a mini-murderopolis as of this writing, twelve violent deaths and counting.
But despite the official version of events, three months after the killings the Andersons remain unconvinced. They want to know why Venezia was living in a house that, according to Belleville records, did not have a current occupancy permit. They want to know how a convicted felon came by a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. And they want to know more about what happened in the wee hours of July 19: How could Venezia, his 61-year-old body withered by cancer to about 100 pounds, have wrestled their athletic, vibrant daughter to the ground and shot her?
"Do I believe that Tom could have shot Jennifer? Yes. Everything points to a desperate man losing everything he had, and why not take the coward's way out?" Michael Anderson reasons. "At the same time, when you look at the property records and talk to the people involved, there is a whole lot of mystery.