Instead, he set his sights on more political roles in law enforcement. In 1978 he ran unsuccessfully for sheriff of southwestern Illinois' Bond County, and was police chief of the small Metro East town of Valmeyer from '78 until '81. In 1984 he accepted the appointment as Washington Park police chief, though he was fired twice and often clashed with Mayor Sylvester Jackson. It was a time when Romanik began to drift from the straight and narrow.

"I didn't start getting in trouble until I started hanging with the politicians," he says wryly.

As an adult, Romanik reconnected with the well-known and high-powered attorney Amiel Cueto. Best friends since the first grade, Romanik and Cueto began toying with the local Democratic party. Romanik says he used his law enforcement training to snoop around for dirt on candidates he and Cueto didn't like.

Rick Sealock

"We'd play hardball politics sometimes," he recalls. "We fucked some of them up. I can't tell you who. Some people don't even know it was us."

It was through Cueto that Romanik met Thomas Venezia, the man who would eventually land all three in hot water with the feds. Venezia was running an illegal gambling business called B&H Vending, installing video-poker machines in the bars in East St. Louis. Venezia's gambling operation and several east-side strip clubs were once valued at $48 million. He hired Cueto as his attorney.

Mayor Jackson was also on Venezia's payroll. Jackson testified later that he grudgingly appointed Romanik as the director of public safety of Washington Park in order to protect B&H. When asked about Romanik's hiring, Jackson told the court, "Not because I love him. I hired him because, again, trying to turn a favor for Tom Venezia and Ame Cueto."

While Cueto and Venezia were chummy, Romanik and Venezia were anything but. Romanik recalls an argument that escalated until Venezia threatened Romanik's family. Romanik says he put a gun to Venezia's head, chased him off then shot out the back window of his Mercedes as Venezia fled.

"I hated him," says Romanik. "I thought he was a punk and a gangster. A wannabe gangster."

Nevertheless, according to the federal government, Venezia sought Cueto and Romanik's help after the Illinois State Police raided several bars and confiscated some of Venezia's poker machines. Cueto's legal maneuvering on Venezia's behalf got him charged with obstruction of justice. After Romanik refused to answer questions about the operation in front of a grand jury, he, too, earned himself an obstruction charge. The two friends were arraigned together in 1996.

In a 1997 hearing Romanik pleaded guilty to U.S. Attorney Miriam F. Miquelon's accusations that he "knowingly and willfully provided repeated and evasive testimony."

"They said I lied 150 times to a grand jury," says Romanik. "I probably lied 600 times. I wasn't going to give up my friend. If you're a man, you don't give up your friends."

Romanik received probation and a fine for his role in B&H, but he was off the hook for only a short time. Miquelon soon brought new federal charges that Romanik — who by now had built three sprawling strip clubs — used straw parties to get bank loans for two of them: Jewel Box in Washington Park and Crystal Palace in Centreville. In April 1999 he pleaded guilty to bank fraud and was ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution and give up ownership of Crystal Palace.

Although he's happy to cop to perjury, Romanik claims Miquelon was looking for a pound of flesh from his refusal to cooperate in the Venezia case. (Miquelon, who resigned from the office in 2003, could not be reached for comment.)

"That was bogus," he says huffily. "I pled out rather than spend another half-million dollars."

Romanik spent the next twenty months in the low-security wing of the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.

"It was hot," he recalls. "It was bad being away from your family. But you do what you gotta do."

Venezia went to prison for seven years. A few years after his release, police discovered him and his girlfriend shot to death. It was ruled a murder-suicide. (See "Win Lose Die" in the November 30 and December 7, 2005, editions of Riverfront Times.)

Cueto was convicted and sent to prison for six years and was still appealing his case until his death in May of liver cancer. Romanik draped a black shroud above the entrance of Insane Broadcasting in Cueto's honor.

"He was just zealously trying to defend a client," Romanik says of Cueto. "I respected him more than I did anybody. He always stood tall as a man."

On the plaza in front of the St. Clair County Courthouse, a small crowd of about fifteen fans gather as Romanik's shouts echo against the tinted windows of the building.

"Where the hell you at?" he hollers at the county politicians he presumes are either listening in their offices or pressed up against the windows looking down. "They won't come to my radio station, so I'll come to them."

Dressed in a black-and-white bowling shirt, Romanik is broadcasting live from a card-table studio. A plastic Grim Reaper toy rests next to the microphone. All week Romanik has been challenging the county coroner, Rick Stone, on his use of a county vehicle to run a side business serving summonses.

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