Archive for the ‘las vegas’ Category

Mob Talk on November 16

November 12, 2011

The popular 1995 movie Casino was a fictionalized account of the Las Vegas era of Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro and Outfit associate Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. One of the scenarios addressed in the film is the skimming of money from the casinos and into the pockets of several Midwest crime bosses. And the skim was real, not a creation of Hollywood.

On tonight’s show co-hosts Andrew DiDonato and Denny Griffin will talk with retired FBI agent Lynn Ferrin. Lynn was the Las Vegas case agent for the skim investigations called Operation Strawman. Lynn will tell us the real story about how the skim was run, by whom, and how the feds brought it down. He’ll also comment on the movie and how law enforcement was portrayed in the film. If you’re a Mob buff, a Las Vegas or Casino fan, you won’t want to miss this show.

Join us at 9 p.m. Eastern for Mob Talk    

 

BEAR Media Consultants

June 29, 2011

I’m pleased to announce my new business, BEAR Media Consultants. You can learn more at http://www.bearmediaconsultants.com

 

BEAR Media Consultants, LLC

If you are an organized crime or true crime film or documentary producer, or a true crime reporter or  author, BEAR Media may be able to put you in touch with the person or persons you need for your project.

BEAR Media is acquainted with many former organized crime figures and retired FBI agents and police detectives—individuals you won’t necessarily find by looking in the phone book. We also have contact with the families of victims of suspicious death, missing person and cold homicide cases. These are all people with tremendous stories to tell.

And the people we know, all know other people. So if you need a technical consultant for your production or story, there’s a good chance we can connect you with someone who can provide what you are looking for. 

In addition to those with crime-related expertise, we also know interesting folks from the writing and entertainment fields who make excellent speakers or presenters. If you’re  in charge of scheduling speakers/entertainment for conventions, conferences or special events, we can put together a unique package for you that will make the program you set up a memorable one for your attendees.

Possible Closure in 1981 Illinois Double Homicide Case

February 15, 2009

Authorities in McHenry County, Illinois, may be closer to solving a pair of 1981 killings thanks to a former mobster’s biography. For details please read http://www.lvrj.com/news/39633437.html.

Larry Neumann may officially be credited with two more murders

December 19, 2008

Chicago Channel 5 and the Chicago Sun Times have broken stories that deceased mobster Larry Neumann may have been the killer in a pair of 27-year-old McHenry County, Illinois murders.

You can see the article at http://www.suntimes.com/news/24-7/1339456,mchenry-cold-case-holly-hager-121808.article or view the video at http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/Was_Small_Town_Mob_Murder_Covered_Up__Chicago.html

Tony Spilotro Biography

November 3, 2008

The Biography Channel plans to air Tony’s bio on their Mobster show on Friday, December 5.

Denny

Special Las Vegas and the Mob show

October 31, 2008

On November 5 at 7 pm Central time, I’ll be doing a special edition of my Las Vegas and the Mob show on Blog Talk Radio. The topic will be a double murder that occurred in Lakemoor, Illinois, in 1981. My guests will be Paul Scharff, son of one of the victims, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy, and former Chicago Outfit mobster Frank Cullotta. You can listen to the program live, or play it back later as a podcast, at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/dennisngriffin.

 

Below is some background on the case.

 

Murder in Lakemoor

 

On the morning of June 2, 1981, two people were found shot to death in the living room of an apartment at the rear of the P.M. Pub, located at 238 West Rand Road in Lakemoor, Illinois. The victims were the tavern’s owner, 37-year-old Ronald Scharff , and barmaid Patricia Freeman, who had worked her first shift at the bar the previous evening. Lakemoor was a community of around 800 at the time, and is situated about 45 miles northwest of Chicago. These were the first reported homicides there since its incorporation in 1952.

