RFT

Street Preacher

Riding the mean streets of St. Louis with the Rev. Cornelius Osby, investigator for the circuit attorney’s office

The Rev. Cornelius Osby in 1994. Osby was then an investigator for the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. In 1993, there were a record-breaking 267 homicides committed in the city. (photo by Mike DeFillippo)

first published in the Riverfront Times, March 2, 1994

by C.D. Stelzer

“Yeah, this one happened back in August,” says Cornelius Osby. “So it was warm. In your mind’s eye, can you imagine folks sittin’ out on a porch up here, mindin’ their own business, for the most part, and all of a sudden shots started going off?”

When the shooting stopped, one man was dead and another critically wounded. The case would be summarized in the crime roundup of the next morning’s newspaper and forgotten. But Osby still remembers.

Remembering is what he does.

For the past 16 years, Osby, 41, has been pounding the pavement as an investigator for the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office.

As part of his job, he wears a badge and a .38-caliber revolver under his suit coat. There is, however, a less temporal aspect of his identity that the investigator prefers not to conceal. He packs it every day. The Rev. Osby is the youth minister and associate pastor at the St. Luke Memorial Missionary Baptist Church on Finney Avenue.

“I’m serious about what I do on the job, and being a minister helps me a lot times because it gives me that sense of not becoming burned out and jaded,” he says. “It’s easy on this job to get anesthetized. You see dead bodies on a regular basis. You see degrading circumstances.

“I can quit the circuit’s attorney’s job as an investigator, but the ministry — I’m in it for life,” says Osby. “If I want to really have piece of mind, I have to stay in it and do everything that I’m called to do.”

Osby estimates he has investigated between 20 and 30 murders during his career. Since last year at this time, when he began working in a newly formed homicide unit established by Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes, Osby has been involved in three more cases. “You do a whole of paperwork,” he says. It begins when the circuit attorney’s office or a grand jury issues an indictment. “You wind up getting medical records, autopsy reports, gun reports, evidence technician unit’s reports, photos — and that’s just the beginning.”

“You have to maintain contact with the witnesses for up to a year. You can send a subpoena, but that doesn’t mean much without a follow-up call,” says Osby. Then there are pretrial interviews that must be arranged, which is Osby’s task for the day. What I’m trying to do is get an established line on where these folks hang out at, how they live. So when the time comes, I have a better grasp on how to stay in touch with them, as opposed to them disappearing on me.

“You know every time a witness testifies, to a certain degree, they have apprehension. They’re apprehensive because of the neighborhood and the environment,” says Osby. A recent example of this skittishness surfaced last month, when Circuit Attorney Joyce-Hayes to plead cooperation in solving the shooting death of 29-year-old Linda Mattlock. Mattlock died from a bullet that came through the window of her apartment. Witnesses have refused to cooperate in the investigation, Joyce-Hayes said. As of last week, no one had come forward. “We’re still looking for witnesses,” says Osby. “At this point, we still don’t have anybody yet who is willing to come forward.”

Last year, the circuit attorney had the insight to develop the homicide unit in advance of the record-breaking 267 murders that the city experienced. Osby and the 20 other investigators assigned to the unit have been saddled with helping prepare each of these cases.

A report recently released by the Department of Health shows firearms were the second leading cause of inury-related deaths nationwide last year. At the current rate, the study predicts guns will kill more Americans than car wrecks in the not-too-distant future. In 1993, there were more than 38,000 shooting deaths in the United States compared with 43,500 auto fatalities, according to the study.

Locally, the unprecedented city homicide rate may not provide the best indication of just how common gunplay has become. A better measure perhaps is to compare aggravated assaults over the last decade. In 1993, there were 8,189 such crimes in St. Louis. More than half the number — 52.7 — were committed with the aid of a firearm. In 1983, guns were used in only 20.7 percent of the aggravated assaults, according the St. Louis Police Department. “I guess what it’s saying is that in 1993 the thing that is handy is a firearm,” a policed-department spokesman told the RFT.”

Osby have never had reason to fire his own revolver in the line of duty and considers it a blessing. But he doesn’t rely strictly on prayer to get him through the day. He knows his .38 is not match for the automatic weapons available to teenage gang members. “You just make sure you carry extra bullets and you learn how to load real quick,” he says.

Osby is driving through familar territory. From behind the steering wheel of his city-owned car, he alternately plays the role preacher, investigator and tour guide to the stranger riding shotgun.

