Questions linger in the death of mafia associate and former federal informant Jesse Stoneking, who allegedly committed suicide in Surprise, Ariz. in January 2003.
By C.D. Stelzer
The end came in the desert with a single gunshot. Not a solidarity death, as implied by the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but one well attended. A death witnessed and documented, leaving little room for speculation. A simple suicide or so it would seem.
On Sunday Jan. 19, 2003, at 9:45 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, a man identified as Jesse Lee McBride shot himself with a .38-caliber revolver,while seated behind the wheel of a blue1995 Ford Crown Victoria on the outskirts of Surprise, Ariz., according to local police reports. The victim died approximately an hour later at a nearby hospital. Law enforcement authorities closed the case, after a routine investigation. Though the Arizona press ignored the incident, the news media in St. Louis later reported the true identity of the man as Jesse Eugene Stoneking, a 56-year old mobster, who gained fame here as a federal informant in the 1980s.
During his long criminal career, Stoneking put together a resume that ran the gamut from extortion to murder. By the late 1970s, he had become the top lieutenant of Eastside rackets boss Art Berne, who took his orders directly from the Chicago Outfit. But after being nabbed as the leader of an interstate car theft ring in 1981, Stoneking rolled over and became an FBI informant.
His undercover work for the bureau ultimately led to federal indictments and a string of convictions of St. Louis area organized crimefigures, including his boss. The mafia reportedly put a $100,000 bounty on his head.
Stoneking spent most of the next two decades running from his past.Despite Stoneking’s reputation and the FBI’s expressed interest in his death,municipal and county officials in Arizona, who had jurisdiction over the case, chose not to expand the inquiry.Their suicide ruling is based primarily on two eyewitness accounts, including one by a Maricopa County deputy.
For this reason among others, the Surprise police deemed Stoneking’s death an open-and-shut case. But however certain the cause of death may be, questions persist. In death, as in life, the truth about Jesse Stoneking remains elusive.
Accounts vary. Discrepancies abound. Conclusions contradict. In this case, even the name of the victim is listed wrong on the medical examiner’s report. As a result, public understanding of the under-reported case has been limited by a combination of standard police procedures and the media’s failure to provide accurate, independent, follow-up coverage of breaking news.
The men who were not there
The Post-Dispatch story on Stoneking’sdeath ran on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2003, six days after his suicide. Relying on a Surprise police spokesman’s account of the incident, staff writer Paul Hampel reported that Stoneking had shot himself in his car “in a desolate area on the edge of town.” Among the sparse details included in the story was that the former mobster operated an automobile repossession business and “lived alone” in Wickenburg, Ariz.
Hampel’s story sketched a solitary suicide on a lonely stretch of road at a remote location in the desert. But maps of the area show a different picture. The crime took place in sprawling Maricopa County, near the intersection of two well-traveled roads, which bordered residential developments and golf courses on three sides.
More importantly, the police and medical examiner’s reports on the suicide show that Stoneking’s last act wasn’t carried out alone, but in the company of a longtime associate and a law enforcement official. Moreover, the car that Stoneking drove that night was registered in the name of his friend, as was the weapon that he allegedly used to kill himself.
The official police version of Stoneking’s death raises questions about the immediate actions taken by law enforcement officers, the methods used in the initial investigation and conclusions drawn afterwards.The following account is based on the reports of the first officers who arrived on the scene and a police interrogation of Stoneking’s friend.
At 9:05 p.m., the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office dispatched Deputy J. Sprong to Loop 303 and Bell Road because of a report that there were large rocks in the roadway. Sprong reported that on his arrival he saw a Ford Crown Victoria driven by Stoneking on the side of the highway with its emergency flashers on. The deputy also reported that two other vehicles, a late model Toyota SUV and a tow truck, were parked 300 yards further down the road.
The tow truck driver advised the deputy that the SUV and the vehicle driven by Stoneking had flat tires from hitting rocks on the highway. The SUV driver gave the same story, according to the report, prompting Sprong to double back and remove the road hazards.
