A Shot in the Dark: The Death of Jesse Stoneking

Profile of St. Louis organized crime figure and FBI informant Jesse Stoneking
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  A Shot in the Dark Questions linger in the death of mafiaassociate and former federal informant  Jesse Stoneking, who allegedlycommitted suicide in Surprise, Ariz. in January 2003. By C.D. Stelzer The end came in the desert with a singlegunshot. Not a solidarity death, asimplied by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ,but one well attended. A death witnessedand documented, leaving little room forspeculation. A simple suicide or so itwould seem.On Sunday Jan. 19, 2003, at 9:45 p.m.Mountain Standard Time, a manidentified as Jesse Lee McBride shothimself with a .38-caliber revolver,while seated behind the wheel of a blue1995 Ford Crown Victoria on theoutskirts of Surprise, Ariz., according tolocal police reports. The victim diedapproximately an hour later at a nearbyhospital. Law enforcement authoritiesclosed the case, after a routineinvestigation. Though the Arizona pressignored the incident, the news media inSt. Louis later reported the true identityof the man as Jesse Eugene Stoneking, a56-year old mobster, who gained famehere as a federal informant in the 1980s.During his long criminal career,Stoneking put together a resume that ranthe gamut from extortion to murder. Bythe late 1970s, he had become the toplieutenant of Eastside rackets boss ArtBerne, who took his orders directly fromthe Chicago Outfit.But after being nabbed as the leader of an interstate car theft ring in 1981,Stoneking rolled over and became a FBIinformant. His undercover work for thebureau ultimately led to federalindictments and a string of convictionsof St. Louis area organized crimefigures, including his boss. The mafiareportedly put a $100,000 bounty on hishead. Stoneking spent most of the nexttwo decades running from his past.Despite Stoneking’s reputation and theFBI’s expressed interest in his death,municipal and county officials inArizona, who had jurisdiction over thecase, chose not to expand the inquiry.Their suicide ruling is based primarilyon two eyewitness accounts, includingone by a Maricopa County deputy. Forthis reason among others, the Surprisepolice deemed Stoneking’s death anopen-and-shut case. But however certainthe cause of death may be, questionspersist. In death, as in life, the truthabout Jesse Stoneking remains elusive.  Accounts vary. Discrepancies abound.Conclusions contradict. In this case,even the name of the victim is listedwrong on the medical examiner’s report.As a result, public understanding of theunder-reported case has been limited bya combination of standard policeprocedures and the media’s failure toprovide accurate, independent, follow-upcoverage of breaking news. The men who were not there The Post-Dispatch story on Stoneking’sdeath ran on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2003, sixdays after his suicide. Relying on aSurprise police spokesman’s account of the incident, staff writer Paul Hampelreported that Stoneking had shot himself in his car “in a desolate area on the edgeof town.” Among the sparse detailsincluded in the story was that the formermobster operated an automobilerepossession business and “lived alone”in Wickenburg, Ariz.Hampel’s story sketched a solitarysuicide on a lonely stretch of road at aremote location in the desert. But mapsof the area show a different picture. Thecrime took place in sprawling MaricopaCounty, near the intersection of twowell-traveled roads, which borderedresidential developments and golf courses on three sides.  Loop 303 and Bell Road, Surprise, Ariz. More importantly, the police andmedical examiner’s reports on thesuicide show that Stoneking’s last actwasn’t carried out alone, but in thecompany of a longtime associate and alaw enforcement official. Moreover, thecar that Stoneking drove that night wasregistered in the name of his friend, aswas the weapon that he allegedly used tokill himself.The official police version of Stoneking’s death raises questions aboutthe immediate actions taken by lawenforcement officers, the methods usedin the initial investigation andconclusions drawn afterwards.The following account is based on thereports of the first officers who arrivedon the scene and a police interrogationof Stoneking’s friend.At 9:05 p.m., the Maricopa CountySheriff’s Office dispatched Deputy J.Sprong to Loop 303 and Bell Roadbecause of a report that there were largerocks in the roadway.  