In a faded strip mall in northwest Belleville, Illinois, Bob Romanik, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper of Radio, is resplendently dressed in a cream-colored leisure suit. His other outfit — a skull mask frozen in mid-scream and a black robe — hangs behind the front desk of Insane Broadcasting. The silver-haired host sits behind the microphone, eyes closed, diamond-ringed fingers laced contemplatively, as a recorded voice introduces him to the invisible audience listening in Belleville, East St. Louis and across the river in Missouri.
After a few bars of "Bad to the Bone," the 63-year-old Romanik flicks his fingers to his producer and a clap of thunder silences George Thorogood.
"This is Bob Romanik," he bellows into the mic. "The Grim Reaper of Radio. And you're listening to the all-new WQQX, 1490. Hot talk and timeless memories. America's voice...of freedom."
The airwaves fill with the sound of a desolate wind and a steady downpour. Romanik goes to "the dark side."
Hey, I want to start out today, and I'm going to be all over Senator Foghorn — I say, I say, I say — BOY Clayborne's ass. His black, stinky ass. I had people ask me, "Hey, Romanik, why the hell are you calling that black man a boy?" 'Cause he is a boy. He's not a proud black man. He's a plantation Negro. He's a plantation Negro.
And all the proud blacks I talk to day in and day out — they know what the hell I'm talking about. These plantation Negros, they sell out. They take the authority the proud black community gives them, they step and fetch up to Belleville and sell out to the white plantation political owners. And you guys know who I'm talking about. And it just pisses me off.
'Cause, see, I don't give a damn. I've been screwed by these bastards. You guys have been screwed by these bastards.
For the next hour, Romanik rages on about the "bastards" who are, interchangeably, criminals, civil servants, rich people and — his favorite — the local Democratic politicos.
This morning, not even the families of the politicians are safe — such as St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern's wife:
They're going to rouse me for tiptoeing through the tulips, allegedly, on Mrs. hairy-ass Mark Kern's wife's property. I don't even know the bitch's first name. I'll call her bitch Kern. She come runnin' down at me like some fool and have me charged with disorderly conduct. Honey, you look in the mirror. You look in the mirror, and when you come out in public, everybody ought to charge you with disorderly conduct. Because that face — that face is disorderly.
He growls, he lampoons, he shouts. By the time it's over, Romanik has insinuated that the mayors of both Belleville and East St. Louis are gay, and he's challenged State Senator James Clayborne of Belleville to "take your drawers down, look between your legs. If there's something hanging there, that means you're a man."
When the clock hits 11 a.m., another crash of thunder signals the end of the day's diatribe.
For a first-time listener, the meaning of the Romanik's rant can be difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. It's not hard to imagine — with his strings of FCC-approved cuss words, slight drawl and references to "greasy Mexicans" that Romanik, who calls himself "poor white trash," is a racist nutbag. He leaps at the chance to tell people he's "crazy." But the man behind the mask is also an ex-police chief, onetime strip club baron and a convicted felon with ties to one of the largest racketeering scandals to hit the east side.
"I'm really kind of surprised that a man with the professional accomplishments he's had in the past would stoop to that kind of expression," laments East St. Louis mayor Alvin Parks.
Parks was once a guest on the show but has now become a favorite target of Romanik's vitriol, rechristened "Alvin Sugar-Britches Parks."
"I think Bob is basically a guy who hates everybody," the mayor sighs.
Riverfront Times also found out firsthand how easy it is to fall from Romanik's favor and just how cold it can get on the dark side.
"If you do something to piss me off, I'll do something to piss the Riverfront Times off," he growls in his final conversation with RFT after the paper spent several days with him for this story. "I'll get more out of bounds than you ever thought. I'm not threatening you. I'm promising you."
An ex-con buying up radio stations would cause chatter anywhere in the radio biz — the Federal Communications Commission's "character" rules make it difficult for felons to own stations. That Romanik's first acquisition was a Christian-format station controlled by one of St. Louis' most recognizable pastors made the intrigue even juicier.