His turf — the North Side and West End of the city — is more tundra on this day. Bundled in a camel’s hair overcoat, with a fedora pulled low across his forehead, Osby gingerly turns the Chevy onto Cates Avenue. The rubbish galosh on his right foot, which covers an expensive dress shoe, softly rides the brake pedal. There is a grace to these measured motions, which in some ways cloaks the diminutive stature of a middle-aged man who still seems to possess the reflexes and physique of a high-school halfback.

The car stops in front of a two-and-half story brick house with a deep front yard. If there is trash in the vacant lots across the street, it is hidden under snow. In the waning light of the truncated winter afternoon, clouds drape the sky at the scene of last summer’s violence, as street now shrouded with ice.

So this is where went down. It is hard to imagine, for the evidence of the crime is not here but in the memories of transient and sometimes-uncooperative prosecution witnesses. Osby is tracking one this day, repeatedly shuttling between addresses of people who never seem to stay in one place very long. Next to him, on the front seat of the blue sedan, is an orange file folder, which contains the police and medical reports on the case.

It happened just after midnight on Aug. 20, with the temperature hovering at around 80 degrees. The bullets hit 20-year-old Gregory Taylor while he sat in a brown Pontiac at the curb in the 5700 block of Cates Avenue. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Barnes Hospital. The other victim, Dwayne McGuire, who was standing on the sidewalk received wounds in the stomach and left buttock. The police found an empty 40-ounce bottle of Old English Ale on the floorboard of the car. A back window had been shattered and glass was strewn about the rear interior. There was a ricochet mark on the front passenger side.

The defendant, Marcus Moore, 18, remains in custody and is awaiting trial.

“I’ll show you where I grew up at,” says Osby. He is driving west on Martin Luther King Boulevard. I hung oput up here. I ran up here coming up. I’m a life-long resident of St. Louis.” Osby slows as he passes a storefront in the 4400 block, which displays a sign for the J&C Resale Furniture Shop.

“It hurts in a way to come back,” he says.

Mattie’s Dinette is still open, but the barbershop is gone. The remaining businesses along this one thriving commercial strip are mainly package-liquor stores, auto-parts outlets and taverns. “The used to be a clothing store,” says Osby. “The drugstore there, it’s so bad he can[‘t open the door. He has to serve through the window. That’s how bad it is.

“When we moved in, streetcars ran up and down here,” recalls Osby. Back then this portion of Martin Luther King was still called Easton Avenue. The name change came in 1972, but living conditions haven’t improved. Quite the contrary, says Osby, who is wearing a lapel button honoring the slain civil-rights leader. “I look back and I try to see the embryonic stages of this thing starting. To be honest with you, the family unit — the black family unit, in particular, began to degenerate shortly after King was assassinated. A lot of people might not agree, because they’ll say there (already) slums, but there was a sense of neighborhood pride prior to that.

“I’ll show the building where I got my basic upbringing in the church,” says Osby. He points out a location in the 5700 block of Martin Luther KIng. “My uncle, he’s passed away now, but he had a church right here, a storefront church.” Osby’s uncle, though influential, wasn’t the family’s only male role model.

“I came from a broken home,” says Osby. My stepfather was a man who showed love, the right kind of love. He was not as much of a disciplinarian physically as he was verbally. He could talk to you. He wouldn’t even have to use an ounce of profanity. But it was what he said that instilled in you a certain degree of respectful fear. I have the utmost respect for him.”

In Osby’s opinion, parental guidance and discipline are what young people need most. “A whole lot of it is peer pressure, because the parents have not nurtured them and given them that tough love. It doesn’t take much for a weed to grow. Unfortunately, that’s how children have come up without any care, without any loving attention,” says, Osby. “Gangs are nothing more than surrogate families. That’s all they are. There is a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something that has some order — though it’s really mostly chaotic.”

It takes three times before Osby finally connects with the witness he is scheduled to bring downtown. In the meantime, he continues to meander down glazed side streets, passing a burned-out church and a liquor store, where men huddle outside in the cold. Along the way, he reminisces about the well-kept and once-coveted residences on Academy Avenue, where the lives of homeowners are now dictated by fear of violence. On Arlington, he recounts a drive-by shooting in which a young man died in a hail of automatic weapons fire.

