Win Lose Die

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

"[Cueto] would retain 50 percent," Venezia testified. "In the event that [U.S. Representative] Jerry [Costello] didn't run for [re-election, he'd] have Jerry Costello as a partner."

Meanwhile, the investors continued to eye the East St. Louis riverfront. Property records indicate that in 1994 they took out a $600,000 loan to purchase 32 acres of riverfront property via a company called En Futuro.

"The division was going to be 50 percent [for] Amiel Cueto, 25 percent for...Richard Bechtoldt and 25 percent for my nominee," Venezia testified. Asked by prosecutors why Cueto was to get 50 percent, Venezia stated, "It had something to do with [U.S. Representative] Jerry Costello, that he would be his partner if he didn't stay in Congress, or something to that effect."

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

When he took the stand in Cueto's trial, Bechtoldt backed up Venezia's version: "I was told that Jerry Costello was a silent partner." When the U.S. Attorney asked Bechtoldt whether he'd been told of Costello's involvement by Amiel Cueto, Bechtoldt replied: "Yes."

Congressman Costello has consistently denied any involvement in any land deals with Venezia.

"Costello didn't know anything about that," seconds Cueto, a childhood friend of the congressman, once known for his sizable contributions to the Democratic Party. "None of it ever made a nickel. There was never really so much as a spade of earth turned on anything. None of these projects were advanced past the planning stages. There was a lot of paperwork done and documents signed, but it turned out to be nothing, and I don't think it ever had a chance to be anything but nothing."

Though he kept a low profile before settling in Belleville, Thomas Venezia's name had percolated into public consciousness in 1962. It was in December of that year that Venezia, then age nineteen, shot and killed an ex-convict named Elmer Dowell with a .38 caliber pistol.

According to an article published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the circuit attorney ruled that the killing, which took place at a midtown tavern owned by Venezia's father, was committed in self-defense.

Two years later St. Louis police again booked Venezia on a murder charge — this time for the New Year's Eve slaying of John Johnson, who was shot in the head at the Pink Elephant Lounge on the 3800 block of Olive Street and then dragged outside. Venezia denied any knowledge of the slaying; the charges were subsequently dropped.

Suicide, too, played a role in Venezia's life: He told several associates that his father had killed himself.

Still, those who knew the racketeer after his release from prison find it hard to imagine that Venezia could have shot Jennifer Anderson, only to turn the gun on himself.

"I am 100 percent convinced that he did not kill her and then kill himself," says a bartender who worked with Venezia and Anderson at the Golden Eagle. "He was too proud; he would not have took her with him."

The bartender, who declined to be identified in this story for fear of reprisal, stresses Venezia's reputation as a stand-up guy: "One night [my sister and I] were drunk, so we called a cab and left her car at the bar. Well, she come back the next day to get it and someone had slashed both her driver's-side tires. You know what Tom did? He called a tow truck and had them come get her car and then had tires put on her car. He didn't want anything for it. It was just his way of helping his girls out."

By "girls" the bartender means the women who worked with Venezia at the Golden Eagle, a neighborhood bar whose most noteworthy features were its exposed brick, small patio and hot young barmaids.

But the Golden Eagle's tidy appearance belied the wild nights Venezia hosted there.

"Weekend nights were unreal. If you were drunk and dancing on top of the bar, that was fine," says Pat Williams, who worked with Venezia for a month in early 2005. "I wouldn't say that he would encourage the girls to dance on the bar, but if you were up there he'd be right out there along with the rest of the crowd, rooting you on. You definitely would not be disciplined for it. If a customer bought you a shot, you were expected to take it."

For the girls behind the bar, Williams says, Venezia expected a dress code worthy of his glory days: "Very short shorts with the ass cheeks hanging out, low-cut tops and high heels." Another bartender who quit after a few days at the Golden Eagle calls the bar "sleazy."

The Golden Eagle was certainly a step down from the flesh factories Venezia had once called his own. But seven years in prison had diminished the man. And when Jennifer Anderson entered his life, she must have reminded the fallen racketeer of the life he'd once led. Anderson was mildly dyslexic and kept copious diaries to articulate her thoughts. She also carried a pocket dictionary she'd refer to when words escaped her. Family members and friends say she had a penchant for collecting orphaned animals. But it was her party-girl streak that endeared her to men — and ignited jealousy in their girlfriends.

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