"I didn't know we were selling to Bob Romanik," recalls the Reverend Larry Rice of the New Life Evangelistic Center, who in 2006 sold WDID (re-identified as WQQW 1510 AM) to a group called Entertainment Media Trust.
The trust lists Belleville attorney Dennis Watkins as trustee and Romanik's son, Stephen, as the outfit's sole beneficiary. But it's Bob Romanik who — as a "consultant" — calls most of the shots within the group.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
"I'm like a bad case of the clap," he roars. "I'm not going away no matter what you do!"
"Get 'im Bob!" someone shouts back.
"Rick Stone, you no-good son of a bitch, I'm about 75 feet from your office," says Romanik. "Have the guts to come out here and face me."
There are county workers coming in and out, but Romanik keeps a special eye on the maintenance workers scrubbing the empty fountains.
"The last time I tried to do this," Romanik has repeated gleefully, "they tried to assassinate me."
According to the police report, a half hour into Romanik's live broadcast on May 17, a 72-year-old county maintenance worker came out of the courthouse and started sweeping the walk. He walked up to Romanik's table and said he needed to sweep around it. Believing the worker was sent to intentionally disrupt the broadcast, the report says Romanik yelled, "That's what happens when a dog fucks a cat!" (No, no, no, corrects Romanik. It was: "That's what happens when a woman has sex with a dog — you get a no-good son of a bitch!")
The maintenance man shoved Romanik then pushed him with a broomstick before someone called the cops. When the deputies came back to Romanik with surveillance tapes of the incident, they report he waved them away.
"Romanik stated he did not want [him] to go to jail," the responding sheriff's deputy wrote.
"I'm not going to have him arrested," Romanik scoffs later. "Unlike Mrs. Kern. Who wants to fuck with me and cost me money."
The incident — another favorite from his airtime soap opera — occurred when he went to St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern's home in Belleville, suspecting that Kern did not actually live in his district. Romanik came face to face with Kern's wife, who filed a complaint with the police.
"She stated she is familiar with Romanik and knows he is a convicted felon," the police report reads. "She stated while she was telling him to leave he was speaking into something and felt he was broadcasting on his radio show."
Romanik was arrested three days later and charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing. The charges have been dismissed, but the case is being appealed to state court. That, of course, has the Grim Reaper swinging his scythe at the Kerns every chance he gets.
"Mark Kern, I should give you $5,000 just to have sex with that nasty old lady," Romanik crows on the plaza. "Hey, Mark Kern, you rotten bastard!"
From the start of the winding driveway, Romanik's sprawling home on a manmade lake east of Belleville looks something like a compound. Grimacing lions leer down from brick columns, and behind them a phalanx of security cameras watches silently. Huge golden letters arc over the spiked front gate spelling "ROMANIK," and below that the initials "RR" shine in the late afternoon sun.
Romanik parks his cherry red Chevy SSR — one of a fleet of vehicles he keeps covered in decals advertising the radio stations — and jogs up the driveway. He's got to go alone, he says, because some friends who wouldn't want to be identified by a reporter are enjoying his pool and its Playboy Mansion-style grotto.
It's hours after the Grim Reaper of Radio show, and Romanik is still in high gear. His boundless energy, he says, often has people accusing him of being on drugs.
"I've never. On my son's life," he swears. "I haven't drank in 35, 40 years. Not that I'm a teetotaler. I just don't like the taste of it. I couldn't work two or three jobs, and go to school, and be up to answer the bell the next morning."
The driveway of the Romanik home is jammed with vehicles, including a party bus and a stretch limo. Much of his personal wealth, Romanik says, comes from the stock market and real estate investments. He says he bought his first piece of land around the age of 22.
"I had a lot of property. Anything that I thought I could turn a profit on," he says. "I knew I was never going to live real good on a policeman's salary."
He still owns the land on which two strip clubs operate. The owner of Pyramid of Pleasure, the former Crystal Palace, is on a pay-to-own plan with Romanik. The other is the Hollywood Showclub that is technically owned by Stephen Romanik II, though when Riverfront Times called the club last week, the person who answered the phone identified the elder Romanik as the boss and said he's in every night at 7:30.
