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Execution date is set for St. Louis gangland figure

Posted: Wednesday, August 4, 1999 | 8:02 a.m.

By Kim Bell
Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

David R. Leisure, whose involvement in a series of car bombings and gangland violence rocked St. Louis in the early 1980s, is scheduled to die by injection Sept. 1.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday set the date for his execution.

Leisure would become the first organized-crime figure executed in modern times in the United States, according to G. Robert Blakey, author of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. Blakey, a law professor at Notre Dame, said the last execution dates to 1944, when Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was electrocuted in New York. He was an assassin for Murder Inc., used by Charles Luciano, the head of New York's mafia.

Leisure was sentenced to death in 1987 for his role in the car bombing murder of underworld leader James Michaels Sr., 75, as Michaels was driving along Interstate 55 in south St. Louis County in 1980.

Leisure, 49, was just one of many players in an organized-crime feud that left three dead in St. Louis, one maimed in a car bombing, and the grandson of Michaels wounded in a shotgun ambush.

Yet while many involved in St. Louis' organized-crime faction were convicted of state or federal crimes and sent to prison, only Leisure will be executed. None of the others received the death penalty. Law enforcement sources say that Leisure was simply a follower in the Leisure gang, headed by his cousins, Paul Leisure and Anthony Leisure.

Michaels Sr. was a longtime organized-crime figure and boss of the Syrian-Lebanese crime faction in St. Louis. David Leisure, also of Syrian descent, helped kill Michaels so the Leisure clan could gain power over a local union, Laborers Local 110.

David Leisure's lawyer, John William Simon of Jefferson City, is fighting to avert the execution.

"The courts aren't finished with David's case," Simon said Tuesday.

Appeals are pending before the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. One of the main arguments is that David Leisure's punishment is disproportionate to those of others alleged to have been involved in the underlying crime. There is no account in which David Leisure was the leader. The U.S. government, in a pre-sentence investigation report, ranked Paul Leisure first and Anthony Leisure second in culpability. Both men are serving life in prison without parole.

David Leisure's execution would be a record ninth of the year for Missouri. It would be carried out at Potosi Correctional Center.

On Sept. 17, 1980, David Leisure crawled beneath Michaels' car and planted a remote-controlled bomb as the car was parked outside St. Raymond's Maronite Church. Michaels was inside eating lunch. The state alleged that Leisure had practiced the technique several times on an identical car until he could do it flawlessly in under a minute.

After planting the device, David Leisure was present when his cousin Anthony Leisure detonated the bomb on I-55 near the Reavis Barracks Road exit. Pieces of Michaels' car were scattered over a 200-foot radius by the force of the explosion. Michaels' body was dismembered, and part of it was hurled against a passing car.

It took police years to unravel the story behind the mysterious crime and the retaliations that followed.

To avenge Michaels' murder, friends and members of his family bombed Paul Leisure's car as he was parked outside a home in south St. Louis. Paul Leisure survived the attack, but it cost him part of his legs, hands and face.

In October 1981, in retaliation for the bombing of Paul Leisure, the Leisure gang killed George M. "Sonny" Faheen by attaching a car bomb to his Volkswagen Beetle. Faheen was a nephew of Michaels'. Faheen's car was in the parking garage of the Mansion House Center, 210 North Fourth Street. David Leisure was sentenced to life in prison for Faheen's murder.

Leisure was convicted of federal racketeering charges in 1985. His state trial for his role in Michaels' murder was held in St. Louis city circuit court in March 1987. The state's case rested primarily on the testimony of two accomplices, John Ramo and Richard Joseph Broderick. The jury took a little more than five hours to find Leisure guilty of capital murder.

Edward Rogers, the assistant circuit attorney for St. Louis who prosecuted Leisure at the state trial 12 years ago, declined to comment.

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