Win Lose Die

Belleville racketeer Thomas Venezia goes out with a bang

Dec 7, 2005 at 4:00 am
[This is the conclusion of a two-part story. To read Part 1, click here.]

The son of a St. Louis tavern owner, Thomas Venezia rose to prominence in the early 1990s after parlaying an eighth-grade education into a St. Clair County gambling and strip-club empire federal prosecutors would later value at $48 million.

As he supplied video-poker and -slot machines to area taverns, Venezia assembled a network of family members and influential business associates, including Sylvester Jackson, who at the time was mayor of Washington Park, and prominent Belleville attorney Amiel Cueto, who Venezia once boasted "owned" fifteen of the seventeen judges in St. Clair County.

In 1995 a federal judge in East St. Louis found Venezia guilty of racketeering, sending him to prison and fining him more than $13 million.

Venezia returned to Belleville in 2002. On July 19 of this year, Belleville police discovered his body and that of his roommate, 21-year-old Jennifer Anderson. Investigators determined that Venezia had shot Anderson in the back of the head, then turned the gun on himself.

By 1992 the man who had a weakness for the stylings of St. Louis chanteuse Tina Turner had cashed in some of his winnings and bought a horse farm for his wife, Sandra Nations Venezia. Located just south of Belleville, Lone Oak Farm was outfitted in high style, with a white split-rail fence ringing its horse-dotted pastures. Along with Amiel Cueto (pronounced kwee-toe), Venezia also purchased an interest in St. Louis-based Laclede Cab Co. And in 1993 he rounded out a topless-club trifecta with the acquisition of Club Exposed in Centreville. As he had at Main Street and his other strip joint, Cheeks, Venezia installed his son Milan as manager.

(Thomas Venezia had two other children by a previous marriage: Gaetano Venezia, his eldest son, is an obstetrician in St. Louis; Christina Venezia, his youngest child, most recently worked as a bartender in Soulard. Milan and Gaetano Venezia declined interview requests for this story. Christina Venezia could not be reached.)

The middle child of three, Milan Venezia had held a variety of odd jobs before coming to work for his father. His résumé included stints at St. Louis-area restaurants and a car wash. He had a tenth-grade education, and when he took charge of Cheeks and Main Street in 1990 he was roughly 22 years old.

Milan took full advantage of the job's perks. According to his own subsequent testimony, Milan smoked pot on a daily basis, snorted cocaine and dabbled in crystal meth. At one point he bought a billboard near the Poplar Street Bridge that depicted him flanked by two dancers. The slogan: He liked the place so much he bought the company. But Milan's drug habits and dubious business decisions grated on the senior Venezia, who frequently berated his son for his lack of business sense.

On one occasion Tom Venezia questioned the wisdom of paying $15,000 to import has-been rockers Cheap Trick for a one-night stand at Cheeks. And he was none too pleased the day he stopped by one of his clubs at 6 a.m. only to find Milan snorting rails of cocaine in the back room. Then again, Milan Venezia testified that it was his father who'd offered him his first bump.

Father and son also shared an interest in showgirls. In 1992 Milan Venezia hooked up with a 21-year-old Cheeks dancer named Erin "Bobby" Griffin, whom Milan introduced to the region as one of his billboard showgirls. Smart and ambitious, Griffin quickly parlayed her brief affair with Milan into a position behind the bar.

She also managed to catch the eye of Milan's father.

"A lot of the people from the office were over at Milan's house," Deirdre Crook told Venezia's jurors, describing the night she learned Tom Venezia and Griffin were romantically involved. "I saw Erin and Tom on the couch kissing."

In 1993 Milan finally exhausted Venezia's patience: During a weeklong trip to Hawaii, he racked up a $13,000 tab when he wrecked a Ferrari he'd rented for $150 per hour. Soon after he returned to town, his father fired him.

Meanwhile, Tom Venezia was providing his new mistress with many of the same perks he'd bestowed on his wife: a luxury sedan, a Washington Park police badge (courtesy of the bought-off mayor, Sylvester Jackson), a hefty weekly allowance and a job with the company, B&H Vending. In filling this last role, Griffin took over Milan's management duties at the strip clubs. Griffin also became notorious for cruising around local highways and flashing her police badge in the face of any cop who had the temerity to stop her white Lexus.

