Archive for August, 2008

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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Skimming the Las Vegas Casinos — Part I

August 18, 2008

Much has been written and there have been several documentaries about various organized-crime families taking cash — “skimming” — from Las Vegas casinos. The skim money was removed from the casino prior to it officially being entered into the books as revenue. Taxes weren’t paid on this unreported income, a fact on which the Internal Revenue Service frowned. The casinos involved in these illegal operations became the equivalent of piggy banks for the Midwest crime bosses.

 

Prior to delving into the skim while writing The Battle for Las Vegas, I considered it as being relatively dry and boring financial crimes. I didn’t realize the amount of violence and intimidation involved to launch and maintain the scams. And I had no idea of the immense investigative effort it took to bring the perpetrators before the bar of justice. However, it wasn’t long before I understood that if it weren’t for the mob’s hidden ownership of and control over the casinos, and the need to protect the status quo, there may never have been a Tony Spilotro and his gang in Las Vegas. So, although Tony wasn’t one of the inside men in the casinos, the skim operations were part and parcel of the Spilotro era.

 

My research focused on the skims run in the casinos owned by the Argent Corporation and the Tropicana. These facilities were the subject of two major investigations, called Strawman 1 and 2. Many of the same players were involved with skimming from both the Argent properties and the Trop, but the courts ruled that these were separate conspiracies. There were separate indictments, trials, and convictions. Some of the participants entered into plea deals and testified against their colleagues. Others gave testimony as unindicted co-conspirators. Several top mobsters from the Midwest went to prison.

 

A continuation of the Strawman investigations was called Strawman-Trans Sterling. This operation zeroed in on the Trans Sterling Corporation, another mob-controlled company that purchased Argent’s casino holdings, and resulted in more gangsters going to prison.

 

From a law enforcement standpoint, these investigations and subsequent convictions marked the end of organized crime’s influence over the Las Vegas casinos.

 

I believe you will find the story of the Vegas skim to be as interesting as I did. However, due to the volume of information it’s necessary that I break my presentation into three segments. I’ll begin by explaining how the skim was structured and why it was necessary for multiple crime families to work together to loot the casinos. I’ll also introduce the main criminal players and explaining the involvement of the Teamster Central States Pension Fund. In the subsequent articles I’ll address the specific method of skimming the Trop and the FBI’s investigative efforts, both nationally and by the Las Vegas field office.  

 

The Families

 

Four Midwest organized-crime families were involved in the hidden ownership and skimming of the Argent-controlled casinos and the Tropicana: Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. They each had ownership and control of, and/or participated in the illegal removal of cash from, the involved gaming establishments. Although all four shared in the money taken from the Tropicana, the courts ruled that it was a Kansas City operation and that the other three families weren’t involved in the covert ownership of that casino.

 

Allen Glick’s Argent Corporation was a different story than the Tropicana. Glick had a clean criminal record and could withstand the background check conducted by Nevada gaming regulators. So being the owner of record of multiple casinos wouldn’t be a problem. But he needed a large amount of money in order to purchase the Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda, and Marina. And at a time when not many reputable financial institutions were willing to invest in Vegas, the best source of that funding was the Teamster Central States Pension Fund (CSPF). Three of the four families — Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Cleveland — held influence over one or more of the CSPF trustees or union officials. Since any one trustee could veto the loans, cooperation among the families was necessary to assure the trustees and officials were all on board and that Glick got the money he needed. In return for their assistance in obtaining the funding, the families had effective control of Argent, with Glick serving as their front man. Shortly after the skim began a dispute developed between Kansa City and Milwaukee. Chicago intervened and resolved the matter, then joined the conspiracy, taking a 25% cut of the action.

 

For the mobsters, it began as a marriage made in heaven. For gaming authorities and law enforcement, it was a nightmare. The lawmen came to realize that like a malignant tumor, the influence of organized crime in the Las Vegas casinos had to be cut out and destroyed. However, once the malignancy had taken root, removing it was easier said than done.

