The St. Louis Family
Jimmy Michaels' career began in the 1920s when he was known as "Horseshoe Jimmy," and was a member of the Cuckoos Gang. At 19, he was arrested for robbing the Illinois Central freight depot in East St. Louis. He skipped bond, but was recaptured a year later. He was convicted of the robbery and sentenced from 10 years to life in prison in 1929. Michaels was released briefly while the U. S. Supreme Court reviewed his conviction. While out, he was arrested as a suspect in several gangland killings. Michaels served a total of 13 years for the robbery and was paroled in 1944. He quickly got involved in gambling, and in 1959 was arrested for operating an after hours joint on Hampton Avenue.
Michaels obtained a Missouri insurance broker's license in 1959, but under a new state law introduced in 1962, it was revoked because of his felony conviction. In December 1963, Michaels, Giordano and Kansas City mobster Max Jaben were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct in a hotel room where they were registered under the name of Mrs. Frank Wortman. The charges were dismissed. When Frank Wortman went to prison on tax evasion charges in 1962, authorities believed Michaels was being groomed to take over for him. In the mid-1970s, Michaels was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, but the charges were dismissed.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a bloody struggle going on for control of Laborer's Local 42 in St. Louis. The fighting had begun almost two decades earlier. Around 1965, a "hoodlum element" led by Louis D. Shoulders, Jr., George "Stormy" Harvill, and William "Shotgun" Sanders, took control of the local. Leadership was officially in the hands of Thomas "T. J." Harvill, due to the criminal records of the others. In 1966, "Stormy" Harvill was gunned down, and in 1972 Shoulders was killed in a car bombing. When Thomas Harvill died of natural causes in 1979, ex-Cuckoos member Jimmy Michaels backed John Paul Spica for the leadership position. Spica was described as a contract killer who was released from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1973, after serving 10 years of a life sentence for the first-degree murder of a local real estate agent. This move brought him into opposition led by Raymond H. Flynn.
Flynn contacted Chicago mobster Joseph Aiuppa and asked for permission to challenge Michaels' move. Flynn was told that the St. Louis family would not interfere with Flynn's actions as long as Michaels was not harmed, due to his long-standing friendship with Giordano. In November 1979, Spica was murdered by a car bomb outside his home in Richmond Heights, Missouri. After this killing, Michaels met with Giordano to appeal for help against Flynn. Giordano was rebuffed by Aiuppa and told not to interfere in the power struggle. However, he could assure Michaels that no harm would come to him.
Flynn moved against Michaels again by approaching Anthony and Paul Leisure, members of Michaels' Syrian faction, and luring them away with high salaried jobs within the union. The greedy double-cross enraged Michaels who had supported the Leisures for years and gave Anthony an officer's position in Local 110. When Giordano died from cancer in August 1980, Aiuppa informed Flynn that any arrangement that Giordano had to protect his friend Michaels was "cancelled out" by his death.
Just 19 days after Giordano's death, David R. Leisure crawled under Michaels' black Chrysler Cordoba, which was parked outside St. Raymond's Maronite Church, and planted a remote-controlled bomb under the driver's seat. Michaels left the church driving on Interstate 55 in South St. Louis County near the Reavis Barracks Road exit when Anthony Leisure detonated the bomb. The automobile bounced three feet in the air. The force of the explosion tore Michaels' legs to pieces and part of his body was hurled against a passing car.
With the death of Giordano, government sources indicated that John J. Vitale was acting boss of the St. Louis family. Vitale's status was never really clear over the years. He was reputed to be the family's consigliere. However in 1967, the U.S. Justice Department identified him as "representing the national cartel in St. Louis." Little is known of Vitale's early years. In the 1940s he served two years in prison for a narcotics violation. Over the years he had been called to testify before several congressional committees, including one into alleged ties between professional boxing and the St. Louis family.
Vitale had been a suspect in several killings, including the 1968 murder of Thomas Rodgers, owner of a mortuary supply company. In addition, he had close ties to the Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and may have had connections to the Tropicana along with members of the Kansas City mob. In October 1980, Vitale was stopped and searched by FBI agents at St. Louis' Lambert Field airport. Agents seized $36,000 in cash hidden on Vitale.
After the death of Giordano and the subsequent murder of Michaels, Vitale tried to keep peace between the warring factions. Vitale, sometimes called the "gentleman gangster" was unsuccessful. In 1981, Vitale became an informant for the FBI and fed information to them on the war going on between the Michaels' gang and the Leisures. At the age of 73, Vitale was becoming frail to the point that he needed two canes to walk. On June 5, 1982, he died from heart disease at Faith Hospital in Creve Coeur, Missouri.
One of the hoodlums that Vitale tried to set up for the FBI was Jesse Stoneking a lieutenant of Arthur Berne, the East St. Louis rackets boss who had replaced Buster Wortman. Stoneking, an ex-choirboy, had made a name for himself in the mob after being taken under the wing of Berne. Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ronald J. Lawrence describes Stoneking as follows:
"Stoneking's reputation for violence was partly the result of the man himself. His presence, alone, was menacing. Built more like a bull than a man, he could talk, fight or shoot his way out of a jam. His stentorian (loud) voice demanded attention and obedience. His eyes could be as piercing as laser beams, as innocent as a baby's, depending on what he wanted to convey. His words could beat a man into submission or relieve him of his wealth.
"The other part of his reputation was built on his deeds."
Stoneking was a hitman with a conscience. On October 22, 1979, he murdered a man who had raped a girlfriend of his mentor Berne. In December 1979, he killed two men who had tried to set him up for a hit. However, when Joe Cammarata found a bomb in his pickup truck and ordered a hit on the man he suspected Tommy Callanan, a union business agent whose legs had been lost to a car bomb in 1973 Stoneking refused to carry it out because Callanan was confined to a wheelchair.
Stoneking's rise to the top and eventual possible leadership of the East Side rackets, then under Berne, went into a tailspin after the death of Jimmy Michaels. First, Vitale tried to set him up for the FBI by offering Stoneking $5,000 to get a bomb. Then on September 16, 1981, FBI agents arrested him for his involvement in an interstate stolen car ring and chop shop operation. Before he went to prison, he attended a party at Berne's home. Berne's wife, who dabbled in astrology, told Stoneking that one day he was "going to go straight."
"Go straight" in the mob usually means going straight to the authorities, which Stoneking did. While having time to reflect on his life in prison and seeing that his family, or families he had two, a wife with three children and a girlfriend with three more were not being taken care of, Stoneking flipped. His undercover informant role for the FBI over the next two years would result in the imprisonment of 30 members of organized crime including Berne and Matthew Trupiano.