Some of Griffin's exploits were recounted at Venezia's trial. Washington Park police officer Hollis Riggins testified about the night he'd briefly placed her in custody after pulling her over for speeding. As Riggins was preparing to book Griffin, he got a call from Washington Park Mayor Sylvester Jackson. Riggins testified that the mayor ordered him to free Griffin and await instructions. Eight hours later he reported as ordered to Main Street, where the mayor and Thomas and Milan Venezia were waiting.

"I was introduced to Tom Venezia by Sylvester Jackson...then the screaming began," Riggins said under oath. "Sylvester Jackson [said], 'You are not a real policeman, you work for me. Why didn't you honor the badge?' ...My understanding from that point on was that...Venezia did run the City of Washington Park."

In another run-in, police officer Jimmy Farley gave chase after seeing Griffin run a red light. Trailing her Lexus into Main Street's parking garage, Farley tried to talk to her.

"I stopped under the door, and...asked her to come back to my car," the officer would later tell jurors. "[S]he said that she was a detective with Washington Park [and that] she didn't have time to talk to me."

Griffin showed Farley the badge Jackson had issued her and started to walk away. But Farley persisted.

"I said, 'Show me your driver's license and I will be on my way,'" Farley continued. "She said she didn't have time to talk to me. She went over to the garage door, to the button, and closed the door down on the hood of my car, then back up again. She pushed it again, [and it] came down on the hood of my car.... I am just sitting there looking at her waiting for her to show me the driver's license.... I pulled away and left. It [was] common practice that you don't bother B&H employees."

When Belleville police discovered the bodies of Thomas Venezia and Jennifer Anderson on July 19 of this year, the pair had been living in a ramshackle house at 311 Mascoutah Avenue. Police found the 61-year-old Venezia in a bedroom recliner, dead from a single gunshot to the temple. Twenty-one-year-old Jennifer Anderson died on the kitchen floor, felled by a shot to the back of the head. After a brief investigation, police ruled the deaths a murder-suicide.

Like Erin Griffin, Jennifer Anderson was young and pretty. But in 2005 Thomas Venezia had nowhere near the clout he'd wielded circa 1993. Though he maintained his signature mustache and was still a sharp dresser, he also had throat cancer, a paltry $387 per month salary and serious debt. Before moving into the house on Mascoutah, he and his daughter had been evicted from a rented home in Millstadt, having racked up more than $6,000 in back rent.

According to an April 2004 account published in the Belleville News-Democrat, the Land Rover Venezia had been driving was registered in the name of his friend Robert Staack. The same article reported that Venezia was "consulting" with Staack, who had a management contract for the Golden Eagle Saloon, one door down from the house at 311 Mascoutah. The former head of security at Venezia's strip clubs, Staack was reportedly living at Venezia's old horse farm and had an option to buy the Golden Eagle from its owner, Belleville attorney Charles Stegmeyer.

St. Clair County property records indicate that ownership of the tavern — where Venezia and Anderson both worked until the business was shut down in early 2005 for serving minors — was more complex. The documents show that in 1999 Stegmeyer entered into a twenty-year, $90,000 contract for deed with the property's owner, Belleville businessman Charles Minton. Then, in February of this year, Minton and Stegmeyer agreed to turn over the property to the Eagle Land Trust (for which Robert Staack is a trustee) for $65,000.

Stegmeyer says that transaction was never consummated. "The [Golden Eagle] had closed at the end of January," he explains. "At that point in time the building was vacant, and I wanted to sell the building or put another tenant in there. I thought we had a buyer in the Eagle Land Trust and that would be the end of it. But we didn't have a buyer, we had a buyer with no money to do anything. So the deal fell through."

Three days after the deaths of Venezia and Anderson, Minton filed a quit-claim deed, turning over the Golden Eagle to Stegmeyer. And in October Stegmeyer filed papers indicating he'd sold the bar for $75,000 to a woman named Elizabeth Gold, who'd applied for a business license to operate Deuces Restaurant Services Inc. on the property a week after Venezia and Anderson died.

Meanwhile Minton, who also owned the house on Mascoutah where Venezia and Anderson were living, was in foreclosure proceedings on all four properties he owned in St. Clair County. In fact, the court handed down a foreclosure judgment against him for the Mascoutah house on July 21, 2005. Additionally, Belleville municipal records reveal that the house hadn't had a valid occupancy permit since 1999.

Charles Minton and Robert Staack declined to comment for this story.

"I've got a lot of questions," says Michael Anderson, Jennifer's father. "The [police] investigation was very lax: The building wasn't secured. There was never any crime-scene tape put up. Why was there no crime-scene tape put on all the windows? I still don't have an answer. The best I've got is: 'I don't know.'"