 

 

The Main Mob Players

 

The Chicago Outfit was the dominant family operating in Las Vegas. The two most powerful mobsters in Chicago at that time were Joe Aiuppa and Tony Accardo, the same men who had sent Tony Spilotro to Vegas. In addition, other members involved in the family’s Las Vegas business dealings were underboss John Cerone, West Side boss Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo, Angelo LaPietra, and Allen Dorfman.

 

Kansas City, under the leadership of Nick Civella and his brother Carl, contributed underboss Carl “Tuffy” DeLuna, Anthony Chiavola, Sr., and Joe Agosto to the conspiracies. Although Chiavola resided in Chicago, he was a nephew of the Civella brothers and was more closely associated with their group.

 

Nick Civella was born Guiseppe Civello in Kansas City in 1927. At the age of 10 he was brought before juvenile authorities for “incorrigibility.” By the time he was 20, Nick had dropped out of school and had a lengthy arrest record for crimes such as car theft, gambling, and robbery. In 1957 he attended the infamous “gangland convention” in Apalachin, New York.

 

Due to his criminal history, Nick Civella was among the first people to be placed in Nevada’s “black book,” barring him from entering Nevada’s casinos. Undeterred by his exclusion, Civella frequently visited Las Vegas wearing wigs and fake beards to fool state gaming officials. During these forays, he usually stayed at the Tropicana or Dunes.

 

In Milwaukee, boss Frank “Frankie Bal” Balistrieri was the first mobster to be contacted by Allen Glick regarding the Teamster loans for Argent. Balistrieri’s mob had control of the loan sharking, bookmaking, and vending-machine businesses in their city. Balistrieri himself had been convicted of income-tax evasion in 1967 and served two years in federal prison. During Frank’s absence, Peter Balistrieri, his brother and underboss, ran the show.

 

Milton Rockman represented Cleveland. He served as a bagman for the delivery of the purloined money, and as a liaison person for Kansas City’s Carl DeLuna.

 

These talented criminals and their minions put together a plan that took millions of dollars from Las Vegas and put the money into their own pockets.

 

 

Nick and Roy

 

In addition to his clout in Kansas City and with other mobsters around the country, Nick Civella had something else working for him: He was able to influence the decisions of the Teamster Central States Pension Fund through his control of Roy Williams, a Teamster official and its eventual president.

 

Williams, a decorated World War II combat veteran, returned to Kansas City after the war and resumed his job as a truck driver. He also became heavily involved in the Teamsters and rose through the leadership ranks with the backing of another rising star, Jimmy Hoffa.

 

Hoffa picked Williams to take over a troubled local in Wichita, and later Kansas City’s Local 41. It was then that he met Nick Civella and they became close personal friends. In 1952, Williams attended a secret meeting of Midwest mob leaders in Chicago, where Williams agreed to run the Kansas City Teamsters and in turn cooperate with his organized-crime friends. Williams discussed all major union problems with Civella before making a decision. If the two men couldn’t agree on a subject, Hoffa ordered Williams to “do what Nick wants.”

 

Hoffa was pleased with the way Williams worked with Civella and followed instructions. He rewarded his underling by appointing him as a trustee of the Central States Pension Fund. It was a powerful position, and Nick Civella certainly approved of his lackey occupying it.

 

When Frank Balistrieri needed help in assuring Argent got the Teamster money it needed, he knew Nick Civella would be able to deliver.

 

 

Argent

 

Allen R. Glick was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1942. He served in the military as a helicopter pilot during the war in Vietnam and later turned up in the San Diego area as a land developer. In early 1974, Glick contacted Frank Balistrieri in Milwaukee, seeking assistance in obtaining loans from the Central States Pension Fund to finance Argent’s purchase of several Las Vegas casinos. Balistrieri brought Kansas City and Cleveland into the deal, with Chicago joining a short time later, in order to assure that the CSPF trustees whom they controlled would vote the right way. The loan was approved. Between the initial loan of $62 million and subsequent loans, Argent received approximately $146 million in Teamster money.

 

The financing came with strings attached, of course. After Glick purchased the casinos, he was required to install Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal in a management position at Argent. From that post Rosenthal ran casino operations and facilitated the skim. The Stardust and Fremont were the casinos from which the thefts took place.

