Before Jimmy Fratianno made ratting out mob bosses fashionable, Jesse Stoneking's testimony against St. Louis mob figures was the most damaging ever heard in a courtroom. It helped send more than 30 gangsters to prison. Stoneking was a respected and feared wise guy, a lieutenant to St. Louis Outfit boss Art Berne and an accomplished thief. When Stoneking was packed off to prison in 1981, Berne failed to take care of Stoneking's family as promised. That disloyalty quickly turned Stoneking into an FBI informant.
"I never thought anything about cracking a guy. So what? It was just something you had to do. I figured the guy deserved it."
- Jesse Stoneking
It was a little after 1 a.m. in 1988 when the swarthy, ruggedly handsome man stepped out onto the porch of his mother's house in north St. Louis County. The mid-summer day had been one of stifling humidity and heat. He could hear a distant rumbling of thunder and see a glimmer of lightning. Above him rain-laden clouds low on the horizon forebode an approaching storm. It was what much of Jesse Stoneking's life of 42 years had been about. One storm after another, endless crises, and of late, countless burdens that would break the wills of weaker men.
Stoneking's eyes surveyed the landscape in all directions, but they detected nothing alarming. He was in hostile territory and he only was being prudent and cautious as he had learned long ago to be. It was how one survived in his world. As he drove away, a red Buick with a white top eased out of the shadows half a block down the street behind him, its headlights off. He saw it immediately, but he was not alarmed. He increased his speed. So did the Buick. He slowed and so did it.
Now, Stoneking knew he was under surveillance. But by whom? The law had no more interest in him. His car had out-of-state license plates and were registered in his cover name. Besides no one knew he would be there that night.
The Buick crept closer. Stoneking turned onto a side street. The Buick still was there. He tried every evasive maneuver he had used so many times before to lose a government tail, but these guys were no amateurs. He reached under the seat for the .45 automatic, his "guardian angel" as he called it. It wasn't there. Now, he was vulnerable.
The car's speedometer hovered at 50 mph. Without slowing, Stoneking yanked the wheel hard to the left and made a U-turn. As he passed the Buick, he got a glimpse of the occupants. The wheelman was a convicted killer, who had tried to kill him before, the other a labor racketeer. They were hoods from his past. His past finally had caught up with him. A hit was coming down. It had been a long time coming.
The $100,000 contract the St. Louis Outfit had placed on his life was to be expected. How else could it respond to a snitch who had humiliated it and exposed its most intimate secrets, who had betrayed a position of high trust enjoyed by few gangsters? As the trusted lieutenant of Art Berne, boss of the mob on St. Louis' East Side, and thus the Chicago Outfit's second most powerful man in Southern Illinois, Stoneking the traitor deserved execution. Not only had he been close to Berne, he had been an enforcer for Matthew "Mike" Trupiano, St. Louis' Mafia don. All the while, for two years beginning in 1982, he also had been the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most prized asset in organized crime.
And in the end, more than 30 men, including Berne and Trupiano, had gone to prison, some for the rest of their lives. Organized crime in St. Louis was in shambles and it could be rebuilt only on his grave. As he sped east on Interstate 70, the terror of his own sudden, ugly death gripped him for the first time in his life. Death had stalked him many times before, but he hadn't thought much about it. He was no stranger to death. Other peoples'.
"I never thought nothing about cracking a guy," Stoneking recalled. "It never bothered me. So what? It was just something you had to do. I figured the guy deserved it. But I'd never kill somebody for no reason at all."
What had happened that night now seemed almost prophetic. "I know they're gonna hit me some day. You see, it says in the Bible that you're gonna reap what you sow, so I guess that's true."
Bully of the Mob
"Yeah, that's the way you become a man. By cracking people."
