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9 suspects in southwestern Pa. gambling ring waive hearings, head to trial

Paul Peirce
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Paul Peirce | Tribune-Review
Rodney Elia Iannelli, 58, (left), and John James Harkins, 70, both of Pittsburgh, arrive for arraignment on gambling and corrupt organization charges in North Huntingdon on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

Nine alleged bookmakers in an illegal multi-county sports gambling ring in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday waived preliminary hearings before North Huntingdon District Judge Wayne Gongaware on charges of conducting illegal sports betting and numbers lotteries.

Robert “Bobby I.” Iannelli, 88, of Wexford, and his son, Rodney “Rusty” Iannelli, 58, of Pittsburgh, will also face charges in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court of operating a gambling operation that prosecutors allege brought in “tens of thousands of dollars a week” since 2015.

Attorney Duke George of New Kensington, representing the elder Iannelli, said it is not surprising none of the defendants opted for a hearing.

“With recent state Supreme Court rulings regarding preliminary hearings, the attorney general would simply have to put one of its own investigators on the stand who could testify somebody told me this, this and this, and it would be sufficient at this level to prove a prima facie case … it would be an exercise in futility for the defendants,” George said.

“But when this case does go to trial, the state attorney’s office will have to present those witnesses in person, and we will have an opportunity to cross examine them,” George said.

On Feb. 14, the Iannellis — along with 11 other people — were arraigned before Gongaware after a statewide grand jury recommended charges related to illegal sportsbetting and number games.

All of those accused are free on recognizance bond pending trial and were ordered to appear May 1 before Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio in Greensburg for arraignment.

Waiving hearings Tuesday included the Iannellis; James Roger Martorella, 69, and John James Harkins, 70, both of Pittsburgh; Harry Ronald Stetson, 71, of Sharpsburg; Kathryn Venturini, 72, of North Huntingdon; Kathryn Ayers, 43, of East Pittsburgh; Floyd A. Panella, 67, of Beaver, and Arden Arden Keith Metcalfe, 62, of Monongahela.

Others charged include Victor Marchitello, 70, of Harrison City and Frank Joseph Pasquino, 74, of Irwin; Vincent M. Rapneth, 61, of Verona, and Levi Wilson Helsel, 26, of Pittsburgh.

Robert Iannelli was identified as an associate of Pittsburgh’s former LaRocca-Genovese La Cosa Nostra organization in a 1990 Pennsylvania Crime Commission report.

Newspaper archives show he was fined $100 in November 1959 after a Pittsburgh police racket squad found him and a brother with 21,000 football pool sheets. He was arrested several more times in the decades after, including a police takedown in the 1970s of an enormous sports betting ring operating out of his former Ross Township home.

In his autobiography, “Where the Evidence Leads,” former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said the first successful wiretaps used in western Pennsylvania took down Iannelli’s $15 million operation and led to the first prosecutions under the Organized Crime Control Act the following year.

Iannelli was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, according to news accounts. His refusal to testify before a federal grand jury in the 1970s about his associates got him 18 more months.

He was indicted in the mid-1970s and later sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted on gambling counts. After a quiet decade in the 1980s, Iannelli made headlines again in 1990 when he was arrested as the kingpin of a multi-county organized crime operation.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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