On his return, the SUV and the tow truck(identified as a flat-bed type in other police reports) had departed. Sprong then pulled behind the Ford to ask whether the driver needed assistance. At that point, the passenger, identified as Michael Laurella, got out of the car and walked back to the police vehicle. “I then heard a single gunshot from inside of the vehicle,” Sprong wrote.
Sprong says he then shined a flashlight through the back window and saw blood coming from the right side of the driver’s head. As he ordered Laurella to continue walking towards him, Surprise police officer R. Peck arrived on the scene. Sprong also reported that a third law enforcement officer from the Arizona Department of Public Safety also arrived at the scene about that time.The state officer, according to Sprong, watched Laurella as he and Peck approached the Ford from opposite sides.
“I approached the vehicle on the passenger side as the other Officer (Peck) was on the Driver’s side,”reported Sprong. “We noticed a black revolver pistol next to Jesse’s right leg on the seat. His right hand was on top of the gun. I noticed that Jesse was still breathing but did not respond to my commands. I then reached inside the vehicle and took the gun and secured it in my vehicle.”
Peck’s report of the incident is mostly the same as Sprong’s with exception of a rather subtle but possibly significant omission. He doesn’t mention the arrival of the Public Safety officer at the scene. In Peck’s account, he searches Laurella, Sprong then directs the passenger to stand behind the police vehicle, as Peck presumably returns to his squad car to request another officer. According to Peck: “I checked Michael Laurella for weapons and Deputy Sprong then had him step to the rear of his patrol car. I then requested another officer from dispatch. Deputy Sprong and I then checked on the driver with deputy Sprong advancing on the passenger side and myself on the driver side.”
The fact that Peck didn’t mention the arrival of the third officer in his report could be explained as a simple oversight. It is clear from Sprong’s version of events that he had requested additional back up. His account indicates that three law enforcement officers from different jurisdictions were on the scene only moments after the suicide occurred. But oddly, in his report, Sprong doesn’t identify either of the other officers by name. He does, however, repeatedly refer to the victim as “Jesse; ” and the witness, Laurella, as “Michael,” which in retrospect seems somewhat informal for a police report.
Sgt. P.H. Riherd of the Surprise PoliceDepartment arrived next and advised Sprong that the shooting took place within the town’s jurisdiction. Sprong reported that he then turned the pistol over to her. Riherd also ordered Peck to close the road to traffic and set up warning flares. (Later, Peck was directed by another officer to drive Laurella home.) In the interim, emergency medical technicians arrived at the scene and Stoneking was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Phoenix, where he died.
By the time J.C. Vance, the investigating detective, arrived on the scene, an hour after the shooting, the body and the weapon had both been removed from the vehicle. Moreover, the first responding officers had been relieved of their duties by others, including Sgt. Riherd and officer G. L. Welch.
Vance reported that he received a call at10:15 p.m. from Sgt. D. Cuker, who wasat the scene, asking him to respond to a“possible homicide or suicide.”When Vance arrived, at 10:45, Welch’s patrol car was parked directly behind the Ford Crown Victoria and the weapon that Stoneking allegedly used to kill himself was on the trunk of the Ford.Laurella was seated in the back of Welch’s patrol car.
From these official accounts, the investigation appears to have been compromised from the outset. In the hour that it took the detective to arrive, the chain of custody on the weapon had changed two or three times. Two of the three witnesses, both law enforcement officers, had left the scene. And the body had been removed.
There are other discrepancies. When Vance interrogated Laurella at the scene, Stoneking’s friend told the detective that two other vehicles had pulled over to side of the road with flat tires, not one as Sprong reported. According to Laurella’s account, the other cars were parked in front and behind his car. Laurella indicated that the tow truck driver fixed both of those vehicles’ flat tires.