Everywhere he drives there are signs, including the middle-class neighborhoods of the Ville and Penrose Park. At the corner of Euclid and Farlin avenues, the exterior of Mr. J.’s Clothing Store is covered with graffiti. Osby translates the cryptic messages. “Those are the Rolling 20s. A guy named K-9 is dead. That RIP means rest in peace, K-9. If you ride and read the walls, you can find out what’s going on in a neighborhood. The walls tell it all.

This kind of spray-painted epitaph is only one of the deadly customs in a city that becoming a cemetery — a necropolis — for many young black men. “You got some of the kids out here who make their own funeral arrangements,” says Osby. “(They) got money to do it, and will go to one of the funeral homes and give them down to the letter what they want on their tombstone. Tell them what color casket they want. Tell them what kind of flowers they want. Go get the suit. Take it to the funeral home.”

Osby has a theory about how gang members acquire the tools of death. “Oh, man, guns are coming from guys who got federal gun licenses and they are businessmen. Not every one, but a good portion are businessmen.” He compares these arms dealers to owners of fast-food franchises. “The guy who is coming in from the county or from the sticks or the boonies, he’s going to (command) a sense of respect or fear. The kid that is doing his distribution is not goin’ to snitch on him. The kid will take 10 years to keep from being killed by this guy he thinks has the juice,” says Osby. (It’s) not too far-fetched. Ain’t a black person out here got a building with a gun shop in it in St. Louis. The gunsmith around the corner on King Drive, I’m sure it’s white-owned.”

When asked the inevitable question whether the mayhem is drug-related, Osby replies guardedly. “It may be drug-related. It’s really hard to say. The last thing they’ll admit to a lot of times is, ‘He owed me drug money — that’s why I killed him,’ because that’s premeditation. These guys have lawyers. You can’t kill a man because he owes you. That’s murder one, anywhere. Not manslaughter. Not murder two. That’s murder one without a doubt.”

“Does smoke bother you?” asks Osby. He cracks a window and lights his first cigarette, after driving around for a few hours. “These are my one vice,” says Osby. “These and coffee.” He laughs ” I think they’re going to stick me in a caffeine-nicotine rehab center.

Osby is on his third swing by the apartment of the boyfriend of a woman who witnessed the Cates Avenue slaying. The hospitality tour is over. “This is the part that drives you up the wall. Lookin’ day in and day out for ’em, then these people become a project for me. If this was actually a trial (date), my prosecuting attorney would be turning back flips by now.

“She’s nervous,” says Osby of the witness. “I think these guys guys have been back buggin’ her.” Osby find the woman at one of the addresses. Osby begins thinking out loud, contemplating informing the police of the situation. “She’s young,” he says. “She has children, and knowing these guys, they would hurt her. They could care less.”

On his third attempt, Osby finds the woman at one of the addresses. As he drives back across town one more time, she talks about the gang problem. The witness is 21. She holds the youngest of her three children in her arms. Next to her in the backseat is her eldest child, a 4-year-old daughter. “I got kids. I’ve been catchin’ more hell than before. It just don’t make no sense. Half of them don’t have the education of a fifth-grader, but they want to kill,” she says. Somehow the guns need to be removed from the streets, but she expresses no hope for the future. “It’s a waste of time to talk about it. Half the things these boys carry, the police can’t match it.”

Before the witness goes downtown, Osby drops her children at her great-grandmother’s house. He carries one of the kids inside himself. She is wearing a pink snowsuit.

During his earlier rounds, Osby drove by a vacant lot at the corner of Aldine and Prairie avenues. The area is near the location of the now-defunct Laclede Packing Co. As a boy, Osby recalls sometimes watching cattle being slaughtered on Sunday afternoon here.

On Dec. 10, the body of 10-year-old Cassidy Senter was found in the vicinity. A remnant of yellow plastic police tape, which was used to cordon off the crime scene, still lies on the ground. Nearby there is a frozen rose tied to a telephone pole.

Osby is silent for a moment. It is the first time he stops talking all afternoon.

The Secret Life of Gunther Russbacher

The convicted felon claims he was a Navy captain, a CIA operative and George Bush’s pilot in the infamous October Surprise Scandal

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), August 5, 1992

by C.D. Stelzer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — North, south, east and west. The lines in Gunther Karl Russbacher’s brow run in all directions. There appears to be a crease for every one of his 50 years. Deep undulating furrows that register emotional changes across a craggy facial landscape.

I’m trying to catch my breath, I’m not quite with it yet,” says Russbacher, after entering the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility here. He is carrying a foot-thick binder of court briefs, depositions, memos, diary entries,bills of lading, letters of credit and loading manifests. And while not gasping for air, the heavy paper load makes it easy to believe this man is under stress.

