All Jesse Stoneking had to do was be himself -- look tough and menacing -- to earn the easiest $25,000 that had ever come his way. For the right-hand man to St. Louis mobster Art Berne, the job seemed too good to be true. And it was.
It was an improbable criminal coalition. There was Bob Neal Carson, the sultan of sin whose efforts in the early 1970s to become a feared, ruthless rackets boss in the Fort Leonard Wood area ended in disaster that brought down the entire lucrative prostitution and gambling business. His hapless collection of hit men and enforcers became the laughing stock of the Missouri underworld, the proverbial gang that couldn't shoot or bomb straight who were their own worst enemy.
On the other side was Jesse Stoneking, the deadly efficient, stone-cold killer who was second in command of Art Berne's powerful mob on St. Louis' East Side and who spoke with the authority of the Chicago Outfit. Not only did he possess the reputation of being a ferocious enforcer of prodigious strength who feared no man and had the agility and cunning of a mountain lion, he was an adept thief and burglar who plotted his scores with the patience and precision of a an architect. He was everything the impulsive, bungling Carson was not.
Thus it was early in 1978, four years after Carson had been acquitted of federal conspiracy charges and four years before Stoneking would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most devastating undercover informant in the Midwest, that they joined forces.
This unholy alliance would lead to surprising riches and a lethal confrontation with an unlikely drug kingpin who sought revenge, but who was unaware of Stoneking's physical and mental prowess. And it would bring Carson's loyalty seriously into question.
Just A Little Muscle
"You just want me to sit around looking tough, huh?"
Stoneking could barely squeeze his bulky body in the seat in the cabin section of the plane. He was immediately uncomfortable. Fortunately, it wouldn't be that long of a flight. He dwarfed the diminutive Mayhew beside him.
It promised to be the easiest $25,000 Stoneking ever made. And it was legal. The first legitimate money he had earned in years. All he had to do was be himself – tough, mean and menacing. Even if he had to bash a skull or two, so what? It wouldn't be the first time. He wasn't in the mob to be loved, only to be feared and to make money.
Carson said he was indebted to him for his help in the robbery six weeks earlier of a salesman near Springfield, Mo., that netted almost $2 million in jewelry and gems that turned out to be owned by the Kansas City Mafia Family of Nick Civella. It was Stoneking's biggest score. Carson said he wanted to return the favor. He told Stoneking that he respected him for his expertise and his cold decisiveness in the crisis with the state trooper he almost had killed. He was a real stand-up guy. Stoneking didn't believe a word of it. What Carson didn't tell Stoneking was that it wouldn't hurt to have Art Berne's right-hand man on his side.
When Mayhew, a small aircraft pilot, came to him looking for a bodyguard, Carson immediately called Stoneking. It would be easy money, he said, for a day or two of work. There would be little, if any, risk. Stoneking asked him why he didn't do it, himself, and Carson said he didn't need the money so soon after the robbery. Stoneking was interested and Carson introduced him to Mayhew, which, he suspected, was not his real name. He said a man in Charlotte, N. C., owed him $175,000 from a property deal and he was having trouble collecting it. The man, Mayhew said, was nobody important and would cause no trouble. All he needed was someone whose mere presence was threatening to induce the man to pay up. It was worth $25,000.
"You just want me to sit around looking tough, huh?" Stoneking chortled. It was a deceiving chuckle, meant to convey the pang of suspicion he had.
"That shouldn't be too hard for you to do," Mayhew said. "Like I said, there shouldn't be any trouble, but if there is I don't doubt that you can handle it. I'll just say you're my partner and we want our money or else."
"If he says screw you, then what?"
"We'll just do what we have to do what we have to. Rough him up or whatever."
Stoneking doubted that Mayhew would be any help in a serious confrontation. He must have weighed all of 130 pounds and stood about 5 feet, 6-inches tall. He was an unimposing, almost meek man in his 30s with closely cropped brown curly hair. But, Stoneking knew, those kind could be the most treacherous of all.
As the plane took off, Stoneking's intuition demanded recognition. He wondered why Mayhew would pay so much money just to collect a debt. Something just didn't add up. It was too simple.
"Here I was getting myself involved in something I didn't know much about and me without my angel. There wasn't anyway I could have brought my forty-five along. I kind of felt like I had left my best buddy behind."
Not What It Appears
"It isn't exactly a property deal."
