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4 more gambling ring suspects waive charges

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 4:43 a.m.
MARK HOLTZMAN SR.
JAMES CERQUA
RODNEY IANNELLI
TERENCE McNELIS

Forward Township police Chief Mark Holtzman and three others charged for their alleged involvement in an illegal Mon Valley gambling operation waived their cases to court Thursday morning.

Holtzman, 57, of McKeesport is charged with gambling devices, conspiracy and two counts of corrupt organization.

Holtzman was accompanied by his attorney Chuck LoPresti at preliminary hearing before Forest Hills Magisterial District Judge Thomas Caulfield.

Charges against Holtzman stem from an investigation by the Attorney General's Organized Crime Section and state police, centered around alleged ring leader Ronald “Porky” Melocchi Sr., owner of Glassport-based Back Alley Vending.

“I can't get into discussions that I'm having with my client,” LoPresti said. “I can tell you procedurally today what we did was waive the case, in its entirety with no amendments, into court.

“We intend to continue to have discussions with the Attorney General's office. We respect what they've done so far. Hopefully we'll be able to make something very positive happen here as a result of all the negativity that's occurring. That's my goal here. It's no secret. We're just trying to save a guy's life and a guy's job.”

The investigation centered around Melocchi, 54, of West Newton, from October 2012 through Dec. 10, 2012, in what was called Operation Pork Chop.

Melocchi is accused of installing, servicing and maintaining gambling devices in bars, restaurants and other locations. 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.

Melocchi 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.

Melocchi is McKeesport's recreation board chairman. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Nov. 21.

Holtzman, a McKeesport Area school director, is Forward Township's police chief. He retired as a McKeesport police sergeant on Feb. 1, 2011, having served the city for at least 20 years.

“I give the Forward Township (supervisors) all the credit in the world,” LoPresti said. “As we all know, and this is very crucial, just because an allegation is made, there's a presumption constitutionally that someone is not guilty — in fact, is innocent until they're proven guilty — and we are so far away from that.

“I give those (Forward officials)a lot of credit in allowing him to continue on with his job. All of his officers respect him. Everyone in Forward Township is behind him. I think that's just a credit to the kind of man that he is.”

According to the criminal complaint, Holtzman operated the Coffee Pot in McKeesport starting in August 2012.

Machines were seized there on Dec. 11, 2012, during a warrant search.

Court records indicated that the Coffee Pot had seven machines in the back which were used for gambling, and was a location for illegal lotteries.

LoPresti declined to comment on how Holtzman became involved in the Coffee Pot, citing attorney/client privilege.

Clairton Municipal Authority board member James Cerqua, 57, of Clairton, waived charges of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, gambling devices, pool selling and bookmaking and two counts of corrupt organization.

According to the criminal complaint, Cerqua assisted Back Alley Vending with finding new locations for machines and gambling activity. He is accused of placing sports bets.

LoPresti, who represents Cerqua, said his client is well-known in the community.

“He has been involved in tons of charitable things and police-supported things,” LoPresti said. “In his travels, he came across some of these people as a result of their generosity, the ones that are involved in (the gambling ring), in donating to various causes. I think that was the genesis of how he became involved in some of that. I can't really go into any of the factual basis behind this thing. I can say that, in the grand scheme of things, Jim has to be on the outer realm of collateral involvement.”

Rodney Elia Iannelli, 53, of Ohio Township, waived charges of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, lotteries, conspiracy and two counts of corrupt organization.

Terence P. McNelis, 52, of Whitehall, waived charges of corrupt organization, dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, lotteries, pool selling and bookmaking and conspiracy.

A preliminary hearing for Twin Oaks owner Mark Novakovich was postponed to Nov. 21 at 9 a.m. at the defense's request.

Novakovich, 55, of White Oak is charged with gambling devices.

Formal arraignment for those who waived charges on Thursday is Nov. 21 at 11 a.m. at Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Three others of the 16 indicted waived their cases to court last month and will have preliminary hearings on Nov. 21.

Timothy Minkus, 31, of West Mifflin is charged with dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, lotteries, gambling devices, conspiracy and corrupt organizations.

Arthur Pero, 56, of McKeesport is charged with two counts of lotteries.

Eugene “Red” Kowalski, 65, of North Huntingdon Township is charged with dealing in proceeds of illegal gambling activity, corrupt organization, gambling devices and conspiracy.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or mdivittorio@tribweb.com.

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