Win Lose Die

Belleville racketeer Thomas Venezia goes out with a bang

Cueto formally announced his bid for St. Clair County State's Attorney in early 1995.

But by that time Thomas Venezia was in deep sand, and sinking fast.

On the morning of December 6, 1994, federal and state agents raided 27 east-side taverns, seizing 170 of B&H Vending's gambling machines. At B&H's Belleville offices, FBI and IRS agents confiscated office equipment along with $74,000 cash.

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.

As federal prosecutors commenced compiling a ten-count indictment against him and six of his associates, Venezia set to work replacing his gambling machines. "If I [didn't] it would be like admitting guilt," he'd tell jurors at Amiel Cueto's trial.

Venezia also persuaded his wife to divorce him.

"I was basically what you would call a trusted soldier," Sandra Nations testified at Cueto's trial. "He didn't trust that Bobby [Erin Griffin] would have the same loyalty. He said that if by chance we would all be indicted...they would separate us...and the government would be able to get to her. ...[S]o he said that we needed to get a divorce, and he needed to marry her."

That February — three days after the divorce was finalized — Nations was on a plane to Nevada with Venezia and Griffin.

"He wanted to make the marriage as quick as possible, so he had me set up a plane reservation and hotel and everything for the three of us to go to Las Vegas for them to get married," Nations told jurors. For the ceremony, Griffin borrowed a veil from Nations — the same veil Nations had worn three years earlier when she married Venezia. Nations served as a witness at the ceremony and snapped photos. The trio spent the night at the Mirage: Nations and Venezia in one room, Griffin across the hall, alone. "From the beginning it was a sham," Nations testified.

On March 30, 1995, prosecutors unveiled a 70-page indictment of Thomas Venezia, Milan Venezia, Erin Griffin, Sandra Nations, Sylvester Jackson and two others associated with B&H Vending. The government sought forfeiture of millions of dollars in gambling profits, including Venezia's homes and businesses and other assets, right down to his 13 automobiles and the 170 gambling machines that had been seized in the December raid.

The trial unfolded over eleven weeks at the district courthouse in East St. Louis. Amid the proceedings, Cueto abandoned his bid for state's attorney and began publishing the East Side Review, a tabloid newspaper that called an assistant U.S. attorney a "strutting, bald-headed midget with severe psycho/sexual disorders." Alleged another article: "There may in fact be public officials who are fatter, or drunker, or even stupider than [the prosecutor], but nobody else fits all three adjectives 'fat, drunk and stupid,' better."

Milan Venezia pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug charges. In exchange for testifying against his father, he drew a 33-month sentence. After testifying at Cueto's trial, Nations was sentenced to three years' probation. Jackson got 37 months after pleading guilty to racketeering and extortion. The judge sentenced Griffin to four and a half years at a light-security facility.

In addition to his fifteen-year sentence, Venezia was ordered to pay more than $13 million in fines.

The ink had barely dried on the final paperwork when prosecutors brought a second indictment against Venezia, Cueto and Robert Romanik, charging the trio with obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello was named as an "un-indicted co-conspirator."

To get his sentence reduced, Venezia testified against Cueto, whom he described as his "best friend." In that 1997 trial, Romanik pleaded guilty to lying 150 times to a grand jury and later served a brief prison sentence for bank fraud.

Found guilty on four counts, Amiel Cueto was sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary.

About nine o'clock on the morning of July 19, Golden Eagle manager Robert Staack would later tell authorities, he stopped by Venezia's house with a friend and former Venezia associate named Art Feole. He hadn't heard from Venezia in a while, Staack would tell police, and wanted to check on him. Concerned about possible foul play, Staack and Feole broke through a door into the kitchen, where they saw a woman's body on the floor.

Later that morning, the Andersons' eldest daughter, Stacey, was driving to work when she saw two police cars outside the house at 311 Mascoutah Avenue, where the family suspected Jennifer was living. She dialed her brother and told him to check it out.

Mounting his bike, fourteen-year-old Joshua Anderson pedaled three blocks to the house, where he spied a police officer carrying Jennifer's purse. Another policeman came over and instructed him to summon his family.

A home healthcare worker, Cynthia Anderson was with a client when Stacey phoned. "She told me: 'Mom, you need to come. Something bad has happened,'" Anderson recalls. "I thought: No."

Coaxing her car toward home, Anderson heard sirens. A helicopter whirred above. When Anderson turned onto Mascoutah Avenue, she saw the swarm of police, paramedics, bystanders and reporters.

Though she'd known about Venezia's racketeering conviction, Cynthia Anderson says she and her husband weren't aware of the extent of his criminal history. Whenever she saw the two of them together, Anderson says, Venezia had been sociable and polite.

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