 

Shortly after the killings, McHenry County Sheriff’s investigators had a couple of suspects in the slayings. Jim Hager — a friend of Ron Scharff — advised them that if they wanted to solve the murders they should look at  either Freeman’s boyfriend or a guy named Larry Neumann The latter was a McHenry County native then living in Las Vegas. Neumann, a burglar, robber, arsonist and all around tough guy, was working for Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro in Sin City. Neumann had previously been convicted of a 1956 triple murder in Illinois. And although he received a sentence of 125 years, he had miraculously been paroled after serving only about 16 years. Hager had thrown Neumann’s name into the mix because he had witnessed an altercation between Scharff and Neumann’s ex-wife in which Scharff threw the woman out of his bar. Hager felt that to a guy like Neumann, that incident could be construed to be a personal insult demanding redress.

 

It is unclear exactly what the police did with that information. But they reportedly put most of their focus on Freeman’s boyfriend, who had allegedly been seen across the street from the lounge on the night of the killings. The man was questioned and submitted to several lie detector tests, the results of which were inconclusive.

 

At any rate, no charges were filed and the case was still open the following year when what seemed like a major breakthrough with a Las Vegas connection took place. In May 1982, Tony Spilotro’s childhood friend and lieutenant flipped and became a government witness. Frank Cullotta — who had been running Spilotro’s  crew of thieves and killers known as the Hole in the Wall Gang prior to defecting — told the FBI agents and Las Vegas police who were debriefing him, that Neumann had killed two people in a McHenry County tavern the previous June. McHenry County authorities were notified and interviewed Cullotta at the federal lockup in San Diego.

 

Cullotta confirmed Hager’s suspicion of the motive for the murders. He stated that Neumann had received a call from his ex-wife regarding her altercation with Scharff. The killer had become enraged. He considered the incident to have been a sign of disrespect to him; and felt he had no choice but to return to Illinois and get revenge. Not long afterward Neumann said he was heading for Chicago. Another Cullotta associate named Tommy Amato went with him. Amato went along to share the driving and get out of Vegas for a while. He had no knowledge of Neumann’s plans for retribution. When Neumann returned to Vegas he admitted the murders to Cullotta.

 

In addition to Cullotta’s statement, a Las Vegas police detective provided details of an interview he did with Tommy Amato regarding the Scharff and Freeman murders. David Groover said Amato told him that he had driven Neumann from Chicago to Lakemoor in Neumann’s Thunderbird. Neumann told Amato to park near the pub and wait in the car for him. A few minutes later Amato heard two gunshots, followed seconds later by two more. Neumann returned to the car, and after driving around for a while threw the murder weapon into a lake. Although Amato later retracted his story, Groover memorialized Amato’s statement in a sworn affidavit.

 

Further information that seemingly corroborated the accounts of Cullotta and Amato was contained in McHenry County police records. The night after the killings, Tommy Amato was in a car operated by Neumann’s brother-in-law when it was stopped by a police patrol. Amato was detained briefly and then released. 

 

In spite of all this information, Neumann was not charged and the murders remained unsolved.

 

In 2008, 27 years after his father’s murder, Paul Scharff received a phone call from Jim Hager. He was told that Holly Hager — Jim’s daughter and Paul’s one-time babysitter — had read a book that she believed included a segment on Ron Scharff’s killing. Although the names of the victims and the specific location of the crimes weren’t included, she felt everything else matched. Jim agreed and reached out to Paul.

 

The book Holly read was CULLOTTA — The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness. On page 130 of that book she found Cullotta’s account of what turned out to be the Ron Scharff murder. For Paul, who was a young boy in 1981, this was the first time he’d heard the story about Larry Neumann being his father’s killer. After talking with Jim Hager and reading the book himself, Paul is convinced Neumann was the man who took the lives of his father and Pat freeman. That acceptance has brought him a certain amount of closure.

 

But now he’d like the police to name Neumann —who died in prison in January 2007 — as the perpetrator and close out the cold case. He’d also like an explanation as to why the police seemingly never seriously went after Neumann all those years ago. Frank Cullotta and his former FBI handler Dennis Arnoldy, have agreed to assist Paul in his efforts if needed.

 

For the sake of Paul and his family, I hope he’s successful.   

 

Lefty Has Left Us

October 15, 2008

Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal has gone the way of many of his former friends and associates. With his passing he’s joined deceased Chicago Outfit figures such as Tony Spilotro, Joey Aiuppa, and Joe Feriola. Even his former Las Vegas headquarters – the Stardust – is no longer with us, imploded last year to make room for something bigger and better.