To reach inmate 184306, a visitor must be escorted through three check points and five clanging sets of iron bars. Gunther Karl Russbacher is a prisoner– and not just any ordinary prisoner. But beyond that, no one is sure who he really is. So far, those interested in finding out have included Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the United States Congress and Geraldo Rivera.

In the past, Russbacher has admittedly used aliases such as Emory Joseph Peden,Robert Andrew Walker and Robert Behler. He has also allegedly been known as “The Raven.” The last pseudonym could be classified a nom de guerre, because Russbacher claims to be a Navy captain — and not just any ordinary Navy captain.

Federal authorities arrested him in July 1990 for impersonating a military officer at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, Calif. The charge led to Russbacher’s probation revocation in St. Charles Co., where he had a 1989 conviction for stealing through deceit. Russbacher pleaded guilty in that case to defrauding clients of the St. Louis-based National Brokerage Companies, which he headed. He received a 21-year sentence. In both of these instances, Russbacher now claims he was carrying out covert duties for the United States government.

By his own account, he is a CIA operative with knowledge of the agency’s involvement in financial fraud, drug trafficking, and illicit arms trading.

Russbacher established National Brokerage and other proprietary companies, including a failed savings and loan in Pennsylvania, at the behest of the CIA, he alleges. He further charges that his military and criminal records — ostensibly altered to infiltrate terrorists and narcotic rings — are now being used against him.

In addition, Russbacher claims his 1990 arrest followed a secret flight to inform Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the pending war with Iraq. This would be fantastic enough, but it’s not all. As an aviator attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Russbacher says he piloted a BAC-111 aircraft — with George Bush on board — to Paris in 1980. Perhaps more importantly, Russbacher claims to have shuttled Bush back to the United States a few hours later in an SR-71 spy plane — and he professes to have proof.

His knowledge of these events is the real reason he is in prison, Russbacher says. Bush’s French rendezvous purportedly finalized earlier negotiations between the Reagan-Bush campaign and Islamic revolutionaries. Those talks supposedly centered on delaying the release of 52 American hostages then being held by Iran until after the November presidential elections. In exchange for prolonging their captivity, the Iranians were allegedly promised arms and spare parts to supply their burgeoning war with Iraq. According to Russbacher, the Reaganites also forked over $40 million up front to seal the deal.

The move was meant to assure a Republican victory over then-President Jimmy Carter and preempt any “October surprise,” or last-minute administration plan to gain the hostages release.

Russbacher is not the first nor most credible person to make these allegations. Reagan administration member Barbara Honegger published the initial October Surprise book in 1989. In 1990, Gary Sick, a National Security Council member in the Carter administration, renewed interest in the subject through a New York Times op-ed article. Sick followed it up last year with a volume of his own.

Although there seems to be substance to these claims, there is uncertainty as to Bush’s presence at the Paris meetings. Citing Secret Service logs and interviews, the House October Surprise Task Force, a congressional inquiry now under way, dismissed the possibility of president’s participation in an interim report issued June 30. In February, a lengthy analysis by writer Frank Snepp of the Village Voice similarly refuted the premise.

Another writer delving into related scandals didn’t get a chance to jump to any conclusions. Journalist Danny Casolaro was found dead in a Martinsburg, W. Va. motel room last August. The local coroner ruled it a suicide. But Casolaro’s investigation into the BCCI banking debacle and Inslaw computer software case has left doubt as to the actual cause of his death. Within this context, and given his alleged association with such shadowy figures as arms merchant Richard Brenneke and self-proclaimed CIA contract agent Michael Riconosciuto, Russbacher’s incredible story teeters on the verge of plausibility.

Inside the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility at Jefferson City,the air conditioning isn’t working in one of the two visiting rooms. The four by four closet-sized space is furnished with two metal folding chairs and divided in the middle by a narrow counter top. Windows and a concave mirror allow prison guards to keep watch. The cubbyhole is thick with humidity as Russbacher, dressed in a sky blue sweat suit, begins to divulge the trump that he believes will set him free, and, ultimately, lead to either President Bush’s impeachment or resignation.