Stoneking's first foray into crime came when he was 14. The results were predictable. The former church choirboy who studied the Bible and "wanted to be like Jesus," and a friend burglarized several houses across the street from his own. The score netted $40 in change. His accomplice was arrested and came in on Stoneking. It would leave a lasting impression on him. Snitches were the lowest form of life.
Stoneking was quick to learn and innovative. By the time he was 21 he had become an adept thief and fence. His entrée into the underworld came in 1970 when he was introduced to Berne and Don Ellington, a 300-pound associate of his who became Stoneking's partner.
Stoneking took a job as a police officer, but not out of any dedication to law and order. It was a license to steal. National City, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis, was the site of vast rail yards. Armed with a badge and a .357 magnum Stoneking could carry legally, he and Ellington stole the valuable cargoes he was assigned to protect.
But his police career ended abruptly. Stoneking despised drug dealers. When the police department received an anonymous tip that a young man was peddling dope to teenagers, Stoneking meted out his own justice. He took him to headquarters and nearly beat him to death. The suspect was an undercover federal agent. Stoneking was fired the next day.
With a growing reputation as a money-maker and with Ellington as a sponsor, Stoneking was inducted into the Outfit by Berne in 1973. He had arrived. He was a wise guy. ed HeIt was a foregone conclusion that he would advance quickly. And he did.
A few years later, Berne rewarded Stoneking's loyalty and criminal acumen by making him his lieutenant. Now, Stoneking spoke with the authority of Berne himself and had access to the seats of power in Chicago occupied by Joey Aiuppa and Jack Cerone, to whom his boss answered.
By then, Stoneking had achieved a reputation as the "bully of the mob." It was not undeserved. He had perfected the art of physical and verbal intimidation. Built like a solid block, his presence alone was menacing. He wasn't a big man – about 5 feet, 10 inches tall – but his 200 pounds were muscled. He could talk, fight or shoot his way out of a jam. His huge fists were lethal weapons. His stentorian voice demanded attention and obedience.
His eyes could be piercing or as innocent as a baby's, depending on what he wanted to convey. He used his words to beat men into submission or relieve them of their wealth. His face, framed by coal black hair, was a solid hunk of granite that rarely showed emotion, except anger when the Indian blood in him showed.
Stoneking's first contract was a mark of his criminal manhood, a reward for his faithful service to the boss. He had been given the power of life and death. It was a heady thought.
The three somewhat autonomous underworld factions in the St. Louis area – Berne's Outfit, the Mafia and the Lebanese-Syrian gang – dominated more than a half dozen construction trade unions. Berne had been given control of Pipefitters Union Local 562 by the Chicago Syndicate and he ruled it ruthlessly.
But not every union member knuckled under to Berne. Patrick Hickey, a popular union official, state legislator and Democratic Party functionary, openly defied The Outfit. The fiery redhead had to go. Berne ordered Stoneking and Ellington to eliminate the problem permanently in 1976. Stoneking was to be the driver and the behemoth Ellington, the shooter. They followed Hickey from the union hall toward Lambert International Airport.
Stoneking had few emotions, except perhaps exhilaration, about what he was going to do. "The Outfit had a good reason for hitting the guy. I didn't care. So what? Big deal! Yeah, that's the way you become a man: by cracking people."
The pursuit continued for a few minutes. (Years later, it would remind Stoneking of the assassination attempt on his own life as he left his mother's house.) Hickey signaled to turn right onto an exit ramp.
"Now!" Ellington shouted.
Stoneking accelerated, pulling even with the rear of Hickey's car. Ellington rolled down the window. The cold air slapped Stoneking's skin and he realized he was perspiring. Now, he felt the adrenaline taking control of his body. It was a pleasant rush. Ellington cocked the .38 and raised it.
"Get out of here now!" he screamed. "The son-of-a-bitch saw me." Stoneking slammed on the brakes and Hickey's car sped ahead of them. "So what?" he said, angrily. "You were gonna crack him, anyhow."
