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O'Kicki saga nears an end

Saturday, July 04, 1998

By Dennis Roddy, Post-Gazette Columnist

EBENSBURG, Pa. -- Sylvia Onusic, widow of Judge Joseph O'Kicki, the renowned jurist, moocher and international fugitive, was out from under the cloud. Criminal charges that prevented her from coming home from Slovenia were gone.

"Are you happy it's over?" someone asked.

She said nothing.

"Any reaction?"

Silence.

Onusic, back from the medieval city where her husband died in exile, returned solely to resolve some small-beer criminal charges. Questions? Stick 'em in your ear.

When Joe failed to report for prison five years ago, state police went looking for his assets. They stumbled across some funny business with deeds and documents that included Sylvia's name. They accused her of crimes bordering on the clerical. A warrant was issued. Slovenia's population grew by one.

On Thursday, in the marble columned courtroom where a decade earlier her husband was invested as president judge amid fanfares by 10 trumpeters rented for the occasion, Sylvia Onusic was accepted without musical accompaniment into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for first offenders.

The O'Kicki saga, with tales of payoffs given, bribes demanded, bankers squeezed, and underwear exposed, was the greatest entertainment in Cambria County since public hangings were discontinued.

But that was five years ago. This time, a half-dozen reporters snoozed through the hearing, then left when Sylvia wouldn't talk.

Even Gerry Long, the judge who had just made Onusic a footnote in the picaresque legend of Fugitive Joe, wasn't satisfied. He was one of those against whom Joe had vowed a deep and solemn revenge, and now here he was, giving the guy's widow a break. Long had bitten hard into the bonbon of criminal scandal and had yet to find its creamy nougat center.

"I just wonder if he's really dead," Long shrugged.

O'Kicki, imperious, ruthless and brilliant, died in Ljubljana, Dec. 2, 1996, but many in this town say they'll believe it when they see the body, preferably with a wooden stake protruding.

And there is The Book.

O'Kicki, in wonderful, half-coherent letters home, said he was writing a tell-all book. His enemies -- which is to say most of the people who had once helped him -- would tremble.

Bill Keisling heard it all. His small company was supposed to publish O'Kicki's book and, two years after its putative author reached room temperature, not one page has appeared.

That's not to say there wasn't very large talk. Keisling tried to line up a literary agent for the judge. O'Kicki's response was to demand a big advance which the agent, not being from Cambria County, did not deliver.

After O'Kicki died, people began talking about the book. Last month, one of his daughters telephoned to ask whatever became of the manuscript her father mentioned when she visited him.

"The whole affair was starting to remind me of 'The Maltese Falcon,' that somebody was going to walk into the room and drop it on the floor, like Sidney Greenstreet," Keisling said. "I've never seen the manuscript, but people have been talking to me about it incessantly. I ought to sit down and write the damn thing."

It might take as much. Jim Yelovich, who represented Joe 10 years ago and Sylvia last week, doubts a book was finished. When O'Kicki's belongings were examined after his death, no manuscript turned up.

"Another Joe O'Kicki story, I suspect," Yelovich said.

Maybe the last.



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