Understanding Thomas Utterback propertly requires us to go back four decades or so, to 1987 in a federal courtroom in downtown St. Louis.
Utterback as a Attorney
Utterback was an attorney then, representing Democratic committeeman Leroy Tyus in the corruption trial of the century in St. Louis. This was the trial that led to multiple convictions of mail and wire fraud in a get-rich-quick scheme involving bribery of public officials making a decision as to who would get the city’s cable television franchise.
A who’s who of Democratic politicians and operatives were eventually charged or convicted. Sorkis Webbe Sr., the power-broker who ran his political machine out of the Mayfair Hotel, would die before he went to trial. His son, Sorkis Webbe Jr., was convicted of fraud. Tyus, Eugene P. Slay, and attorney James Cullen were all convicted, though an appeals court later overturned those convictions.
Utterback’s role in the case would seem not particularly noteworthy — attorneys represent all sorts of clients, that’s their job — if not for what happened about 10 years later.
That’s when Utterback was arrested in a Geneva hotel room with $3.2 million in $10 and $20 bills stuffed in four suitcases. Utterback had agreed to try to launder the money for a drug dealer, Edward Trober, the former owner of the Panama Jax nightclub in Collinsville. Trober promised Utterback 10% of the drug money if he would fly it out of the country and launder it.
Utterback first flew to Panama, but his contact there said it was too much money. So, he repackaged the money and flew to Switzerland. An airline worker in Amsterdam tipped off police.
Fast forward another couple of decades. That’s when I met Utterback. He had a news tip for me. Look at the Dismas House, he said. That’s the nation’s oldest halfway house for federal prisoners, right here in St. Louis. Utterback passed through its doors when he left federal prison. Look at its board, Utterback told me. The place is run by former city and county parks director Gary Bess, he said.
Until today, I didn’t mention that Utterback was the source for the tip. I had an agreement with him to protect him as a source. That changed this week when Utterback sent me an angry email, copying another reporter, outing himself as my source. I don’t blame Utterback for being angry. He didn’t like my most recent column on Dismas House, the one that explains that Utterback’s new nonprofit, Exodus Reentry Villages, the one that won the latest $44 million BOP contract, is running into its own problems.
He’s now promised two different locations to the federal government; both have fallen through. He’s given the federal government inaccurate information in his application about who was on his board. His statements, to the federal government, to people in the St. Louis community, and to me, simply don’t add up.
I don’t doubt that Utterback knows more than me. That is why I keep asking him questions he won’t answer. Who is on his board? How did he convince the BOP that his startup nonprofit, with no experience or funding, was better than a competing bidder made up of the most experienced prison reentry nonprofits in St. Louis?
Why does he tell me that another ex-con with a banking fraud conviction, Mark Repking, is playing no role with Exodus, when board member Gene McNary tells me Repking plays an important role? Why does Utterback use his status as an ex-con when he thinks it helps him, but get angry at me when I mention it in the context of him trying to manage a $44 million federal contract?