The Strange, Strange Tale of the U.S.S. Inaugural

An old warship meets its most formidable enemy — the Mississippi River.

Four miles downstream, a tug captured the shattered remains of the Burger King and waited for other boats to help it push the massive structure to shore. The last of the fleet to be rounded up was the Inaugural. At approximately 1:20 a.m., the tugboat Mary Burke guided the World War II relic to a spot along the Missouri side of the river, just south of Chouteau Avenue.

During the chaos, the Inaugural lost its mast and suffered a six-inch gash above the waterline. The Coast Guard reported no other damage to the steel-hulled boat, which had missed more vulnerable targets, such as the floodwall and fueling stations south of the city. As Warmann told the Post-Dispatch the next day, the results could have been much worse.

"What if that minesweeper had gone down and hit those tanks at Phillips?" a bewildered Warmann is quoted as saying. "That ship is like a bullet. The Lord was with me."

By some counts, the Inaugural's 40-millimeter cannon has been stolen three times. Today it's in possession of the City Museum's Bob Cassilly.
Jennifer Silverberg
By some counts, the Inaugural's 40-millimeter cannon has been stolen three times. Today it's in possession of the City Museum's Bob Cassilly.
River salvager Okie Moore first removed the Inaugural's anti-aircraft gun. He says Stasiak promised to pay him for the weapon but never did.
Jennifer Silverberg
River salvager Okie Moore first removed the Inaugural's anti-aircraft gun. He says Stasiak promised to pay him for the weapon but never did.

Though the Inaugural survived the breakaway, its days were numbered. On the morning of September 23, an employee at a nearby river-dredging company arrived at work and reported seeing the ship leaning to one side. By 2 p.m. that day, the Inaugural lay on the muddy bottom of the Mississippi with only its bow rising above the waterline.

Officially ruled an accident, the unmooring and sudden sinking of the Inaugural raised questions of wrongdoing. Fueling the assertions was news that Warmann held an insurance policy on the Spirit of the River valued at $2.7 million — a figure ten times the market value of the complex, according to the city assessor's office.

Further, Warmann was apparently so desperate for cash that on December 9, 1993 — less than three months after the Inaugural sank — he took out a loan from the little-known Illinois firm A.G. Enterprises Inc. The now-defunct Belleville company shared an office address with lawyer Amiel Cueto, who in 2003 was released from a seven-year prison sentence for interfering with the federal investigation of East St. Louis racketeer Thomas Venezia.

In return for the $300,000 loan from A.G. Enterprises, Warmann was to hand his creditors — presumably Cueto and Venezia — $2.4 million in Argosy stock. The lopsided return rate and the shady background of A.G. Enterprises so alarmed Argosy's then-chairman, William Cellini, that he informed his fellow board members in a memo: "Floyd had to give his soul away — along with stock — to get his much-needed funds."

Of the conspiracy theories that followed, the one most often whispered is that Warmann intentionally unmoored the Spirit of the River and scuttled the Inaugural in order to both free up his mooring rights (which still required approval from the mayor) and collect on his insurance policy. This theory is at least partly supported by a 60-page Coast Guard investigation into the cause of the breakaway.

In the January 4, 1994, report, the Coast Guard noted that in the weeks prior to the unmooring, two of the cables securing the Inaugural were seen slacking into the river and tending downstream — rendering them useless against the river current. Meanwhile, a third anchor cable did not break (as was initially reported) but ran out of line because someone had failed to padlock the iron hooks that held the chain in place.

The Coast Guard's investigating officer, Mike Kelly, concluded that the loss of that third anchor cable resulted in the breakaway. He speculated that the hook was "intentionally opened to release the chain," and he casts blame directly at Warmann. "The owner of the Spirit of the River failed to ensure the moorings were properly maintained for the prevailing river conditions," Kelly writes in the report. "If [the owner] had properly maintained the complex moorings, the breakaway may not have occurred."

A second conspiracy theory emerged from a St. Louis Fire Department investigation into the fires that erupted aboard the Sprit of the River as the complex broke from its moorings. This version of events focuses suspicions not on Warmann but on agents of the President Casino, which was moored directly north of the Spirit of the River. A Warmann gaming boat would have been in competition with President Casino.

Fire officials ruled the flames accidental, blaming them on electric cables that snapped during the breakaway. Yet their interviews with witnesses prompt further questions. Most intriguing is the statement from an off-duty sheriff's deputy — backed by testimony of other witnesses — who reported seeing two men paddling a skiff from the Burger King vessel moments after the breakaway.

According to the deputy, the men landed on shore, then kicked their dinghy back into the river's current and appeared "very distressed." When questioned by park rangers, the men identified themselves as employees of Gateway Riverboat Cruises, a President Casinos subsidiary, which also operated along the riverfront. The men, according to the deputy's account, said they were "just doing their job" and that they were told to "disconnect the Taco Bell."

What the men were doing on the Spirit of the River remains a mystery. Were they ordered to sabotage Warmann's potentially competitive operations?

"Doubtful," says Tom Dunn, the former president of Gateway Riverboat Cruises. Dunn says his company contacted the Coast Guard in the summer of 1993 to report its concerns about the precarious manner in which Warmann's vessels were tethered to the shore. He denies that any of his employees were on the Spirit of the River at the time of its breakaway.

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