Matthew Trupiano

Two Blind Mice

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters who nailed County Exec Steve Stenger turned a blind eye to the historic influence of organized crime that presaged their reportage.

St Louis Post-Dispatch reporters Jeremy Kohler and Jacob Barker’s extensive coverage of political corruption involving St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger helped send the politician to federal prison last year. But the two journalists failed to fully report the criminal background of Sorkis Webbe Jr., a crime figure who played a key role in the affair.

In 2014, Webbe introduced then-County Executive Stenger to John Rallo, who started his business career in his family’s construction company, which allegedly had ties to Chicago organized crime, according to FBI records.  Rallo, a co-defendant who was also found guilty in the Stenger case, benefited from contracts funneled through the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership then headed by Sheila Sweeney, an associate of Webbe. Sweeney received probation. Webbe, was not charged.

The money was siphoned from the $5 million in annual rent payments made to the St. Louis County Port Authority by the River City Casino, which is owned by Penn National, a Pennsylvania-based gaming corporation.

This was not Webbe’s first rodeo. The former city alderman had been convicted of voter fraud and obstruction of justice in 1985. His bust followed the conviction of his father for income tax evasion in Nevada in 1983. The IRS case against Sorkis Webbe Sr. related to his interests in the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas, which was then controlled by the Detroit Mafia.

Documents released by the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act in October 2020 show Webbe Jr. and his late father were embroiled in a power struggle with St. Louis Mafia leader Matthew Trupiano and the Detroit Mafia in 1982. The conflict developed because the Detroit mobsters and Trupiano were leaning on Webbe Sr. to cut them in on the skim from a casino in the Bahamas, according to the FBI. The Detroit Mafia believed that Webbe Sr. had ripped them off in the Aladdin casino deal in Las Vegas and wanted to be repaid through sharing in the ill-gotten gains from the Bahamanian gambling operation, according to the FBI.

Though the FBI records were released only last month, details of the rift between the Webbes and Trupiano had already been reported decades ago by the Post-Dispatch — but that background information was inexplicably omitted from the newspaper’s coverage of Webbe Jr.’s part in the Stenger affair.

July 10, 1985 dual byline by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters Ronald J. Lawrence and William C. Lhotka

In the July 10 and July 11, 1985 editions of the Post-Dispatch, staff reporters  Ronald J. Lawrence and William C. Lhotka revealed the details of the Webbes’ conflict with Trupiano and his allies in Detroit.

The two stories reported that in the early 1980s, Webbe Jr. acted as an envoy for his father in negotiations with Trupiano, the St. Louis mafia leader, who was related to members of the Detroit Mafia through his uncle, the late Anthony “Tony G” Giordano, the prior boss of the St. Louis Mafia.  After Webbe Sr. and Trupiano failed to reach an agreement on sharing the estimated $100,000 per month skim from the Bahamian casino, the Webbes sought protection from St. Louis Syrian crime boss Paul J. Leisure.

July 11, 1985 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story by Ronald J. Lawrence.

The Leisure family was then in a gang war with loyalists of  the late Southside Syrian syndicate boss  Jimmy Michaels, who had been murdered in a car bombing on Interstate 55 in South St. Louis County by the Leisure gang in September 1980. The unrest in the St. Louis underworld had been spurred by the earlier, natural death of Giorando, who had forged a pact with both Michaels and East Side rackets boss Art Berne, who represented the interests of the Chicago outfit.

During this period, Paul J. Leisure reached out for support from the Kansas City Mafia then headed by the Civella crime family. The Civellas refused to intervene in the dispute with Trupiano, according to FBI sources cited by the Post-Dispatch in 1985. The Detroit Mafia also declined to declare war on the Leisures, thereby averting further violence

Paul J. Leisure lost his legs in a retaliatory car bombing carried out by the Michaels gang in August 1981. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 1985 for the car-bombing death of Michaels and died at the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. in 2000.

The History of Pimping

 When newspaper tycoon Mike Lacey,  former owner of the St. Louis Riverfront Times, was busted for pimping in California this week,  his arrest was long overdue. More than a decade earlier, a federal probe linked RFT sex ads to the Eastside rackets. 