 

Carl DeLuna (Kansas City), an efficient overseer, was assigned to monitor the Vegas action and make sure each family received its fair share of the proceeds. In that role, he was one of the most trusted men in American organized crime. He also maintained regular contact with the other groups through Angelo LaPietra (Chicago) and Milton Rockman (Cleveland). To assure everything was done on the up and up, at least as far as the gangsters were concerned, DeLuna kept records — detailed written records.

 

The skimmed cash was removed from casino count rooms by couriers with full access to those sensitive areas. These men weren’t challenged, or even acknowledged, by other employees as they entered, made their withdrawals, and departed. The currency they took was never logged in and there was no official record of it. For all practical purposes, it was as though the money never existed. The loot was then delivered to LaPietra in Chicago. He kept a portion for the Outfit and passed the balance along to Anthony Chiavola, Sr. and Milton Rockman for delivery to their respective families.

 

The scheme was relatively simple and went smoothly, at least at the start. But after a while it became apparent that Allen Glick didn’t completely realize that he was only a powerless figurehead. He actually believed he could make major decisions regarding casino operations. He tried, and when he and Rosenthal clashed, Glick attempted to fire him. Lefty responded with a threat, prompting the naïve tycoon to complain to Frank Balistrieri. Bad move.

 

In March 1975, Glick was summoned to Kansas City to meet with Nick Civella. There, the boss explained the facts of life to him. The two men met in a hotel room where Civella announced that Glick owed the Kansas City family $1.2 million for its assistance in getting the CSPF loan approved. If Glick didn’t know it before, he quickly became aware that the mobsters considered the pension fund to be their private bank.

 

Glick later recalled what Civella told him. “Cling to every word I say … if it would be my choice you wouldn’t leave this room alive. You owe us $1.2 million. I want that paid. In addition, we own part of your corporation and you are not to interfere with it. We will let Mr. Rosenthal continue with the casinos and you are not to interfere.” 

 

The following year, Rosenthal started causing problems. His battles with Nevada gaming regulators were not only problematic, they were high-profile. The bosses had a good thing going in Vegas and wanted to stay below the radar screen. The unwanted publicity made some of the higher-ups nervous.

 

But as the months passed, Lefty’s difficulties and the related media coverage only intensified. The bosses held conversations to discuss whether Rosenthal should be replaced and, if so, should the removal be on a permanent basis. Although some favored that resolution, Lefty was allowed to stay on and continue his struggle with the licensing officials.

 

By March 1978, Allen Glick was getting on everyone’s nerves. He was particularly unpopular with Nick Civella. The Kansas City chief decided that Glick needed to go, but was willing to let him get out while still breathing. A buyout proposal in the amount of $10 million was delivered to Glick through Frank Rosenthal. Glick turned down the offer, another ill-advised decision.

 

On April 25, Carl DeLuna flew to Las Vegas to give Glick a message from Nick Civella. The Civella family frequently used its attorney’s office in Kansas City — without the lawyer himself present — to hold sensitive meetings. They knew there was little chance that the locale would be bugged and they could talk freely. Following that practice, DeLuna, Glick, and Rosenthal got together in Oscar Goodman’s office, sans Goodman. Allen Glick later testified about that meeting.

 

“I entered Mr. Goodman’s office and behind Mr. Goodman’s desk with his feet up was Mr. DeLuna. Mr. DeLuna, in a gruff voice, using graphic terms, told me to sit down. With that he pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket … and he looked down at the paper for a few seconds. Then he informed me he was sent to deliver one final message from his partners. And then he began reading the paper. He said he and his partners were finally sick of having to deal with me and having me around and that I could no longer be tolerated. He informed me it was their desire to have me sell Argent Corporation immediately and I was to announce that sale as soon as I left Mr. Goodman’s office that day. He said he realized that the threats I received perhaps may not have been taken by me as serious as they were given to me. And he said that since perhaps I find my life expendable, he was certain I wouldn’t find my children’s lives expendable. With that he looked down on his paper and gave me the names and ages of each of my sons.”

