Win Lose Die

A former racketeer kills a Belleville beauty, then turns the gun on himself what are the odds?

At Venezia's request, Jackson also appointed a private investigator named Robert Romanik police chief of Washington Park.

Venezia would later describe his relationship with Jackson as "a marriage made in heaven."

Conceded Jackson: "Going to work for B&H Vending meant I couldn't really perform my duties when it came to enforcing the law on certain things. I closed my eyes."

Thomas Venezia: Convicted in 1995, released in 2002, 
deceased in 2005
courtesy of KDSK
Thomas Venezia: Convicted in 1995, released in 2002, deceased in 2005

Soon after taking office in 1989, Sylvester Jackson met with George Sirtak, a local businessman in need of a liquor license. Sirtak aimed to open Club Hollywood — which would be the fourth strip club in Washington Park (population 5,000).

Sirtak would later testify that their first meeting went well; Jackson said acquiring a liquor license would be a snap. But plans hit a snag when the St. Clair County Zoning Commission told Sirtak he'd need a special zoning permit to serve alcohol.

When Sirtak and the mayor next met, Jackson assured him zoning was a non-issue. "[He said] they had decided to get their own proceeding to zone for Washington Park," Sirtak told jurors during Venezia's trial. "[He told me] to go back up to St. Clair County and get a permit for a restaurant. By the time I was done with the building...the zoning would be there from Washington Park."

Sirtak had no reason to distrust the pro-business mayor. Tom Venezia, whom Sirtak knew as the owner of the Main Street strip club, had a good relationship with Jackson. And why not? The clubs brought in revenue for the city. So Sirtak broke ground on his new club and obtained a restaurant permit, taking out a $280,000 loan and emptying his savings account.

"When things were getting close to completion, I made a call to Mayor Jackson," Sirtak testified. "I had asked him if the zoning problem was taken care of. He said: 'Don't worry about that. Come get your [liquor] license and open up.'"

The club opened in November 1989 — only to be shuttered three and a half weeks later by the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department for operating without a proper zoning permit.

Jackson had failed to deliver on his promise.

For the next two months, the club remained closed while Sirtak scrambled for a permit. Jackson and Tom Venezia counseled patience. But bills were coming due, and Sirtak was growing increasingly anxious.

Sirtak told Venezia and Jackson he wanted to reopen as a topless venue that served only soda. But they counseled against the idea, warning that the club "would bring the state down on us."

Sirtak did it anyway. "[The] night that I opened, the chief of police, Bob Romanik, came in and took the license with him and closed the club down," Sirtak testified. "[Jackson] stated that at that point in time it would be impossible for me to ever acquire a liquor license in Washington Park, that I was not the right guy."

In a subsequent meeting with Jackson and Venezia, the mayor suggested Sirtak consider selling the club — to Venezia.

"I mentioned $350,000," Sirtak recounted in court. "[Venezia] laughed, shook my hand and said: 'Good luck: You don't even have a liquor license.'"

Two months later, facing mounting debt and zero income, Sirtak called Venezia.

"He asked me how much I had in the property," Sirtak told jurors. "He said, 'I would be interested in giving you $300,000.' I said that would be fine."

Venezia bought Club Hollywood, renamed it Cheeks and opened with all permits in place.

A year after George Sirtak was relieved of Club Hollywood, East St. Louis found itself surrendering its city hall.

A man named Walter DeBow, who'd been severely beaten while spending a night in jail on traffic violations, had sued the city. But when the wheelchair-bound and brain-damaged plaintiff won a $3.4 million judgment, the debt-ridden municipality couldn't come up with the cash. In lieu of payment, a federal judge awarded DeBow the deed to the East St. Louis City Hall and 220 acres of riverfront property.

Within weeks of acquiring the deeds, DeBow sold the properties to a secret land trust.

Enter Tom Venezia, Amiel Cueto and their joint enterprise, the Illinois Port and Harbor Authority, which aimed to return city hall to its rightful owner — in exchange for exclusive riverfront development rights.

"The land trust had agreed to sell Illinois Port and Harbor the deed and title to the East St. Louis City Hall, plus 220 acres of city-owned land...for $1.2 million," Venezia told jurors when he was briefly transferred from prison to testify for the prosecution at Cueto's 1997 conspiracy trial. "In turn, Illinois Port and Harbor was to give all that up to the City of East St. Louis for exclusive development rights [of the riverfront]."

The deal met with stiff public opposition and was soon tabled. But the effort taught Venezia that his gambling proceeds could be leveraged into a legitimate business. From 1992 to 1995 he was involved in several property deals with Cueto and another investor, Richard Bechtoldt.

In one such deal, the trio formed a company called DeKalb Crab Orchard, which aimed to develop casinos on Native American land. The investors formed yet another company, ILLART (ILL for Illinois; ART for Amiel, Richard and Tom), whose purpose was to acquire an interest in the DeKalb deal and similar arrangements statewide. According to Venezia's subsequent testimony, Cueto maintained 50 percent of ILLART, while Venezia and Bechtoldt each owned 25 percent.

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