Instead of also asking for assistance, however, Laurella says that Stoneking said that he preferred they fix their flat themselves.By the time deputy Sprong returned to the scene after clearing the rocks from the road, both of the other vehicles and the tow truck had departed, Laurella said.
During the meantime, nothing in the police reports show that Laurella or Stoneking made any effort to fix their own flat tire in the intervening 30 or 40minutes. They also declined to request assistance from the tow truck driver,according to Laurella’s account.
Instead, they remained seated inside the car. When Sprong pulled up behind them and activated his overhead emergency lights, Laurella said that Stoneking asked him to hold his glasses and then requested that he get out and tell the deputy that help was on the way.
Laurella said he was ten or 12 feet behind the car and had just begun to speak to the deputy when he heard the single gunshot come from inside the Crown Victoria. Laurella says he was then ordered to put his hands on the hood of the patrol car by the deputy. As stated in the other accounts, officer Peck arrived at the scene immediately after the gunshot was fired.
But according to detective Vance’s report, Laurella didn’t mention the unidentified state cop, who deputy Sprong says guarded Laurella while he and officer Peck checked on Stoneking. According to detective Vance’s report:“Laurella further indicated that at this time a Surprise police officer arrived on scene and he was secured in the back of the deputy’s patrol car, while the police approached his vehicle.” Laurella added that “he remained seated in the deputy’s patrol car while other police and medical personnel arrived on scene and treated his friend, Jesse.”Again, the differences in the accounts of the three witnesses could be an innocent oversight in the police reporting. It’s also possible that Laurella, under duress, may have not have recalled the arrival of the third police officer.
Less explainable, though, is how Laurella ended up in possession of Stoneking’s wallet. According to the detective’s report: “Laurella also indicated that he had McBride’s (Stoneking’s) wallet in his pocket as it was given to him by an officer.”
If Laurella is to be believed, a police officer at a possible homicide scene removed personal effects from a victim,or, at least, from the inside of the vehicle where the shooting took place, and then handed them over to a potential suspect. An evidence technician, who arrived later, took photographs, but by then the crime scene had been disturbed more than once by police and the emergency medical crew. Swab tests of Laurella’shands showed no signs of gunpowder.
But contrary to the Post-Dispatch, story, the medical examiner’s report doesn’t indicate that similar tests were performed on Stoneking’s hands even though they had been bagged at the crime scene expressly for that purpose. Soot was found in the head wound, according to the medical examiner, but no powder tattooing was identified, which is often present when a gunshot is fired at close range.
In addition, no autopsy was performed, according to the medical examiner’s report.
The story that wasn’t there
Aside from the Post-Dispatch story that appeared nearly a week after his death,there has only been one reference to Stoneking that appeared in the newspaper since then, a nostalgic column by staffer Pat Gauen that ran in the Illinois zoned edition. A search of Lexis-Nexis database doesn’t show the Jan. 25, 2003 news story was even published.
* During his interrogation at the scene, Laurella said he and Stoneking lived together in a mobile home in Wickenburg. The Post-Dispatch reported that Stoneking lived alone.
* Laurella owned the Crown Vic that Stoneking was driving, according to the police reports. The Post-Dispatch reported that it was Stoneking’s car.
* Laurella and deputy Sprong were present at the time of Laurella’s death. The Post- Dispatch implied that
Stoneking died alone.
* The .38-caliber revolver that ended Stoneking’s life belonged to Laurella. The Post-Dispatch didn’t even mention Laurella’s name.
At least one working journalist in St.Louis knew better.
On Jan. 22, veteran TV newsman John Auble of KTVI-Channel 2 in St. Louis called detective Vance and said he believed that suicide victim Jesse McBride was actually Jesse Stoneking, a federal informant.
Vance contacted the U.S. Marshal’s office for confirmation. The next day the detective reported that he picked up the bullet from the medical examiner’s office along with photographs of the autopsy — the autopsy the medical examiner’s report indicates was never conducted. He also wrote that he retrieved a set of latent prints from the corpse and sent all the evidence to the state crime lab for analysis.