Hickey had escaped death by seconds. Stoneking was upset at the missed opportunity. (Later, he got to know Hickey, who never indicated he was aware of the aborted assassination. Privately, Stoneking referred to him as the "walking dead man.")
The Word on the Street
"He was just set up that way. You can believe it."
During the next two years, Ellington grew more and more belligerent about Berne to the point where he criticized the boss in public. Berne pondered what to do about the rebellion in his ranks.
Ellington asked Stoneking to find him a woman for a dinner date. No sex, just companionship, he assured Stoneking. A part-time prostitute who was a girlfriend of Berne's agreed. Dinner led to drinks and rape. Ellington beat her badly, breaking an arm and disfiguring her face.
Stoneking was livid. He felt responsible and insulted. He wanted to kill Ellington immediately, no argument, no discussion, just killl him. But he couldn't without Berne's approval. He brought Ellington to Berne for a meeting. It lasted only five minutes, enough time for Ellington to tell Berne, "Go f--- yourself, Berne. Who needs you?" "Get him out of here," Berne told Stoneking, his voice cold and threatening. "I don't wanna ever see him again." Berne hadn't even had a chance to accuse him of the rape. The sin he had just committed was far worse.
Ellington lived eight more days. He died as he sat in his Cadillac the night of Oct. 22, 1978, in a remote area of Jefferson County, south of the St. Louis urban area. Four slugs from a .38 ripped his head and face apart. Investigators said it was obvious he knew his killer. Police could only suspect, but the wise guys knew who had hit Ellington, causing Stoneking's stature in the underworld soared. Stoneking talks in the abstract about the killing. There is no statute of limitations on murder.
"The word on the street was that Ellington was set up and that he was cracked by one guy," Stoneking recalls unemotionally. "He thought the guy was his friend, but he wasn't his friend any more. He hated him. You rape and beat up a girl like that and you ain't got any friends.
"Anyhow, the word on the street was that Ellington wanted to do an insurance job on his car. Hell, that was one of my rackets. The word on the street was that this guy he thought was his friend followed him down there and they were supposed to meet the contact who was going to get rid of the car. Only there wasn't no guy there to take the car. He was just set up that way. That's what the word on the street was. You can believe it."
A year later, Stoneking was the victim of a deadly entrapment. Tony Giordano, the respected St. Louis Mafia boss, had befriended Stoneking and there was mutual respect between them. He owned a vending machine company on the East Side and had asked Stoneking to troubleshoot for him. One night, he was called to the Kracker Box Tavern near East St. Louis to service a cigarette machine.
The vending machine was in good working order. A prostitute at the tavern warned him that two thugs were out to kill him, but Stoneking wasn't one to walk away from a fight. One of the thugs started an argument with him. As the thug reached to his belt, Stoneking fired twice with his own pistol. The man was dead before he hit the floor. The other thug fired two shots into Stoneking's lower right chest. Stoneking emptied his gun into the shooter, mortally wounding him.
The next afternoon, still partially sedated from the surgery to remove the bullets, Stoneking saw through the haze in his eyes the faint outline of a woman enter his room. She silently approached his bed and stood for a moment only three feet from him. Still, he couldn't recognize her.
"Jesse Stoneking, you're going to die," she whispered, pulling a pistol from her purse. As she leveled it at him, Mark Stram, one of his associates, came from behind and disarmed her. The gun was fully loaded. She was a friend of the two thugs he had shot and killed. From that moment, he never was alone in his hospital room. A pistol always was in the drawer of the stand beside his bed.
With these killings, Stoneking's prowess and his ability to survive became legendary in the underworld. He was a stone killer, a man to be feared. But he harbored a secret that would have destroyed that image and put his loyalty in question: He had a compassionate streak when it came to murder that at times drove him to disobey Berne's orders.
When Mafia underboss Joe Cammarata, a pipefitter by trade, found a bomb in his pickup truck, he blamed Tommy Callanan. A business agent for the union, Callanan was injured when a bomb tore through his car in 1973. Both legs were amputated and he was confined to a wheelchair.