Anderson says police gave him and his wife two cell phones found at the scene. The phones — one of whose call history had been erased — appear to have belonged to Thomas Venezia. Additionally, the Andersons claim that Jennifer's diaries, clothes and other personal effects were never recovered from the scene.

At the outset of the investigation into the deaths, Belleville police announced they'd recovered what appeared to be a suicide note left by Venezia. But their subsequent handwriting analysis revealed that Jennifer Anderson wrote the note, not Venezia.

When Belleville detective Matt Eiskant testified about the note at a coroner's inquest, he stated that witnesses had told police that Jennifer Anderson had been talking about going on tour with a band. According to Eiskant, "The note pretty much said: You say I don't care about you and what I am saying is a lie, then read this. You don't see what I do when you are asleep. I lay there trying to hold you in my arms as you sleep. I watch over you when you are not feeling good, and when you 'F' up. I [help] you keep track of things that you need to do. I try to keep you from harming yourself when you feel like no one cares. I do care about you. I see something in you. You're a very big part of my life. Don't do this to yourself. You say you don't want to take me down with you, but you are. You are taking me down because I care."

But Anderson's parents are troubled by recollections offered by one of Jennifer's friends. The friend, Emmy Hamby, says that shortly before her death Jennifer had confided that she believed she was going to be murdered.

"She called me about ten o'clock at night after she'd gotten out of [a] meeting. She was very upset. She said there were these three partners who wanted her to put her name on the liquor license because she was 21 and had a clear record," Hamby recounts. "There was a house that went with it or something. She really didn't want to do business with these people. She said, 'I don't want to do it.' And I said, 'Oh, well, baby girl, you've got to go with your feelings. If you don't want to do it, then don't do it.' And she said, 'No, you don't understand. They'll kill me if I don't.'"

Hamby says she contacted Detective Eiskant after she learned of Jennifer Anderson's death and that she later provided Belleville police with a statement about the phone call from Anderson.

After determining that the Anderson-Venezia deaths were a murder-suicide, Belleville police closed the case.

"Why was a known monster able to work in this city? The chief of police was the federal agent that arrested this man," says Michael Anderson, alluding to Belleville Police Chief Terrence Delaney's prior career as a U.S. Marshal. "He knew this man's history. He knew [Venezia] was running a bar; he might not have been touching the alcohol, he might not have been serving it, but he was close enough to fucking smell it and nobody checked this man out. [Delaney] didn't go over there and give him any kind of resistance whatsoever. None. Why? Why not?

"How did Venezia get the gun?" Anderson continues. "The minute they tell me who did own [the gun], I want to know what detectives are working to build a bridge from that owner to the hand of Venezia. Why isn't that being done?"

The Andersons say Belleville police learned that the .38 caliber revolver found at the crime scene was registered to Robert Staack, Venezia's longtime associate and the man who discovered the bodies. A federal official familiar with the investigation confirms the gun's provenance. Additionally, the federal official and others familiar with the investigation say Staack is scheduled to appear before a federal grand jury.

The nature of the grand jury's investigation has not been made public. Citing U.S. Department of Justice policy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Massey says he cannot confirm or deny that an investigation is under way.

Belleville police chief Terrence Delaney declined numerous requests seeking comment for this story.

Though he labored to insulate his empire from the probing eyes of law enforcement, by 1991 the flashy cars, designer suits and flamboyant lifestyle of the five-foot-seven Venezia had caught the attention of state authorities. Initially the Illinois State Police assigned twelve officers to investigate the bar-top gambling ring. They made some arrests, seized money and machines, but the cases withered in the courts.

"[We] would [make a] criminal arrest for keeping a place of gambling. [But when] we would try to find dispositions on what the status of the case was, [we] couldn't get the information.... [It] was like Lost in Space," Illinois state trooper Victor Morris told jurors during Venezia's racketeering trial. "[Then we'd see a] B&H Vending truck pull up with a court order to get the machines and money back.... That is the only way we found out that there was maybe something moving on the cases."

The state police enlisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in April 1992 federal and state agents raided one of Venezia's most lucrative stops: the VFW post at Scott Air Force Base. As was his policy, Venezia promptly replaced the confiscated gambling machines. Still, he was troubled. Who was turning up the heat?

His suspicion soon centered on Bonds Robinson, an agent with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

"He wanted to meet with Bonds because he was puzzled," Sylvester Jackson would tell jurors during Venezia's trial. "He wanted to see what he and Bonds could come up with. He was looking for a friend."