On Jan. 27, two days after the Post- Dispatch story ran, FBI agent Frank Brostrom of the St. Louis field office spoke with detective Vance by phone, advising him that he believed McBride was actually Stoneking. Brostrom requested that the Surprise police send him the crime scene photographs and a copy of the police report.
Vance’s police report is dated Jan. 27,2003. It bears no indication of the results of the state crime lab results on the evidence. A later supplemental report filed by detective Sgt. Y. Ybarra indicates that he had received the medical examiner’s final report on April17, 2003, nearly three month’s after Stoneking’s death. The report concludesthat Jesse McBride died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.Officially, Stoneking has never beendeclared dead. For the record, onlyMcBride pulled the trigger. In death, Jesse Stoneking had finally managed to escape his enemies on both sides of the law, including himself.
“They’re going to hit me someday.”
More than a decade before his death in the Arizona desert, Jesse Stoneking prophesized that he would die not by his own hand but as a result of a vengeful execution carried out by the Mafia.“I know they’re going to hit me someday,” Stoneking told former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ronald Lawrence in 1987.
Lawrence had reported on Stoneking’s career as a federal informant and over the years a bond developed between the two men.The trust that the newspaperman engendered prompted Stoneking to divulge aspects of his life that he had never revealed to anyone else. In 1987,Lawrence interviewed Stoneking over a two-day period at a motel in Central Illinois, which the now-retired reporter published as a magazine article two years later.
After his usefulness as a federal informant in St. Louis had been expended, Stoneking briefly entered the federal witness protection program, but he chaffed under its constraints. He left the program and began his life on the run, often hiding out in small towns in rural Southern Illinois and Kentucky, using the pseudonym Jesse McBride.
Stoneking also spent stretches of time in Arizona, where he operated an automobile repossession business. During the intervening years, Lawrence met sporadically with Stoneking and began writing a biography of him. They sometimes had lunch at the Our Lady of the Snows Shrine near Belleville, Ill.
Later, they met clandestinely at a house in Chester, Ill. At that particular meeting, about a year-and-a-half before his death, Stoneking expressed apprehension about plans to return toArizona. Lawrence last saw Stoneking in 2001, when he visited him in Arizona. Stoneking’s fears had not subsided.
“He was paranoid,” says Lawrence.“Really paranoid at times. … His cover was blown.”There is little doubt that the police knew who he was. In the small town of Wickenburg, where he resided, Stoneking’s past was no secret. After his death, Surprise Police Department spokesman Scott Bailey, a Wickenburg native, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “We’d see him driving around town and say, `There goes the Mafia guy.’”
The Road to Perdition
Jesse Stoneking wasn’t born a hardened criminal, but by adolescence he already had begun developing anti-social tendencies. At 14, the former choirboy was expelled from Catholic elementary school in St. Louis for bringing a pellet gun to class.
Soon a juvenile judge placed him on probation for a string of burglaries, which netted $20 in coins. After his parents’ bitter divorce, Stoneking lashed out by stealing a car and going on a joyride, earning him a three-year hitch in reform school, a virtual criminal training ground. In 1964, his prior juvenile record resulted in a stiff sentence, this time for the minor offense of under-age drinking. A St. Louis County judge ordered him to serve two months in jail and meted out a two-year probation.
By this early stage in his life, the dye had been cast. The rebellious youth, who had taken a few wrong turns, was now on the irreversible path of a career criminal. Stoneking adopted his grandfather, a one-time bank robber, as his role model. His commanding size and domineering attitude served his purposes well,eventually attracting the attention of Art Berne, the Eastside rackets boss, who recruited him into the Outfit. Within afew years, he had become Berne’s number one enforcer. Berne had inherited his criminal empire from the late Frank “Buster” Wortman. From the 1940s until his death in 1968, Wortman had reigned over prostitution, gambling and labor racketeering, including control over Pipefitters Local 562 in St. Louis. Wortman’s organization, which Berne took over, answered, in turn, to the Chicago Outfit, which by the late-1970s was controlled by Jackie Cerone and Joey Aiuppa.