Cammarata put out a contract to Berne, who ordered Stoneking to make the hit. He watched Callanan for several days and decided he could not kill him. He told Berne there was no way he could get close enough to kill him. "I figured the guy had suffered enough," Stoneking recalled. "I ain't about to whack a guy in a wheelchair. Not for no one."
Stoneking granted clemency to several other potential victims who had stolen or swindled Berne out of money. He made offers they couldn't resist. Leave town or be killed. "They didn't hurt anybody," he explained. "They were just thieves. Why kill a guy for stealing?"
The Big Heist
"I would have killed him if I had to."
When it came to stealing, whether by burglary, robbery or deceit, Stoneking was peerless. He was the St. Louis underworld's biggest and most innovative moneymaker. He needed to be to service his insatiable craving for opulence. Gaudy diamond and gold jewelry adorned his fingers. New, expensive cars were a consuming passion.
Crime was lucrative for Stoneking. He estimates he made at least $2 million in a few years. Rarely was there less than $200,000 in large bills stashed in a strongbox under his kitchen floor and several thousand dollars in his pockets. He needed it, for he supported two families with three children each. He was married to one of the women; the other was his mistress. He bought houses for each, paid all expenses and provided them with the same lifestyles. "It was the only decent thing to do," he explains.
Stoneking's biggest heist came in 1978. The mark was a jewelry wholesaler in rural southwestern Missouri. Stoneking and three companions took him down in his home as he was carrying armloads of jewelry boxes and display cases from his car. Shortly after Stoneking drove away from the house, a Missouri State Highway Patrol car approached from the rear, its red and blue lights flashing and the siren wailing. He pulled to the shoulder and stopped, sure the patrol car was pursuing him. He grabbed his .45 automatic from under the seat.
"I would have killed him if I had to," Stoneking recalled. "What the hell, I had a trunk full of stolen jewelry and I wasn't about to get busted for it." But the trooper continued on, not even glancing at the car. Stoneking, an expert jewelry appraiser, estimated the loot at worth well in excess of $1 million. His cut was worth more than $250,000. He traded one diamond for a new Cadillac Eldorado. Not long after the score, Tony Giordano called Stoneking for a meeting. "He asked me if I had heard anything about this big jewelry robbery. I said no. He said this jeweler got taken off by a couple of guys and lost more than a million in jewels. He said a lot of the stuff belonged to the Mafia in Kansas City and they were looking for the guys. Wanted to crack 'em. What could I say?" Glib and velvet-tongued, yet audacious, Stoneking swindled friends and strangers alike. He understood – and exploited – others' greed.
He introduced a wealthy, but gullible, used car dealer to an attractive woman. The dealer immediately fell in love. He was so smitten he gave her more than $100,000 in jewelry that Stoneking had sold him. He never knew that the jewelry was stolen or that Stoneking sold it again after the woman had returned it to him. The victim's ambition was to become a hoodlum and Stoneking sold him a membership in the Mafia for $10,000.
An Ominous Prediction
"Someday, Jesse, you're going to go straight."
Stoneking expanded his criminal empire to include a profitable stolen car and chop-shop operation. But time was running out on him. His partner was an FBI snitch. He was arrested on Sept. 16, 1981.
Stoneking pleaded guilty rather than risk exposing other members of the crew and was sentenced to three years . He might have been betrayed, but he would remain loyal. He was to begin his sentence shortly after Christmas. Berne's wife, Loretta, had a party for him. She was an avid practitioner of astrology and she had prepared a chart for him. Her prediction was astonishing. "Someday, Jesse, you're going to go straight." Stoneking laughed. "The day I'm a square-john is the day I'll die."Berne grumbled at her. "Stop that crap, Loretta!"
