“Rusty” is in federal prison, and the 46-year-old may be in the box for a minimum of two more decades after he was found guilty in 2012 of serving as the ringleader of a prescription pill distribution gang. Officially, he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute Oxycodone and Cocaine, Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments, and Contempt of Court. He’s in a federal prison in New Jersey, his prisoner number is 54483018, and he is counted several times a day.
But his criminal activity in Wheeling far surpasses his convictions.
He and I have been communicating for the past few weeks after this series of stories attracted his attention. Our correspondence thus far has involved email messages from my personal Yahoo and his Corrlinks system. He wishes to be referred to by his nickname, “Rusty,” although he realizes anyone who knows anything will know exactly who he is. The real reason is that he says, “The feds Google our names, they tell me, and I don’t want any of this shit out there right now. That could cause me some problems.”
But as far as your knowing, he claims he doesn’t care. If you figure out his identity and have a problem with what he reveals, go ahead and try to get to him, he says. Most of the people who were involved are now dead anyway, hethinks. If they aren’t dead now, they will be when Rusty is scheduled for release in 2034.
You see, after Rusty was indicted and apprehended, he was placed on house confinement, but then he realized his fate and took off. His fugitive status ended with a nationwide manhunt and a high-speed chase in Oklahoma.
“I wish I knew what I know now; that’s for sure,” he said. “I wish I knew that it would have cost me an extra four years and four months on my sentence. But I was in a haze mentally, and at that time I didn’t think I was going to live much longer anyway. So I was going to head to Mexico.
“So, like a dummy, I left my family, and I took off. It was a Friday, and I was supposed to go into downtown Wheeling to meet my attorney. Instead, I took off,” Rusty explained. “I headed east first because I thought if I got to Atlantic City or New York City, I’d just get lost, and they’d never find me. But the Wheeling papers made me out to be the boogeyman, and it spooked me, so I bought a Lincoln Town Car, stole some plates, and headed west.
“I stopped in Kentucky first and stayed in a town there for a little over a week and then headed in the direction of California to get a fake ID. But just shy of the Oklahoma state line around midnight a cop pulled out in back of me, ran my plates, and flipped on his lights. When I pulled over, he came up on the passenger’s side and asked for me info, but I didn’t have any, so I was thinking about offering him $5,000 to let me go. Instead, I dropped it into drive and took off.”
Over the next 35 miles, Rusty placed a few late-night phone calls.
“There were at least 25 cops chasing me, so I called my mom, my girl, and the mother of my children to tell them, and then the cops wrecked me,” he continued. “After they tackled me and got me cuffed, I told them who I was immediately. No use in lying at that point. And I was relieved, in a way, when it was over.”
He really had nothing to lose at this point. Federal prison was federal prison, and he had already lost his wife and family because of his pro-criminal choices. Rusty chose the bobble and bullions of the dark side, and once Paul “No Legs” Hankish was sent to federal prison, the Friendly City’s underworld action suddenly was unorganized and up for grabs.
So Rusty snagged what he could.
“Boy, where do I start? I know I started going to Wheeling to pick up prostitutes in 1984, when I was 16 and I got my license,” he recalled. “I’d cruise the normal spots from 21st to 26th Streets and 14th through 16th in East Wheeling. That’s where everyone went.
“But as far as getting involved in the business, that didn’t happen until the summer of 1990 while Hankish was on trial. I was at the My Club one night, and they needed a bartender. I asked if I could have the job, and they said yes,” Rusty continued. “Boy what fun that was! I was 21 years old, around naked women every night, sleeping with the dancers, and doing the coke I purposely got so I could get to do it with the dancers between their sets.”
And then opportunity arrived to Rusty in the form of what he referred to as a “road girl,” a dancer who would travel from city to city to perform on stage and off. If the presence of police proved too prevalent, the prostitute would move on to a new town via Greyhound or a “John ride.”
“One of the road dancers who was new to me asked me one night if I could help her find guys who wanted ‘dates.’ I asked her, like going to dinner? She said, ‘No silly, dates – wink wink,” Rusty said. “So that’s when I officially started my very extensive criminal activities in Wheeling and the surrounding area. Gambling collections, car theft rings, loan sharking, drugs. All of it.”
He found the ladies of the night were still in high demand despite the attention gained by the Hankish trial in Wheeling that involved local, state and federal authorities and attracted media outlets from throughout the tri-state region. The Hankish “family members” scattered once the grand jury handed down 221 indictments, and the owners of involved establishments cut ties with the remaining mobsters in the attempt to continue the gambling and pimping off the radar.
Rusty, though, was so intoxicated with his newfound lifestyle that he dared the damned radar.
