Dennis Skosnik: A rough and tumble history in McKees Rocks
November 22, 2005 12:00 AM
Dennis Skosnik in 1989, when as mayor of McKees Rocks he was arrested on gambling charges.
By Torsten Ove / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The head of the Pittsburgh FBI office said yesterday that his agency took "no joy" in the indictment of a fellow law enforcement officer.
But some local police have booked a South Side bar tonight to celebrate the grand jury charges against Allegheny County Chief Deputy Dennis Skosnik, who was indicted Friday on 12 counts related to abuse of office.
Many current and former police officers and sheriff's deputies say that the chief, while jovial and likeable, has given law enforcement a black eye since his days as mayor of McKees Rocks, where he was charged with taking protection money to ignore illegal gambling.
Those charges were dismissed, but as he rose through the ranks of the sheriff's office, they say, he stocked the department with cronies, consorted with a notorious mob figure, fixed cases and bullied underlings into doing his bidding.
Although the federal grand jury focused on Chief Skosnik's activities in the sheriff's office, the FBI in recent years also has gathered background on his role in an old racketeering and murder investigation in McKees Rocks.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan confirmed yesterday that her office is "continuing to investigate allegations of ongoing as well as past criminal conduct."
Chief Skosnik, who is on medical leave after suffering a heart attack, did not respond to phone messages or a note left at his North Fayette home seeking comment. His lawyer until last week, Cynthia Eddy, also did not return repeated messages.
His new lawyer, George Bills, said yesterday that "everything you read [in the indictment] isn't true" but he didn't detail a defense. He claimed that federal authorities had tried to get Chief Skosnik to testify against others but that Chief Skosnik had refused.
A tradition of 'macing'
When he was McKees Rocks mayor and a county deputy sheriff in the 1980s, Chief Skosnik was charged with accepting bribes from bookmaker Robert Mancini. Mr. Mancini was informing for police against a competing operation run by Pittsburgh mob associate Adolph "Junior" Williams -- until someone put a bullet in his head in 1988.
"It was right out of old-time Chicago," said Ronald Panyko, a former McKees Rocks police chief whose own past contains allegations of police brutality.
In the end, the bribery case was dismissed and the murder never solved.
"I'm glad this is all behind me," Chief Skosnik said at the time as he vowed to run for office again. "It has been a very devastating part of my life. I just want to get back to my family. I've done nothing wrong."
The investigation cost Chief Skosnik the next mayoral election. But he advanced through the sheriff's office under former Sheriff Eugene Coon, where, sources say, he maintained a cozy relationship with Mr. Williams, a regular visitor to his office.
Sources say Chief Skosnik illegally squeezed deputies for campaign contributions and forced them to do personal favors.
In grand jury testimony, interviews with agents and testimony at the recent perjury trial of former sheriff's Capt. Frank Schiralli, witnesses paint a picture of Chief Skosnik as the intimidating leader of a cabal among the "white shirt" command staff of the sheriff's office. Yesterday's announcement of his indictment bolstered that image.
Roots in the Rocks
Chief Skosnik grew up in the Bottoms neighborhood of McKees Rocks, a tough-and-rumble Ohio River mill town long known for its illegal gambling parlors and casinos.
Everyone knew everyone else.
Chief Skosnik's neighbors were the Panyko twins, Ron and Don, who would later become his enemies on the police force. One of his childhood friends was Mr. Schiralli, who would later join him in the sheriff's office and in politics as president of McKees Rocks Council.
After high school, Chief Skosnik spent a couple of years in the Marines Corps before returning home and entering politics in the early 1970s. His father, owner of Red's Bar, was chairman of the local Democratic Party, and Chief Skosnik proved a quick study in the old-fashioned ward politics of the Rocks.
In 1977 he was hired as a deputy sheriff at a time when sheriff's jobs, like many other county positions then and now, were handed out to the politically connected.
In 1978, he was elected to the McKees Rocks Council and served for seven years before running for mayor in 1985.
That was an especially good year for Chief Skosnik. Sheriff Coon promoted him from deputy to sergeant and he won the mayor's office.