“It’s actually quite a simple thing,” says Russbacher. “Every (SR) 71 flight– be it a training session or actual mission — is documented through a voice cockpit and video cockpit recorder,” he explains. According to Russbacher, the plane’s recording devices “document each and every facial expression, every movement of your hands and every turn of the instruments.” After the video is transmitted in six-second bites to one of three satellites positioned at “keyhole 11, 12 or 13” a signature is superimposed at the bottom of the screen, which includes: the exact time, aircraft of origin and its location.

“It’s beamed back down to the NSA (National Security Agency) station at Fort Meade,Md. There is no way to tamper with it. If you try to make a secondary copy from the original, bar codes jump up,” says Russbacher.”

This tape is in our possession,” he adds. Once the tape is turned over to congressional investigators and authenticated, he has been promised a release from prison and immunity from prosecution, Russbacher claims. His supporters, those who purloined the recording, form a cadre of disgruntled covert operatives, according to Russbacher. The way he explains it, there is a war going on within the intelligence community that involves three groups. “Faction one is the pro-Bush or the loyal faction within the agency,” says Russbacher. “Faction two (is) comprised mainly out of ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) handlers.” These are the good guys, according to Russbacher. “Faction two is loyal, basically, to the Constitution and to the concept of military law and order.” Russbacher indicates the third bunch is in league with the second. “They’re called rouge elephants.They’re stationed overseas, they’re stringers, they’re cutouts, they’re low-level agents.” Be it an act or the bonafide portrayal, Russbacher’s stance hasn’t gone unreviewed.

Back in February — days after announcing an interest in the presidency — Ross Perot sent his top lawyer, David Bryant, and two pilots to interview the Missouri inmate. Perot also contacted Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in regard to Russbacher’s treatment at the Fulton Correctional Facility. Gephardt’s office in turn requested Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin inquire about Russbacher’s condition. Griffin then spoke to George Lombardi, a state prison official. This flurry of concern came after Perot’s delegation was refused the right to interview Russbacher. At the time, Russbacher, who claims a heart condition, was being cloistered at the University Hospital in Columbia, Mo. News accounts have implied Russbacher feigned illness to dodge the investigators. Russbacher denies this, but says he still can’t state what transpired out of fear for himself and his family.

When The RFT asked why he had been admitted, a hospital spokeswoman said the information was confidential. Since being moved to Jefferson City, Russbacher has been placed in protective custody. Because of the delay, Bryant and both pilots departed before speaking to Russbacher. To determine his familiarity with the SR-71, the remaining investigator, Bob Peck, asked a specific question about TEB, a jet fuel additive, according to Russbacher. The question came despite agreeing in advance not to discuss the aircraft, he says. With a prison official monitoring the interview, the self-professed spy plane pilot either couldn’t answer the questioner was unwilling to do so under the circumstances.

Russbacher’s reticence became one more reason for the press to label him a charlatan. Russbacher has no compunction about discussing the SR-71 now, however. “You know what TEB stands for?” he asks. “That’s for tetra ethyl-borane, which is like the stuff you squirt into a car on a cold morning.”

Such details and jargon add credibility to Russbacher’s story. There is also the stubble of beard that contrasts with his bald pate, and a subtle comportment that projects a military air. The combination seems almost enough to transform “Capt.”Russbacher’s prison garb into a flight suit. More startling is his missing fingernails, the result, Russbacher claims, of having been tortured by the enemy after he crashed over Laos during the Vietnam War. Eyeglasses offer the finishing touch to his persona.

If this were a movie, Robert Duvall would be cast in the role. Indeed, Russbacher’s alleged exploits have already piqued an interest within the entertainment industry.He is quick to cite Gorby Leon, of Coumbia Picture’s story department, as one of his contacts. He also granted Geraldo Rivera’s “Now it Can be Told” a five-and-a-half hour interview recently. The segment never ran, and since then the TV show has been cancelled. True to character, Russbacher attributes its demise to forces more nefarious than low ratings. Likewise, members of the House October Surprise Task Force aren’t tuning in the “Gunther Russbacher Show,” or so they would have it seem. Richard Lewis, a spokesman for the task force in Washington, D.C., cannot comment on specifics, but says all individuals who claim participation or knowledge of events surrounding the October Surprise are being interviewed.

However, as mentioned earlier, the task force has already refuted Russbacher’s allegation that Bush attended the 1980 Paris meetings. To explain this premature judgment, Lewis notes that task force chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), “is intent upon not having this seen as a partisan investigation.” Russbacher sees just that. “Hamilton entertained thoughts that he would become Mr. Clinton’s running mate.