In Charlotte, they took a cab to a motel not far from the airport where Mayhew had reserved a room. The man who owed him the money was to meet him there shortly. When they got to the room on the first floor, Stoneking's uneasiness worsened. "Something's not right here, Mayhew. Are you sure this is just some kind of property deal?"
Mayhew became troubled. He searched for words. "It isn't exactly a property deal."
Stoneking's instincts screamed at him again. "What you mean, Mayhew?"
Mayhew hesitated. "Well, you see, I made a flight for these people and they haven't paid me yet. There was an accident."
"What kind of flight?" Stoneking demanded. He had a suspicion.
"It's no big deal. Don't worry about it."
"I worry about anything that involves me," Stoneking said testily. "Now, quit jacking me around." Stoneking was in Mayhew's face, his voice ominous, his fist clenched in front of him. "You tell me right now what's going on or I'll walk out of here and leave you to yourself."
He had touched a raw nerve. An instant look of panic swept across Mayhew's face and clouded his eyes. Stoneking now knew why. "You can't do that.
Stoneking grabbed Mayhew by the coat lapels before he could finish the sentence. Mayhew's face paled. "It's dope, ain't it? You're a f------ dope dealer."
The Lady's A Drug Lord
"Either we get out of here alive or she dies, too."
Before Mayhew could answer, Stoneking heard several vehicles pull up outside. Doors slammed shut and there was shuffling of too many pairs of feet to count. A woman's voice snapped instructions, but Stoneking couldn't understand what she said. Then, a knock on the door, too light to be a man's. Mayhew went to answer it. When he opened the door, a shrewish, emaciated looking woman in her 50s, wearing glasses and with short graying hair didn't wait to be invited in. Three husky men, two with automatic rifles, the other with an automatic pistol in his belt, followed her. Two other men, also armed, were outside the door.
She pointed a shaking finger at Mayhew.
Mayhew laughed feebly. "Hey, Tish, how are you? You're right on time."
The woman ignored him. She scowled at Stoneking. One of the men slowly swung his rifle toward him. "Who's that son-of-a-bitch?" she asked angrily, glaring at him. Her voice was heavy with a southern drawl.
"A friend of mine from St. Louis. He's okay." Mayhew's nervousness was obvious.
"Yeah. How do I know he isn't the heat or a shooter?"
She nodded her head to the young man with the automatic pistol. He went to Stoneking and patted him down. He did the same to Mayhew. When he found no weapon or wire on either man, he returned to his position.
"I tell you, Tish, he just came along for the ride."
She turned her wrath to Mayhew. "You rotten, no good bastard! You're a dead man, you know that."
Stoneking shifted on his feet and the bodyguard glared at him. He displayed no fear and stared back at the gunman with contempt.
Mayhew searched for words. "It was an accident, Tish. It couldn't be helped."
Now Tish was furious. "Accident my ass! You lying bastard. You think they give those planes away? Two hundred and fifty thousand it cost me and it was the first flight. And you ditched it in the ocean. And loaded yet! You put me in the trick bag for a long of money. I gotta pay the people in Jamaica. They don't care about mistakes!"
Mayhew pleaded. "But, Tish, the radio …"
She went to him, her face inches away from his. "I don't care about the radio! None of you are getting out of here alive." Then she suddenly calmed down.
"You know, there's no way I can let you live. It doesn't work that way."
Stoneking assessed the situation. It was grim at best. He had walked into a drug-smuggling operation that was about to erupt into a war and he would be the common enemy.
"I was scared, but I ain't about to show it. I think, 'Jesse, you're a dead man'. I might as well just count my blessings and try to jump out the window. But I knew that wouldn't work. The odds were totally against me with all them guns. I had to do something. and quick. I wasn't as worried about Mayhew's scrawny ass as my own."
He remembered the small pocketknife in his right trouser pocket. It wasn't much, but it was all he had. He lunged across the eight feet separating him from Tish, pulling the knife from his pocket and opening it as he did. With one swift move, he grabbed her, spun her around in front of him, one arm locking behind. He put the small blade to her throat at the jugular vein before the bodyguards were aware of what was happening. They stared awkwardly at him, then leveled their weapons at his midsection.
One of the bodyguards inched forward. He glared at Stoneking, his finger tensing on the trigger of the rifle. Stoneking gently cut the skin of her neck so the blood flowed freely. It dripped on his arm. A look of panic swept across her face and she sighed deeply. It had the desired effect. The bodyguard lowered his rifle slightly. Tish struggled helplessly. She gasped for breath. Stoneking now had the edge, as slight as it was.