She had a prediction for her husband, also. "Arthur, someone close to you either has become an informant or will before very long." "You gone crazy?" Berne scolded. "Jesse's a good Outfit guy and there ain't nobody who's a snitch now or gonna be." Stoneking was sentenced to three years in prison. It was no big deal. "I could do that standing on my head," he said.
But it was hard time. Berne had promised to take care of his families,but he didn't. Stoneking's intense loyalty had been repaid with disloyalty. He always had taken care of his people. Once, when two of his crew were arrested, he had bribed a judge to get them off.
Stoneking became bitterer with each day. He had lost control of his life and betrayal surrounded him. He had been in prison only a month when he made an agonizing decision – he would go straight. He struck a deal with Tom Fox and Terry Bohnemeier, the FBI agents who had arrested him. In return for his freedom, he would work the streets for them. He would become a despicable snitch. It would haunt him for years. But how else could he have retribution and his freedom?
The agents were well aware of Stoneking's reputation on the streets and his ability to talk his way in and out of situations. It was why they gave him the code-name "Scorpion." If their assessment of him and his underworld talents was accurate, it could end in a massive sting.
The ensuing two years were harrowing, yet challenging, for Stoneking.He worked for the FBI with the same passion and ingenuity with which he had pursued his criminal enterprises. He merely had changed loyalties.
The realization that discovery of his dual role would mean instant deathwas his constant companion. More than once, the recorder he wore almost gave him away, but his mental agility saved him.
A Mafioso, ranting about informants such as Jimmy Fratianno, playfully grabbed Stoneking's shirt, clutching the recorder's microphones taped to his chest, but not realizing what he held. A labor racketeer who saw the outline of the recorder under Stoneking's stocking accepted the explanation that it was a leg weight. Once, he managed to stash the recorder minutes before a suspicious gangster searched his car. When Trupiano found an identification card an FBI agent accidentally had dropped in Stoneking's car, he convinced him that his car had been bugged and showed him a small tape recorder to prove it.
When Fox and Bohnemeier insisted that Stoneking be wired up while at another of Loretta Berne's parties, Stoneking resisted. His intuition, which had served him so well for years, said no. That night, she playfully lifted his shirt to examine a recent abdominal surgical scar. It was where the recorder would have been.
Stoneking's allegiance might have changed, but he still had to maintain his credibility in the Outfit. He helped plan extortions, robberies, burglaries, bombings and a kidnapping, but always had to devise ways to abort them at the last minute. He wouldn't be able to testify about them had he participated.
Enter A Little Girl
"Come on, honey, it's okay. I'm not going to hurt you."
But there came a time when Stoneking could not avoid complicity in a violent crime. He was torn between loyalty to a friend and loyalty to his mission. Stanley Kowalski, a fringe underworld figure who was suspected of being a bombmaker, gave Stoneking a contract. A drug dealer who pimped for his wife owed him a lot of money and refused to pay. Kowalski didn't want the man dead, just beaten badly with a few broken bones. He would pay Stoneking $3,000.
Stoneking didn't have much time to consider his dilemma. Kowalski, who had done him many favors, wanted it now. The intended victim was preparing to move out of the area. If he was caught, no one would come to his rescue, especially Fox and Bohnemeir. He would be persona non grata and they surely would end his undercover work, maybe even have him prosecuted.
Stoneking decided that to refuse Kowalski would be more perilous. He would do it, but he would accept no payment. "This guy, he was nothing but a low life, a shit-bum," Stoneking says. "You could of killed him and the world would be better off." Kowalski gave him the man's description and address, but not his name. Stoneking didn't want to know it.
Late that night, Stoneking and Stram went to the man's house trailer. He knocked on the door, telling the man his car's battery was dead and he needed to make a phone call. The man opened the door a crack and Stoneking shoved his way inside, knocking him to the floor. The wiry, almost bald, man cringed in fear, scooting across the floor to the far wall. He was high on drugs.
