"Big" Bill Lias

Written & Portrayed by William Carney.

Presented at the W.A.G.S. meeting, February 8, 2003.

My name is William G. Lias or Big Bill as most of you call me. My mother and father were George and Antonia (Cockels) Lias, both born in Greece and migrating to America in 1896. I was brought into this world by a midwife at our home in Alley 15 on July 14, 1900. Years later the Feds would lie about that and try to deport me. At birth I weighed in at 12 1/2 pounds. Today I weigh about 400 pounds. My father passed away in 1903 and I was raised by my mother, brothers and sister.

Some of you here today know that I've controlled the rackets here for over 50 years. I'm the guy who supplied the gambling, the booze and entertainment to the residents and visitors of our town. I'm the guy who made Wheeling Downs into one of the finest half-mile tracks in the country and the guy who helped to make this into a town that never slept and had a reputation of wide open Wheeling. I was the man who gave the so called "honest" citizens of Wheeling the entertainment that they wanted, but did I get thanked for it - No, my thanks were 4 convictions for illegal booze and a couple prison terms. I gave you what you wanted and the Feds gave me problems.

My youth was uneventful except that I was always picked on because of my size. Years later no one dared pick on me or call me names. I attended Centre School for 6 years. It was there that I was known as "butt boy," a name I hated. The name was given to me after I became stuck in a fire escape during a fire drill at school. Most of my youth was spent playing at the corner of 25th and Market Streets. Some of my pals were Herbert Thornton, Hughie Brannan and a future Chief of Police. In thinking back I can remember being rescued from a second story window during a flood in 1904 and of being burned in a fire in 1907 or was it 1908?

I quit school after the sixth grade to become a bootlegger, hauling baked goods from my brothers bakery to Ohio where liquor was legal and bringing it back to Wheeling where it had become illegal in 1914. This was long before the nation went dry. At first I was in business working for others but by age 25 I was taking over myself. This, of course, led up to the gang wars of the late 1920's and early 30's. This caused some heads to roll and some buildings to blow up. I can remember like it was yesterday when Nick Frank's Coffee Shop blew up at 23rd Street. It was only a couple doors away from my place which had been raided a couple days before.

I was questioned and released. Because of these bombings and beatings the city put a curfew into effect on the south side of Wheeling, which by the way, didn't stop anything. This war had started because some people got greedy causing the other side to get nasty. In late December after a truce was called, a bomb exploded at Sam Grossfield's place at 25th Street. Sam was from Pittsburgh and was trying to muscle his way into gambling and liquor.

About this time a couple friends of mine were killed in an auto accident. Seems that 4 of my friends were on their way to the Acme Pool Hall in the Grove to deliver a message to our enemies when the car they were riding in hit a steel pole at Thedau Place. The car was traveling at about 70 mph. Three of them died and my cousin Mike Russell was seriously injured. A gun was found in the car and the car had a special compartment to carry 300 gallons of booze. I was questioned but denied any knowledge. The father of one of those killed blamed me in the local newspapers but I have no idea why. I wasn't driving the car.

The Gang Wars lasted well into the 1930's and made our homicide rate worse than New York, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. It was almost as bad as Chicago where Capone ruled.

I started to run into some trouble with the law in the 1920's.

In 1921 the Feds found two barrels of mash in a building owned by my brother. Rather than have my older brother go to jail I took the fall and got six months and $1000 fine.

In May 1923 I was found not guilty of conspiracy. In 1925 I got 16 months for conspiracy. The biggest sentence was the two years in Atlanta for conspiracy in 1931. I was also fined $10,000 but never paid it because I was too poor.

These difficulties were minor compared to later accusations made by the government.

I can still remember the farewell party my friends gave me the night before being sent to Atlanta. Friends from Pittsburgh, East Liverpool, Steubenville and Fairmont were in attendance. We all consumed a whole roast lamb with all the fixings and my pals gave me a diamond studded gold watch.

Before leaving for the pen, I put George Seibert and my cousin Mike Russell in charge.

None of you look old enough to remember the large raid the state conducted on my plush Bachelor's Club and my headquarters next door in May of 1934.

They were trying to stop my numbers racket which was bringing in between $750,000 and $1,000,000 per year.

The lousy state cops had hidden under a tarpaulin on a truck labeled "Old German Beer." What Sneaks!

