Around the same time in 1978 that Allen Glick was ordered by the Kansas City mob to sell his Argent-owned casinos, the feds launched a major investigation into organized-crime’s influence in Las Vegas. A large part of that effort consisted of court authorized electronic surveillance of telephones and locations in Kansas City, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The residences of Carl DeLuna, Anthony Civella, and Anthony Chiavola, Sr., were being monitored. The business offices of Allen Dorfman, Joe Lombardo, Milton Rockman, and Angelo LaPietra, were being listened in on. Frank Balistrieri’s office and a restaurant he owned were also bugged. The investigators learned a lot and conducted several court-authorized raids based on that information.
FBI agent Gary Magnesen was working in Milwaukee then and recalled the information that was obtained on Frank Balistrieri.
“We’d been running the taps on Frank [Balistrieri] for close to a year. In one of the calls Frank made from his office he mentioned that it was almost time for his ‘transfusion.’ We didn’t know what that meant at the time, but later on, when we compared notes with our Kansas City office, it was determined that ‘transfusion’ referred to the money coming in from the Las Vegas casino skim.
“In March 1978, we had enough probable cause to get a search warrant and went to Balistrieri’s house to execute it. We had to break the door down with a sledgehammer to get in. Once we were inside, I told Frank that there wouldn’t be any more ‘transfusions.’ He looked at me and realized that we knew about the skim. I could see the confidence drain out of him. He knew it was over.”
The search that was perhaps most devastating to the criminals occurred on February 14, 1979, Valentine’s Day. Federal investigators entered the home of Carl DeLuna and seized addresses, phone books, papers, and other documents. Among them were DeLuna’s detailed records of the skim. They included the dates and nature of meetings and conversations among the conspirators, telephone numbers, and the disbursement of funds from the skimming operations. The evidence gathered represented a bonanza for law enforcement — and doom for the mobsters.
The records available to investigators placed the estimate of the money taken from the Stardust and Fremont casinos at well over $2 million. Former Cleveland underboss Angelo Lonardo testified before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs on April 4, 1988. At that time he was serving a prison sentence of life without parole, plus 103 years, for his role in operating the family’s drug ring. He began his statement by highlighting his long criminal history, including a couple of murders he had committed. He later explained how the Las Vegas casino skim operated after his family became involved.
“The skim of the Las Vegas casinos started in the early 1970s. Starting in 1974 I began receiving $1,000 to $1,500 a month from the family through Maishe [Milton] Rockman. I did not know where the money was coming from, but I suspected that it was from the Las Vegas casinos. I learned this from various conversations I had with Rockman.
“Lefty Rosenthal ran the skim operation in Las Vegas. Rockman would travel to Chicago or Kansas City to get Cleveland’s share. Bill Presser [a Teamster power broker and father if future Teamster president Jackie Presser] and Roy Williams received about $1,500 a month for their role in the skim. The Cleveland family received a total of about $40,000 a month.”
By 1983, the government’s case against the gangsters was ready to move from the investigative to the prosecutorial stage. On September 30, a federal grand jury in Kansas City returned an eight-count indictment against 15 defendants in the Argent case. Five of them eventually stood trial, starting in late 1985: Chicago boss Joe Aiuppa, underboss John Cerone, West Side honcho Joe Lombardo, Milton Rockman, and Angelo LaPietra. Four of the accused, Carl Civella, Peter Tamburello, Anthony Chiavola, Sr., and Anthony Chiavola, Jr., entered guilty pleas prior to trial. Carl DeLuna and Frank Balistrieri pled guilty during the trial. Two others, John and Joseph Balistrieri, were acquitted. One, Carl Thomas, had his indictment dismissed during the trial and became a witness against the other defendants. And one, Tony Spilotro, had his case severed from the others prior to trial.
Other key players in the scam also testified during the trial. Allen Glick, Angelo Lonardo, and Roy Williams provided crucial evidence that resulted in guilty verdicts against Aiuppa, Cerone, Lombardo, LaPietra, and Rockman in January 1986.
Aiuppa and Cerone each received sentences totaling 28-1/2 years. Lombardo and LaPietra drew 16 years in prison. Rockman got 24 years behind bars. In addition, each man was fined $80,000.
This case also involves the Teamster pension fund. But unlike Argent, it was a loan not granted that paved the way for Kansas City to take control of the casino and launch another skimming operation. It began in 1975 when Joe Agosto, an affiliate of Nick Civella’s Kansas City family, made a move to gain influence at the Tropicana.
Agosto was born Vincenzo Pianetti in 1927. Information on his early years is vague. There are even conflicting reports as to exactly where he was born, whether in Italy or Cleveland. Whichever the case, Agosto ended up in Seattle and eventually Las Vegas. He got his foot in the door at the Trop by assuming the title of manager of the Follies Bergėre show. The hotel didn’t employ him, however; he was an employee of the production company.
That April, the U.S. Immigration Service arrested Agosto as an illegal alien. He quickly obtained the services of Oscar Goodman and beat the immigration charge. Clear of that, he began conspiring with Nick Civella on how he could best infiltrate the financially troubled casino and protect himself from outside interference. Agosto, with Civella’s backing and support, proceeded with his plans to gain influence over the Doumani brothers, owners of the Tropicana. In conjunction with that goal, a loan application by the Tropicana pending before the Teamster Central States Pension Fund was denied, easily delivered by Civella’s friend Roy Williams. With their financial lifeline off the table, the Doumanis were susceptible to Agosto’s overtures, and he soon had a voice in the Trop’s management and operations.
