Friday, August 20, 2004

A Shot in the Dark: The Death of Jesse Stoneking (Part 3) 

The suicide case of Mafia associate and federal informant Jesse Stoneking leaves more questions than answers

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 faded from the headlines, but Stoneking remained haunted by his past, moving from state to state, living under an assumed name, Jesse Lee McBride.

In the end, however, Stoneking could not outrun himself. On Jan 19, 2003, he allegedly shot himself in the head with .38-caliber revolver in the presence of a Maricopa County, Ariz. deputy and longtime associate Michael Laurella, according to police reports.

The shooting occurred on the outskirts of Surprise, Ariz., a town within the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area.

It happened this way: While driving on Loop 303, Stoneking hit a rock puncturing the passenger side front tire. He then pulled Laurella’s 1995 Ford Crown Victoria sedan to the shoulder of the road. When the deputy arrived, pulling his squad car behind the Ford, Stoneking asked Laurella to get out of the car and tell the officer that “help was on the way.” After Laurella exited the vehicle and began to approach the deputy, Stoneking fired the shot, killing himself.

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’t necessarily 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.”

Jesse’s Last Ride

Laurella and Stoneking left their trailer in Wickenburg at about 7:30 p.m. on January 19, 2003, 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 9:00 p.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 stayed out 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. Last year, 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 to 2000. In 1998, the RFT was purchased by New Times Inc. of Phoenix, which is part of Maricopa County.

Sonnenschein’s bust related to the Free Spirit massage parlor in Brooklyn, Ill., which closed in 2000. But the brothel operator also holds other business interests in Brooklyn and St. Clair County. 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. The property where Boxers sits is owned by Entertainment Illinois Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz., which is also coincidentally located in Maricopa County.

Though Stoneking’s federal informant status seemingly ended with the federal sentencing of Berne, his former boss, in 1986, 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 early 1980s. 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.

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