They arrested 33 people including myself, Roland Ringer, "Big Charlie" Kupchak, Barney Stubbs, Tony Pappas, Ted Prossos, Pete Zellers, and George Seibert.

Most of the charges were later either reduced or dropped but the raid did disrupt our operations.

Most of my troubles came from the Feds or state officials and none from the City of Wheeling because I had an understanding with the local officials and law enforcement.

George Seibert, Mike Russell and I purchased a couple number policy operations in and around Wheeling for a few thousand dollars in 1930. By the end of the following year we had operations as far away as East Liverpool, Ambridge & Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Steubenville, Ohio and Charleston, West Virginia.

We had 20,000 people playing daily and it was bringing in close to 1 million a year. Boy what a sweet setup. It was because of this business that I ran into trouble with the IRS in 1935. They said I owed $21,900 in income tax for the year 1931 when you may remember they had me in jail. The government said that I had income of at least $122,600 or as much as $750,000 for the year of 1931. They were really upset that I never filed a return. Big deal.

Two days after the trial began "Skinny" Thorntons' home blew up. He was on his way to testify against me. No one was hurt.

During the trial it was brought out that I controlled the rackets in Northern West Virginia. It was also brought out that I paid graft to Wheeling officials and contributed heavily to elections funds, but of course everyone already knew that.

During the trial I played on the sympathy of the jury. I broke into tears and did admit that I was the Kingpin of the "Numbers" Racket and had brought the idea back from a visit to Detroit in December 1930. After I was found not-guilty I shook the jurors hands and ordered taxi-cabs for all of them.

My trouble with my cousin Mike Russell started after the death of Gladys, my first wife. If you don't remember, she was fatally shot in the Chapline Street home of Russell in '34.

Gladys had come to the Russell house to argue with Mrs. Russell over a story she was telling about my wife. Gladys grabbed a revolver from the drawer of a stand, a scuffle took place with Gladys being shot through the leg, her shoulder and a third in her heart. She also had a broken nose and deep lacerations.

Mrs. Russell was tried and acquitted of her murder. Her murder and Mike's cheating me is the reason for our split up.

By the way, Gladys' funeral was one of the largest ever held in this city. There were 65 automobiles in the funeral and it took 4 trucks to carry the flowers. Mike sent one of the biggest floral pieces.

Mike formed his own numbers business after our split up and that was fine with me. His activities were confined almost fully to the Ohio side and he had recently moved into the numbers business in Steubenville which I controlled.

On August 25, 1937 some dirty rat shot my cousin Mike in front of his home on 15th Street as his wife watched from a second floor window. Whoever did this must have wanted revenge as the killer stood over Mike and emptied his gun into him. Would you believe that this was only a couple of days before he was to testify against me in my tax evasion trial? Boy what a break for me.

Patty Bonovich, a friend of mine from Detroit, was brought in for questioning as was I. It's funny but Mr. Bonovich was himself shot and killed in a confrontation with one of my men in 1939.

The rumor going around the city was that Patty was shooting his mouth off about something he knew about. I was questioned and released in both shootings.

The lousy state cops again showed up and raided nine of my joints and found 5 guns in their effort to solve the shooting of Bonovich.

Now came one of the best ideas that I ever came up with. During 1935 I abandoned the numbers business. I promoted a bill in the state legislature to have numbers writing a felony.

It was at this point that I became involved in slot machines. There was a special secret meeting held in some City Official's office during which an open town policy for slot machines were established with a guaranteed revenue for the City.

Slot machines were placed all over the valley and were even in the exclusive Fort Henry Club.

After the death of my first wife a marriage to Alice Manos of Brooklyn was arranged by the bride's uncles. We would make our home at 41 15th Street for our married life. She was so beautiful!

We filled our home with fine antiques and china. We had two children, Antoinette and George, both would die during the 1970's. Besides our home here we also owned a mansion in Palmer Woods, a suburb of Detroit where I had an affiliation with the Purple Gang. Alice was very active in the Greek Church in Wheeling and at one time headed a committee to add on to the church. We also loved to spend time in Miami Beach where a retired Wheeling cop worked as my chauffeur. - - Oh, by the way, a Wheeling cop fixed the cars of the proprietors of my houses of prostitution. I loved the Wheeling Police Department!

During the 1930's I heard or read that Al Capone of Chicago tried to help the poor, which I thought would be a good idea. So I started to give Christmas food baskets and toys to people who needed help. This gave me some very good publicity at a time I needed it the most. I also gave seed money to start the midget league in Wheeling and saw that a few Wheeling policemen had new bikes to give to their kids on Christmas.

