Rosenthal’s stock with the Chicago Outfit and Tony Spilotro had been dwindling for some time. His highly publicized fight with the gaming authorities and his controversial television show hadn’t gone over very well in Chicago or with some of the other crime families. And the fiasco over Tony’s affair with Geri caused the bosses to be concerned about the judgment of both men. Spilotro was unhappy with his former buddy, because Lefty hadn’t backed his play to expand his power in Vegas and California. The situation with Geri had placed a further wedge between them.
Nick Civella, boss of the Kansas City mob that controlled the Tropicana, had been suspicious of Lefty for some time. He believed the gambler was way too friendly with the FBI, and might be acting as an informant. At one point Civella called Oscar Goodman and asked if he thought Lefty was crazy. The lawyer said he didn’t think Rosenthal was crazy, that he was okay. An FBI agent later testified at the mob chief’s racketeering trial that to Civella, “crazy” was code for “trustworthy?”
Goodman said he wasn’t aware of the dual meaning at the time. When he learned about it, he realized that had he given the wrong answer Lefty might have been killed. Still, was Rosenthal providing the authorities with information?
Attorney Goodman explained it this way: “There are snitches and then there are snitches. There is such a thing as a dry snitch, a person who talks to the FBI or police, but doesn’t necessarily say anything. I think Frank Rosenthal enjoyed playing with people in power. I think a lot of people played the game with him. But did he sit down and say, ‘Make a deal for me not to be prosecuted’? I don’t think so. I think he’d been through too much in his life to become a rat.”
The mob bosses may not have been sufficiently convinced that Lefty needed to be eliminated. Tony Spilotro was another matter. In mid-September, Metro picked up word that the Ant had ordered Lefty killed. Similar to the policy of their FBI colleagues, the cops were required to inform the potential victim that he was in danger. Gene Smith and his partner were tasked with telling Rosenthal.
“We found Lefty in a restaurant with some of his buddies,” Smith said. “I told him we’d like to talk with him in private. He said no. The other men were his friends and anything we had to say could be said in front of them. Under those circumstances, I said, ‘Okay, you’re going to be killed.’ We turned around and walked out, with a suddenly interested Lefty right on our heels. Outside the restaurant we told him the whole story. He didn’t believe it, though. We’d done what we had to do. Our obligation to Lefty was over.”
A couple of weeks later on the evening of October 4, Rosenthal left Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Sahara. He got into his Cadillac and turned the key in the ignition. In the past, this action had always resulted in the Caddy’s engine coming to life and settling into a smooth purr. Things were a bit different this time. A charge of C-4 explosive had been placed under the trunk next to the gas tank and wired to the ignition. When Lefty turned the key the bomb ignited. Had he been in any other car, the gambler would no doubt have been killed instantly. But the Caddy was built with a steel plate under the driver’s seat as standard equipment. The steel barrier diverted the blast toward the passenger side of the vehicle and gave Lefty a chance to jump out of the car before the interior became fully engulfed. The gas tank exploded seconds later, sending the car’s roof 60 feet into the air. The lucky Lefty escaped the inferno with only some singed clothes and minor injuries. He was alive, but someone had sent a strong message.
The day after the bombing Rosenthal called Metro and demanded police protection. Kent Clifford and Gene Smith went to Lefty’s house to discuss the situation. “I asked him what he’d do for us in return for protecting him,” Kent Clifford said. “His answer was, ‘Nothing.’ I told him I wasn’t going to put my men at risk under those circumstances. I tried to scare him into talking to us or the FBI by telling him he was a walking dead man. He decided to take his chances rather than cooperate, though.”
Who was responsible for the attempt on Lefty’s life? The theories varied among the lawmen. Those who believed Tony Spilotro was behind the incident admitted that the Ant wasn’t known for using explosives. But they argued that he had motive and could have brought in an outside expert to handle the bombing. Others thought Chicago, with pressure from Kansas City, had ordered the hit, because they felt Lefty was either already in bed with the authorities or soon would be. Those who supported this idea pointed out that car bombings were common in assassinations by mob families throughout the Midwest.
Some outside of law enforcement attributed Lefty’s near-death experience to Geri Rosenthal’s friends in California. Their rationale was that Geri was rapidly going through the money she’d left Las Vegas with. Her friends — comprised primarily of drug users, dealers, and biker gang members — believed she stood to gain a windfall from Lefty’s estate should he suffer a premature demise. In that case, the free-spending Geri would be able to support their bad habits for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it made sense that these unsavory characters would attempt to knock Lefty off.
Not long after the bombing, the gambler departed Las Vegas for California, and eventually Florida. Like so many of the killings and attempted killings in the realm of the mobsters, no one was ever charged in the attack.