Upon learning who was involved with Entertainment Media, Rice says he tried to stop the sale. He even paid Romanik a visit.

"He's a child of God, and so I ministered to him for a while," says Rice. "I was grateful to find he wasn't going to use it like it was portrayed in the local media, something bad or devilish. He was just going to have a radio station for some old-time songs."

Rice shared a copy of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" with Romanik and stepped aside.

Rick Sealock

Entertainment Media Trust snatched up three more stations over the next four years and began operating under the name Insane Broadcasting, a company owned by Stephen Romanik II, though the Illinois Secretary of State lists the elder Romanik's home address as its office.

The trust bought the former country station WIL (1430 AM) for $1.2 million and rebranded the oldies station "Krazy Q" KZQZ. Sports-talk station KRFT went for $600,000 and became "Kool Killer Kountry" KQQZ (1190 AM). WFFX, another former sports-talk station, became the home of the Grim Reaper's show when it was purchased for $450,000 in 2010 and changed to "Hot Talk and Timeless Memories" WQQX (1490 AM).

"And the naked dancin' chick ownin' heathen pays a load of cash for a station he can't even own, because he's a convicted felon!" wrote the now-retired media critic Mike Anderson on his blog STLMedia.net after the sale of WQQX. "He collects station licenses in the name of his son and his lawyer and trashes the industry with his presence."

Though Anderson also wrote that Romanik once threatened to sue his site for its criticism, these days Anderson says he's got no bone to pick with the Grim Reaper, whom he considers less of a problem than the corporatization of radio.

"He doesn't beat up little old ladies or hire and fire hundreds of thousands of employees," says Anderson dryly. "The whole industry is a loss. So he's got himself a toy."

Romanik's entry into broadcasting came at a tumultuous time, with the Great Recession leaving owners of large radio portfolios looking to unload small local stations and corporate layoffs providing a cheap and willing workforce of programmers.

The conditions were perfect for someone just like Romanik to make a splash. Recently, Insane Broadcasting got FCC approval to turn KZQZ into a 50,000-watt station, a pricey upgrade that will equal the strength of the dynastic KMOX (1120 AM). And by bucking trends in his musical lineup, Romanik has found loyal fans.

"The soul and oldies is extremely well-programmed. I give it my highest compliment," says Tom "Papa" Ray, owner of Vintage Vinyl, of Romanik's KZQZ. "I think he's good for local radio. I think he's interesting for local radio."

But just how many people are tuning into Romanik's music programming or his Grim Reaper shtick is anyone's guess. Insane Broadcasting doesn't subscribe to Arbitron, the Nielsen rating equivalent for radio. Word of mouth, however, suggests that Romanik is coming through loud and clear.

"I know there are a lot of politicians who listen to his show," says Christopher Cueto, an attorney and younger brother of the late Amiel Cueto, Romanik's lifelong friend and political ally. "Even if they don't listen to the show themselves, they have people who listen and report back to them."

At a Denny's off of Highway 15 in Alorton, Illinois, Romanik slides a stack of black-and-white photos across the table. The grainy eight-by-ten on top is a close-up of a man's body in a T-shirt and boxers. Where his neck ought to be, there's nothing but mottled lumps of flesh. The photos beneath show the man's wife, one eye staring, the other one gone along with the left side of her head. Her killer had given up halfway through the beheading and left her to bleed to death.

"You should see them in color," says Romanik.

The pictures are crime-scene photos from a 1978 double homicide that Romanik says was the most gruesome of his career as an East St. Louis homicide detective. Growing up poor in the notorious Roosevelt housing projects in East St. Louis steered Romanik toward two distinct career paths — cop or robber. He chose the former. By the '70s Romanik had worked his way up to homicide detective in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.

The double beheading — which eventually led to a death-row conviction — got a multipage feature spread in a 1980 issue of True Detective; Romanik appeared grim-faced with a lustrous Fu Manchu mustache.

"Back at headquarters," the article reads breathlessly, "Detective Robert Romanik decided the jawbone must be somewhere near where the rest of the head was found.... It took more than an hour, crawling around on his hands and knees in the cold, using a flashlight, but the young investigator found what he was looking for: a human jawbone."

"It was a good experience morally, for me to get some crap and shit bums off the street, but mentally it was a bad experience for me," Romanik says of his time with homicide. "Once you see that much death and mayhem you can't come out the same person you were coming in."

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