Solicited prostitution, he reported, took place in many places: 22nd and Main streets; at the Mount Wood Overlook; in a salvage road near the piers for Interstate 470; in a house in East Wheeling on 15th Street; along the bike trail in Centre Wheeling; behind the docks of the former Coronet plant; near the top of the Peninsula Cemetery; in apartment buildings on Wheeling Island; in North Wheeling; and in motels in Elm Grove, downtown Wheeling, and Dallas Pike.
“I was setting up those dates for that road dancer for two weeks at the hotel she was staying in – the Wheeling Inn, which I found out was one of the biggest whorehouses in this region,” he said. “I’d just beep the guys at all hours of the night, and they would show up and go up to the room. We’d work that till the morning.
“And then I started doing the same for several girls over that summer in 1990, and I had a great time. I’d set up the dates and get the drugs, and they would just throw money at me all of the time,” Rusty explained. “And the Amish guys? Best customers on the planet for the sex and the drugs. If I saw an Amish guy in the area, I would just go up to them and tell them the deal. I could tell those guys any time of the day, and most of them would show up. They’d be there with bells on.”
The more attractive the hooker, the higher the price. Demand played a factor, of course, and that’s why the local gals usually were compensated less than the traveling house whores. It was the corner-based, red-light ladies who traditionally were on the bottom of the pay scale.
In the clubs like the My Club and the Club Tower/Big Bertha’s, a hand job was between $20-$40, oral sex was between $40-$100, and sex was between $50-$100. Want both? Some hookers charged as much as $200, while others, depending on the evening, may have required as little as $100.
“But like I said, that depended on the girl. Local girls got less due to, well, being local,” Rusty spelled out. “But those prices could triple up at Bertha’s near the Capitol Music Hall on Saturday because of the out-of-towners who were in for a show or something.
“Everything was on the clock, too. The guy had five minutes for those blow jobs to work out of them or they were charged more. Same with hand jobs and usually the sex,” he said. “Now the street girls? Those prices usually depended on how bad that they needed a hit. From those girls you could get a blowjob for $20, a hand job for cheaper, and sex was only $30 most of the time.”
Fetishes cost more. Rusty told me some men buying love in Wheeling were into some kinky activity, everything from playing dress-up to paying the prostitute to defecate on them. The girls would poop on their chests or back or wherever.
“Now I’m not the person who’s going to make fun of a guy’s fetish because I know I have had my own, but getting pooped on and enjoying it is out there in my opinion,” he said. “And there were girls who would do it because that was a lot of money for them. Those guys would just toss $100 bills for that shit. Never made sense to me, but what the hell. I was getting everything I wanted, and I was making money doing it.
“The hookers had to pay the house, the pimp; some of those girls were on their backs for not much at all in the end, but that depended on them and the demand, and whether they were paying a house fee or just half of every trick. They could make some money if they treated it like a volume business because that’s exactly what it was.”
There were a lot of guys like Rusty following the jailing of Paul Hankish, according to Tom Burgoyne, a 34-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a former sheriff of Ohio County. Most brothels closed, sending the sexual pros to unfamiliar territory at the time.
“In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, prostitution wasn’t on the streets. It took place in the houses the organizations had around the city,” said Burgoyne. “It was really the drugs that made most of the houses disappear. No one wanted both in the same place because that brought more attention to it, so most of those girls took to the streets. There were some houses that still operated, but nothing like it used to be.
“It got helter skelter, and it got dirty, and I mean the girls. They got dirty. They got addicted to the drugs, they didn’t go to the doctor like they used to, and it wasn’t good. It was dirty in a really bad way.”
Burgoyne recalls a time when Interstate 70 not only served as the, “Gateway to the West,” but also was the pathway to the most popular hooker house east of Columbus.
“And that was the King of the Road Club near the truck stop in Dallas Pike. Every trucker in America knew about the King of the Road,” Burgoyne continued. “It was a multi-million-dollar business, and that was proven in court when the owner, Joe Trullio from Follansbee, was found guilty of operating it.
“He had 12 girls living there, and they brought everything they needed to them so they didn’t have to go anywhere,” he continued. “There were girls who worked there who came in from Las Vegas, South Carolina, and from Puerto Rico, and when we spoke with them, they told us that they made as much or more here in this area than they did in a place like Las Vegas.”
Something changed in Wheeling at the turn of the century, and it wasn’t caused by heat from law enforcement of any level. Prostitution certainly continued in Wheeling and still does today, but prices decreased, and the menu shrank. The cause was the customer, Rusty insists, and that is why at the time of his conviction the city’s “Green Doors” had been raided and closed, and the street hookers were no longer asked for intercourse.
“The guys just wouldn’t pay more for it unless they really wanted to or just had money to throw around. But sex with a prostitute became a thing of the past,” he said. “Now there was sex still being bought at the Green Door in the back of what is now the Lebanese Bakery up until it got raided and closed down in 2006. And we continued using the Wheeling Inn when I had the Clover Club down there, and those girls would give me half of everything they earned from the sex and the blow jobs.