As far as is known, whatever secrets Lefty knew about the mob will go to his grave with him.

Was Las Vegas a better place during the mob days?

September 12, 2008

I thought it would be fun to conduct a poll to see what readers think about the mob era in Vegas. Please take a few seconds to vote on which answer you think best describes the old days in Sin City.

You can select multiple answers.

Skimming the Las Vegas Casinos – Part III

September 11, 2008

While FBI agents and prosecutors from several offices participated in the investigations that brought down the mobsters and ended organized-crime’s hidden control over the Las Vegas casinos, personnel assigned to Sin City itself played a major role, albeit with one rather embarrassing moment.

 

The agents were confident that casino money was leaving Vegas illegally and ending up in Chicago, but they needed to prove it. The feds placed the Stardust and certain employees under physical surveillance. After months of investigation, they identified a pattern for one method of the skim involving Allen Glick’s Stardust and Fremont casinos. Their big break came in May 1981.

 

“One of the people we were watching was a guy named Bobby Stella,” former agent Emmett Michaels remembers. “One Tuesday afternoon my partner and I saw Stella leave the casino carrying a brown paper bag. We followed him to the parking lot of a hardware store on Maryland Parkway. This particular business had several locations in Las Vegas. A man identified as Phil Ponto, who was also employed by the Stardust, met Stella there. We found out later that Ponto was a ‘made man,’ affiliated with the Chicago Outfit. The two talked for a few minutes, then Stella passed the bag to Ponto and drove away. We stayed with Ponto and the bag.”

 

Ponto left the hardware store and drove to his home, located off Paradise Road near the Las Vegas Hilton. He went into his house, but emerged a few minutes later to retrieve the bag from his car. The surveillance continued, but there was no activity of importance the rest of the week. Things changed on Sunday, though.

 

“Ponto left his house around 7:30 that morning and placed the brown bag in the trunk of his car. For some reason he then moved the car across the street, and then went back inside,” Michaels continued. “He came back out a few minutes later and drove to church. After mass he drove around town for two hours with no apparent destination or purpose. He drove in and out of shopping malls and parking lots, but made no stops. Eventually, he pulled into another one of the hardware store locations; this one was on Tropicana. There he made contact with another man we weren’t familiar with. The new guy was wearing a suit and driving a rental car. They talked for a few minutes, and then Ponto handed the bag over to the new guy. We dropped Ponto and followed the stranger as he headed toward California on Interstate 15.”

 

With the agents watching, the guy in the rental car pulled into the second rest area outside of Las Vegas. There, he emptied bundles of money from the paper bag and placed them in special pockets sewn into the inside of his suit coat. When all the money had been transferred, the courier continued on to the Los Angeles airport where he caught a flight to Chicago. Agents from southern Nevada contacted the Chicago FBI office, asking agents there to pick up the surveillance of the subject when his flight arrived. After reaching Chicago, the man paid a visit to Outfit boss Joe Aiuppa, presumably to deliver the money. The courier was subsequently identified as Joseph Talerico, a Teamster official.

 

The agents had validated their theory of the skim, but they were a long way from having proof that would stand up in a court of law. Additional investigation indicated that money was also being skimmed from the Glick-controlled Fremont. The G-men believed the cash was taken from there on a monthly basis and delivered to Chicago. They developed a plan that called for the lawmen to get marked money into the skim pipeline. That meant agents would have to visit the Fremont the evening before a suspected shipment and do some gambling at the tables. Emmett Michaels, Charlie Parsons, and Michael Glass were tasked with getting the marked money into the system. In order to get a sufficient number of $100 bills into the drop boxes, they had to lose.

 

“I always had trouble losing when I was playing with government money,” Emmett Michaels recalled with a grin. “I played blackjack and often had some incredible runs of good luck. Sometimes I’d be so desperate to lose so that I’d have to buy more chips, that I’d play very recklessly. I’d throw even the most basic strategy out the window and call for a hit on a hand of nineteen. The dealer and the other players would look at me like I was crazy. But when I was on one of those streaks, I’d draw a damn deuce.”