Sprong reported that on his arrival hesaw a Ford Crown Victoria driven byStoneking on the side of the highwaywith its emergency flashers on. Thedeputy also reported that two othervehicles, a late model Toyota SUV and atow truck, were parked 300 yards furtherdown the road. The tow truck driveradvised the deputy that the SUV and thevehicle driven by Stoneking had flat tiresfrom hitting rocks on the highway. TheSUV driver gave the same story,according to the report, promptingSprong to double back and remove theroad hazards.On his return, the SUV and the tow truck(identified as a flat-bed type in otherpolice reports) had departed. Sprongthen pulled behind the Ford to askwhether the driver needed assistance. Atthat point, the passenger, identified asMichael Laurella, got out of the car andwalked back to the police vehicle.“I then heard a single gunshot frominside of the vehicle,” Sprong wrote.Sprong says he then shined a flashlightthrough the back window and saw bloodcoming from the right side of thedriver’s head. As he ordered Laurella tocontinue walking towards him, Surprisepolice officer R. Peck arrived on thescene. Sprong also reported that a thirdlaw enforcement officer from theArizona Department of Public Safetyalso arrived at the scene about that time.The state officer, according to Sprong,watched Laurella as he and Peckapproached the Ford from oppositesides.“I approached the vehicle on thepassenger side as the other Officer(Peck) was on the Driver’s side,”reported Sprong. “We noticed a blackrevolver pistol next to Jesse’s right legon the seat. His right hand was on top of the gun. I noticed that Jesse was stillbreathing but did not respond to mycommands. I then reached inside thevehicle and took the gun and secured itin my vehicle.”Peck’s report of the incident is mostlythe same as Sprong’s with exception of arather subtle but possibly significantomission. He doesn’t mention the arrivalof the Public Safety officer at the scene.In Peck’s account, he searches Laurella,Sprong then directs the passenger tostand behind the police vehicle, as Peckpresumably returns to his squad car torequest another officer.According to Peck:“I checked Michael Laurella forweapons and Deputy Sprong then hadhim step to the rear of his patrol car. Ithen requested another officer fromdispatch. Deputy Sprong and I thenchecked on the driver with deputy  Sprong advancing on the passenger sideand myself on the driver side.”The fact that Peck didn’t mention thearrival of the third officer in his reportcould be explained as a simple oversight.It is clear from Sprong’s version of events that he had requested additionalback up.His account indicates that three lawenforcement officers from different jurisdictions were on the scene onlymoments after the suicide occurred. Butoddly, in his report, Sprong doesn’tidentify either of the other officers byname. He does, however, repeatedlyrefer to the victim as “Jesse; ” and thewitness, Laurella, as “Michael,” whichin retrospect seems somewhat informalfor a police report.Sgt. P.H. Riherd of the Surprise PoliceDepartment arrived next and advisedSprong that the shooting took placewithin the town’s jurisdiction. Sprongreported that he then turned the pistolover to her. Riherd also ordered Peck toclose the road to traffic and set upwarning flares. (Later, Peck was directedby another officer to drive Laurellahome.) In the interim, emergencymedical technicians arrived at the sceneand Stoneking was taken by helicopter toa hospital in Phoenix, where he died.By the time J.C. Vance, the investigatingdetective, arrived on the scene, an hourafter the shooting, the body and theweapon had both been removed from thevehicle. Moreover, the first respondingofficers had been relieved of their dutiesby others, including Sgt. Riherd andofficer G. L. Welch.Vance reported that he received a call at10:15 p.m. from Sgt. D. Cuker, who wasat the scene, asking him to respond to a“possible homicide or suicide.”When Vance arrived, at 10:45, Welch’spatrol car was parked directly behind theFord Crown Victoria and the weaponthat Stoneking allegedly used to killhimself was on the trunk of the Ford.Laurella was seated in the back of Welch’s patrol car. Botched From these official accounts, theinvestigation appears to have beencompromised from the outset. In thehour that it took the detective to arrive,the chain of custody on the weapon hadchanged two or three times. Two of thethree witnesses, both law enforcementofficers, had left the scene. And the bodyhad been removed.There are other discrepancies.When Vance interrogated Laurella at thescene, Stoneking’s friend told thedetective that two other vehicles hadpulled over to side of the road with flattires, not one as Sprong reported.According to Laurella’s account, theother cars were parked in front andbehind his car. Laurella indicated thatthe tow truck driver fixed both of thosevehicles' flat tires. Instead of also askingfor assistance, however, Laurella saysthat Stoneking said that he preferred theyfix their flat themselves.By the time deputy Sprong returned tothe scene after clearing the rocks fromthe road, both of the other vehicles andthe tow truck had departed, Laurellasaid. During the meantime, nothing in
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