[This story was first published in  January 2, 2004.]


Mugshot of Mike Lacey courtesy of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.

Pimping and Publishing, What’s the Dif?

Dennis W. Sonnenschein will have plenty of time to reflect on his business career over the next year. Yesterday (January 1, 2004), the St. Louis area massage parlor owner reported to federal prison to begin serving a one-year sentence for “misprision of a felony,” a charge similar to obstruction of justice.

In November, St. Louis Post-Dispatch staffer Michael Shaw reported that Sonnenschein was sentenced to a year in jail in federal court in East St. Louis. The court also ordered Sonnenschein to pay a $250,000 fine and give $1 million to Eastside charities. Sonnenschein must also hand over five parcels of property in Brooklyn, Ill., where the now-defunct Free Spirit Massage Parlor was located. Sonnenschein, who headed the A to Z Development Corp., admitted to the court that businesses located on his property were engaged in prostitution. The current owners of the sex businesses operating on his property were not charged. Although the property was listed in his estranged wife’s name, Linda Sonnenscbein wasn’t charged, either.

Sonnenschein, 59, has been engaged in the flesh trade since the 1970s, when he operated mobile massage parlors from the backs of vans in St. Louis County. Sonnenschein’s latest bust appears to have been part of a larger federal investigation into prostitution on the Eastside.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Clark indicated that the owners of Free Spirit advertised in Missouri publications from 1994 until 2000, the Post reported. Sonnenschein was indicted because the ads drew customers and prostitutes across state lines, which is a federal crime. The Riverfront Times publishes ads for the Eastside strip clubs and massage parlors every week. The time period investigated by federal prosecutors, 1994-2000, spanned the ownership change at the RFT. Hartmann Publishing, owned by Ray Hartmann, sold the newspaper to the New Times, a Phoenix-based chain, in late 1998.

But Sonnenschein’s trail extends further into the past. In September 1983, Post staffer Ronald Lawrence reported that one of Sonnenschein’s business associates was Fernando “Nando” Bartolotta, a made member of the St. Louis mafia family, then under the leadership of the late Matthew Trupiano. Less than two years later, on April 10, 1985, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on the federal trial of Bartolotta in East St. Louis. Federal prosecutors had charged Bartolotta and another Missouri resident with conspiring to commit interstate transportation of stolen property. Testifiying against Bartolotta was FBI informant Jesse Stoneking, who the defense claimed had intimidated and entrapped the St. Louis organized crime figure. Bartolotta’s defense attorney was reported in the Globe as Andrew Leonard. An attorney of the same name — Andrew Leonard — was the longtime general counsel for Hartmann Publishing, the original owner of the RFT.

Stoneking, the informant who testified against Bartolotta and dozens of other St. Louis mobsters in the 1980s, died of an apparent suicide in Maricopa County,  Arizona a year ago (2003). The Chicago mob had allegedly put a $100,000 contract out on Stoneking’s life after he became an informant.

Blight Me!

 A politically-connected rehabber scores a 10-year property tax break by expanding his law offices.


Joseph V. Neill’s law office on Hampton Avenue in June 2011. In May, 16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer called for the property to be blighted, making it eligible for a 10-year tax abatement.

first published in the Journal of Decomposition, Aug. 8, 2012

Attorney Joseph V. Neill, a member of the St. Louis police pension board appointed by Mayor Francis Slay, will receive up to a 10-year tax abatement for rehabbing his law office on Hampton Avenue, according to a bill filed in the Board of Aldermen.

On May 22, an ordinance introduced  by16th-Ward Ald. Donna Baringer blighted Neill’s property, thereby creating a redevelopment area.  Under the law, blighting the property for redevelopment is in the  “interest of the public health, safety, morals and general welfare of the people of the city.”

In this case, blighting is also in the interest of the property owner,  JVN & Company, a limited liability corporation set up by Neill in 2009, which also includes four other attorneys that practice law at 5201 Hampton.

Baringer defends her legislation by saying that it is for the common good.