 

Sometimes that kind of luck drew attention that wasn’t necessarily wanted. “There were times when I’d have stacks of chips piled up in front of me and the pit boss would come over and invite me to get some of the perks reserved for high rollers. It was usually a different story when I was spending a night out somewhere else and playing with my own money.”

 

In spite of his undesired prowess at the table, Michaels and his colleagues were able to drop enough money to accomplish what they wanted to do. Now that they knew their plan would work, the next step was to choose a time when the courier would be picked up and nabbed with the proof of the skim in his possession.

 

 

The Cookie Caper

 

In order to conduct electronic surveillance and searches and to make arrests, a judge had to approve and sign warrants. Some of the lawmen involved suspected that a certain judge might not be keeping the FBI’s operations a secret. They found it hard to believe, for example, that after bugging a table in a Stardust restaurant where the casino manager and assistant manager ate their meals every day, the only thing the men seemed to talk about was golf and women. But the government was required to follow the law and obtain the appropriate warrants and authorizations regardless of their suspicions.

 

“Harry,” a bail bondsman who came to Las Vegas in 1958, thinks he knows another method by which the bad guys found out about whose phones were being tapped. “I had a lot of juice with the phone company then. I know for a fact that a phone company employee regularly provided a list of numbers that were going to be tapped. I know because I received a copy of those lists myself. There were a lot of people who were very glad to get that kind of information.”

 

In addition to the phone company employee, Harry alleges there was an even better source for leaks. “There was a concern at the phone company that a phone might be tapped without having full legal authorization. So the company hired a lawyer to review all the paperwork for each tap. It turns out that the lawyer they retained worked out of Oscar Goodman’s office. Did you ever hear of anything so outrageous?”

 

Whether leaks resulted as Harry contends, were the work of an unscrupulous judge, or a combination of both, the bottom line is that the targets frequently knew ahead of time what the lawmen were planning.    

 

Stan Hunterton, the former Strike Force attorney, was involved in preparing and submitting warrant applications to the court and helping plan some of the law enforcement activities, including when arrest warrants would be served.

 

“Joseph Talerico was always the courier for the skim money from the Argent casinos,” Hunterton recalled. “The routine was for him to come to Vegas and get the money. His contact here was Phil Ponto. This Ponto was what we called a sleeper. That’s someone with no criminal record, but Ponto was actually a ‘made man’ out of Chicago. One of the agents thought he recognized Ponto’s name from a book written by mobster-turned-informant Jimmy Fratiano. It turned out the agent was right, only in the book the name had been misspelled as Ponti.

 

“On January 3, 1982, not long after the indictments in the Tropicana case, the FBI was ready to arrest Talerico and Ponto when they exchanged the skim money. The day started off with a variation on the part of Ponto; he was carrying a box instead of a paper bag. I guess everybody assumed they’d decided to put the money in a box that day and didn’t think too much of it. But when the arrests were made, there was no money. The box contained cookies and wine.

 

“It was obvious that the bad guys had become aware of what was coming down. They had set us up, no doubt about it. I can smile about it all these years later, but I can assure you there was nothing funny about it at the time. An awful lot of time and effort had been spent getting to that point, and then it all went down the toilet. Needless to say, we were the butt of a lot of jokes in what became known as the cookie caper.”

 

Hunterton hauled Talerico and Ponto before a grand jury in 1983. Their first effort to avoid talking was to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Hunterton countered that by granting both men immunity. Even with no legal reason to remain silent, the pair still refused to testify. They were each sent to jail for contempt, but their lips remained sealed. They never did answer the government’s questions.

 

 

Strawman case agent Lynn Ferrin remembers the skimming investigations very well. “They were exciting times,” he said.

 

“When we were watching Ponto and Talerico, we made high-quality films of their meetings. On one occasion we brought in three lip readers to try to figure out what their conversations had been. One of the experts came very close to what we believed had been said; we would have loved to be able to use his interpretation in an affidavit. But the other two had differing opinions. With that lack of agreement, we ended up disregarding all of their versions. I even rented an apartment next to Ponto’s residence for a while during the surveillance. I spoke with him occasionally. He was very quiet … a real sleeper.”