“That’s the way it was running after Paul went to prison. As far as I know, none of that action or anything else was being organized by any one man after that. We were all just doing what we were doing and getting away with it for the most part,” Rusty explained. “There were battles over territory, especially inside the clubs like mine and out on the street. I had a big problem when some other dude was working the street outside my door. That shit went away quick.”
Hankish had his thumb on it. His organization was broad, and although it centered on gambling, the family was also involved with prostitution, auto theft rings, drug trafficking, and murder. Many sources have referred to Hankish as a more brutal leader than was Big Bill Lias when “discipline” was necessary, but the Hankish Mob was far more involved with drugs than Lias ever was.
“Nothing was as organized as it was under Paul – especially the whorehouses,” Rusty shared. “And as far as I was concerned, nothing reverted back to one man’s control. There were some of them that kept their areas, but then we had some Jamaicans come into town that brought the crack with them. That uglied up the shit, but they also filled a void.
“There were fights I had with some of them, and I know they knocked out all the windows in the car I had at the time,” he said. “After I kicked out the crack dealers from the sidewalk outside of (the My Club), I believe they shot at the place and could have hit me if it wasn’t the night to push up the clocks. We were closed, or I could be dead.
“And there was this real bad group of D.C. guys that showed up, and they started shooting up everything, and then one of them got killed in that alley near Clay School. And there were whores who would set you up when they took you in a house for a trick. Most of the street whores would have some big guy hiding, and once they got you somewhere, they would rob you of everything you had. They were brazen about it.”
The attention paid to the criminal transition by Burgoyne and any other federal agencies depended on violations, of course, and because the majority of the sex-for-sale activity in the Friendly City changed to free-for-all fashion, there wasn’t much use spending time surveilling the industry.
“There were a lot of guys like Rusty because no one was in control. And there weren’t rules like what Hankish had. Those guys did whatever they wanted, and it usually turned out pretty bad,” he said. “The girls no longer got checked regularly by doctors, and the action was no longer hidden behind closed doors. Prostitution got dirty, and it was sad.”
Every single person connected to Mob-related activity in Wheeling has made the same claim – law enforcement committed the same crimes they were investigating, and Rusty claims he knows for a fact that several police officers in Wheeling offered an understood compliance.
“If they came in, they drank for free and saw naked women all night,” he said. “If they saw a guy go in the back, they would order another drink and go back, too, with another girl.
“And that’s why I would get warnings about undercover cops coming in a day or two before. It’s been 25 years since then, but I bet I could still pick them out in a lineup just like it was yesterday,” Rusty said. “I even had one cop drive a girl all the way back to Toledo because her old man was sick. What a schmuck, huh?”
Burgoyne and his federal colleagues paid visits to the establishments before and after the Hankish trial, but not for services. The federal government collected a long list of witnesses who testified against “No Legs,” and several worked as prostitutes, madames, and pimps.
“If some thought we were in on the action then we were doing on jobs very well,” the former federal agent testified. “Me and the other guys would pick a night and hit as many of those places as we could, especially after the brothels closed down because that’s where they went.
“They were either informants, or we were trying to get them to be informants, and that’s because that’s how the FBI used to do things. We were really good at talking with the people who were directly involved, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the FBI goes about it these days.”
Rusty has been in prison for a few years now, and he says repetition is the key to passing the days. His watches television, conducts legal research, lifts weights in the gym, and he’s counted a few times a day. He sleeps on a single bed in small room that’s locked at night, but not because he pimped hookers or bought and distributed cocaine. His on-the-record “real life” involved working as an ironworker, he says, and serving in the West Virginia National Guard, and the reason Rusty is incarcerated rests with his involvement with prescription pills. It all began, he says, because he suffered an injury and was prescribed Percocet.
“I got involved with pills on accident because of an accident. I dealt coke for a long time to a very select customer base, and I continued collecting debts, and then I got hurt working down in Marshall County,” he said. “I had to have my foot operated on back in 2006, and they gave me Percs. I didn’t like them because they hurt my tummy.
“Then a friend of mine asked if he could start helping me sell them, and I didn’t think much of it. I told him to take them and sell them and then come back. But by the time I took a shower he was already back,” Rusty continued. “He handed me the money and told me he didn’t even have to leave the trailer court.”
That afternoon made this gambling pimp a pill pusher who became the ringleader of an operation that extended far beyond the Upper Ohio Valley. Rusty had connected with doctors in both Florida and New Jersey, and the only question was when to pick up and deliver. He says he became the go-to guy when pills first took hold in the Valley in 2009, but ultimately his network grew large enough to attract federal attention.
“When he didn’t have to leave the trailer court to sell what I had, that was the beginning, and as everyone in Wheeling knows, it grew from there to the point to where I had to come where I am and live the way I am now,” Rusty said. “I got people high, and they paid for getting high, and I made some money. And I lost my life because of it.
“You don’t live in here. You exist.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)