Hill could not be reached for comment. Parks says the dismissal of his appointee, whose duties included "the total management of all liquor licenses in terms of fees," is unrelated to the investigation.

The day after the city hall raid, federal agents struck again. The U.S. Secret Service, along with deputy U.S. Marshals and East St. Louis police, arrested Robert Williams, owner of Club TV One, a nightspot in downtown East St. Louis that had been open less than three months. A search of the club unearthed 419 pounds of marijuana stuffed into "eleven large military-style duffel bags." Williams has been charged with mail and wire fraud and with transporting more than $5,000 worth of stolen property across state lines.

Finally, as if to drive home their point, on the morning of Sunday, April 12, state and federal agencies joined forces to conduct a "roadside safety check" of all vehicles entering downtown East St. Louis via eastbound Interstate 64 between midnight and 4 a.m. More than 50 agents, officers and deputies from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Illinois State Patrol and the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department were present.

The squad arrested 22 people on outstanding warrants, 7 for driving under the influence, and 4 for misdemeanor drug possession (3 for marijuana and 1 for crack cocaine). Another 49 were cited for having an open alcohol container in a vehicle, and 39 were caught driving with suspended or revoked licenses. Officers seized two illegal firearms — an assault rifle and an unregistered pistol.

"If you pulled up and could produce a driver's license and had your seatbelt on — unless you rolled down the window and a purple cloud of [marijuana] smoke came out — you were on your way," Bramlett says, adding, "I think it's indicative of type of clientele they have coming into the city."

Beneath its chaotic veneer, East St. Louis possesses a strong sense of community. There's a sizable elderly population that can still remember the days when the population topped 80,000 and jobs were more plentiful. Churches are ubiquitous and play a vital role in local politics.

Both camps were up in arms by March 31, when Parks convened his "emergency town-hall meeting" to discuss the federal investigation and the suddenly pressing issue of the nightclubs. Several hundred residents, a noisy herd of media and nearly the entire East St. Louis police force packed city hall to hear what the mayor had to say.

Dressed in a navy suit, starched white shirt and red tie, the silver-tongued Parks did his best to charm the crowd. He announced plans to appoint a commission to study the nightclub situation and distributed the survey asking residents what time they thought clubs should close. He even suggested that the raid on his office was a good thing for the city.

"The people from the U.S. Attorney's Office are very interested in helping expand law enforcement in this community," the mayor declared. "The positive outcome is that we're having conversations with them that we may not have otherwise had. So there are silver linings to this situation."

But when he opened the floor, a line of eager and angry critics quickly formed.

"We in East St. Louis cannot afford to keep going the way things are," one middle-aged man said to scattered applause. "You [need to] shut it down at one o'clock and let people go to sleep."

Club Casino proprietor Cedric Taylor was one of the few people present to defend the clubs.

Taylor and his wife, Keisha, are known for their philanthropy. They have contributed to a number of causes — from purchasing letter jackets for East St. Louis High School's state-champion football team to buying computers and other equipment for the Brooklyn Police Department to renting a helicopter to help search for a young woman who was swept away in a flash flood last year.

Taylor pointed to his good deeds and asked that nightclubs be treated as individual entities rather than lumped together as one troubled whole.

"Don't penalize me if I'm running my business effectively and efficiently," he pleaded. "Club Casino is a way of life for me; it's a way to make a living. We been in business over 21 years. It's one of the oldest clubs in East St. Louis. We give back to the community."

Then it was back to the mayoral skewering. One woman brought up the subject of Walter Hill, Parks' erstwhile deputy liquor commissioner.

"I been told by more than a few employees and club owners," she said, "that even your own assistant comes into the business, goes behind their bar, drinks from the bottle and then asks for some type of, um, 'economic facilitation' to get their liquor license. Mr. Mayor, are you monitoring your own staff?"

After the hooting died down, Parks, clearly rattled, responded: "If you know of or you see evidence of public corruption or know of city employees unlawfully soliciting money or other unlawful activity, please contact the FBI or the U.S. Attorney's Office."

Ironically, such a call may have led to the March 19 press conference.

In November Parks appeared to bend over backward to issue a liquor license to Johnnie Blackmon, owner of two downtown nightclubs, Blackmon's Plaza and Club Illusion, for a new business called the Gentleman's Club.

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