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.
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.
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.