By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
[This is the conclusion of a two-part story. To read Part 1, click here.]
The son of a St. Louis tavern owner, Thomas Venezia rose to prominence in the early 1990s after parlaying an eighth-grade education into a St. Clair County gambling and strip-club empire federal prosecutors would later value at $48 million.
As he supplied video-poker and -slot machines to area taverns, Venezia assembled a network of family members and influential business associates, including Sylvester Jackson, who at the time was mayor of Washington Park, and prominent Belleville attorney Amiel Cueto, who Venezia once boasted "owned" fifteen of the seventeen judges in St. Clair County.
In 1995 a federal judge in East St. Louis found Venezia guilty of racketeering, sending him to prison and fining him more than $13 million.
Venezia returned to Belleville in 2002. On July 19 of this year, Belleville police discovered his body and that of his roommate, 21-year-old Jennifer Anderson. Investigators determined that Venezia had shot Anderson in the back of the head, then turned the gun on himself.
By 1992 the man who had a weakness for the stylings of St. Louis chanteuse Tina Turner had cashed in some of his winnings and bought a horse farm for his wife, Sandra Nations Venezia. Located just south of Belleville, Lone Oak Farm was outfitted in high style, with a white split-rail fence ringing its horse-dotted pastures. Along with Amiel Cueto (pronounced kwee-toe), Venezia also purchased an interest in St. Louis-based Laclede Cab Co. And in 1993 he rounded out a topless-club trifecta with the acquisition of Club Exposed in Centreville. As he had at Main Street and his other strip joint, Cheeks, Venezia installed his son Milan as manager.
(Thomas Venezia had two other children by a previous marriage: Gaetano Venezia, his eldest son, is an obstetrician in St. Louis; Christina Venezia, his youngest child, most recently worked as a bartender in Soulard. Milan and Gaetano Venezia declined interview requests for this story. Christina Venezia could not be reached.)
The middle child of three, Milan Venezia had held a variety of odd jobs before coming to work for his father. His résumé included stints at St. Louis-area restaurants and a car wash. He had a tenth-grade education, and when he took charge of Cheeks and Main Street in 1990 he was roughly 22 years old.
Milan took full advantage of the job's perks. According to his own subsequent testimony, Milan smoked pot on a daily basis, snorted cocaine and dabbled in crystal meth. At one point he bought a billboard near the Poplar Street Bridge that depicted him flanked by two dancers. The slogan: He liked the place so much he bought the company. But Milan's drug habits and dubious business decisions grated on the senior Venezia, who frequently berated his son for his lack of business sense.
On one occasion Tom Venezia questioned the wisdom of paying $15,000 to import has-been rockers Cheap Trick for a one-night stand at Cheeks. And he was none too pleased the day he stopped by one of his clubs at 6 a.m. only to find Milan snorting rails of cocaine in the back room. Then again, Milan Venezia testified that it was his father who'd offered him his first bump.
Father and son also shared an interest in showgirls. In 1992 Milan Venezia hooked up with a 21-year-old Cheeks dancer named Erin "Bobby" Griffin, whom Milan introduced to the region as one of his billboard showgirls. Smart and ambitious, Griffin quickly parlayed her brief affair with Milan into a position behind the bar.
She also managed to catch the eye of Milan's father.
"A lot of the people from the office were over at Milan's house," Deirdre Crook told Venezia's jurors, describing the night she learned Tom Venezia and Griffin were romantically involved. "I saw Erin and Tom on the couch kissing."
In 1993 Milan finally exhausted Venezia's patience: During a weeklong trip to Hawaii, he racked up a $13,000 tab when he wrecked a Ferrari he'd rented for $150 per hour. Soon after he returned to town, his father fired him.
Meanwhile, Tom Venezia was providing his new mistress with many of the same perks he'd bestowed on his wife: a luxury sedan, a Washington Park police badge (courtesy of the bought-off mayor, Sylvester Jackson), a hefty weekly allowance and a job with the company, B&H Vending. In filling this last role, Griffin took over Milan's management duties at the strip clubs. Griffin also became notorious for cruising around local highways and flashing her police badge in the face of any cop who had the temerity to stop her white Lexus.
Some of Griffin's exploits were recounted at Venezia's trial. Washington Park police officer Hollis Riggins testified about the night he'd briefly placed her in custody after pulling her over for speeding. As Riggins was preparing to book Griffin, he got a call from Washington Park Mayor Sylvester Jackson. Riggins testified that the mayor ordered him to free Griffin and await instructions. Eight hours later he reported as ordered to Main Street, where the mayor and Thomas and Milan Venezia were waiting.
"I was introduced to Tom Venezia by Sylvester Jackson...then the screaming began," Riggins said under oath. "Sylvester Jackson [said], 'You are not a real policeman, you work for me. Why didn't you honor the badge?' ...My understanding from that point on was that...Venezia did run the City of Washington Park."