By Lindsay Toler
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By Jake Rossen
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"There's definitely been a murder. But who shot Jennifer and who shot Tom remains to be seen."
When the criminal history of late-twentieth-century southern Illinois is written, Thomas Venezia will tower over the region's motley collection of grifters and petty thieves. A St. Louis boy with an eighth-grade education, Venezia crossed the river in the late 1980s and bought a Washington Park strip club, the first of his three topless bars. He soon beefed up his portfolio, purchasing two vending companies to form Ace Music/B&H Vending, the economic engine that would deliver his fortune.
A supplier of coin-operated pool tables and cigarette machines, B&H also dealt in bar-top video-poker and -slot machines. But these weren't factory-fresh machines. Venezia took games like Magical Tonic, Robo Pit Pong and Cherry Master 91 that were manufactured to be operated "For Amusement Only" and rigged them to tally accumulated "credits" so winning customers could be reimbursed in cash from a till maintained by the barkeep. While they were at it, B&H workers also modified the machines to accept dollar bills a lucrative innovation.
Venezia ran a full-service shop. Naturally, B&H supplied and repaired the machines free of charge. If a tavern's till ran dry, a call to B&H was all it took for a "route man" to arrive with a fresh monetary infusion. Gambling profits were split 50-50 between B&H and the tavern owner, whereupon all receipts were destroyed.
To insulate his business, Venezia placed family members in key positions. His wife, Sandra Nations Venezia, ran the "money room," a vaultlike chamber where gambling proceeds were commingled with the company's legitimate earnings. A son, Milan Venezia, worked as a route man before taking over management of his father's strip clubs.
But as Venezia's empire expanded, he needed more protection from nosy law-enforcement agencies. To this end, he enlisted the aid of Amiel Cueto pronounced kwee-toe a powerful Belleville attorney who Venezia once boasted "owned" fifteen of the seventeen judges in St. Clair County.
"I was told that if anybody was arrested that [B&H Vending] would make immediate bail for the people that were arrested. After they were released...the owner of the tavern...would be charged [with] a misdemeanor, fined $1,000 and [B&H] would take care of the fine, the bail everything," Belleville tavern owner Dennis Dehn would testify during Venezia's 1995 racketeering trial. "[T]he machines or machines that were confiscated new ones would be back in the next day."
Venezia rounded out his operation by recruiting Sylvester Jackson.
A low-level Democratic operative, Jackson was elected mayor of Washington Park in 1989, the year Venezia bought B&H Vending. Jackson would later testify that his first business meeting with his future boss took place at a Washington Park topless club. "He wanted to expand the vending business, the gambling," Jackson, who turned state's witness, told jurors at Venezia's trial.
Venezia proposed that the mayor come to work for B&H Vending. To Jackson, whose mayoral duties earned him the princely sum of $400 a month, the arrangement sounded attractive, but he expressed concern that being on Venezia's payroll might compromise his official duties.
"Tom at that time said he was going to check it out for me," Jackson testified. "A few days later Tom got back with me and told me he talked to Ame [Amiel Cueto, Venezia's attorney] and Ame said it wouldn't be a conflict."
(Cueto says Jackson perjured himself during Venezia's trial. Jackson could not be reached to comment for this story.)
His conscience clear, Jackson assumed duties as a "trouble shooter" for B&H, and Venezia put him on the payroll at $500 per month. In addition, Jackson told jurors, each week the boss would slip him an envelope containing $500 cash.
Jackson, who is African American, told jurors that Venezia wanted him to get B&H machines installed at "black stops." The aspiring racketeer also counted on the mayor to keep local police at bay.
Conveniently, the latter role was a logical extension of Jackson's mayoral duties. "[T]he topless business in Washington Park was one of our main resources," he would testify. "We didn't want the police department [coming] into the topless-club business where the vending machines was at, because I didn't feel it was right for police officers to be around that type of atmosphere."
As Jackson's relationship with Venezia deepened, the under-the-table envelope got fatter. By 1994 the mayor was collecting $2,000 a week in cash. His portrait hung in B&H's Belleville lobby. Venezia also loaned him $25,000 to remodel a lounge Jackson's brother owned. The loan, like all the others Venezia made to local tavern owners, was repaid over time via a deduction from the tavern's share of the gambling loot.
There were favors on Jackson's end, too. "When Tom and I got a little bit more acquainted, and I understood a little bit more about the business...[I made] Sandy Nations [a] deputy marshal of the Village of Washington Park," Jackson told jurors. "A few months later...[Venezia] come up with a list of other guys...that he wanted commissions for."
Though Sandra Nations, Milan Venezia and several other Venezia employees had no law-enforcement training, their badges entitled them to carry firearms and insulated them from police scrutiny.