Mon Valley gambling net snares high-profile catches
Forward Township's police chief, a McKeesport councilman, former McKeesport police officers, a member of the Clairton Municipal Authority's board of directors and a performer best known for his impersonation of Frank Sinatra are among 16 charged Thursday in connection with an alleged illegal gambling operation in the McKeesport area.
They were arraigned before Forest Hills Magisterial District Judge Thomas Caulfield and released on nonmonetary bond on condition that they be fingerprinted in Pittsburgh Municipal Court on Oct. 2.
Preliminary hearings are scheduled for Thursday.
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed the charges and accused Ronald “Porky” Melocchi Sr., owner of Glassport-based Back Alley Vending, of being the operation's leader.
“This was not a mom-and-pop operation,” Kane spokesman Joe Peters said. “You see the magnitude before you even begin to comprehend the impact on families and other areas. It snowballs into other crimes.”
Melocchi, 54, of West Newton is charged with two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing proceeds of illegal activity, one count of criminal use of a communication facility, one count of lotteries, one count of pool selling and bookmaking and two counts of conspiracy.
He is accused of installing, serving and maintaining gambling devices in bars, restaurants and other locations including the Viking Restaurant and Lounge and the former Coffee Pot in McKeesport, Twin Oaks Lounge in White Oak, and the Glassport Diner.
Investigators said Melocchi offered business owners a cut of the profits and an up-front payment of thousands of dollars.
Melocchi's attorney Bruce Carsia said following Thursday's arraignment that he has not had an opportunity to review all of the documents.
“As we all know, he's charged with corrupt organizations and gambling, and we'll see what happens when we go to court,” Carsia said.
The Attorney General's Organized Crime Section, in cooperation with state police, initiated a wiretap of Melocchi's cellphone in October 2012.
The investigation expanded to alleged illegal lotteries and sports betting, according to a press release.
Approximately 70 sealed state search warrants were executed at homes, businesses and banks associated with the alleged criminal operation on Dec. 10, 2012, in what was called Operation Pork Chop.
Authorities seized 354 video machines, many of which were made illegal by the presence of “knock-off” switches and internal meters. More than $1 million was seized.
Forward Township police Chief Mark Holtzman, 57, of McKeesport is charged with two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of gambling devices and one count of conspiracy.
Holtzman ran the Coffee Pot in August 2012. Machines were seized there on Dec. 11, 2012, pursuant to a search warrant.
A McKeesport Area school director, Holtzman retired as a McKeesport police sergeant on Feb. 1, 2011, having served the city for at least 20 years.
McKeesport Area spokesperson Kristen Giran said the district is not commenting on the case or Holtzman's status on the board.
Prosecutors noted Holtzman became Forward Township's police chief in January, after the investigation began. Deputy Attorney General Michael Ahwesh is handling the case.
Holtzman referred questions to his attorney, Charles LoPresti, who could not be reached for comment by presstime.
McKeesport Councilman Dan Carr, owner of the Viking Lounge, is charged with two counts of corrupt organization and two counts of gambling devices.
Carr, 55, appeared surprised upon arriving at the magistrate's office, and said he did not know why he was summoned to court. He declined to speak about the alleged machines subsequent to his arraignment.
“Obviously, I have to get a lawyer,” Carr said.
Court documents indicate a search warrant was executed on Nov. 1, 2012, at the Viking and eight video machines were seized. It was raided again on Dec. 11, 2012, when workers from Back Alley Vending were observed removing machines from other businesses to replace the ones law enforcement had confiscated.
Former McKeesport police Lt. Arthur Pero was working for the department during the time of the investigation. He retired on July 20, having served for at least 20 years.
Pero, 56, of McKeesport is charged with two counts of lotteries. He is accused of accepting lottery bets on two occasions in the Coffee Pot.
Ronald D. Prest, 65, of White Oak is a retired McKeesport police sergeant who left the force on April 17, 1990.
Prest, commonly known as “Eek,” is charged with two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of criminal use of a communication facility, one count of gambling devices and one count of conspiracy. Prest is identified in the criminal complaint as one of several people who checked meters on the machines and collected.
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said his administration “cooperated fully will all inquiries and requests for information and will continue to do so.”
“No one has provided me with any information that would indicate the city of McKeesport has any involvement in this matter whatsoever,” Cherepko said. “I am deeply saddened with the revelations that former city employees and a current business owner, who also serves as a part-time city councilman, are apparently involved in this matter, but I have the utmost confidence in our judicial system and the investigating agencies involved.”
James Cerqua, 57, of Clairton serves on the city's municipal authority board. He is charged with two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of gambling devices and one count of pool selling and bookmaking.
According to the criminal complaint, Cerqua assisted Back Alley Vending with locating new “stops,” or locations for machines and gambling activity. He is accused of placing sports bets.
Singer Robert Bogesdorfer, 67, of Irwin is more commonly known as Bo Wagner. He performs in McKeesport and surrounding areas with his “Rat Pack.”
Bogesdorfer was named as one of the collectors, and is charged with two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of gambling devices and one count of conspiracy.
Twin Oaks owner Mark Novakovich, 55, of White Oak is charged with one count of gambling devices.
“I feel like I'm a small minnow in a large pond,” Novakovich said. “We're in a business just trying to make a dollar. We're not trying to get rich. Ask any bar owner. They'll tell you. That's what it is.”
He would not comment on how much money the machines in his business generated. He testified before the grand jury.
Others charged are:
• Timothy John Minkus, 31, of West Mifflin — two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of gambling devices, one count of lotteries and one count of conspiracy.
• Frank C. Reese, 61, of McKeesport — two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of gambling devices and one count of conspiracy.
• Rodney Elia Iannelli, 53, of Ohio Township — two counts of corrupt organization, one count of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, one count of lotteries and one count of conspiracy.
• Catherine Gouker, 55, of Belle Vernon — one count each of gambling devices, pool selling and bookmaking.
• Jeffrey F. Risha, 59, of Belle Vernon — one count each of pool selling and bookmaking.
• Terence P. McNelis, 52, of Whitehall — one count each of corrupt organization, dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, lotteries, pool selling and bookmaking and conspiracy.
• Kirk A. Mollica, 46, of Elizabeth — two counts each of corrupt organization and conspiracy, and one count each of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, lotteries and gambling devices.
• Eugene “Red” Kowalski, 65, of North Huntingdon Township — two counts of corrupt organization, and one count each of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, gambling devices and conspiracy.
Trib Total Media staff writer Jason Cato contributed to this story. Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1965, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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