 

Less than two months after that meeting, Glick publicly announced his intention to sell Argent. In December 1979, the corporation was sold to the Trans Sterling Corporation, another company with mob ties. Although Argent was no longer the licensee, it did remain an entity, thanks to the mortgage it held on the casinos. Kansas City continued to share in the skimmed proceeds without interference from the new owners. This arrangement continued until around 1983, when indictments were issued against the Argent conspirators. Allen Glick was out of the gambling business, but he and his sons were still alive.

 

Next: Skimming the Trop and the FBI goes on the offensive.

The Death of Frank Bluestein

August 2, 2008

The Death of Frank Bluestein

A justified use of deadly force or a police execution?

 

In 1980, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was engaged in an intense investigation of Chicago Outfit made man and enforcer Tony Spilotro. The Outfit was the dominant organized crime family in Sin City at the time, and Spilotro had been keeping an eye on their interests there since 1971. This era was dramatized in the 1995 movie Casino, starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone.

Part of the police strategy was to keep Spilotro and his gang under almost constant surveillance. The detectives often conducted their observations overtly, as a method of keeping pressure on the gangsters and limiting their ability to engage in criminal activity.

That June an incident tool place in Las Vegas that had repercussions all the way to Chicago: Metro detectives shot and killed the son of a local labor union official who was a reputed Spilotro associate. The shooting generated accusations of a police execution, multiple civil lawsuits, and murder contracts being issued on the two detectives involved.

In Casino, a scene based on this incident shows a man exiting a vehicle holding a foil-wrapped hero sandwich. The pair of plain clothes detectives tailing him mistake the sandwich for a gun and shoot the man dead. When they realize their error, they plant a “drop piece” to make it appear the victim had been armed and the shooting was justified.

While researching for my book The Battle for Las Vegas – The Law vs. the Mob, this was one of the occurrences I wanted to explore in detail. Sources of information were limited, however. There had been no independent witnesses to the shooting. The only people still living who had been present at the scene were the two now-retired detectives. I was able to interview both of them, and their stories were supported by the results of the coroner’s inquest. I also talked with several of their former co-workers. According to those sources, both officers were professional lawmen, and had been involved in other situations in which they could have fired their weapons had they been pre-disposed to do so. They didn’t.  

In the following paragraphs, I’ll provide the account of the shooting and its aftermath that resulted from my research for Battle. After that I’ll introduce information that came to light subsequently, and which provides additional corroboration for that scenario. 

 

The Shooting

 

On the evening of June 9, 1980, Detective David Groover and Sergeant Gene Smith were conducting another routine surveillance of the Tony Spilotro gang. On that night they were camped outside the Upper Crust pizza parlor and the adjoining My Place bar, located at Flamingo Road and Maryland Parkway. Tony’s pal and right-hand man, Frank Cullotta, was co-owner of the restaurant. Both establishments had become hangouts for the mobsters. Spilotro, Cullotta, and one of their associates were sitting at a table outside the Upper Crust, but nothing exciting was going on. For the two veteran cops, it had all the makings of another uneventful shift.

“We put in a lot of long tedious hours watching those guys. But in that kind of work things could change very quickly, and that night they did,” David Groover said in 2003.

The changes began when a 1979 Lincoln with Illinois license plates pulled into a parking space in front of the eatery. The operator of the vehicle went inside, apparently to order a pizza to go, then came back out and joined Spilotro and the others at the table. They talked for several minutes until the new guy’s pizza was ready. At that point he got back in the Lincoln and drove away. The detectives weren’t sure who this new player was, but it was obvious that he was acquainted with the mobsters. Smith and Groover decided to follow the Lincoln to see what information they could gather about who the driver was and what he was up to.

“As soon as he pulled out onto Flamingo he started speeding, doing eighty or better, and driving recklessly. I was driving our unmarked car and Gene was in the passenger seat,” Groover remembered.