You will find that Mr. Hamilton will be more at ease now with the situation, … and I think you will see a retraction quite soon,” he says. “Lee Hamilton doesn’t play little games like that,” responds Lewis. The spokesman concedes Hamilton was”very wary” of accusations against Bush from the beginning. The committee chairman wanted to “show good faith” and give the perception of professionalism by refuting the allegations as soon as possible, Lewis says.

Presidents always seem to garner “good faith” from the pols and the press. Russbacher hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. Mainstream media, if they refer to him at all, they often don’t mention his name. The best reporting on the subject has been by small independent newspapers like the Jefferson City News Tribune and the Napa(Calif.) Sentinel. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, by contrast, calls Russbacher “the great pretender,” but seems more fawning to Bush administration officials. In reporting a visit by U.S. ambassador Donald Gregg on June 8, the newspaper failed to mention that the former CIA official has been implicated in the October Surprise. And only in the photo caption is there word that Gregg conferred with Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft before speaking to the World Affairs Council. Interestingly, this was the first time Ashcroft attended such a seminar, according to a council spokeswoman.

In St. Charles, assistant prosecutor Phillip W. Groenweghe appears no more eager to talk about the Russbacher case. Repeated calls to his office went unreturned last week. Robert Fleming, a court-appointed public defender, provided the following background on his client. Russbacher acquired a record for passing bad checks in the Army as a teenager. Then in the 70s, he was placed on probation after being convicted on federal charges in Louisiana of carrying bearer bonds, while dressed in a Army major’s uniform. Before now, Russbacher “doesn’t seem to have served anytime in any penitentiary,” says Fleming. This dovetails with his contention that he has been “sheepdipped,” Fleming says. The espionage term describes a spy whose identity has been changed.

Fleming is challenging Russbacher’s conviction on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired and that his client previously received inadequate legal counsel. National Brokerage Companies, the alleged CIA proprietary, was registered with the state in January 1986. The names connected to the company are Emory Joseph Peden, Russbacher’s alias, and Peggy Russbacher, his former wife. A Florissant firm now using the title appears to be unrelated, Fleming says. Russbacher and his wife also incorporated other companies, according to Fleming, but investigators have been unable to find records of any National Brokerage spin-offs, which Russbacher asserts were part of the CIA operation. Russbacher says he ran the CIA proprietary at 7711 Bonhomme in Clayton and shared an office with the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company.

There may even be a more secretive organization behind Russbacher’s activities. As the interview concludes, he shows off a the wide gold band he wears on one finger. There are enigmatic symbols inscribed on the ring. “The pyramid is also the symbol for delta,” Russbacher cryptically explains. Other symbols, shaped like asterisks, represent the eight points of the earth, he says. “I’m just telling you very few people wear this ring. My wife has one, I have one. All other married couples wear them. They’re handmade. It signifies the ability to strike as a unit for the sake of humanity,” says Russbacher.

“It’s a very long story.”

Not Your Mother’s RFT

The St. Louis alternative weekly newspaper that prides itself for being progressive has bedded down with a Wall Street sugar daddy and a Pentagon contractor.

Neil Barsky Occupies This.

The July 29 edition of the Riverfront Times featured a cover story that focused on the wrongful death of a young man in a rural Missouri jail. It was a well-reported story, and it had all the hallmarks of the kind of advocacy journalism that the newspaper has supported since its inception.  But there was one difference.

The RFT did not generate the story.

Instead, the story was commissioned by the Marshall Project, a non-profit corporation founded by former Wall Street hedge fund tycoon Neil Barsky. After Barsky’s shaky hedge fund empire crashed and burned in 2008, the former Wall Street Journal reporter experienced a life-altering  conversion: He became a social justice crusader, or at least that’s the established narrative.

The Marshall Project, which draws public attention to abuses within the criminal justice system, is bankrolled through the generosity of various wealthy individuals and corporate foundations — that thrive on America’s continued inequities, including the CIA-connected Ford Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and Barsky himself.

Neil Barsky, Wall Street’s caped crusader.

The Marshall Project’s board of advisors includes philanthropic honchos, silk-stocking lawyers and investment bankers. One advisor, for example, is an exec who works at the Blackstone Group, the financial behemoth that holds a five percent share in Republic Services, the waste hauler that owns the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County.

Besides the Wall Street largess, the RFT is now accepting at least a small amount of advertising dollars from a Pentagon contractor.