"Either we get out of here alive or she dies, too," Stoneking said, his voice calm, but commanding.
Tish's voice was choked. "Listen, this guy screws up like he did and now he comes down here and wants hundred and seventy-five grand. After he loses a plane and a load of grass and coke. All because of his stupidity! Well, he's not getting paid."
"I can't let you do that, either," Stoneking said. "That's why I'm down here with him. To protect him. And I'm not going back without my money from him, either."
Tish sighed deeply. "Let's talk about it."
"There ain't nothing to talk about. There's no way I'm gonna trust you."
She looked at the three bodyguards. "You and the others get out of here. Go on down at the end and wait there." They reluctantly obeyed her.
Stoneking released her. She reached for her shoulder purse, but he grabbed it from her and opened it. The gun he expected to find was there. He examined the .25 Beretta automatic to make sure it was loaded and put the knife in his pocket, holding the small revolver steadily in his right hand. He now had control of the situation. He returned the purse to her and she took out a handkerchief, putting it to the cut on her neck.
"Who are you?" she asked, her voice quivering.
Stoneking decided to tell her.
"You know anybody from St. Louis?"
"Yeah, some people who are connected."
"Ever hear of Art Berne?"
Tish replied that she had.
"I'm Jesse Stoneking, Art's right-hand man."
She was cautiously impressed. "Why should I believe you?"
Stoneking didn't answer her.
"You mind if I check you out?"
He said he didn't. She went to the door, opened it and motioned. One of the bodyguards came in. Stoneking aimed the Beretta at his heart. She took an address book from her purse, paged through it and found what she was looking for. She scribbled a name and phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to the young man. "Teddy, call this number. Ask for John Vitale and tell him you're calling for me. Ask him if he's ever heard of a Jesse Stoneking. Tell John to describe him."
Stoneking knew Vitale. He was the revered underboss for Tony Giordano and a close friend of Berne's. He would vouch for him. The tension eased and they chatted for awhile. Stoneking still kept the Beretta trained on her.
"Why don't you let Mayhew leave?" he suggested. "We can straighten this out."
"I figured that's why I got into this mess and I might as well try to save his life. I wasn't kidding myself, though. I knew enough about these dopers to know that they wouldn't let him live very long. No way. Frankly, I didn't care."
Tish thought for a moment and then agreed. Stoneking turned to Mayhew. "You get your ass out of here and go back home." He didn't need to be told twice. He called a cab and was gone in 15 minutes.
"Okay, Jessie, grab that f------ money and run like hell."
Teddy returned shortly after they left. He whispered into Tish's ear. When he had left, she said, "You're okay. John says you're as good as platinum." She laughed coarsely. "He said you're not to be messed with or we'll have big problems. Those kind of problems I don't need."
It was all she needed and she confided in Stoneking as if he were a trusted friend. She ran one of the biggest drug smuggling operations in the Southeast. She used eight pilots, including Mayhew, and they were in various motels around town waiting to get the $175,000 per flight she paid them. The money would be arriving soon, she said, which accounted for her entourage of armed guards.
"I'm thinking, eight pilots at a hundred and seventy-five grand each. Man, that's a million and a half. That would be one hell of a score. I couldn't help thinking about it. Grab the money and run. Maybe I'd make it past her army."
Tish looked at him, smiling warmly. "I like you. You're a good man. Tough and cool as hell. You got a good head on your shoulders. Why don't you come and work for me? Two hundred and fifty thousand a year. You can get your own deals going on the side. You'll make half a million a year, easy. Maybe a million." She put a hand on his shoulder and caressed it. "Maybe you and me, we can get something going. A little fun and games."
"Can you imagine that broken down old whore wanting me to jump in bed with her? Man, I ain't never been that hard up and never will be. Anyhow, I had more important things on my mind. AlI I was thinking about was getting my hands on that cash that was going to be coming through that door."
"Sorry, I gotta pass on that," Stoneking said. "You people are too dangerous for me. Too radical. I can't live like that."
"Nobody with me gets hurt. I guarantee that."
Stoneking laughed. "I've heard that before. There's a lot of broken promises on the road to the cemetery. No thanks."
But Tish was not easily put off. "Let me do you a favor. There's this doctor in Fort Lauderdale who owes me half a million and he won't pay up. I want him hit. It's worth a hundred and fifty thousand to me to see him dead."