At 35, the loud, puffy-faced kid from the Bottoms was proud of his dual role and made sure that everyone knew it, especially when they spoke ill of his often-maligned hometown.
"I know this town, my roots are here and I love it," he said shortly after taking office in 1986. "The raps against it hurt because it hurts the people -- those beautiful salt-of-the-earth folks in the Bottoms, for instance."
A way of life
Illegal gambling was a way of life in McKees Rocks. Usually it was a peaceful pastime, kept behind closed doors, but sometimes it erupted into violence. Investigators believe three unsolved murders from that era are connected to gambling.
The first was in 1979, when street commissioner James Goodnight collapsed in the McKees Rocks municipal building after plowing the streets of snow. Someone had laced his whiskey bottle, which he always carried in his truck, with enough cyanide to kill 70 people.
In July 1987, retired McKees Rocks police officer Martin T. Fitzpatrick died after he was tied to the bumper of a vehicle and dragged several blocks.
The Mancini murder in October 1988 was the third, but it became the most notorious because Mr. Mancini had been wearing a body wire for the state police, who were looking into allegations of gambling and public corruption.
An undercover investigation and a subsequent grand jury presentment revealed two battling gangs of gamblers with two allied factions in the police department.
On one side was Mr. Williams, representing the organized crime family controlled by Michael Genovese of West Deer, which wanted to take over the lucrative McKees Rocks gambling scene.
On the other side was Mr. Mancini, a Democratic Party committeeman in Pittsburgh and manager of Mancini's Lounge with mob ties of his own. Mr. Mancini ran a numbers operation based on the Pennsylvania Lottery.
Mr. Mancini had placed bets with Mr. Williams, as well, but according to witness statements in investigative files, the two had a falling out when Mr. Williams won control of the 900 Club on Island Avenue.
They had a confrontation over the issue. According to investigative files, a witness said Mr. Mancini told Mr. Williams that the Rocks was his territory. Witnesses said Mr. Williams took that as a challenge and said he was taking over.Policing the factions
In the middle of this battle was Chief Skosnik and the police department he oversaw as mayor.
Police Chief Panyko, a close friend of Mr. Mancini, said Mr. Mancini complained to him in 1987 that the mob was moving in. The police chief told Mr. Mancini that he would try to help but that Mr. Mancini had to help him, too.
That's when Mr. Mancini became an informant.
Chief Skosnik later accused Chief Panyko of merely protecting his friend's gambling operation, but Chief Panyko said he wanted to clean up all the rackets in the Rocks and keep the mob out.
Chief Panyko and other sources say Chief Skosnik had initially tried to help Mr. Mancini expand his operation so he could collect more protection money.
But at some point during this feud, according to investigative files, Chief Skosnik gravitated to Mr. Williams and his brother, Eugene, because they could pay more than Mr. Mancini's $1,800 a month.
Mr. Mancini told friends he felt betrayed because he had paid so much in bribes to the mayor, witnesses told police.
Chief Skosnik spent a lot of time with Junior Williams. One witness said that the chief introduced Mr. Williams as "a close friend," according to investigative files.
It wasn't unusual for Mr. Williams to be seen visiting Chief Skosnik in the sheriff's department in those years; deputies were even known to stay at his Seven Springs chalet.
At the time, Chief Skosnik explained that he knew Mr. Williams and sometimes saw him at Red's Bar, but he denied socializing with him or even knowing Eugene Williams, who ran the 900 Club.
Mancini gets killed
The state police racketeering probe was in full swing when Mr. Mancini was found dead on Oct. 24, 1988, shot behind the right ear, slumped over his dining room table with betting slips scattered around him.
He had been watching the Pennsylvania Lottery on TV and had just received a call from a bookie saying he had hit big. Police placed the time of death at between 7 and 7:05 p.m., when he took that call and died with the phone in his hand.
The case proved to be full of surprises, starting with the fact that among Mr. Mancini's betting slips was one with the name of a high-ranking Allegheny County police official.
According to investigative files, Mr. Mancini told a witness that in the spring of 1988 the police official had a mobster drive Mr. Mancini to police headquarters where the official told him, "Junior Williams is the boss, keep your mouth shut and don't make any more waves."
