State agents hit the jackpot Thursday, snaring a McKeesport councilman, the Forward police chief and a Frank Sinatra impersonator while dismantling what was described as a large-scale gambling ring operating in the Mon Valley.
During the course of the investigation, which began in summer 2012, agents seized $1.1 million from homes, businesses and banks.
In all, 16 people with nicknames that included Porky, Eeky, Bo, Red and Frog were arraigned by District Judge Thomas P. Caulfield in Forest Hills on a range of gambling charges.
McKeesport Councilman Daniel K. Carr, charged with two felony counts of corrupt organization and other offenses, said after his arraignment that he was "blindsided" and declined further comment.
McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko said he was "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."
Mr. Cherepko said his administration has cooperated with authorities after a Dec. 11 raid by state agents, who confiscated 335 video gambling machines from roughly 70 locations, including bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, coffee shops, private clubs and convenience stores.
"I must, however, make it very clear that no one has provided me with any information that would indicate the City of McKeesport has any involvement in this matter whatsoever," Mr. Cherepko said.
Dubbed Operation Pork Chop after the alleged ringleader -- 5-foot-9, 250-pound Ronald "Porky" Melocchi of West Newton -- the investigation revealed that Mr. Melocchi controlled a gambling, lottery and bookmaking operation through his Glassport-based business, Back Alley Vending, according to a grand jury presentment.
Mr. Melocchi is charged with 57 offenses and is described in the presentment as being "known to law enforcement as a vendor of illegal vending machines."
Mr. Melocchi's attorney, Bruce Carsia, said he had not had time to read the complaint.
"I don't believe that Mr. Melocchi was running any kind of corrupt organization," Mr. Carsia said. "At the same time, I'm not saying he wasn't involved in gambling or poker machines."
Other prominent defendants are Mr. Carr, who owns the Viking Lounge in McKeesport; Mark Holtzman, Forward's police chief, who also is a member of the McKeesport Area school board; and Arthur Pero, a former McKeesport police lieutenant.
State troopers seized video gambling machines at the Viking Lounge in November, the presentment said. A wiretap revealed Mr. Carr and Mr. Melocchi talking about replacing the machines.
"Dan Carr was frequently intercepted speaking with Ronald Melocchi about the plans for acquiring new stops, determining who may have been providing information to the Liquor Control Board, which resulted in the seizure of illegal machines and other aspects of Melocchi's business," the presentment said.
Also charged were a group of Mr. Melocchi's friends, Eugene "Red" Kowalski; Ronald "Eeky" Prest, a former McKeesport policeman; and Robert Bogesdorfer, who performs Frank Sinatra songs under the stage name "Bo Wagner."
According to the presentment, those friends, along with Kirk Mollica and Frank Reese, collected money for Mr. Melocchi from various establishments that contained Back Alley Vending machines.
Other defendants included owners of businesses that had Back Alley Vending machines and people accused of helping Mr. Melocchi in his day-to-day operations.
Mr. Holtzman, who is a former deputy chief in McKeesport, ran the Coffee Pot, which was controlled by Mr. Melocchi and contained gambling machines, according to the grand jury.
Mr. Pero accepted bets from an undercover state trooper inside the Coffee Pot, the presentment said.
Observers in the Mon Valley believe authorities might be interested in issues concerning the intersection of gambling and political influence.
Defendant Mark Novakovich, owner of the Twin Oaks Lounge in White Oak, told the Post-Gazette in July that four video poker machines were taken from his business by state police and agents from the attorney general's office.
He said that during his appearance before the grand jury he was asked about "video gambling, video poker," but he refused to answer questions.
Asked whether he was grilled about politics or campaign contributions, Mr. Novakovich said no, but then added, "We all know that's where this is heading."
Mr. Melocchi's machines could be found in Allegheny, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, the presentment said.
Operating out of a location in an alley behind a Glassport coffee shop, Mr. Melocchi placed the devices in various businesses and allegedly struck deals with the owners to split gambling proceeds.
Video gambling machines are illegal if patrons pay to play, use more chance than skill to win, and are paid off.
Business owners told the grand jury that they earned between $75 and $1,000 a week from the devices.
Mr. Melocchi's federal tax returns showed gross receipts from Back Alley Vending of more than $300,000 a year for the past three years. Some revenue, the grand jury said, was from legal machines such as pool tables and jukeboxes.
But on an intercepted phone call Mr. Melocchi was heard to say that Back Alley Vending "couldn't make it financially with just the legitimate machines," the presentment said.
The scope of the investigation was laid out in a detailed grand jury presentment. The grand jury finished its work July 31, but the presentment was not made public until Thursday.
Mr. Melocchi is known for his Mama Pepino's pizza shop, vending machine business and charitable work. He formed West Newton Community Benefit Organization Inc. in 2010 to raise money for Fourth of July fireworks in the borough.
Jonathan D. Silver: email@example.com or 412-263-1962. First Published September 5, 2013 1:15 PM