“The 16th Ward’s business district is 50 years old and in need of assistance for the deteriorating buildings,” Baringer told the Journal of Decomposition. “Joe Neill  has been active in our neighborhood for many years and is liked and respected. I took this piece of legislation before the St. Louis [Hills] Neighborhood Association before introducing it, and they had voted in favor of it.”

Records on file with the St. Louis Assessor’s Office  show JVN & Company  paid $7,440.33 in annual property taxes in November 2011. Under the terms of the proposed abatement, the commercial property will be frozen at its pre-improved assessed value  of  $84,100 for the next decade.  

“It’s not like we’re not paying anything,” says Neill. “We’ll be paying, a substantial amount of taxes, whatever the real estate taxes were before. We did a gut rehab on the place. We made substantial improvements to it. Basically, we took what was an eyesore and it’s now going to be a nice looking building. That’s the purpose of tax abatement – not to penalize somebody for taking something that’s an eyesore and making it into a better product.”

To accomplish their goal, Neill says he and the other lawyers pooled their money to buy the building through JVN & Company,  the limited liability corporation he formed. When finished, the plan is to lease the office space back to themselves from the corporation. Neill estimates that the exterior work could possibly be completed within two weeks.

The expanded law offices will replace a hodgepodge of storefronts in the 5200 block of Hampton. “There were four or five different storefronts,” says Neill. “There was stucco, there was tile, there was brick, there was wood.  When we’re done, it’s going to be a uniform front of brick.”

Neill says he considers his trusteeship of the police pension a civic duty. Moreover, he sees no conflict of interest between his serving at the behest of the mayor on the pension board since 2006, and being granted a tax abatement by City Hall. “I’ve never talked to the mayor about this abatement and I don’t think the mayor has any input on it,” says Neill. “It’s an aldermanic thing.”

Besides Neill, the mayor also appointed Tom Stoff to the board of trustees of the St. Louis Police Retirement  System.  Stoff has worked as an aide to incumbent city treasurer Larry Williams, who is bowing out after more than 30 years in office. William’s leave-taking comes in the wake of federal charges issued last year against  Fred W. Robinson, a city Treasury employee accused of having a no-show job.

The seven-member police pension board also includes the president of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, the assistant city comptroller, and three representatives from the police department.

Control of the police pension fund has long been a contentious issue between Slay and the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the labor organization that represents the majority of city cops. Voters will likely decide in November on whether to take control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department away from the state and give it to the city. In the past, the police union has opposed the change. The push to get the measure on the ballot was spearheaded by an A Safer Missouri, an advocacy group bankrolled by right-wing billionaire Rex Sinquefield.

Neill is no stranger to public service or the controversy that sometimes accompanies it. The late Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed him to the St. Louis Election Board in 1994. He held the post until 2001, when he resigned in the midst of an investigation into voter fraud. Neill was not a subject of the investigation.

Prior to his election board duties, Neill served on the judicial panel that picks finalists applying for open seats on the St. Louis Circuit Court bench. Two of  Neill’s siblings,Margaret and Mark Neill, who are twins, are currently judges in the city circuit court. Joseph V. Neill did not sit on the judicial panel when either of them were nominated.

Before taking the bench, Mark Neill also practiced law at the Hampton Avenue address that his brother Joseph V. Neill still shares with four other attorneys.

Earlier this year, one of those attorneys — John Bouhasin — appealed a municipal court decision in Judge Mark Neill’s courtroom. Judge Neill ruled in favor of Bouhasin’s client,  overturning the lower court’s ruling that had revoked the liquor license of   Washington Avenue nightclub owner by Aprille Trupiano, daughter of the late mafia boss Matthew Trupiano. Mayor Slay’s administration favored the revocation.

In 2003, Bouhasin, a former assistant city counselor, was one of the subjects of a police internal affairs investigation, according to  the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The inquiry centered on allegations of a high-ranking police officer interceding to fix a DUI ticket of a  longtime drug informant.

Another attorney with his name painted on the door at 5201 Hampton — Thomas R. Carnes — was placed on one-year probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine in June 2011 by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the Missouri Supreme Court for violations of  professional conduct. Carnes had previously been reprimanded in Missouri and Illinois for misconduct in 2006.