This development led to a reshuffling of police brass overseeing the investigation -- explained at the time as "routine" -- amid concerns that the probe was being compromised from within.
"We didn't know who to trust," said Chief Panyko.
Chief Skosnik was among many subjects interviewed after Mancini killing, as was Mr. Schiralli, whom detectives noted seemed "extremely nervous" as he chain smoked and "broke out in hives" during questioning. Both had an alibi: They were at a council meeting the night of the murder.
On Nov. 7, 1988, Chief Skosnik signed his Miranda warning "D. Skosnik," according to investigative files, and denied any wrongdoing.
"I never took any illegal money from Bobby [Mancini] or anyone else," Chief Skosnik said. "I hope you get the guy."
On the night of the murder, it was later revealed, Chief Skosnik had two police officers watching the bookmaker. They broke off their surveillance at 6:50 p.m., just 10 to 15 minutes before Mr. Mancini was killed.
One of those officers told police that Chief Skosnik told him not to write a report of that evening's surveillance, according to investigative files.
A hard look at Skosnik
There were other reasons to focus on Chief Skosnik, according to witness statements to police.
One witness said that in the spring of 1988 she heard Mr. Mancini on the phone with Chief Skosnik.
"I don't have any more money, Denny, what do you want from me, you tapped me dry," she quoted Mr. Mancini saying. "What do you want from me, I bought you that house."
After the conversation, the witness said, Mr. Mancini slammed down the phone and said, "I can't believe that bastard threatened me."
Mr. Mancini had also told a witness that Chief Skosnik once frisked him to look for a body wire.
Eventually, though, police shifted attention to the suspected triggerman.
That distinction goes to another McKees Rocks native, described as a gangster wannabe who worshipped the Mafia to the point where he watched "The Godfather" movies obsessively, kept a picture of actor Al Pacino on his wall and wanted to be called "Sonny" after "Godfather" character Sonny Corleone.
Mr. Mancini couldn't get into Mr. Williams' 900 Club because he had a reputation for not paying off. But this man could. According to investigators, he placed bets with Mr. Williams for Mr. Mancini, but he didn't know that Mr. Mancini was wearing a wire.
When word got out that Mr. Mancini was an informant, police theorized, the suspect became enraged at having been used to inform on the very organization he wanted so badly to join.
Police had a witness, too.
On the night of the killing, a woman who lived across the street from Mr. Mancini's apartment building became angry when a man parked a distinctive-looking gray Ford pickup in her parking spot. She couldn't identify his face. But his stocky body-type matched the suspect's dimensions of 5-feet-5 and 230 pounds, and his truck matched the one police knew him to drive, complete with a stain on the hood and a broken headlight.
The witness also said she watched as Mr. Mancini let the man in. She said she watched through the window as the man shoved Mr. Mancini, but she didn't hear a shot.
Another neighbor heard a loud bang, but thought it might be someone dropping something on the floor.
The cases fall apart
Police knew the murder case wasn't iron-clad. But they felt they had a 50-50 chance of winning a conviction. Robert E. Colville, the district attorney at the time and a Common Pleas Court judge now, said it wasn't enough and promised to continue the investigation. But the man was never prosecuted and the case faded away.
The bribery investigation against Chief Skosnik also fell apart in 1989 after key grand jury witnesses changed their stories or refused to testify.
Mr. Mancini's sometime girlfriend, Karen Zamaris, told the county grand jury that she drove with him when he made cash deliveries to Chief Skosnik's house. A McKees Rocks constable and former treasurer of the Democratic Party committee, the late John Illinicki, also told police he carried protection money to Chief Skosnik.
Both later told different stories in court.
Police then found another witness -- a postman who said Chief Skosnik's mailbox was so stuffed with cash that he couldn't fit mail inside. But he was afraid to testify and never took the stand.
A judge dismissed the case.
The outcome frustrated investigators and outraged Rosemarie Mancini, Robert Mancini's mother.
She wouldn't comment when reached recently. But in 1989 she had plenty to say.
"Let Mr. Skosnik's conscience be his guide," she told the Post-Gazette. "I know what happened in court was a big joke. My son Robert knows it and Skosnik knows it. He knows what really happened, and I know what really happened."