“Eventually, we figured we had enough probable cause on the traffic violations to pull the car over and check out the driver. By that time we were on McLeod near a new housing development called Sunrise Villas, and the Lincoln had slowed to the speed limit. I put the red light on the dash and activated it for the guy to pull over. The Lincoln turned onto Engresso, the street running into the development, went past an unmanned security booth, and stopped several yards beyond. I parked behind him, got out of the car and approached the Lincoln, verbally identifying myself as a police officer and displaying my badge. As I neared the other car, it pulled away at slow speed, stopping again a short distance away. I got back in our car and followed, angling the police car in and again getting out and approaching the Lincoln. This time Gene got out and took up a position by our passenger door.”

At that time, Groover and Smith didn’t know the Lincoln was being driven by Frank Bluestein, a 35-year-old maitre d’ at the Hacienda Hotel & Casino, one of the properties controlled by the Chicago Outfit. Also known as Frank Blue, Bluestein and his girlfriend lived in Sunrise Villas. His father, Steve Bluestein, was an official in the local Culinary Union and had been the subject of a 1978 search warrant as part of the FBI’s investigation of Tony Spilotro.

Groover continued, “This time as I neared the Lincoln the driver lowered his window. I again identified myself and displayed my badge. Suddenly Gene hollered, ‘Watch out, Dave! He’s got a gun.’ I returned to our car and took up a position behind the driver’s door. Gene and I continued to yell at the guy that we were cops and to put down his gun. He never said a word, but instead of getting rid of the weapon, he turned slightly in his seat, opened his door, and started to get out of the car. The gun was still in his hand and aimed toward Gene. Believing the guy was about to shoot, Gene and I opened fire.”

The shots rang out at approximately 11:45 p.m. and several rounds struck Bluestein. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died a couple of hours later. A .22 handgun was recovered at the scene. But as far as the Bluestein family, Tony Spilotro, and attorney Oscar Goodman were concerned, this was not a justified use of deadly force. It was a police execution, with the cops planting a gun on their victim to add legitimacy to their actions.

It was a time that David Groover will never forget. “There was a real firestorm over the Bluestein shooting. We were accused of murdering the guy, planting a gun, and all that stuff. We ran a check on the gun Bluestein had and traced it to his brother, Ronald. The gun had been purchased in Chicago. That pretty much blew the planted-gun charge out of the water. We didn’t release that information right away, though. We waited until the coroner’s inquest to make it public.”

Less than two weeks later, a coroner’s jury ruled the death of Frank Bluestein to be a case of justifiable homicide. The cops were okay in that regard, but the verdict didn’t prevent the filing of numerous civil suits against them. One was a $22 million whopper accusing the cops of violating Bluestein’s civil rights. All of the cases were eventually decided in favor of the police, but the civil- rights suit dragged on for five long years.

As the civil actions were being filed, Groover and Smith knew they had acted appropriately and were confident they would prevail in the end. Other than the annoyance of dealing with the lawsuits, they weren’t overly concerned. But they learned a few months later that whatever was being done to them by the Bluestein family’s attorneys was the least of their worries.

 

The Contracts

 

The courts are the legal mechanism for people seeking to redress perceived wrongs. The courts were used to go after the police in the Bluestein shooting case. But after the cops were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the coroner’s inquest, some people apparently didn’t feel the pending civil actions would provide the justice they sought. In late February 1981, Metro was informed by the FBI’s Chicago office that they’d picked up credible information that murder contracts had been put out on the lives of David Groover and Gene Smith. The two Intelligence Bureau officers were marked for death and a pair of hit men from Chicago was on their way to do the job. After stopping in Denver to obtain a clean weapon, the would-be cop killers would soon be in Las Vegas.

The news caught Metro by surprise. The mob tries to best the police by corrupting them or outsmarting them, not by killing them. People who prefer to stay below the law’s radar screen rarely order the murders of two cops. It brings down too much heat.

Kent Clifford, former commander of the Intel Bureau, remembers when he first heard about the contracts. “For quite a while after the Bluestein shooting there had been a verbal battle in the press between the department and the Bluestein lawyers. There had also been several civil cases filed, and I thought that was all that was going on. Then we got word that Groover and Smith are going to be killed.