Agosto maintained regular contact with Carl DeLuna in order to provide reports on his progress and receive guidance. Kansas City, meanwhile, had a man they felt was able to set up and operate the skim. Carl Thomas was already licensed through his operation of the Bingo Palace and Slots-A-Fun casino, and was trusted by the Civella family. Following instructions, Agosto brought Thomas on board.
But late that year before the skim got off the ground, a snag developed that stalled the gangster’s plans for over two years. The cash-strapped hotel came under the control of a new majority owner when chemical heiress Mitzi Stauffer Briggs purchased 51% of the Trop’s stock. And right off the bat, Mitzi didn’t trust Agosto and curtailed his role in running the casino. That prompted an all-out effort by Agosto to gain her confidence. By 1977, he had succeeded and was effectively running the hotel and casino. Carl Thomas did his duty and designed the skim. At his suggestion, Agosto hired Donald Shepard as casino manager and Billy Caldwell as assistant manager.
In March 1978, Agosto and Thomas spoke with Nick Civella in Los Angeles. They announced that with their plans and personnel in place, they were ready to go. Civella gave his approval. The first $1,500 dollars was skimmed in April by Shepard and transported to Kansas City by Carl DeLuna. In May, Shepard hired Jay Gould as cashier to steal money directly from the cashier’s cage and falsify fill slips to account for the missing money. From June through October, Shepard, Caldwell, and Gould stole $40,000 per month and gave it to Agosto. The money was then passed on to a courier named Carl Caruso for transport to Kansas City. Caruso turned the loot over to Civella’s man, Charles Moretina.
Caruso made at least 18 trips between Las Vegas and Kansas City and was paid $1,000 after each delivery. Anthony Chiavola, Sr., Civella’s nephew and a Chicago police officer, assisted in the operation by getting Chicago’s share of the skim to Joe Aiuppa and underboss John Cerone.
The operation seemed to be perking right along, but in late September another potential problem arose. Agosto and the Civellas became suspicious that Shepard or his subordinates might be doing some unauthorized skimming. At Agosto’s suggestion, Nick Civella ordered the skimming suspended in November and December so that Carl Thomas could find out if someone was skimming the skim. Unfortunately for Agosto, Civella authorized a temporary halt in the stealing, but not in the payments to Kansas City. Since the problems had arisen on his watch, Agosto had to send the family $50,000 and $60,000 of his own money during the two months of downtime. But it wasn’t a total loss for Joe. He was later reimbursed $30,000, which Shepard pilfered from the Tropicana.
On November 26, Agosto and Thomas flew to Kansas City to meet with the Civellas and DeLuna. They explained that Thomas’ survey had been inconclusive, but they did have some ideas on improving the efficiency of the operation. Civella agreed that the skimming would resume in January.
The conspirators were unaware at the time that their homes and businesses were the subject of electronic and visual surveillance by the government. On February 14, 1979 — the same day Carl DeLuna’s home was raided — the FBI nabbed Caruso with $80,000 in skim money. The skimming of the Tropicana was over. Although the actual skim only occurred over a period of 11 months, during two of which the operation was suspended, the overall conspiracy to steal from the casino covered four years, 1975 to 1979.
Nick Civella had an even more serious problem than the Tropicana investigation. The Kansas City boss had been convicted in 1975 on gambling charges unrelated to Las Vegas. After exhausting his appeals, he went to prison in 1977. He was given an early release 20 months later due to health problems: He had cancer. Shortly after getting out, he was indicted again for attempting to bribe a prison official in an effort to get favorable treatment for his nephew, who was incarcerated. Convicted in July 1980, he was sentenced to a four-year stretch. So Nick was already behind bars in November 1981 when he and ten others were indicted in the Tropicana case. His lawyer in that matter — Oscar Goodman — successfully got the charges against Nick severed from the other defendants on the basis of his client’s poor health. On March 1, 1983, with his physical condition rapidly deteriorating, Civella was released to his family so he could spend his final days at home. He died on March 12, having never faced justice in either the Tropicana or Argent cases.
The 10 remaining defendants stood trial in 1983. Three of them, Donald Shepard, Billy Caldwell, and Joe Agosto, entered guilty pleas prior to trial. As a part of his plea arrangement, Agosto became the government’s key witness. Carl Caruso pled guilty during the trial. And Peter Tamburello was acquitted. Carl Civella, Carl DeLuna (represented by Oscar Goodman), Charles Moretina, Anthony Chiavola, Sr., and Carl Thomas were all convicted.
In a memorandum to the judge regarding the case, prosecutors wrote, “These defendants have dealt a severe blow to the state and the industry and have made a mockery of the Nevada regulatory procedures.” At sentencing the judge dealt a severe blow to the defendants.
DeLuna was sentenced to 30 years, Civella got 35 years, Moretina was ordered to serve 20 years of incarceration followed by five years of probation, and Chiavola drew 15 years. Carl Thomas was initially sentenced to 15 years. That term was later reduced to two years when he agreed to be a cooperative government witness at the Argent trial.
Joe Agosto died shortly afterward of natural causes. As far as is known, neither the Doumani brothers nor Mitzi Briggs were aware of the skimming operation. Mitzi Briggs later went bankrupt.
The ensuing appeals filed by those convicted in both the Tropicana and Argent cases were unsuccessful.
*Note: Carl DeLuna passed away from natural causes on July 21, 2008.
Next: The investigation by the FBI’s Las Vegas field office