"Why would you even talk to him?" attorney Amiel Cueto recalls telling Venezia when he first learned of the meeting. "I said, 'Well, know this: This sounds awful weird to me. You ought to just see if he's going to make an overt attempt for a bribe, but understand that you may be talking into a wire too. Because these guys watch too much Kojak on TV.'"

Ultimately Venezia and Jackson met with Robinson on August 17, 1992, at B&H's Fairmont City offices. (As Cueto predicted, Robinson wore an FBI-supplied wire.) The liquor-control agent declines to discuss the case today, but transcripts of the meeting reveal a rambling game of cat and mouse: Venezia tried to get Robinson to solicit a bribe; Robinson tried to get Venezia to offer one.

After about an hour, Venezia asked Mayor Jackson to step out of the room.

"You know, I can't do right by everybody, but if somebody deserves it, then I'll do right by them," he then told Robinson. "I'm wondering if I could set it up where we get like $250 a week in, uh, pantyhose from you."

"[F]inancially," Robinson replied, "you know, those things are very important."

"Honest to God. You know, once...we strike up a friendship, there ain't nothing we can't — that I won't do for you," Venezia said. "I hope then that the feeling is mutual."

Jackson told jurors that Venezia came away from the meeting believing Robinson was willing to work with him. Which meant Venezia was all the more dismayed when agents again raided the VFW post a few days afterward.

"All hell had broken loose at the company," Jackson testified. "[Venezia] said, 'Hell, didn't you talk to the gentleman? Didn't you tell him we was gonna take care of him? We was working on something.'"

Retribution was swift.

On the morning of September 1, 1992, Bonds Robinson arrived at the St. Clair County Courthouse for a hearing in the VFW case, only to find that a hearing date had never been set.

Illinois state trooper Mark Sprankle, who had also come for the hearing, would later testify about what happened next. "I observed two gentlemen in suits approach Mr. Robinson and serve him with a subpoena," Sprankle told jurors at Venezia's trial. "[Robinson] appeared a little flustered and stated...[,] 'I need to make a phone call.' ...They replied to him, 'No, you are coming with us now.'"

The well-dressed pair consisted of attorney Amiel Cueto and Robert Romanik, a private detective who for a time served as Washington Park's chief of police and who federal prosecutors would dub "Cueto's gofer." They hustled Robinson into the courtroom of Judge James Radcliffe, who presided over the Cueto-orchestrated hearing. Brazenly, Cueto placed Robinson on the stand and began interrogating him about whether he was working for the FBI.

Venezia, whose fifteen-year sentence was reduced by more than one-third after he turned state's witness and testified at Amiel Cueto's trial, recounted the scene for the jury. "I was losing credibility, not only with the VFW, but with the rest of my customers," he testified. "[We had] to set him up and catch him before he got us."

Court testimony reveals that Robinson begged to speak with the judge in private. He asked to make a telephone call; he requested an attorney. Judge Radcliffe denied all the requests and ordered Robinson to answer Cueto's questions.

Venezia was dazzled by Cueto's bravado. Sandra Nations Venezia told jurors at Cueto's trial that her husband "was very proud of Mr. Cueto. He said that Mr. Cueto basically lambasted Bonds Robinson on the stand, got him to admit...that he was an FBI agent undercover, and that he was just admitting to things that Tom thought was good. He would not make a decision unless he talked to Mr. Cueto."

Radcliffe promptly handed down a preliminary injunction barring Robinson from B&H Vending stops — effectively derailing the racketeering investigation. (A federal judge in East St. Louis would later overrule Radcliffe's decision, deeming it a "parody of legal procedure." Additionally, the Illinois Courts Commission disciplined Radcliffe in 2001 for the incident, suspending him for three months.)

In the meantime, Venezia's testimony indicates that he and Cueto had resolved to stop Robinson once and for all — by getting him indicted.

To that end, Cueto pressed St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida to build a corruption case against the liquor agent. Haida refused.

During his testimony at Cueto's conspiracy trial, Haida testified that in 1995 Cueto's longtime friend, U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello, offered to help get Haida a judgeship on condition that Haida help Cueto succeed him as county prosecutor. Haida further testified that Costello told him a circuit judge had agreed to "step aside" if Haida accepted the deal, adding that the power swap hinged on Haida backing Cueto for the State's Attorney slot. Haida declined the offer.

