As a police officer himself, Detective Sergeant John "Vito" Parisi wasn't big on arresting cops — but the guy from north county St. Louis was pushing right to the edge of what they could accept in Sauget.
"He was teetering on it," says Parisi, sitting behind his desk in the blond brick building that is home to the tiny town's police department, village hall and fire station. "You know, you want to extend every courtesy."
Parisi has been policing Sauget, Illinois, for nearly 30 years. It's always had an outlaw reputation. Originally called Monsanto, the village was incorporated in 1926 as a place where the chemical giant could operate within sight of the Arch but without the burdensome environmental oversight of St. Louis regulations. Even today it enjoys a legacy of minimal governmental interference. The smokestacks of a gauntlet of industrial plants cut across the low horizon. Where other towns have schools and grocery stores, Sauget has long, windowless strip clubs, 24-hour bars and acres of parking lot to accommodate the after-hours crowds that flow across the Mississippi River in the early morning dark.
Parisi is one of about 160 people who live in the village. He's dealt with plenty of knuckleheads who like to treat his town like St. Louis' own little sin city.
He can't remember anyone like Steven Blakeney.
"No," he says, "just because it was so bizarre."
A beefy six-footer with a military buzz cut, Blakeney was then a police sergeant in the pocket-sized north St. Louis County suburb of Pine Lawn. Known around north county St. Louis as a vindictive brute, he'd somehow managed to rocket through the ranks of his troubled department despite allegations of rape, cocaine abuse and the kind of hyperaggressive policing tactics condemned by the Justice Department after the Ferguson protests.
Eventually, he'd be fired from Pine Lawn — accused of using a police escort to take women home after he'd met them at a bar and, allegedly, drugged them. He has never been charged in the incident, although this year Blakeney was finally convicted in federal court of framing a mayoral candidate. The federal judge handling his case described him as a "disgrace." Assistant U.S. Attorney Reginald Harris opined, "This is a person who should never have been a police officer in the first place."
For years, though, he seemed untouchable. In Pine Lawn, he was thought to serve as the hammer for the city's corrupt mayor, and that gave him a certain amount of freedom.
He was a frequent visitor to Sauget, even during the night shift, when his fellow Pine Lawn cops say he was on duty. Sauget Officer Brian Phillips says he'd see Blakeney's police-issued Dodge Charger in the employee lot at the Penthouse Club five or six nights a week.
His problems in Sauget started as your garden-variety nuisance. Blakeney seemed like he wanted to play the tough guy at Pop's, a metal-sided concert hall and dance club that never closes. Security guards there told police they were busy throwing somebody out one night in January 2014 when Blakeney tried to join them.
When the bouncers tried to get Blakeney to back off, he told them he could intervene anywhere he wished. An assistant manager had to physically force Blakeney and a buddy out the door. Blakeney and his friend later slipped back inside through an employee entrance, fooling no one. Security eventually called Sauget police to get him to leave — and told him not to come back.
When Blakeney returned less than two weeks later, security ushered him away. The next night, he and a partner cruised past the front door in an unmarked police car.
They circled, returned and paused at the front entrance. One of the bouncers walked out of the club and toward the car, assuming the occupants were part of an auto-theft task force that sometimes patrolled the area. He soon realized it was Blakeney — in full tactical gear, Parisi says.
Now armed, Blakeney told the bouncer he was working on an investigation that required him to stake out the lot. He asked which Sauget police officers were working that night and fished for information about Pop's head of security. When the bouncer told him to beat it, Blakeney drove slowly away.
Blakeney was eventually banned from at least three clubs on the East Side, but he continued to show up. Parisi decided it was time that Pine Lawn kept Blakeney at home.
He called over to the department.
"Hey, this guy is nothing but trouble for us," he recalls saying. "If you would, let him know to stay out of our venue."
Not long after, a Pine Lawn officer in a police van hand-delivered an envelope to the Sauget station. Inside was a letter referencing Parisi's phone conversation, claiming, "It has been determined that the investigator(s) were found to be operating within the scope of this Department's standard operating procedures, and of course, within the scope of the statutory authority while on duty, conducting a lawful investigation(s)."
What kind of investigation would require a cop from Pine Lawn, a town of less than a square mile, to stake out a bar's parking lot twelve miles away in Illinois was never explained. "This matter is considered to be closed," the letter concluded.
It was supposedly signed by Pine Lawn Detective Lawrence Fleming, who happens to be Blakeney's longtime friend. Parisi thought the signature looked like it had been copied and pasted. He faxed a copy to Pine Lawn's new chief with a one-line message: "Please advise if this is a forgery."
He never heard back, but Blakeney stopped showing up at the clubs shortly after. Parisi says it was one of the weirdest episodes of his career.
"Just a strange, strange character," he says of Blakeney.