Introduction to The Battle for Las Vegas

battle-jpg.jpgLas Vegas and its ties to organized crime are well-known, the subject of many books, TV documentaries, and movies. In my previous book, Policing Las Vegas A History of Law Enforcement in Southern Nevada, I wrote a section called “The Mob’s Man,” concerning the Las Vegas reign of Tony Spilotro, a made man of the Chicago crime family.

Tony and his wife Nancy, both 33-years-old at the time, and their five-year-old son Vincent, moved to Las Vegas in 1971. Known as a tough and ruthless gangland enforcer, he allegedly used intimidation, and sometimes murder, to protect Chicago’s criminal interests in Vegas until his own death in 1986. When he wasn’t acting directly on the Chicago family’s behalf, law enforcement believed that Tony ran a gang that committed lucrative street crimes, including loan sharking, robbery, burglary, and fencing stolen goods. Eventually his status required that he be paid a “street tax” — a kickback — from other criminal groups wanting to operate their own illegal enterprises. The word was that nothing happened in Vegas — from loan sharking to contract killings — without Tony’s knowledge and blessing.

The deeper I dug, the more intrigued I became with Tony Spilotro and the battle the law waged against him and his gang. It was a fight with tough men on both sides. I gathered enough information to complete that section of the book, but knew I’d only scratched the surface of the story.

Another area that captured my attention while writing Policing Las Vegas was the term of Sheriff John McCarthy. He won election as a reform candidate in 1978, defeating 17-year incumbent Ralph Lamb. However, his term in office was controversial and chaotic. Even before assuming office in January 1979, Sheriff McCarthy was sued by a group of Metro officers for announcing the promotions of several detectives and patrolmen to upper-management positions, over others with more rank, service time, and experience. That rocky start set the stage for what were the most divisive four years in Metro’s brief history.

A review of newspaper articles, records, and interviews with those who knew and worked for McCarthy, revealed to me the almost daily turmoil that dogged his term. There were major problems with the jail, an attempt to deconsolidate Metro, and allegations of discrimination, abuse of power by his officers, and corruption within the department. All this was followed by a nasty election campaign in which the incumbent was challenged by his former undersheriff, whom he’d once fired. For Sheriff McCarthy and Metro, these were indeed turbulent times.

What particularly intrigued me about those four years, however, was the juxtaposition of the McCarthy era and the Spilotro reign. One of the first things McCarthy did after being sworn in was to declare war on organized crime. He wanted Tony Spilotro and his kind run out of town, making it one of his priorities. At the same time, the FBI and the Department of Justice Strike Force were increasing the pressure on Spilotro and his men. The battle was joined; the law was after the bad guys.

It was a tale I wanted to tell. But would I be able to make it interesting and informative, rather than simply regurgitate the same stories written over the years? I decided that if I could locate the local and federal lawmen who had actually fought the battles, as well as others in the know, and get them to participate, I’d be able to produce a book that would be satisfying to the reader, perhaps plowing some new ground in the process.

After a few initial disappointments in my search for sources, my luck changed. The list of those willing to cooperate began to grow. In a relatively short time, I was satisfied that I’d find sufficient material to move forward with the project.      

I decided early on to concentrate on Spilotro’s alleged street-crime activities, with the well-publicized casino skimming operations receiving somewhat less attention. Then, near the beginning of my research, I learned that Tony had no direct involvement in the skim — except in enforcement matters — and probably didn’t even know the identities of the couriers who delivered the purloined cash to Chicago. Therefore, the discussion of those financial crimes is primarily limited to one section of this book.

The secondary focus of this endeavor is on the term of Sheriff McCarthy and the many wars he fought in addition to the one against organized crime. It’s my hope that the stories go hand in hand and meld together well.

Our journey starts with a brief history of Las Vegas. We then explore organized-crime’s early involvement there, starting with Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. After that is some background on the key figures of the Chicago La Cosa Nostra (LCN) of Tony’s days, the men who sent him to Las Vegas. Next I look at the early lives of Spilotro and his erstwhile pal, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal.  From there we move on to Tony’s era in Las Vegas and the law’s efforts to remove him.

Denny Griffin

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