Win Lose Die

Belleville racketeer Thomas Venezia goes out with a bang

"Why would you even talk to him?" attorney Amiel Cueto recalls telling Venezia when he first learned of the meeting. "I said, 'Well, know this: This sounds awful weird to me. You ought to just see if he's going to make an overt attempt for a bribe, but understand that you may be talking into a wire too. Because these guys watch too much Kojak on TV.'"

Ultimately Venezia and Jackson met with Robinson on August 17, 1992, at B&H's Fairmont City offices. (As Cueto predicted, Robinson wore an FBI-supplied wire.) The liquor-control agent declines to discuss the case today, but transcripts of the meeting reveal a rambling game of cat and mouse: Venezia tried to get Robinson to solicit a bribe; Robinson tried to get Venezia to offer one.

After about an hour, Venezia asked Mayor Jackson to step out of the room.

Right: The Andersons created a shrine to their daughter's memory. "She's going to stay with us," says Jennifer's mother, Cynthia Anderson.
Jennifer Silverberg
Right: The Andersons created a shrine to their daughter's memory. "She's going to stay with us," says Jennifer's mother, Cynthia Anderson.

"You know, I can't do right by everybody, but if somebody deserves it, then I'll do right by them," he then told Robinson. "I'm wondering if I could set it up where we get like $250 a week in, uh, pantyhose from you."

"[F]inancially," Robinson replied, "you know, those things are very important."

"Honest to God. You know, once...we strike up a friendship, there ain't nothing we can't — that I won't do for you," Venezia said. "I hope then that the feeling is mutual."

Jackson told jurors that Venezia came away from the meeting believing Robinson was willing to work with him. Which meant Venezia was all the more dismayed when agents again raided the VFW post a few days afterward.

"All hell had broken loose at the company," Jackson testified. "[Venezia] said, 'Hell, didn't you talk to the gentleman? Didn't you tell him we was gonna take care of him? We was working on something.'"

Retribution was swift.

On the morning of September 1, 1992, Bonds Robinson arrived at the St. Clair County Courthouse for a hearing in the VFW case, only to find that a hearing date had never been set.

Illinois state trooper Mark Sprankle, who had also come for the hearing, would later testify about what happened next. "I observed two gentlemen in suits approach Mr. Robinson and serve him with a subpoena," Sprankle told jurors at Venezia's trial. "[Robinson] appeared a little flustered and stated...[,] 'I need to make a phone call.' ...They replied to him, 'No, you are coming with us now.'"

The well-dressed pair consisted of attorney Amiel Cueto and Robert Romanik, a private detective who for a time served as Washington Park's chief of police and who federal prosecutors would dub "Cueto's gofer." They hustled Robinson into the courtroom of Judge James Radcliffe, who presided over the Cueto-orchestrated hearing. Brazenly, Cueto placed Robinson on the stand and began interrogating him about whether he was working for the FBI.

Venezia, whose fifteen-year sentence was reduced by more than one-third after he turned state's witness and testified at Amiel Cueto's trial, recounted the scene for the jury. "I was losing credibility, not only with the VFW, but with the rest of my customers," he testified. "[We had] to set him up and catch him before he got us."

Court testimony reveals that Robinson begged to speak with the judge in private. He asked to make a telephone call; he requested an attorney. Judge Radcliffe denied all the requests and ordered Robinson to answer Cueto's questions.

Venezia was dazzled by Cueto's bravado. Sandra Nations Venezia told jurors at Cueto's trial that her husband "was very proud of Mr. Cueto. He said that Mr. Cueto basically lambasted Bonds Robinson on the stand, got him to admit...that he was an FBI agent undercover, and that he was just admitting to things that Tom thought was good. He would not make a decision unless he talked to Mr. Cueto."

Radcliffe promptly handed down a preliminary injunction barring Robinson from B&H Vending stops — effectively derailing the racketeering investigation. (A federal judge in East St. Louis would later overrule Radcliffe's decision, deeming it a "parody of legal procedure." Additionally, the Illinois Courts Commission disciplined Radcliffe in 2001 for the incident, suspending him for three months.)

In the meantime, Venezia's testimony indicates that he and Cueto had resolved to stop Robinson once and for all — by getting him indicted.

To that end, Cueto pressed St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida to build a corruption case against the liquor agent. Haida refused.

During his testimony at Cueto's conspiracy trial, Haida testified that in 1995 Cueto's longtime friend, U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello, offered to help get Haida a judgeship on condition that Haida help Cueto succeed him as county prosecutor. Haida further testified that Costello told him a circuit judge had agreed to "step aside" if Haida accepted the deal, adding that the power swap hinged on Haida backing Cueto for the State's Attorney slot. Haida declined the offer.

Costello has repeatedly rejected Haida's claims.

"[Cueto] said that Haida was either afraid or he couldn't summon up the courage [to indict Robinson]," Venezia would testify at Cueto's trial. "If [Haida] wouldn't do it, [Cueto] himself would run for state's attorney and indict Bonds Robinson."

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