Costello has repeatedly rejected Haida's claims.

"[Cueto] said that Haida was either afraid or he couldn't summon up the courage [to indict Robinson]," Venezia would testify at Cueto's trial. "If [Haida] wouldn't do it, [Cueto] himself would run for state's attorney and indict Bonds Robinson."

Cueto formally announced his bid for St. Clair County State's Attorney in early 1995.

But by that time Thomas Venezia was in deep sand, and sinking fast.

On the morning of December 6, 1994, federal and state agents raided 27 east-side taverns, seizing 170 of B&H Vending's gambling machines. At B&H's Belleville offices, FBI and IRS agents confiscated office equipment along with $74,000 cash.

As federal prosecutors commenced compiling a ten-count indictment against him and six of his associates, Venezia set to work replacing his gambling machines. "If I [didn't] it would be like admitting guilt," he'd tell jurors at Amiel Cueto's trial.

Venezia also persuaded his wife to divorce him.

"I was basically what you would call a trusted soldier," Sandra Nations testified at Cueto's trial. "He didn't trust that Bobby [Erin Griffin] would have the same loyalty. He said that if by chance we would all be indicted...they would separate us...and the government would be able to get to her. ...[S]o he said that we needed to get a divorce, and he needed to marry her."

That February — three days after the divorce was finalized — Nations was on a plane to Nevada with Venezia and Griffin.

"He wanted to make the marriage as quick as possible, so he had me set up a plane reservation and hotel and everything for the three of us to go to Las Vegas for them to get married," Nations told jurors. For the ceremony, Griffin borrowed a veil from Nations — the same veil Nations had worn three years earlier when she married Venezia. Nations served as a witness at the ceremony and snapped photos. The trio spent the night at the Mirage: Nations and Venezia in one room, Griffin across the hall, alone. "From the beginning it was a sham," Nations testified.

On March 30, 1995, prosecutors unveiled a 70-page indictment of Thomas Venezia, Milan Venezia, Erin Griffin, Sandra Nations, Sylvester Jackson and two others associated with B&H Vending. The government sought forfeiture of millions of dollars in gambling profits, including Venezia's homes and businesses and other assets, right down to his 13 automobiles and the 170 gambling machines that had been seized in the December raid.

The trial unfolded over eleven weeks at the district courthouse in East St. Louis. Amid the proceedings, Cueto abandoned his bid for state's attorney and began publishing the East Side Review, a tabloid newspaper that called an assistant U.S. attorney a "strutting, bald-headed midget with severe psycho/sexual disorders." Alleged another article: "There may in fact be public officials who are fatter, or drunker, or even stupider than [the prosecutor], but nobody else fits all three adjectives 'fat, drunk and stupid,' better."

Milan Venezia pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug charges. In exchange for testifying against his father, he drew a 33-month sentence. After testifying at Cueto's trial, Nations was sentenced to three years' probation. Jackson got 37 months after pleading guilty to racketeering and extortion. The judge sentenced Griffin to four and a half years at a light-security facility.

In addition to his fifteen-year sentence, Venezia was ordered to pay more than $13 million in fines.

The ink had barely dried on the final paperwork when prosecutors brought a second indictment against Venezia, Cueto and Robert Romanik, charging the trio with obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello was named as an "un-indicted co-conspirator."

To get his sentence reduced, Venezia testified against Cueto, whom he described as his "best friend." In that 1997 trial, Romanik pleaded guilty to lying 150 times to a grand jury and later served a brief prison sentence for bank fraud.

Found guilty on four counts, Amiel Cueto was sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary.

About nine o'clock on the morning of July 19, Golden Eagle manager Robert Staack would later tell authorities, he stopped by Venezia's house with a friend and former Venezia associate named Art Feole. He hadn't heard from Venezia in a while, Staack would tell police, and wanted to check on him. Concerned about possible foul play, Staack and Feole broke through a door into the kitchen, where they saw a woman's body on the floor.

Later that morning, the Andersons' eldest daughter, Stacey, was driving to work when she saw two police cars outside the house at 311 Mascoutah Avenue, where the family suspected Jennifer was living. She dialed her brother and told him to check it out.

Mounting his bike, fourteen-year-old Joshua Anderson pedaled three blocks to the house, where he spied a police officer carrying Jennifer's purse. Another policeman came over and instructed him to summon his family.

A home healthcare worker, Cynthia Anderson was with a client when Stacey phoned. "She told me: 'Mom, you need to come. Something bad has happened,'" Anderson recalls. "I thought: No."