Saying nothing, Stoneking pulled the man up by his shirt. His fists were like jackhammers as they flattened his face into an unrecognizable mass of blood, flesh and bones. Stram handed him a baseball bat and Stoneking began methodically breaking the dealer's arms.
A scream pierced the room. Stoneking turned in its direction. A black-haired girl, not more than three years old, dressed in raggedy pajamas, stood in the doorway. Her hand covered her face. She ran to her father and stood between his limp body and Stoneking. Her face contorted and she could not hold back the tears.
"Oh, shit!" he said to Stram. He went to the girl, but she shrank from him. "Come on, honey, everything will be okay." His voice choked. "I'm not going to hurt you." He took her in his arms and held her to him. Her sobbing eased. He carried her to her bedroom and gently placed her on her bed. She held her hands to her ears.
He searched the trailer and found $3,000 hidden in a coffee canister and stuffed the bills into his pocked. Stoneking was silent as he drove off. Revulsion swept over him, disgust at himself and what he had done. Kowalski had not told him that the man had a daughter and he had not asked.
He stopped at a telephone booth and called police, telling them where to find the beaten man and his daughter. It was the least he could do. He never told the agents.
Stoneking pulled off a scam shortly before Christmas, 1983. He didn't make a cent from it, but it was one of his most gratifying. Berne had wanted to give his wife an expensive diamond ring and he asked Stoneking to find him one. He found a beautiful stone in a gold setting. He also gave Berne a five-carat diamond to hold in safe-keeping for him. It was hot, he explained, and later he would sell it, splitting the proceeds with him. Both were Cubic Zirconias. Berne was delighted. "Don't worry about it, Jesse. I won't touch it until you say so. It's safe with me. You sure it's good?"
Berne reacted predictably. He immediately gave the stone to Aiuppa in Chicago to fence. Aiuppa had it appraised. He apparently severely berated Berne "I was embarrassed, Jesse, " Berne said contritely. "I mean, taking Joey Aiuppa a phony diamond." Stoneking feigned anger. But it was one of the better days of his recent life.
The Dead Ducks
"We're snitches. We're both dead ducks."
By the summer of 1984, the rigors of two years of intense undercover work, of deceit, of danger, had taken its toll on Stoneking. He was weary and becoming irritable. He deeply resented himself for being a snitch. Worse, he had lost his independence and he could not be his own man. Decisions were being made for him. He had little control over his destiny and his life seemed without direction. His dependence on others for his very existence, indeed his life, gave him a deep feeling of inadequacy that fostered a preoccupation with disaster and death.
Once, while meeting Fox and Bohnemeier in a park, Stoneking stared silently at several ducks swimming listlessly in the pond. He turned to the agents, "See that one over there. That's Fratianno. That one there is me. We're snitches. We're both dead ducks."
The agents were concerned. Not only could their cases be in jeopardy, but carelessness and arrogance could be fatal. Fate could be tempted only so long. "Scorpion" had fulfilled all their expectations and more. They began planning his extrication and concealment in the Witness Protection Program.
Stoneking needed to bankroll his new life in the straight world. He had squandered the fortune he had made and the meager dole the FBI had given him barely sustained him.
He borrowed thousands of dollars from Trupiano and other gangsters who soon would be seeking to kill him. He broke into Berne's house, but he couldn't crack the safe containing his $200,000 retirement fund. Instead, he stole $10,000 worth of jewelry. Bramlet's safe yielded $5,000 and he kept $5,500 the bank robber had given him for a stolen car he never intended to deliver.
By the second week of October 1984, it was time to leave it all behind. He announced he was going on vacation to Florida for two weeks. His two families stayed at resorts not far from St. Louis, while he went to Boston to enter the Witness Protection Program.
The old Stoneking had disappeared and in his place was a different person. A new identity, including credit cards, a driver's license and other documentation, had been created for him. Theoretically, he would be impossible to find.
