Feature Articles

November 2001

The Wrong Man Murder Case

By John William Tuohy

     In 1978, a Florida Agricultural Inspector named Lenny Pease fell across two former Chicago cops, who were working for the mob, as they were smuggling drugs from Florida to Chicago in a van.

     After stopping the van, Pease spotted a handgun on the seat between the ex-cops, and smelled the 400 pounds of marijuana stashed in the back of the truck. Pease ordered the men out of the car and had them spreadeagle while he searched them.

     At that point, the two burly ex-cops overpowered Pease and disarmed him. They handcuffed him to his own truck while they discussed, for over two hours, whether to kill him and dump his body into the swamp or just leave him tied to a tree.

     Not wanting to commit murder, the smugglers told Pease that they would leave him tied to a tree and call for help after they were out of the state.

     Pease pleaded with them not to do that, saying a bear from the swamps would kill him. The men agreed to handcuff him to a pew inside a nearby church, but decided to take Pease's weapon with them. Pease pleaded for them not to take his gun, because if they did, he said, he'd be fired but would have to repay the Agricultural department for the weapon. Remarkably, they left the gun.

     When he was released, Pease filed criminal charges against the two former cops, after they were identified by fingerprints and photographs.

     The two former cops, facing at least a decade in jail if convicted, decided to kill Pease, and hired Joe Sallas to do the job. Sallas is said to be related to the boss of Cicero, Ed Vrdolyak. Police suspect that Sallas was Vrdolyak's enforcer in political circles.

     The FBI suspected Sallas in more than a half dozen murders and claimed that the two former cops paid Sallas $7,500 for the contract to murder Pease, his going rate for a killing.

     Sallas went down to Florida, and, based on the fuzzy descriptions given to him by the former cops, Sallas walked up behind another Agricultural Inspector named Austin Dewey Gay and shot him in the head. Sallas had killed the wrong man.

     Sallas was acquitted for the murder, but convicted later on a conspiracy to commit murder charge, and sentenced to 30 years in a Florida penitentiary.

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