Much of the story of the Austin Gay murder trial is how I remember it, although I was able to find some old newspaper articles to help verify some of my recollection of the facts. But mostly, what I have written here is simply from memory. In this entry, I will give some background of how this murder came about and how it came to trial. It is a story of a lot of ineptitude and tragedy in that the wrong man was murdered and many of the newspapers called it the Wrong Man Murder.
The murder of Austin Gay occurred in 1979, but it was not until four years later that authorities got a break in the case and were able file charges. The first break came when some of the persons involved who were already imprisioned in separate Florida facilities for running drugs began telling remarkably similar stories to prison authorities. After comparing stories and offering reduced sentences in return for testimony, authorities were able to piece together enough evidence to charge over one dozen people. By the time arrests were made in the case, six former police officers were among the dozen or more people involved. Some of them were already serving time for other crimes and others plea bargained for reduced sentences in return for becoming a state witness, including the three Brooks brothers with Tom Brooks being the state's star witness since he was high up in the inside operation of the Domberg gang.
That left six defendants who were to be tried. However, by the time this case went to trial, only four defendants remained. Those defendants were Dave Domberg, Ed McCabe, along with the two alleged hit men, Billy Jim Cherry and Joseph Sallas. More about what happened to the other two defendants in Part 5.
The principal defendent in the case was Robert David Domberg, a moderately successful businessman who owned six NAPA auto parts stores in the Chicago area. Dave Domberg had inherited the stores from his late father. Domberg decided to make more money by getting in the illegal drug business, mainly marijuana at first. Domberg's objective was to control drug dealing in the southside of Chicago. He enlisted Tom Brooks, the middle of three brothers, to help run the drug operation. Tom Brooks had formerly been an officer with the Chicago Police Department, as was another top associate and one of our defendants, Ed McCabe, who had been a detective with the Chicago Police Department.
When Dave Domberg began buying marijuana from his supplier in Florida, Gary Lee Almond, Almond told Domberg's contact man that the marijuana could not be transported out of Florida by truck or van because of the problems of getting by the Florida Agricultural Inspection stations which require all trucks and vans to stop for inspection. Instead, Almond recommended that Domberg's mules (drivers) use a modified Ford Torino for transporting the pot. According to Almond's testimony, the Ford Torino was the favorite "mule car" because it had a huge trunk and that with modifications, the cargo area could be easily enlarged without any sign from the exterior. Almond arranged for Domberg's contact to purchase a Torino that was specifically modified for transporting large quantities of pot. Later Gary Lee Almond would be working for the state in a cocaine buying sting that eventually captured Dave Domberg.
Tom Brooks then arranged for his older brother, Harry, and his younger brother, Bill, to be the mules. Harry Books was a former Chicago police officer and Bill Brooks a former paramedic. Ironically Harry Brooks claimed he left the police department because of the corruption there. Later the three Brooks brothers even got their father involved in the operation. At the time of the trial, Harry Brooks, Bill Brooks, and their father Harry Brooks Senior were all serving time in Florida prisons. Harry Brooks Senior testified how he had never had anything more than a traffic ticket until becoming involved in the drug business with his sons.
For a while everything went fairly well. Harry and Bill Brooks would take the Torino down to south Florida, pick up and pay for a load of pot, and drive it back to Chicago where it was bagged and sold. But Harry Brooks hated driving the Torino. So on one trip, Harry (not the brightest bulb in Brooks clan) insisted on taking his pickup truck with a camper top instead. As per usual, the Brooks brothers picked up the pot and proceeded to drive back toward Chicago. The normal route near the Florida/Georgia border was on US Highway 441 near Live Oak in Columbia County which was more remote and lightly travelled than most other highways in the area.
The two Brooks brothers drove past the Agricultural Inspection station without stopping. The inspector who was working there that night was Leonard Pease, a short balding man in his fifties. Pease immediately got into his patrol car and chased the Brooks brothers down forcing them to stop. It is then that the Brooks brothers kidnapped Pease at gunpoint and drove him to Georgia where Harry wanted to kill him. But Bill Brooks wanted no part of murder and insisted that they tie Pease up and leave him in the woods. Somehow Pease was able to convince the Brooks brothers that he would be attacked and killed by bears if left in the woods tied to a tree. So the Brooks brothers drove to a small nearby rural church and left Pease tied up in one of the pews. In return, Pease gave them directions to use the back roads out of the area. Pease was later found unharmed and freed.
When Harry and Bill Brooks got to Chicago and told Dave Domberg what had happened, Domberg was furious that they had not killed Pease because Pease could identify them. It was then that Domberg along with his two closest associates, Tom Brooks and Ed McCabe, came up with the idea to hire a hit man to kill Pease. They found the hit man through a plain clothes officer that Domberg claimed was on his payroll. That hit man was a city of Chicago building inspector, Joseph Sallas, who had very close ties to powerful Chicago alderman, Ed Vrdolyak.
In 1984, the going rate in Chicago for a contract killing was $5,000 for an ordinary person up to $10,000 for a police officer or high level government official. The contract for killing Leonard Pease was set at $5,000. Later Bill Brooks testified that Ed McCabe told him that he wanted nothing to do with murder.
About one month after Pease was kidnapped, Sallas and his wife went to Florida for an air show. Sallas was a former paratrooper and often attended air shows and jumped in them. It was during this same time that Austin Gay was kidnapped, taken to a remote location, and murdered gangland style with a single bullet to the head behind the ear. Six days later, his body was found.
Austin Gay was not the man that the Domberg gang wanted murdered. He bore no resemblance to Leonard Pease who was the man contracted to be murdered. Leonard Pease was a short, milk toasty, bald man in his fifties. Austin Gay was a tall, thin man with thick white hair in his early 60's. There was no confusing the two men, if an adequate description was given. The Brooks brothers had plenty of time to identify Leonard Pease both by name and by description. The tragic killing of Austin Gay was just another indication of how inept the Domberg gang was.
While the trial centered around the murder of Austin Gay, there were multiple charges filed against the defendants including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping and multiple drug charges that resulted in a charge of RICO. Initially, the state asked for the death penalty in the murder charges against Joseph Sallas and Billy Jim Cherry. Later the state dropped its request for the death penalty.