“I went berserk. Spilotro knew my goal was to put him in prison for the rest of his life; I’d told him that more than once. We were adversaries, but there were certain rules we played by. You didn’t put contracts out on cops. And even if Tony didn’t actually order the hits, he damn sure knew about them. Nothing like that was done in Las Vegas without Spilotro’s knowledge and approval.”

Although Clifford, Groover and Smith, believed Tony Spilotro was involved in the threat one way or another, they were quite sure the hit men were acting on behalf of the Bluesteins. 

“I moved my family out of state for their protection,” Gene Smith recalls. “Cops were assigned to stay at my house. We were waiting for those guys [the alleged hit men] when they hit town and checked in at the Fremont Hotel downtown. They were under surveillance around the clock. One of the people they met with was Ron Bluestein, Frank’s brother. The supposed hit men were in Vegas for about a week, but only came near my place once. They stopped a couple of blocks away, then left the area. I don’t know what happened; maybe they got cold feet. We eventually confronted them and had a little chat. They headed back to Chicago almost immediately.”

But the police wanted more than to have the potential killers leave town. They believed the Bluesteins were behind the contracts and wanted them held accountable. In an effort to build a case against them, after the hit men arrived in town an application was made to wiretap the phone of Steve Bluestein. The tap was approved, but only after an altercation with the Clark County District Attorney, Bob Miller.

“The DA didn’t like to use wiretaps and I had other issues with him besides,” Kent Clifford said. “When we met to discuss the matter, he asked me why I didn’t like him. I said it wasn’t that I didn’t like him. It was that I had raw intelligence information that he was associating with one of the people who had organized the skim from the casinos. The DA said the guy was an old friend and that there was nothing the matter with them socializing. I argued that in his position as DA, he shouldn’t have that kind of a relationship with an organized crime figure. He said I could think what I wanted, but the association would continue.

“While the wiretap was running we made reports to the judge who had issued the warrant. On the second day of the tap, he told me that a high-ranking member of the DA’s office had called him and asked that the tap be shut down. After our conversation the judge refused the request. The next day a piece appeared in the Las Vegas Sun stating that an informant told them about the Bluestein wiretap. When that article appeared, Bluestein’s phone went dead. Besides Metro, the only other people who were aware of the tap were the DA’s office and the judge.” 

The investigation of the Bluesteins failed to result in any charges being filed.

Although the immediate threat to his detectives was over, Kent Clifford was concerned that someone else might show up to make an attempt on the lives of Groover and Smith. In Clifford’s mind, the only way to remove the danger once and for all was to have the contracts lifted. He was also reasonably confident that Spilotro had authorized the hits on his own and his bosses in Chicago weren’t aware of them. But there was only one way to find out for certain. In an unprecedented move, Clifford decided that he needed to go to Chicago and have a face-to-face with Tony’s superiors.

 

Trip to the Windy City

 

Commander Clifford took his plan to Sheriff John McCarthy, who agreed that Clifford and another detective could make the trip to Chicago. Distrusting the DA’s office, they decided not to consult with them or inform them of the pending visit. The department would pick up the tab for the plane fare; the officers had to pay for their own accommodations.

Clifford next called the FBI in Chicago and obtained the home addresses of Outfit bosses Joe Aiuppa, Tony Accardo, and Joseph Lombardo. It was time to head east.

In March, Clifford and his previous partner, Galen Kester, boarded a plane for Chicago. The people they planned to talk with were violent individuals, and meeting with them could prove dangerous. Both Clifford and Kester carried handguns in their briefcases in the event things didn’t go well. The cops checked into a motel and were on the road in a rental car early the next morning. Their first stop was at the home of Joseph “Doves” Aiuppa, the current head of the Chicago Outfit.

Kent Clifford recalls that eventful and sometimes frustrating day. “Aiuppa wasn’t home when we arrived; only his wife was there and she wouldn’t let us in. I told her it was very important that I talk with her husband. I left her the phone number for our motel and asked her to make sure he called me.