Stoneking earned and kept Berne’s loyalty by doing his bidding. On Oct. 22,1978, for instance, mob associate Donald Ellington was found dead in a remote area of Jefferson County, Mo. with two .38-caliber bullets in his head.Police arrested Stoneking as a suspect in the killing, but he was never charged. Rumors were that the dead man had incurred the mob boss’ wrath, in part due to the mistreatment of Berne’smistress, a prostitute. Stoneking allegedly carried out the vendetta on Berne’s orders.
Stoneking’s prowess in the Outfit grew the next year, when he killed two men in a shootout at the Kracker Box tavern outside Collinsville, Ill. In September 1980, a jury convicted Stoneking of the murders, but St. Clair County Judge Stephen Kernan set aside the convictions, after the defense claimed new witnesses had come forward.
In a plea bargain, Stoneking later pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and received probation.Then-prosecuting attorney John Baracevic said he agreed to the deal because the prosecution lacked witnesses. Killing two men in St. Clair County, Illinois in1979 had netted Stoneking a lighter sentence than he received in St. Louis County for under-age drinking 15 years earlier.It appeared that Stoneking’s mob connections were taking care of him.
During these years, the mob provided him a series of well-paying, no-show jobs with the operating engineers, pipefitters and laborers unions. But when the feds busted him in 1981, his fortunes quickly changed. A federal grand jury in Benton, Ill.indicted Stoneking for operating a multi-state car theft ring. Stoneking pleaded guilty and received a three-year federal sentence.
Stoneking’s federal bust occurred in the wake of Anthony Giordano’s death. For decades, St. Louis’ Mafia boss, with the backing of the Chicago Outfit, had managed to cobble together an alliance of competing organized crime factions. After his death, a power struggle immediately developed, beginning with
the September 1980 car bombing of Southside Syrian gangster Jimmy Michaels.
The loose alliance had come unraveled, allowing the FBI to make inroads into the previously impregnable inner sanctum of the mob’s hierarchy. Aging Mafia underboss John Vitale, who had ascended to the Mafia’s top post following Giordano death, became anFBI informant and falsely implicatedStoneking in the Michaels bombing.
Roll Over Test
His fingering left Stoneking feeling doubly betrayed. Berne had let him take the fall in the car theft bust and also not retaliated against Vitale’s accusations. Stoneking decided to roll over. In return for his early prison release, he, too, agreed to become an FBI informant. Between October 1982 and August1984, Stoneking secretly taped more than 130 conversations with Berne and dozens of other mobsters, including Matthew Trupiano, who had been installed as the St. Louis Mafia boss following Vitale’s death.
As a result of Stoneking’s undercover work, Berne and Trupiano were indicted on federal charges in connection with a scheme to coerce protection payments from Eastside massage parlor kingpin Dennis W. Sonnenschein. At the time, Sonnenschein was a business partner of Nando Bartolotta, who had been inducted into the St. Louis Mafia with Trupiano. (Stoneking’s testimony would also help send Bartolotta to prison on unrelated charges.)
As recently as last year, Sonnenschein, the brothel operator, received a one-year prison sentence for not cooperating with a federal grand jury inquiry into the interstate promotion of prostitution by Eastside massage parlors that solicited business in the St. Louis Riverfront Times between 1994 and2000. Berne pleaded guilty to the extortion scheme and received a six-year sentence. Trupiano, on the other hand, went to trial and was acquitted of the same charges.
Evidence and testimony introduced at the 1986 trial provided details of mob plans that otherwise may have neve rbeen publicly revealed. For starters, FBI agent Terry L.Bohnemeier testified that Stoneking continued to receive $1,600 a month for his work as a federal informant. In return, Stoneking supplied the bureau with tapes of talks in which Berne and Trupiano discussed extorting money from Eastside topless club owners.
