Today friends and family are gathering to remember U.S. District Court Judge William D. Stiehl. The rest of our community should also take a moment to reflect on the passing of this lifelong Belleville resident whose service touched many and sense of right stood fast in a storm of characters and politics and human mendacity that has filled these news pages.
We live in an area where corruption and politics have long been barriers to lifting communities out of poverty. Our circuit courts have too often been sources of public embarrassment instead of civic advancement. So when elected leaders were feasting at public expense, when East St. Louis again fell prey to a riverfront schemer, or when organized crime infested local bars with illegal gambling or prostitution, it was always the federal judges who could be trusted to set things right.
Judge Stiehl was a major leader in that effort.
He presided over the $48 million Thomas Venezia gambling ring trials, with federal prosecutor Miriam Miquelon’s clashes with defense attorney Amiel Cueto. Stiehl was the one who reported Cueto’s antics abusing the law to protect the racketeers. Cueto lost his law license and went to federal prison.
Stiehl also fined former attorney Eric Vickers for wasting the court’s time by claiming racism led to the East St. Louis City Hall being seized to satisfy a judgment to beaten jail inmate Walter DeBow.
Stiehl showed mercy to the wife of high-profile embezzler Thomas Brimberry, whose family was broke after he was arrested and the feds seized assets linked to his $16 million theft from the Stix & Co. brokerage in St. Louis. Stiehl sent Janice Brimberry, of Granite City, to prison for the shortest time possible after she hid her jewelry from the feds and tried to sell it to provide for her children, including keeping her daughter in college.
Stiehl also handled the fraud case involving a $224 million East St. Louis riverfront development that was never built. He took the $7 million fine from the Wall Street brokerage and instead of putting it in the hands of bankrupt local politicians, Stiehl created the Greater East St. Louis Community Funds. Since 1991, that fund has cleared tons of trash from vacant lots when city trash collection failed, put local kids in college to the tune of $2 million, renovated a park, created a ball field and started an eye clinic. It also drew the wider community together to help an impoverished area by assembling a diverse group that included a banker, educators, a sports coach, a business leader and others to guide its first steps.
And when fear of AIDS was raging, Stiehl told his hometown leaders that they must allow a hospice for dying men to open.
“The public interest can best be served if discriminatory actions based on irrational fears, piecemeal information and pernicious mythologies are refrained,” Stiehl wrote in his ruling on Belleville housing codes.
His service to his community included being a World War II vet, getting his law license after the war and then using his legal skills to help forge the armistice that ended the Korean War. He spent 34 years as an attorney, including helping craft the current Illinois Constitution.
His services today will focus on his personal and family life, including 69 years married to former state Rep. Celeste Stiehl. It is for his public life that this community owes a debt of gratitude.