CLAYTON • A politically connected drug dealer whose case has led to criticism of officials for their support pleaded guilty Monday to a state money-laundering charge in exchange for five years of probation.
The deal, in which Michael Saracino II will have that conviction erased from public view if he successfully completes the terms, was arranged before two controversial letters were written on his behalf by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and police Chief Jon Belmar to a federal judge in separate drug conspiracy case.
Those letters were written at the request of Saracino’s family of prominent St. Louis area restaurateurs. Saracino’s uncle, John Saracino, is a former county police board member who resigned as a top Stenger aide after the Post-Dispatch reported last week on the correspondence.
The deal in the St. Louis County Circuit Court money-laundering case was struck in 2013 and is contingent upon the younger Saracino’s cooperation with investigators, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Susan Petersen said in court Monday.
His attorney, Scott Rosenblum, confirmed in a phone interview after the hearing that the deal had “nothing to do with the letters.”
Rosenblum said that five years of probation and a suspended imposition of sentence were “not unusual” and “sort of part and parcel in the federal case.”
Saracino was caught by Missouri state troopers in the River City casino in October 2012 after he and another man conducted a series of monetary transactions intended to avoid federal reporting requirements on cash transactions above $10,000, Petersen said in court. He was charged in 2013.
Asked in court Monday if the prosecutor’s recitation of his crime was “substantially correct,” Saracino said, “Yes.”
The money-laundering case also was mentioned at his sentencing in the federal drug conspiracy case last month, when U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry told him that the state charge should have been a “wake-up call.”
“You didn’t turn around when you had the chance then,” she said.
Instead, she said, he continued with the conspiracy.
Saracino was one of two dozen defendants in the multi-million-dollar drug conspiracy who were indicted in two cases in August 2014.
He was sentenced last month in the federal case to two years in prison and is due to report to a federal prison camp in Springfield, Mo., on Tuesday.
Before the federal sentencing, Stenger and Belmar and others wrote letters to Perry on his behalf.
Belmar’s letter, on county police letterhead, said in part, “With regard to Michael’s offense, I will offer no excuse, but to say that I believe that he has the benefit of having a strong family surrounding him … I remain confident that whatever decision you render in this matter, it is the right decision and you enjoy my full support.”
Some of Belmar’s own officers investigated the case for years as part of a federal task force, and the union representing county police has been openly critical of the chief’s letter.
After the Post-Dispatch revealed the contents of the letters this month, the county police board chairman said it will look into whether Belmar’s letter had violated department policy.
Stenger’s letter was on plain paper but carried his office address, and said, “Based on my experience with Michael and his family, I respectfully request that you grant him leniency in your sentencing for the crimes he has committed.”
Stenger has defended his actions and said it was Saracino’s cooperation with investigators that earned him a break from federal sentencing guidelines that called for 46 to 57 months. Stenger also has denied that Saracino had any role in the firebombing of the home of a 72-year-old widow in 2013 — an assertion contradicted by testimony at Saracino’s sentencing hearing.
Officials said that he had a role in planning the attack over a drug debt but that the firebombers burned the wrong house.
The widow, now 75, told the Post-Dispatch that she felt betrayed by the officials’ letters and was incensed by Stenger’s attempts to play down Saracino’s role.
Her son said the family considered the fire, which happened as she was preparing for bed, an attempt on her life. He said she escaped only because she was still awake.