A want ad for RiverTech, an Air Force contractor that has recently set up shop at nearby Scott Air Force Base, appears in the lower left-hand corner of page 7 of the same issue of the Riverfront Times, directly below an advertisement for the online edition of the newspaper itself. The top half of the same page featured a column by Ray Hartmann,  the newspaper’s founder, who cranked out the publication’s first edition in 1977.

 

 

RiverTech, an Air Force contractor, is looking for a few good men or women to support its military mission.

Back in those days, taking Pentagon dollars would have been considered a betrayal of the principles of the left-leaning alternative press that was borne out of the tumultuous anti-war movement of the 1960s and the muckraking of the Watergate era.

But times have changed.

RiverTech is a subsidiary of Akima, whose parent corporation is the NANA Regional Corp., which is owned by Alaskan Native Americans. Under Small Business Administration regulations NANA’s subsidiaries are eligible to obtain limitless no-bid federal contracts.

Hartmann, who sold the RFT in 1998, came back last year and began writing a weekly commentary for the latest owners, Euclid Media Group of Cleveland.

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.]

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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.

LETTER TO THE LAW

Rep. Jim Talent asks the Justice Department to come clean on its investigation of the EPA’s Times Beach cleanup

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Oct. 29, 1997

The U.S. Justice Department has quietly initiated a criminal inquiry into the controversial 1995 stack emissions test of the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, The Riverfront Times has learned. In a letter dated Sept. 22, 1997, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R-2nd Dist.) asked U.S. attorney Edward Dowd about the status of the federal investigation.

An anonymous source provided a copy of the letter to the RFT last week. Spokespersons for the congressman and the U.S. Justice Department in St. Louis declined to comment on the matter. A representative at the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Kansas City said the agency was unaware of any probe. Talent represents the congressional district in west St. Louis County, which includes the site of the now-completed EPA Superfund project.

His written request to Dowd reads in part: “The purpose of this letter is to inquire about the status of the Justice Department investigation regarding the possibility of criminal behavior surrounding the dioxin stack test for the permitting of the Times Beach incinerator. I would like to confirm if the investigation started by your office is still underway or if it has concluded.”

Last year, the RFT reported that separate Missouri Department of Natural Resources and EPA reviews of stack test data had discovered serious lapses in scientific protocol — lapses that cast doubt on whether the incinerator could have been legally considered protective of human health (Why the Times Beach Incinerator Should be Shut Down, Nov. 20, 1996). Talent asked the EPA last October to shut down the incinerator pending a re-test. His request followed another RFT story that revealed International Technologies (IT), the incinerator operator, partially owned Quanterra Environmental Services, the laboratory that handled the stack test emissions samples (Twice Burned, RFT, Aug 28, 1996).

The close relationship between IT and Quanterra presented the obvious appearance of a conflict of interest. Moreover, documents obtained by the RFT showed numerous errors and omissions in the stack test data. In one instance, it took seven to eight days for test samples to reach Triangle Laboratories in North Carolina, according to the EPA. In another unexplained anomaly, five test sample containers disappeared. Members of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), an organization that opposed the incinerator, sifted through mounds of technical data to uncover the inconsistencies in the stack emissions test.

When contacted last week, Steve Taylor, a TBAG organizer, was hesitant to talk about Talent’s letter to Dowd. Asked whether he was the source who leaked the letter to the RFT, Taylor says: I’ve been instructed not to comment about any FBI or Justice Department investigation. So I can neither confirm nor deny. … I have been told that if the media got hold of it, the investigation would end. I know that an investigation has been going on since January.”

Given the EPA’s questionable past practices, Taylor is disturbed that the agency is being allowed to proceed with the clean up of another recently discovered dioxin site on Lemar Drive in Ellisville with no public input into the process. The announcement of the toxic discovery in St. Louis County came shortly after the Times Beach project had been completed.

“The people on Lemar are getting pushed around,” says Taylor. “It’s just amazing that the EPA is allowed to move soil with all the inconsistencies and deceptions with the incineration.”

TAKING A NEW STACK

An interim EPA report recommends a new stack-emissions test at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator but mutes its call for a shutdown

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Nov. 27, 1996

On Nov. 20, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interim report recommended that a stack-emissions test at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator may need to be redone to restore public confidence in the project. Such a retest would require snuffing the flames at the incinerator at least temporarily (“Why the Times Beach Incinerator Should be Shut Down, RFT, Nov. 20).

Despite the recommendation, the EPA had by late last Friday taken no action to address the potential public health hazard posed by the incinerator emissions.