But the marshals couldn't change the man. The discipline and the rules designed for his own protection were far too stringent and confining. Again, he couldn't be his own man. Two weeks later he stalked out of the program and headed home.
Bitter disappointment awaited him. Carolee, his wife and childhood sweetheart, had disappeared into the Witness Protection Program. She wanted nothing to more do with him. She had become a Christian and had rejected his past and his lifestyle. He never saw her again.
By then, the real Jesse Stoneking of the past two years was becoming unmasked. His failure to return from vacation at first created suspicion, then alarm and finally panic. The underworld was in turmoil. Bramlet mailed an empty envelope to Stoneking's home. It was returned stamped, "No Forwarding Address." Agents found it in Bramlet's billfold when they eventually arrested him.
Within days, the federal grand jury that had been hearing testimony began returning indictments. Those considered the most dangerous were taken into custody first. There now was no doubt Stoneking had been a traitor of the worst kind. The mob's attack dogs were unleashed. Their incentive was the $100,000 reward, payable only upon Stoneking's death.
Stoneking's ordeals were far from over; he had yet to complete his servitude to the government. The demands seemed endless, the court trials an eternity. He was continually reminded of the contempt in which he was held. The icy stares from those who once had been his buddies. The not-so-veiled threats. The cocked thumb resembling a pistol. The withering cross-examination by defense attorneys seeking to break him and to discredit him.
In July 1986 it was over. The trials were behind him. He now could begin to rebuild what was left of his life. But that would be no less difficult than the last four years. The satisfaction of his accomplishments soon became hollow. No longer was he on center stage. No longer was he important. No longer did he belong. No one needed him. He was a nobody.
The Town Curiosity
"It was like a parade in front of my house, people driving by and gawking."
Stoneking chose to relocate in Paducah, Ky. Fox and Bohnemeier argued against it. It was too close to home. But he prevailed.
No meaningful work could be found. There were no jobs available requiring a hood's skills and talents. His past was a blank and potential employers could not check his background. His health began deteriorating and it was feared he had cancer. But he had no insurance and couldn't afford hospitalization and tests.
Fate still had to play its hand with Stoneking. In Paducah, he met two men from the East Side he had known. They weren't Outfit guys and he wasn't concerned. A week or so later, his daughter, terrified, ran into the house. Two men in a pick-up truck were parked across the street. One got out and peered through the kitchen window. Stoneking knew they weren't burglars.
Not long afterwards, an unidentified female called the FBI field office in Belleville, Ill.. She had overheard her husband and two other men saying they knew Stoneking was in Paducah and they were preparing to hit him.
Stoneking moved to a small town in southern Illinois, even closer to the East Side. It wasn't long before he was betrayed again. Only the agents and Stram, whom he trusted implicitly, knew where he was. When Stram was arrested in a nearby community he told police about his former partner. Police questioned Stoneking about recent crimes and showed him newspaper articles about his exploits. They told him there was no place in their town for a hoodlum.
Stoneking recalled, "It was like a parade in front of my house, people driving by and gawking. One day, I was supposed to be working for this guy.
Instead, he spent the whole day taking me around and introducing me to his friends, kind of showing me off." He learned that a close relative who knew Berne's brother had been trying to learn his whereabouts, apparently to collect the bounty.
Now, the man who had made millions of dollars was broke. He had no friends from whom to seek help. He sold many of his and his family's possessions just to pay bills and buy food. That was why the .45 automatic wasn't there when he needed it at his mother's house.
Destitution was more than Stoneking, the bully of the mob, the stone killer, could endure. New, alien emotions overcame him: self-pity, self-blame and total uselessness. He was a burden to his family and he was endangering them. He wept for the first time since he was a child.
There only was one answer. He drove to the East Side and met an FBI agent. He handed him an envelope, instructing him not to open it until that night. As he drove off, the agent read the note. Stoneking was going to kill himself.