According to the tapes, Trupiano intended to have Bartolotta, his soldier, pressure Sonnenschein into paying protection money out of profits that the two partners made from the Golden Girls topless club. Berne, on the other hand,wanted to bomb PT’s, a competing topless club in Centreville, as a means of convincing the owners to pay up.
During a car trip to Chicago, Berneexpressed concerns about the risks of extorting money from “pimps” such as Sonnenschein: “You watch, these pimps will spread it around who the Mafia is,”Berne warned Stoneking. “The G(government) will be there.” While he continued to voice his suspensions about the reliability of pimps, his top lieutenant sat next to him in the front seat wearing a wire.
In August 1984, Stoneking left St. Louisin the dead of night. He entered the witness protection program in Boston, but bolted after only a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the Mafia had placed a$100,000 price tag on his head.
For the next two decades, while his estranged wife and children disappeared into the witness protection program, he remained at large hop-scotching across the country, living in small towns in three different states.
Stoneking remarried and made efforts to settle down, but glances in his rearview mirror always kept him moving. His last glance came in January 2003 onthe outskirts of Surprise, Ariz., when a squad car rolled up behind him as he sat on the shoulder of a highway behind the wheel of a friend’s disabled Ford Crown Victoria. With the emergency lights flashing in the desert night, he put a .38-caliber revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger. At least that’s the official version.Reporter Lawrence, Stoneking’s confidant, tends to believe it.
“I was pretty close to him,” says Lawrence, adding that Stoneking had turned reflective in his later years, often reading and quoting from the Bible. “He had changed. He didn’t like what he had did.”
The Last Joyride
If Jesse Stoneking had ended his life alone, pulling the trigger in the lonely desert night, as the
St. Louis Post- Dispatch implied, perhaps the subsequent investigation by Arizona police would have been more thorough.
As a federal informer in the 1980s, Stoneking, after all, had been responsible for sending more than a score of St. Louis organized crime figures to prison. Legend has it that the Mafia placed a $100,000 bounty on his head. In the intervening years, he managed to escape at least one assassination attempt and suspected that others had plotted against him since then.
With the passage of time, his name fadedfrom the headlines, but Stoneking remained haunted by his past, moving from state to state, living under his assumed name. Nothing contained in the police reports indicates why Stoneking and Laurella had traveled from the mobile home they shared in Wickenburg, Ariz. to Surprise,a distance of more than 40 miles.The police reports show that the Crown Victoria was registered to Laurella, and the suicide weapon also belonged to him.
At the crime scene, Laurella told the investigating detective that Stoneking had not exhibited any outward signs of depression in the last several days. He added that Stoneking had taken the gun from his dresser drawer without his knowledge.
Authorities impounded the car, but Laurella was not held for further questioning and was driven home by a Surprise police officer. As with many suicides, the cause, as well as the circumstances of the death, remain puzzling, and, in this case, pieces of the puzzle seem to be missing.According to the official record, two men in their 50s, both with checkered pasts, decide to go on a joyride in the desert on a winter’s night for no apparent reason. After having a flat tire, one of them blows his brains out, as if on cue, exactly at the moment when a law enforcement officer arrives on the scene.
St. Louis sources, with knowledge of Stoneking’s criminal career, don’tnecessarily question the suicide ruling. For years, Stoneking displayed paranoid tendencies, fits of fantasy and wild mood swings, they say. He claimed to have colon cancer. He struggled through two broken marriages, while grappling to come to terms with the heinous deeds of his earlier life. Those close to his story also say, however, that it is a life he may not have altogether given up.
In the mid-1980s, Stoneking, of his own volition, withdrew from the federal witness protection program, after only a couple weeks. But he, nonetheless, came back to the Midwest with a different name – Jesse Lee McBride and the credentials to prove it.