During these years I owned or controlled the finest clubs in the city. The Roosevelt Restaurant, Billy's, Club Diamond, Club Paddock, White Front, the Bachelor's Club and Zellers Steak House with the Owls Grill & Lounge. These clubs provided the best food, drink and gambling in 3 states We brought in acts such as Danny Thomas and Helen O'Connell.

During the 40's and 50's were some of my best and worst years. Twice my place called Billy's had attempted bombings by my enemies. On one occasion 12 sticks of dynamite were placed against the 23rd Street entrance but failed to go off. Another time one of my men saw a charge of dynamite thrown from a car and pulled the fuze.

The best of times was when I purchased what would become Wheeling Downs for $262,500 at a bankruptcy sale in 1945. We immediately invested $500,000 and turned the track into a beautiful race track and a real profit maker.

We made our improvements when it was nearly impossible to get building supplies, but I had a lot of friends. Later an investigation took place and it was recommended that the prosecuting attorney prosecute, but he didn't.

We made this 113 acre site into the most beautiful half-mile track in the country. It was actually a city within a city. It had its own 12 member police force, gardeners, doctor and nurse, sanitation workers and was one of the largest employers in the city.

The 1940's saw more violence when "Tash" Lucci and Danny Phillips body guard had a gun battle on Market Street in front of the J. C. Penny store in 1946.

Harry Weidetz, the proprietor of the White Front restaurant and bookie, was shot and killed while his wife looked on by two paid hitmen at his home on America Avenue. I think this may have been over the furnishing of the wire service to bookie joints. I owned the exclusive rights to the service. I sold the service here, not for a flat fee, but a percentage of the joints business.

Harry Weidetz didn't like those terms so he secured other services.

I was questioned once again but denied knowledge.

Now my real problems started and once again by the Feds. First, in September of 1952 I was arrested on a charge of illegally entering the United States. The government charged that I was born in Greece and had illegally entered the United States without a passport on September 14, 1935 while returning from my honeymoon. This trial would cost me a lot of dough and would not be resolved for 9 years.

My lawyer was Charles Margiotti of Pittsburgh, a brilliant and very expensive lawyer. Some of the most important people in Wheeling would testify in my behalf and included 2 physicians, a former Chief of Police, a steel executive, fire department captain, Wheeling City Manager and a Deputy Sheriff - most of whom worked for me. Life Magazine put my picture in and Coronet Magazine did a story about the case. What a lousy break.

The second problem was another charge of being a tax cheater in 1948. This one would end up costing me my beautiful race track, Wheeling Downs. I was charged with owing $1,276.000 for the years 1942 through 1946 but before it was over they said I owed almost 2 1/2 million dollars.

In order to get this behind me I arranged to have two prominent congressmen accompany me to the office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to work out a deal, which we did and then have it go before a federal judge who I was friendly with to have the deal approved and then I would be fined and put on probation instead of jail for pleading guilty.

What was nice about this deal was my being able to settle for 12 cents on the dollar and be put on probation to boot and besides, income taxes are only for "law-abiding citizens."

Unfortunately this all came apart when the judge won't cooperate and then to top it off a jerk Senator from Delaware, John J. Williams stuck his stupid face into the case and even caused some IRS executives to resign.

The end result was my losing Wheeling Downs. My track would later be sold to some friends of mine from Detroit known as the Purple Gang.

I also lost a couple of other small businesses that I had and yet they said I still owed over a million dollars.

Well, let me tell you that I still owe that money.

During the 1960's I ran into a little problem with Paul Hankish of Warwood who was starting to make a name for himself. I tried to convince him when we had the Pony Club that bringing outside hoodlums into the city would only burn the city up. He didn't listen. On January 18, 1964 Paul Hankish had both his legs blown off in a car bombing. He would always blame me. During the later part of 1964 Mr. Hankish hired Raymond Freda a New Jersey mafia hitman to come to my home and kill me. Freda was called off the job when an FBI agent informed Hankish that they knew of the plot.

But enough of this nonsense, business calls.

NOTE: William Carney, 1938-2003, was a longtime researcher of "Big Bill Lias." Mr. Carney wrote the story about Mr. Lias and presented it at various local organizations. He submitted it to this website about a year before his death.--- Linda Cunningham Fluharty