People often ask what it was like writing a book with a former mobster. Following is an excerpt from my newsletter describing the experience from my perspective.
Writing CULLOTTA – The Author and the Hit Man
by Dennis N. Griffin
In the spring of 2006, if anyone had told me I would become involved in a business relationship with a former hit man, I’d have said they were crazy. After all, a guy like me with 20 years working as a law officer and investigator, one who has always been a staunch supporter of law enforcement, would never allow himself to be associated with someone from the dark side. However, in a little over a year I not only co-authored a book with such a man, I’ve come to consider him a friend.
This strange turn of events began for me when I was researching for my book The Battle for Las Vegas – The Law vs. the Mob (Huntington Press, July 2006). In it I told the real story of Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro’s Las Vegas reign. As I was writing the book I was fortunate to develop a number of now-retired FBI agents and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department detectives as sources. These were men who had actually been involved in the investigations of Spilotro and his gang.
I was very pleased with the information I obtained, but felt I was lacking one thing: a perspective from the bad guys. Spilotro’s crew was either dead, in prison, or their whereabouts were unknown, except one: Frank Cullotta. Tony’s one-time right hand man had turned against his friend and become a government witness. After a stint in the Witness Protection Program, Cullotta was around somewhere with a new identity. I thought if I could talk with him, I might be able to nail down additional details and maybe even come up with some previously undisclosed information. But how was I going to get in contact with Cullotta, and would he talk with me if I did?
I knew that one of my sources, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy, had been Cullotta’s handler after the crook rolled. I figured he’d be a good place to start in my quest to locate the former mobster. It turned out that Dennis and Frank had remained in contact over the years and they spoke on a regular basis. Dennis said he couldn’t promise any results, but that he’d mention me to Frank and see what happened.
Several weeks later Dennis called and said Cullotta had agreed to speak with me by phone. The interview was brief; only a couple of questions. Although it was by no means the in-depth conversation I’d hoped for, it was better than nothing. I added Cullotta’s input to my manuscript and submitted it to the publisher. I then forgot about Frank Cullotta, at least for a while.
When chatting with Dennis Arnoldy a few months later an idea popped into my head. I asked him if Cullotta had ever thought about writing his life story. I opined that it would probably be a great read if he would be willing to be totally candid. Dennis said he’d ask Frank and let me know. Not too long after I got my answer: Frank had been thinking about doing his bio for several years. He’d already recorded cassette tapes of his memories and had them transcribed. Now he was looking for a writer and wanted to meet with me.
After my initial excitement over the news faded, doubts began to surface. Cullotta had been a thug, thief, arsonist and murderer. All things I’d been against my entire adult life. If we reached an agreement about doing a book, would I be able to bring myself to work closely with him? I pushed those thoughts from my mind as I awaited my chance to meet the confessed killer in the flesh.
I learned almost immediately that when working with Frank, security was first and foremost. For our initial meeting, Dennis Arnoldy told me the day Frank would be in Vegas, but not the time or place we’d get together. I got those details one hour before we met in a hotel room of a major casino. Dennis also informed me that I wouldn’t be able to learn Frank’s new identity, business, location or phone number. Any communication between Frank and me would have to go through Dennis.
Once inside the hotel room, Dennis introduced me to Frank Cullotta. He wasn’t a particularly imposing figure physically, although he looked like he could still take care of himself in a tussle. As we talked, what impressed me most about him was his demeanor. He talked about crimes he had committed, including murder, with no more emotion than a couple of co-workers standing around the office water cooler discussing the weather. I thought of the line from The Godfather: This is nothing personal. It’s strictly business.
After two hours, Frank and I reached an agreement. He’d provide the details of his career as a criminal and I’d do the writing. The story would begin on the streets of Chicago, and go through his days in Las Vegas, life as a government witness, and his involvement in the production of the movie Casino. All the criminal activity he would admit to would be that for which he had been granted immunity or the statute of limitations had long since run. We were in agreement that candor was key. His account had to provide information previously unknown to the general public and be as accurate as humanly possible. As the meeting wore on I became ever more confident that Frank was being up front with me and would fulfill his end of the bargain. We ironed out the financial arrangements and sealed our deal with a handshake.
The project wasn’t very far along before it became clear that our method of communication wasn’t adequate. I needed to be in touch with Frank frequently, sometimes several times a day. Routing everything through Dennis Arnoldy was simply too cumbersome, resulting in delays and frustration for all of us. I was given a special phone number to contact Frank directly. That simplified the process, but also provided a clue as to Frank’s location. That meant I now had a role in Frank’s security, a fact that Dennis made sure I understood.
My easier access to Frank certainly helped, but on occasion using the phone or mail wasn’t sufficient. There were times when getting together in person was the only way to go. We decided that the best place to have our meetings would be at my place. My wife, nicknamed Bear, wasn’t particularly enthused about me getting involved with Frank in the first place. When I announced his initial visit she was not a happy camper. The day Frank showed up, he came in one door and Bear went out the other. Eventually though, they’ve become buddies and she now looks forward to his calls and trips to town.
In summary, although there have been a few bumps along the way, co-authoring CULLOTTA has been an experience I wouldn’t trade, regardless of how the book sells.