In later years, Stoneking, using his new identity, ran a Wickenburg automobile repossession firm, a marginally legitimate business that suited his past experience as a car thief. In retrospect, it seems apropos that Stoneking’s last images of life came from behind the wheel of a big sedan, watching a flatbed tow truck come and go, and, finally, seeing the glare of the squad car’s flashing lights in the rearview mirror.The possibility exists that, at the time of his death, Stoneking was still working both sides of the law. As veteran St.Louis reporter John Auble says, “it would have been hard to get out of that kind of work.”
Laurella and Stoneking left their trailer in Wickenburg at about 7:30 p.m.ostensibly to visit a friend who lived nearby. From there, Stoneking drove Laurella’s car southeast for the better part on an hour through Maricopa County on U.S. 60, reaching the outskirts of Surprise sometime after 9:00p.m. At that point, he hit a rock on Loop 303 just north of Bell Road and had a blow out.
It is unclear when Laurella, the last person to see Stoneking alive, first came to know him. Both men were divorced,and their ex-wives and families lived in Wickenburg. Until a year or two earlier, Laurella’s family owned and operated a motel, cafe and gas station in the small town.But the two men’s interests extended beyond Wickenburg’s confines. Laurella and Stoneking not only shared the trailer, they had also resided at the same address in Chester, Ill. the previous year.
Since fleeing St. Louis in 1985, Stoneking had lived under the assumed identity of Jesse McBride. McBride’s Social Security number was issued between 1984 and 1985 in Hawaii. But there is no proof that Stoneking, in the guise of McBride, had ever lived in such an exotic locale.
Instead, it appears that Stoneking, aka, McBride, lived briefly in South Portland, Maine, which is perhaps where he did his brief stint in the federal witness protection program and acquired his new name. A source with knowledge of Stoneking’s whereabouts during this period places him at another New England location —Boston.
At the time, the Boston field office of the FBI was notoriously corrupt. Congressional hearings in 2002 revealed that Boston FBI agents, including the late H. Paul Rico, had engaged in criminal activities with Boston organized crime informants for decades, including murders in five states from Massachusetts to California.
Regardless of whether Stoneking had even an indirect knowledge of these nefarious activities, the twisted relationship of federal law enforcement and organized crime in Boston, which continued through the 1990s, is a clear indication that lines had been blurred.
Stoneking had cast himself into a world fraught with ambiguities and shaded with deceit. After returning to the Midwest, Stoneking lived his secret life in Paducah, Ky., Collinsville, Brookport and Chester, Ill. In the mid-1990s, he lived briefly in Black Canyon, Ariz. and more recently Phoenix and Wickenburg,where his second wife and children resided. Somehow he managed to provide for himself and his family. Whether he continued to bolster his income through crime or working as a federal informant remains uncertain.
There are signs that he had changed. He operated an apparent legitimate business. He took solace in reading and quoting the Bible. He stayedout of jail. Still, on the night that he died, Stoneking had decided to carry a gun.
At the time of his suicide, he had already outlived the two most prominent mobsters whom he had betrayed. Both St. Louis Mafia chief Matthew Trupiano and Eastside rackets boss Art Berne were dead. A third Mafioso, Nando Bartolotta, had been sent back to prison for bank robbery. Despite the changing of the guard, the Eastside sex trade, which Trupiano and Berne had sought to extort, still thrives.
More recently, massage parlor kingpin Dennis W. Sonnenschein, one of their extortion targets and Bartolotta’s former partner, pleaded guilty in East St. Louis to an obstruction of justice charge for withholding knowledge of the Eastside prostitution rackets from a federal grand jury. Sonnenschein is now serving a one-year sentence and was ordered to pay$1.25 million in fines and restitution.The grand jury investigation centered on the solicitations of prostitution across state lines through ads placed in the St. Louis Riverfront Times from 1994 to2000. In 1998, New Times Inc. (nowVillage Voice Media) purchased the RFT.
