Two of the key figures on the Las Vegas scene during the mob’s heyday were Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony “the Ant” Spilotro. They were both born in Chicago and grew up in the same neighborhoods, where they met and became friends. Each became involved with the Chicago Outfit in a different capacity. Rosenthal, because he was Jewish and ineligible to become a made man, was connected simply as an “associate.” Spilotro was a full-fledged member of the organized crime family. Nevertheless, both men became highly adept in their respective areas of expertise. Following is a brief look at their lives through 1971, when Spilotro imposed himself upon Rosenthal’s relatively peaceful life in Las Vegas.
Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was born in Chicago in 1929, the son of a produce wholesaler. However, his father’s business didn’t appeal to young Frank, who, as he grew up, became more interested in what was going on at racetracks and ballparks than in the price of oranges. His innate talent for sports wagering caught the attention of professionals, and at the age of 19 Frank was offered a job as a clerk with Bill Kaplan of the Angel-Kaplan Sports Service in Chicago.
Lefty developed his oddsmaking skills with the help of Kaplan and some illegal bookmakers, and he did so quickly. He was a natural when it came to formulating betting lines on sporting events. As the years passed, Rosenthal gained a reputation as one of the premier handicappers in the country, and a top earner for the Outfit’s illegal gambling operations. Lefty was on top of his game, but fame and fortune had their price.
In 1960, Rosenthal’s name appeared on a series of lists of known gamblers produced by the Chicago Crime Commission, and he decided it was time to get out of town. The following year Frank moved to Miami, hoping to keep a lower profile.
But his reputation and known affiliation with organized-crime had preceded him to Florida. It wasn’t long before the numbers guru came to the attention of the Senate’s McClellan Committee on gambling and organized crime.
In 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to look into illegal gambling activities. Lefty was called to testify before Senator McClellan’s committee. During his appearance, the bookmaker was less than candid, invoking the Fifth Amendment 37 times. A few months later, Rosenthal was among a large number of bookies and players arrested as part of an FBI crackdown on illegal gambling. The Miami police then got in on the act and were soon arresting the 32-year-old on a regular basis. The same cops who had initially turned a blind eye to his bookmaking activities were now putting on some big-time heat.
Things got worse for Rosenthal in 1962 when he was indicted for attempting to bribe a college basketball player. Although he maintained his innocence, he eventually pled no contest to the charges.
Despite his altercations with the law, Lefty persevered, and was still in Miami when his old buddy, Tony Spilotro, arrived in 1964. However, the FBI was keeping an eye on Rosenthal and the presence of Spilotro, a suspect in multiple murders in Chicago, only increased the gambler’s unwanted visibility and made his public life more difficult.
By 1966, Lefty had his fill of Miami and decided to move to a location where people in his line of work were treated with a little more respect. He settled on the booming gaming city in the desert, Las Vegas. Not long after his arrival in1967, he bought into the Rose Bowl Sports Book, later relocating on to the Strip and the mob-controlled Stardust. Lefty was moving up fast and his future looked bright. But in 1968, something happened that had a major impact on his life, and eventually the lives of several others. He fell in love.
Geri McGee moved from California to Las Vegas in the late 1950s. An attractive woman, she worked as a topless showgirl at the Tropicana and Dunes and as a cocktail waitress and hustler around the casinos. When Lefty met her it was love at first sight, at least on his part. He was in a hurry to tie the knot, but Geri had reservations about settling down. Her concerns faded when Lefty placed a hefty stash of cash and jewelry in a safe deposit box for her to keep if the marriage didn’t work out. The two were wed the following year.
Initially, everything went well for the newlyweds. Geri liked to spend money and her husband made plenty of it. But in 1970, Lefty was indicted again for bookmaking. This was the kind of thing that could jeopardize his eligibility to be licensed as a casino manager. His links to organized-crime figures posed a similar threat, since the Nevada Gaming Control Board was likely to deny licensing upon learning of such relationships Consequently, in 1971, as Lefty ascended to a manager’s position at the Stardust and struggled to keep his nose clean, it came as an unwelcome shock when his lifelong pal, the increasingly notorious Chicago gangster Tony Spilotro, moved into town.
Tony Spilotro was born in Chicago on May 19, 1938. He was the fourth of six sons born to Italian immigrants Patsy and Antoinette Spilotro. Patsy opened Patsy’s Restaurant at the corner of Grand and Ogden avenues. Although the eatery became a hangout for members of the Outfit, there’s no evidence that Patsy had any involvement in criminal activity.
Like Lefty Rosenthal, young Spilotro shunned involvement in his father’s business. The street interested him more than spaghetti. In school, he developed a reputation as a tough kid, bullying and intimidating classmates and teachers alike. Several of his fellow students said he exhibited the “little man’s syndrome.” Some speculate that his diminutive size, around five-feet-five, may have earned him the nickname “the Ant.” Others say it was simply short for Anthony. Nancy Spilotro isn’t sure where the name came from, and thinks it was a creation of the press. Another relative believes it’s a derivative of “pissant,” an epithet assigned to Tony by a Chicago cop. In any case, it was a handle Spilotro didn’t like.