“I have absolutely no idea what is going to take place. We have not met on this subject. I am not in any position to comment in any way,” says Rowena Michaels, a spokeswoman for EPA Region VII in Kansas City. Region VII and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are responsible for overseeing the dioxin cleanup in Eastern Missouri, including Times Beach. The results from last year’s flawed test were used as a basis for the DNR to grant a permit for the incinerator to operate.

EPA national ombudsman Robert J. Martin submitted the interim report to Elliott P. Laws, assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) in Washington, D.C. As ombudsman, Martin was assigned in May to represent the interests of citizens opposed to the Times Beach incinerator. His final report on the subject is now tentatively scheduled for completion by Dec. 9.

As it stands, Martin’s interim report recommends “establishing a panel of technical and legal experts to consult with the national ombudsman on how to address the issues raised in this case in a final report.” But no such panel has been formed as of yet by the EPA. Moreover, Martin, now speculates that the panel won’t be formed before he completes his findings next month.

“I don’t have the ability to convene the panel,” Martin told The Riverfront Times in a phone interview last Friday. “I have no decision making power. I only have the power to recommend. So whether this panel happens is up to the agency. The agency hasn’t said whether they’ll do it or not.”

Martin’s interim report to Laws concludes that “another dioxin stack test may be essential to restore public confidence in the project.” The report supports that position by citing gross errors in last year’s stack test. “There are salient inconsistencies in the chain-of-custody (of test samples) along with multiple alterations in the supporting documents,” according the EPA interim report. Assistant administrator Laws has not responded to repeated requests by the RFT for an interview.

Martin told the RFT that he is concerned about his inability to put his hands on a copy of the project’s work plans, which lay out the protocols supposedly used during the now unreliable stack test. I have not seen the plans. Apparently, a lot of people have not,” says Martin. “The real question (then) becomes what in fact did they use for a chain-of custody-procedure. We don’t know the answer to that question until we get the work plans. To date, I’ve seen abstracts from the documents, but not the documents in their entirety.

However, the integrity of the interim report itself is now being questioned. Environmental opponents of the incinerator had anticipated that Martin’s review would more strongly advocate a shut down pending a retest.

“It is obvious that the ombudsman lost the courage of his convictions sometime after submitting his report to Elliott Laws for review,” says Steve Taylor of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG). “We believe that the recommendations in his report were softened. The release of this report is completely inconsistent with the guidance given to us by the national ombudsman.”

As recently as the first week of November, Taylor says Martin told him that the long-awaited interim report would call for a direct and unqualified shut down of the incinerator, pending a retest. Taylor has provided the RFT with taped-recorded telephone conversations to back up his claims. In one conversation, a voice that sounds like Martin’s can be heard saying: “Whatever they need to do to do in the way of a shut down to accommodate a retest is what they should do.”

When confronted with Taylor’s allegations, Martin responded indirectly by saying that his call for a shut down and retest must now be predicated on a loss of “public confidence and not one of legal impropriety.” Taylor contends Martin has waffled on this point, too. In another tape-recorded telephone conversation, a voice presumed to be Martin’s says: “I got to tell you that it wasn’t until this week, going through these documents and then having these discussions with you that I’ve moved from `we have problems’ to `we have potential criminal activities.'”

In the phone conversation, the presumed voice of the ombudsman ruminates over difficulties that his inquiry may soon encounter because of a parallel investigation by the DNR. “The state is likely going to weigh in and say, `no problem,” says the voice on the other end of the line. Then you get into double-jeopardy kinds of issues. I may talk to the FBI. …”

Last week, during his interview with the RFT, Martin denied knowledge of information contained in a key document that is allegedly already in his the possession, according to Taylor. The content of the document, of which Martin now says he is unaware, includes a “Chronology of Events” prepared by the incinerator operator. The chronology indicates that five sample tubes disappeared from the site shortly after the stack test was completed last year. Martin also denied knowledge of a custody sheet from an analytical laboratory showing that sample seals were absent upon arrival. Taylor alleges that he had discussed that issue with the ombudsman as well.

With the release of the watered-down interim report, Taylor has become even more distrustful of the EPA. “It is shocking that the ombudsman had asked the TBAG to sit on information of potential criminal activity pending the release of his interim report,” says Taylor. “In our conversations, Bob Martin gave specific guidance to me to withhold evidence of possible fraud to better facilitate future criminal investigations.”