Sonnenschein’s bust related to the Free Spirit massage parlor in Brooklyn, Ill.,which closed in 2000. But the brothel operator also held other business interests. His now-ex-wife Linda Sonnenschein, for example, was listed in 2002 as the registered agent of Platinum Inc. of Brooklyn, where the Platinum Club, a topless bar is located. Platinum Inc., in turn, owns and operates Boxers‘n’ Briefs, a gay dance club in Centreville, Ill., according to the city liquor license. Entertainment IllinoisInc. of Scottsdale, Ariz. owns the property where Boxers is located.
PT’s strip joint in Brooklyn, Ill.
Though Stoneking’s federal informant status seemingly ended with the federal sentencing of Berne, his former boss, in1986, there are hints that it continued. FBI reports on interviews conducted in June 1991, obtained through Freedom of Information Act, provide details on the St. Louis mob, including Berne and Trupiano’s activities. Though the name of the FBI informant who gave the information has been redacted, it is clear that the person had close ties to Berne in particular. Stoneking, of course, was Berne’s top lieutenant.
The reports outline the hierarchy of St.Louis organized crime and spell out its control of certain labor unions, including Pipefitters Local 562 of which Berne was a member. Stoneking was also associated with the pipefitters and other unions during his criminal career. According to the FBI informant, control of Local 562 rested in the hands of the Chicago Outfit. The informant also stated that Berne had told him that Rallo Construction Co. handled financial and property transactions for the Chicago Outfit in St. Louis.
In 1991, Stoneking’s name surfaced again, during an investigation of then-St.Louis Teamster boss Bobby Sansone. A federal monitor overseeing the corrupt union had charged Sansone with not ousting Mafia member Nino Parrino from his position with Local 682. St.Louis political leaders, including then-Mayor Vincent C. Shoemehl Jr. the late St. Louis County Executive George“Buzz Westfall and former U.S. Sen.Thomas Eagleton weighed in on Sansone’s behalf, but he was,nevertheless, removed from office. The source of Parrino’s ties to Mafia had been a secretly recorded conversation taped by Stoneking. Five years after skipping town, Stoneking was still making waves.
In 2000, career criminal Richard Beck, who was seeking to cut a deal on a parole violation, asked to be interviewed by the FBI Agent Frank Brostrom of the St. Louis field office conducted the interview at the Franklin County jail in Union, Mo., where Beck was being held. Like Stoneking, the FBI initially suspected Beck may have been involved in St. Louis’ gang war in the early1980s.
In many ways, Beck fit the profile better than Stoneking. He was a notorious bank extortionist and bomber. During his rambling recollections of his sordid career, Beck dropped the names of many criminal associates, including St. Louis mobsters John Vitale, Trupiano, Berne and Bartolotta. He told Brostrom that Trupiano and Bartolotta had been inducted into the Mafia during the same ceremony, which occurred at a St. Charles, Mo. pizzeria.
Beck’s efforts to belatedly cooperate with the FBI failed, and he will likely spend the rest of his life in federal prison. Last year, in a letter to an historical researcher, Beck wrote that “Stoneking was a pathological liar, who framed several guys to drum up some business for the FBI.” Beck referred to Stoneking as a “real slimeball,” and claimed that he had witnessed him beat his wife. “This guy is dead and where he belongs,” Beck added.
Among those who disagree is retired St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ronald Lawrence, who maintains he, too, knew Stoneking well. Lawrence says he tested Stoneking’s veracity many times by asking him questions to which he already knew the answer. In each case, he says, Stoneking told the truth.
The real truth about Stoneking is still an open question, one that probably will never be answered. But there is little doubt that Jesse Lee McBride and Jesse Eugene Stoneking were one and the same person. Eight days after his suicide, FBI agent Brostrom, the same agent who interviewed Beck nearly three years earlier, called up a detective for the Surprise Police Department and told him as much. He then requested the latent prints, crime scene photos and police reports.