By 1955, his father had passed away and Tony was thrown out of school for continued misconduct. Now on the streets full-time, Spilotro took up with other kids in the same situation. He was soon the scourge of the neighborhoods, stealing cars, robbing stores and developing a reputation for viciousness. When Tony was 18, his actions caught the attention of Sam “Mad Sam” DeStefano.
DeStefano was connected to the Outfit, and operated a loan-sharking business. He was known to friend and foe as being completely insane. When he dealt with his enemies, his depravity knew no bounds. Mad Sam preferred to use an ice pick on his victims, but wasn’t above slicing, shooting, or incinerating them, depending on his mood. Although he was unstable, the bosses kept him around; he was a good earner. In addition to being an accomplished torturer and killer, Sam had another talent. He could spot street kids who demonstrated the same capacity for brutality that he had. DeStefano liked what he saw in Tony Spilotro and recruited him as an enforcer; Spilotro accepted.
On January 15, 1961, Tony took a break from his normal activities to marry Nancy Stuart. Born in Milwaukee in 1938, she was living in Chicago when they met. According to John L. Smith’s book Of Rats and Men, while the Spilotros were on their honeymoon in Belgium, Tony was thrown out of the country for possession of burglary tools.
Back in Chicago, Tony continued to work as one of Sam’s heavies until 1962, when he got his big break. On May 15, two minor hoodlums named Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia committed a fatal offense. They killed a couple of Outfit-connected guys — the Scalvo brothers — without permission, and they did it in a mob-inhabited residential area that the bosses had declared off-limits for murders. The powers-that-be weren’t happy and wanted the culprits found and taken care of. The man who accomplished that task was bound to achieve an elevated status within the Outfit. Allegedly, Mad Sam suggested that Tony take a stab at it.
Opportunity had knocked and Tony wasn’t shy about opening the door. In short order, he and his associates picked up McCarthy, but they still needed the name and location of the other condemned man. Their prisoner declined to cooperate, despite a severe beating. Surely, they thought, an ice pick to the scrotum would loosen the stubborn man’s tongue, but it didn’t. Getting frustrated, Tony decided it was time to quit playing nice and really apply some pressure. For McCarthy, it proved to be an eye-opening experience.
Putting McCarthy’s head in a vise, Tony resumed the questioning. Unfortunately for his victim, Spilotro didn’t allow Fifth Amendment privileges during his interrogation sessions. Each time McCarthy refused to respond, Tony turned the handle on the vise, compressing McCarthy’s skull. He finally obtained a breakthrough when one of McCarthy’s eyeballs popped out. This was too much for the tough and loyal McCarthy to bear; he gave up Miraglia. The bodies of both men were later found in the trunk of an abandoned car in what became known as the M&M Murders. After this successful debut, Tony became a made man in the Outfit.
In 1963, Mad Sam got into a dispute with Leo Foreman, a real estate broker and one of his collectors. Not long after, Spilotro and an associate named Chuck Grimaldi reportedly lured Foreman to the home of Mario DeStefano, Sam’s brother, in Cicero. The two beat Foreman, then dragged him into the cellar, where Mad Sam was waiting. Skipping an exchange of pleasantries, Sam got right down to business. He took a hammer to Foreman’s knees, head, groin and ribs. Next came twenty ice-pick thrusts, followed by a bullet to the head. The realtor’s battered body was later found in the trunk of an abandoned car.
In 1964, with the heat mounting over the growing number of unsolved homicides in Chicago, the Spilotros spent some time in Miami. They had many friends and acquaintances there, including Frank Rosenthal. In 1966, they adopted their only child, an infant son, Vincent.
As the 1960s came to an end and the ´70s began, the Chicago bosses initiated a cash-skimming operation involving the Las Vegas casinos under their control. They covered themselves by installing a front man as the gambling establishments owner, and appointing Lefty Rosenthal to manage the properties and keep an eye on things. This ensured that the casino count rooms could be accessed and cash removed before ever being recorded as revenue.
Having businessmen in place was great in theory, but there was a lot of money involved, and Las Vegas was growing by leaps and bounds. What if somebody tried to skim the skim, or otherwise rocked the boat?
To protect its interests from such problems, the Outfit needed someone on the scene with special talents, someone whose reputation served to discourage anyone from pilfering or causing other difficulties. And if intimidation wasn’t enough, it had to be someone who wouldn’t hesitate to take any action necessary to resolve the situation.
There was no need to recruit for the position; one of the Outfit’s current members fit the criteria perfectly. Tony Spilotro was on his way to Sin City.