He didn't. He had second thoughts. Instead, he decided he would sever any connection with his past. There was nothing there for him anymore.
Only bad memories and trouble. But first he wanted to see his mother for the last time. And then the hit almost came down as he left her house. Stoneking knew he would be running forever.
This article was condensed from more than 5,000 pages of FBI transcripts of recordings made by Stoneking and from 25 hours of taped interviews the author conducted with Stoneking in 1988.
The intensity of the search for Stoneking was clearly demonstrated to me early in 1988, more than three years after the $100,000 price tag had been placed on him.
At the time I was an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I was to get together with Stoneking on a Thursday afternoon in rural Illinois.
On Wednesday morning, I was told that a mob figure was overheard telling another that they were going to try to find Stoneking through me. The meeting with him was canceled immediately because it was feared both of us might be walking into a trap.
Two police intelligence detectives suggested that it be determined if I was being watched. That afternoon, they followed me as I drove about 35 miles west from my office in downtown St. Louis. They detected no surveillance of me. We assumed there was no crisis.
The next morning, the day Stoneking and I were to have met, my wife answered the telephone. The caller stated that the dishwasher would be delivered between 10 and 11 that morning. We had not ordered any appliances and a call to the store confirmed that no such delivery to anyone with my name at any address near me was scheduled.
It was common knowledge that our daughter and infant granddaughter lived with us and were in the house during the day. The detectives agreed that it might have been an attempt to kidnap them in an effort to learn Stoneking's location from me. We moved our daughter and granddaughter to a friend's house. The problem was that I did not know where Stoneking lived at the time and still don't.
Not long after Carolee abandoned him, Stoneking married Dorothy, his mistress for so many years. She was with him the night he almost was assassinated as he left his mother's house. The hit men would not have spared her life.
Under his new identifty, Stoneking worked at odd jobs, including as a security guard in a housing complex. Apparently, Dorothy could not escape the past and accept the abject poverty in which they existed. Several years ago, they separated and then divorced. He dabbled in undercover work for a while, but found that boring and unrewarding. No longer did he have the mentality for it.
Stoneking still uses his cover name and will for the rest of his life. He has a guaranteed full-time job that pays well. He doesn't need that much money; there are few obligations now and he has forsaken his craving for wealth.
Stoneking doesn't worry if his past catches up with him on some deserted street corner. He's found renewed confidence and strength in the religious faith he had as a child and in the Bible.
"I was the world's worst person," he said not long ago. "You know what I did. There wasn't any sin I didn't do. That's all behind me. I ain't that person anymore." Some of those he helped send to federal prison still are there. Others no longer pose a threat. Berne pleaded guilty of extortion and interstate travel in aid of racketeering. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Paroled in the spring of 1989, he died a broken man a few years later.
Bramlet was found guilty of bank robbery, weapons violations and conspiracy after a jury rejected his claim that he suffered from "organic brain damage."
He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was paroled, but was returned to prison after he threatened those who had testified against him. Kowalski pleaded guilty of interstate transportation of stolen furs. Because he was 70 years old, he was placed on five years' probation.
Trupiano was convicted of operating a handbook ring that Stoneking helped expose and was sentenced to four years in prison. He became the laughing stock of the underworld when it was disclosed that he was the only bookmaker around who lost money. In his greed, he had refused to lay off any of the $1million in bets a year his ring handled. He died on Oct. 22, 1997, aftersuffering a heart attack. He continued to deny he was a member of the Mafia despite documentation to the contrary.
Tony Giordano, Trupiano's uncle who was a nationally recognized don whose connections went back to Lucky Lucianno, died of cancer in 1980. Without his control and guidance, the St. Louis Mafia in St. Louis fell into chaos. Under the leadership of Trupiano, it became known as the "gang that couldn't shoot straight."
Stram has been in an out of trouble. His whereabouts are unknown. Stoneking doesn't want to know.
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 explanatio.
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.