Coaxing her car toward home, Anderson heard sirens. A helicopter whirred above. When Anderson turned onto Mascoutah Avenue, she saw the swarm of police, paramedics, bystanders and reporters.

Though she'd known about Venezia's racketeering conviction, Cynthia Anderson says she and her husband weren't aware of the extent of his criminal history. Whenever she saw the two of them together, Anderson says, Venezia had been sociable and polite.

Still, the May-December relationship was an odd one: Anderson was five years old in 1988, the year Thomas Venezia purchased his first strip club. A few weeks earlier, the Andersons had pleaded with their daughter to come home. Now Cynthia Anderson's heart raced as she parked beside the Golden Eagle tavern. Making her way through the throng, she noticed the telltale yellow tape and saw Stacey nervously clutching a small blue towel.

"I looked at one of the police officers standing on the porch and I said, 'My daughter lives here. Where's my daughter?' He held up his hand and said, 'Wait a minute,'" Anderson recounts. Again she asked. Again the officer told her to wait. "The third time I said it, he motioned with his hand to [Belleville Police Chief Terrence] Delaney to come over and talk to me. [Delaney] said, 'I don't think you want to see your daughter.'"

Eventually Delaney relented and escorted her into the house, where St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone and several police officers and detectives were gathered. Anderson saw a white body bag atop a gurney. As she approached, a staffer in the coroner's office partially unzipped the bag and gently brushed the hair from her daughter's face.

"Her hair was oily. She was blue," Cynthia Anderson recounts. "I reached in the bag and pulled it open wider, so I could see. She had jeans on, black flip flops, and a black tank top with a dragonfly on it. I basically identified her from earrings and her hair and her shoes," Anderson continues. "The rest of her wasn't my daughter."

As the gurney was wheeled from the house, Anderson found her other daughter, Stacey. "My first instinct was to go to her. I didn't walk out with Jennifer," Anderson recalls, still clearly troubled by her choice. "I didn't know what to do. There were reporters and camera people everywhere. I just wanted to protect her. I put my body over hers. I basically covered her with my body. I didn't know what else to do."

Three months after the killings, the Andersons keep their daughter's cremated remains in an urn in an improvised dining-room shrine. Rather than scatter the ashes, they intend to have their daughter's remains buried with their own. "She's going to stay with us," Cynthia Anderson says.

Evenings are now spent poring over property, court and criminal records, hoping to find some clue to the mystery of their daughter's death. "I have a growing anger. There are so many questions around this that we can't really put her death into perspective for ourselves," explains Michael Anderson. "After all of this is over, and we do find the answers, then we get to go somewhere, and, possibly, grieve."

As the Andersons continue their search for answers, Sandra Nations Venezia has remarried and moved to the Lake of the Ozarks, where she has gone into business as a realtor. After serving two and a half years in prison, Erin "Bobby" Griffin married her high school sweetheart and earned a master's degree in animal science. She now teaches at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, her hometown.

Of the more than $13 million the federal government fined Thomas Venezia, authorities have managed to collect roughly $1 million, prompting widespread rumors that Venezia was able to squirrel away a fortune estimated at $48 million.

Amiel Cueto, who was disbarred in late 2004, arranged to sell a 32-acre tract of East St. Louis riverfront land he'd once owned in partnership with Thomas Venezia via their company En Futuro. Price: roughly $8 million. The deal was announced the day before police discovered the bodies of Venezia and Anderson. The transaction has yet to be finalized. (Though Venezia testified that he was in on the deal, Cueto contends that Venezia "never owned" a share of the land.) On November 21 Cueto filed a lawsuit against Richard Bechtoldt, a businessman who in the early 1990s entered into several land deals with Cueto and Venezia. Cueto's suit alleges that his former business partner never repaid the $260,000 Cueto lent him in connection with a Mexican gambling enterprise.

To this day, Cueto maintains his innocence of all the charges for which he was convicted.

"[Venezia] did what he had to do," Cueto says of Venezia's testimony. "All the way through, Tom Venezia perjured himself."

"[U.S. Representative Jerry] Costello was the object of the exercise from the beginning," fumes Cueto, who was released from prison in 2003. "[Venezia] himself is a tragedy. The idea that all of this, this holocaust and this catastrophe came about over basically him just running his mouth when there was no crime, no one was harmed.... The only crimes that were committed, as far as I'm concerned, were misdemeanors committed by him."