 

Regarding the cookie caper, “It was a real bad day for us and me personally. If I’d been living in feudal Japan I’d have been required to fall on my sword. We’d been doing these Sunday surveillances on those guys for several months and everything had always gone like clockwork. But on that day the crooks were so confident and comfortable; we’d never seen anything like that before. We didn’t know for sure who, how, or why, but someone had obviously ratted us out to the mob. We were highly confident that the leak wasn’t from any of our people. Many of us believed that the federal judge who signed the order authorizing the electronic surveillance at the Stardust was the culprit. That was only speculation, but after that it seemed like the bad guys were aware of what we were doing. We had to call Washington and tell them what happened and that we couldn’t say for certain why it had gone wrong.

 

“Prior to that day I had been in favor of simply stopping Ponto one of those mornings and grabbing the bag from him. He certainly couldn’t have complained to the police and it would have given us the probable cause we were looking for. But headquarters and DOJ [Department of Justice] were afraid something would go wrong and never approved the snatch. If they had, it would have caused a lot of ripples in the various crime families. They may have even taken action against some of their own if they suspected them of being involved in stealing the skim.”

 

Another incident that Ferrin described as “sensitive” involved aerial surveillance. “Our plane developed some problems and was forced to land on the golf course at the Las Vegas Country Club. It turned out to not be a very discreet surveillance.” This scene was depicted in the movie Casino.

 

But other covert operations went very well. “Our guys did a tremendous job. Agents posing as maintenance men bugged a table in a restaurant at the Stardust in front of a room full of guests and casino employees. It was a good placement.”

 

After the cookie caper, the FBI changed tactics from covert to overt and went after the Stardust’s new owners, the Trans Sterling Corporation, openly. “We had enough information to start going over their records,” Ferrin said. “The Carl Thomas method of the skim primarily involved stealing from the count room. We found that another method of theft was also going on at the Stardust. This one involved the cashier’s cage.

 

“We looked at thousands of fill slips from the Stardust for the years that we knew the skim was going on. The fill slips were used when chips were removed from the cage to replenish the supplies at the gaming tables when they ran low on chips. The slips were required to have the signatures of four different casino employees. The money involved was about $20,000 per slip, and was presumed to reflect [casino] losses at the tables. We eventually discovered a pattern of forged signatures on the fill slips. That discovery led to the next step. We took handwriting samples from over two hundred Stardust employees and sent them to the FBI lab in Washington. Analysis revealed that the casino manager, Lou Salerno, was responsible for most of the forgeries.

 

“We got some good convictions in this phase. More important, though, through our investigation we were able to help the Nevada Gaming Control Board seize the Stardust. They revoked the licenses of the Trans Sterling people and fined them $1 million. The Stardust was eventually purchased by the Boyd Group, ending over a decade of mob control.”

 

That wasn’t the entire story for Lynn Ferrin, though. “The cage manager was a guy named Larry Carpenter. During the course of the investigation, he came to hate my guts. We lived in the same neighborhood and some mornings I’d come out to go to work and find that somebody had spit all over my car. I’d have to clean the car off before heading for the office. I suspected that Carpenter was responsible.

 

“Carpenter was gay and had full-blown AIDS. I thought maybe he was trying to infect me by having me come in contact with his body fluid and absorb it through my skin. Anyway, I stayed up all night to see if I could find out who was sliming my car. Around 5 a.m. I caught Carpenter coming around the corner on his bike. I could tell by the look on his face that he was the one. It never happened again after that morning. Carpenter later committed suicide, hanging himself when he went to jail.”

 

But there was more. “Lou DiMartini was a floorman at the Stardust. He claimed that during the investigation I caused him to suffer irreparable harm by asking his employer questions about him. He filed a $1 million civil suit against the government and me individually. It took seven years and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was decided in the government’s and my favor.”  

 

How does Ferrin sum up the results of the Strawman investigations?

 

“I think that our investigation basically broke the back of the mob’s efforts to control the casinos in Las Vegas.”

 

That last statement seems to say it all.            

 

 

 

Skimming the Las Vegas Casinos — Part II

August 27, 2008

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.

 

 

The Tropicana

 

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


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