On weekends Romanik likes to tool around Grafton (where he owns a condo) with his girlfriend of more than twenty years, Tina Sanders, and other friends.
There seems to be no shortage of Romanik friends and acquaintances. A lunch in downtown Belleville can be an hours-long affair, with a stream of people — attorneys, cops and civil servants — funneling past his table to trade barbs and gossip.
Fealty to friends is a towering principle in Romanik's world. After his federal trial, when he was sentenced for refusing to testify in the Venezia case, the Belleville News-Democrat ran a cartoon depicting Romanik as a giant rat with his tail caught in a trap. "Do I look like the kind of guy who'd rat on his friends?" the word bubble read. Romanik sued the paper for painting him in a "false light." (The suit was later dismissed.)
"His loyalty is immense," says former East St. Louis mayor Carl Officer, a friend of 30 years and a morning host on WQQX.
Back in the Chevy, Romanik tries to explain his roughshod approach to local politics.
"I'm politically insane. I'm a political mercenary," he says, ripping around turns. "Everybody doesn't deserve fifteen minutes of fame. They deserve fifteen minutes of recognition. That's what I want to give everybody."
He flies down the highway toward six spindly looking towers in the sky — the towers sending out KQQZ — then fiddles the radio dial to an FM station.
"That's a big country station," he says, then flips over to 1190 AM. "That's mine."
The old country songs resound through the car clear as a bell.
In the middle of a cornfield, Romanik jumps out of the car, followed by the two handymen who've been trailing in a pickup. The trio wades through waist-high weeds toward a tower in a need of a new fence as the radio bleats, "Don't give me no plastic saddle/Let me feel that leather when I ride."
Romanik phones Riverfront Times early on a July morning — Friday the 13 — about a half hour before he's due on the air. He is livid.
"I thought you were a decent reporter," he seethes. "I don't wanna play no more. Today's my last day on the air. I can't help these people. I'm not going to waste my time, my money, my effort."
He's angry that Riverfront Times contacted his friends. ("That's harassment," he declares.) But he won't explain why he's canceling the show.
"I may come out of retirement for this," he says, meaning this story. "All I'm saying is, if you're going to do it, do it right, and if I'm not happy about it, you'll hear about it....We might have a week with an exposé on the Riverfront Times, on its employees."
It's an odd threat coming from the "First Amendment Station" host, who constantly admonishes his listening audience to fact-check his claims. Then again, the broadcast on July 13 makes it clear that something has happened to Romanik — perhaps some kind of political disappointment. And because he never answers another Riverfront Times message, whatever it was remains a mystery.
On his final broadcast are no graveyard theatrics, just Romanik's voice, quiet and almost sad.
I've tried to help you people. I've tried to help you understand. I don't want to be a big shot. I just wanted to be part of the team that made a difference. But apparently nobody cares.
So let these politicians come after you. Let them do what they're going to do. They're going to screw you. They're not going to screw me, 'cause if and when they try, I'll screw back. But apparently they know you guys are easy targets.
There's a slight pause.
So just be careful. It's been a good run. I got better things to do than beat my dumb-ass, ugly face against the wall.
This is Bob Ro-manik. Signing off. The best of luck to you and yours.
Instead of the crashing thunder, there's a low rumble, like a storm departing on the heels of a cold wind.
But then, it's true what they say: There's no getting around death. Last week the "Grim Reaper of Radio" once again returned to the airwaves with little explanation of his self-imposed exile.
Romanik's show has undergone a few programming tweaks — he's playing Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up," before commercial breaks and makes a solemn promise to no longer call Senator Clayborne a "boy." "Plantation Negro," however, will stay.
Here, when he'd normally sign off, Romanik races on, the thunder rumbling in the background.
I'm fired up! I hope you're fired up. And we're gonna continue to expose this corruption to this — to the — to expose this no-good, no-account, rotten political shenanigans, that we're not going to take anymore! We're going to expose them, hopefully drag them and politically bury them...on the dark side.
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