"I'm thinking, What a broad this is. How'd you like to be married to a woman like that? You'd have to say, no ma'm, yes ma'm, kiss her ass all over the place, or she'd crack you. I'm thinking, too, that much money for whacking a guy? A piece of cake. He probably was in a dope deal with her and deserved to be hit. It'd probably take only a couple of days. But I ain't about to get involved with her in that. I'm still thinking about that million and a half."
"Look, no hard feelings, but I just don't deal with you people. You're too treacherous. You'll kill anybody for anything. Someday, you're liable to crack me. I just don't trust your kind of people. Nothing personal."
Tish smiled understandingly. "It goes with the business. What can I say? I admire you, though. You tell it like it is. You don't pull any punches. Straight from the shoulder."
There was a knock on the door. Tish let in another young man. He brought in four new leather suitcases, put them on the bed and left. She opened each and inspected the stacks of large denomination bills in each. She looked at Stoneking, a slight smile on her lips. "There's two million in there. Ever seen so much money?"
"I'm thinking, 'No, ma'm, I ain't never seen that much money'. Okay, Jesse, grab that f------ money and run like hell. Maybe just two of the suitcases. Don't be greedy. I still got the Beretta. I could hit her in the head, shoot her men as I ran out. Grab one of the cars and I'm outta there with a million bucks."
Tish opened the drapery, interupting his thoughts. She rapped on the window and motioned for one of the bodyguards. The one who had brought the suitcases came in and took them out. Stoneking watched through the window as he put them in a white van. Marked police squad cars with two officers in each were at both entrances to the motel.
"I saw them cops and I thought, 'Well, Jesse, there goes your money'. And I was just about ready to try it. I probably would have if the law wasn't out there."
She saw she had adequately impressed Stoneking. "This is my town. I get what I want here."
Stoneking chuckled. "I can believe that. I guess you don't have to worry about anybody taking your money, do you? You're kind of robbery proof, aren't you?"
"Anybody gets within 20 feet of that van is dead."
She asked what kind of payment Mayhew had promised him. Stoneking told her.
"You'll get it. I'll come up to St. Louis personally and give it to you."
"Who's this broad kidding? I ain't never going to see her again much less my money. I didn't really care at that point. I had just lost a million bucks and I should care about twenty-five grand? All I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. Maybe I'd look up Mayhew and take it out of his ass."
He gave Tish his telephone number, for what it was worth. When he had unloaded the Beretta, he handed it to her. She called him four days later. She would be arriving late the next afternoon in her personal jet. Two of her bodyguards accompanied her. She gave him two suitcases.
"Your money's in that one there," she said. "And there're eighty thousand quaaludes in the other. There're worth two dollars each. Give them to Mayhew and pay him off for me. I never want to see the son-of-a-bitch again."
Stoneking made an honest effort to locate Mayhew, but Carson could not find him. He had disappeared. Stoneking wondered if Tish had settled accounts with him, whether her offer to reimburse him merely was an alibi. He didn't care. His responsibility for him ended when Mayhew left Charlotte. He had gotten him out alive. Although he abhorred drugs, Stoneking decided to sell the quaaludes, himself. It would be adequate compensation for the trouble Mayhew had caused him.
Carson was another matter. He insisted he had not known the true reason for Mayhew's trip to Charlotte. Stoneking decided to believe him. But it wasn't long before he suspected the opposite. He learned from a friendly police officer that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had issued a communiqué describing Stoneking as an international drug trafficker working out of Charlotte. The information could have come from only one source. The feds probably had leaned on Carson and to save his own hide he made up the story about Stoneking.
"What can you say? It wasn't the first time I'd been snitched on and it probably wouldn't be the last. The world was full of those creeps."
Jesse Stoneking died on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2003. It wasn't because some hoodlum from his past caught up with him and tried to collect the $100,000 bounty on his head. Nor was it an accident.
Stoneking, once known in the St. Louis area as the "Stone Killer" and the "Bully of the Mob," took his own life, using his favorite weapon of choice: a pistol. It was during the evening as he drove along a deserted road near Surprise, Ariz., north of Phoenix, when he pulled alongside the road and shot himself in the head. The local coroner ruled it a suicide. Gun powder residue on his hand confirmed it. There was no suicide note nor an easy explanation
Although he had used the cover name of Jesse McBride since he surfaced in the mid-1980s, authorities in Wickenburg, Ariz., where he had lived for many years, knew who he really was.
"We'd see him driving around town and would say, 'There goes the Mafia guy,'" said a Wickenburg police officer.
Editors Note: For a more detailed account of Jesse Stoneking, please click here.