“Our next visit was to the home of Joseph ‘Joey the Clown’ Lombardo. He wasn’t home either, but his wife invited us into the house and we talked for about ten minutes. We left the same message with her as with Mrs. Aiuppa. From there we stopped at Tony Accardo’s, but he was out, too. Three stops and three misses.”

Not ready to give up, Clifford remembered a man from Chicago who had visited Spilotro in Las Vegas and was known to be mob-connected. He contacted the local FBI office and obtained the office address for Allen Dorfman.

Dorfman ran a business as an insurance broker, but his real forte was obtaining Teamster Pension Fund money to finance the Outfit’s Las Vegas interests. He’d been tried along with Jimmy Hoffa in 1964 for diverting pension-fund money for their personal use. Dorfman was acquitted, but Hoffa was found guilty. The broker was convicted in 1971 of accepting a $55,000 kickback to arrange a Teamster loan and spent nine months in prison. Not long after getting out of stir he was a co-defendant with Tony Spilotro and Joe Lombardo on another pension-fund-related fraud charge. All three got off the hook when the government’s chief witness against them was murdered.

“When we got to Dorfman’s office I walked past the reception desk looking for him. The secretary said I couldn’t do that and I told her to watch me. I guess it was quite an entrance,” Clifford continued. “Anyway, we got to see Dorfman and explained the situation to him. He said to go back to the motel and someone would be in touch.

“That afternoon a lawyer representing the mobsters called. I ran the whole scenario by him and requested a personal meeting with his clients. He said he’d talk with them and get back to me. He called back a while later and said there would be a meeting that evening, but I wasn’t invited. Although that didn’t make me very happy, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. I told the lawyer to relay a message to his clients just like I gave it to him. I said, ‘If you kill my cops I’ll bring forty men back here and kill everything that moves, walks, or crawls around all the houses I visited today. And that is not a threat, but a promise.’ The lawyer said he’d deliver my message exactly as I gave it. If the contracts were lifted, he said I’d get a phone message saying, ‘Have a safe journey home, Commander.’ If I didn’t get a call, it meant all bets were off.

“I dozed off and around two in the morning the phone rang. A voice I couldn’t identify told me to have a safe trip home. The contracts were lifted.”

 

Frank Cullotta weighs in

 

Shortly after Battle was released in July 2006, I had the opportunity to meet Tony Spilotro’s former friend and lieutenant, Frank Cullotta. The two men had a falling out in 1982 and a contract was issued on Cullotta’s life. Facing the likelihood of death at the hands of the mob or life in prison, Cullotta flipped and became a government witness. Now out of the federal Witness Protection Program and living under a new identity, Cullotta was looking for an author to write his biography. We reached an agreement and CULLOTTA was published in July 2007.

While Cullotta and I were working on the manuscript, I asked him about the night Frank Bluestein was killed. I reminded him that the Bluestein family had originally contended that Frank had been unarmed the night he was shot, and a gun was planted on him by the police. After it was revealed that the gun had been purchased by the dead man’s brother, the family altered their position. They then said Frank had never held a gun in his life. Even if the weapon had been in the car, he certainly wasn’t aware of it. The pistol had no doubt been found when the cops searched Bluestein’s car after the shooting.

Following is Cullotta’s recollection of what transpired while Bluestein was at the Upper Crust minutes before his death:

“Tony, I and another guy, were sitting at a table outside the restaurant. We knew the cops were watching us. In fact, we made gestures at them to make sure they knew they’d been detected.  It was a game that we played all the time.”

The baiting was interrupted when a white and blue Lincoln pulled in and Frank Bluestein got out of the car. Bluestein was acquainted with the gangsters through his father, Steve. He’d moved into town from Chicago a few months earlier and was working in the showroom of the Hacienda. He went inside and ordered a pizza to go, and then came out and joined Frank and Tony.

After exchanging pleasantries Frank said to him, “I see you’ve still got Illinois plates on your car. Are you going to get a Nevada registration?”

“Someday I will. I just haven’t had the time yet.”

“You’d better get it done pretty soon,” Frank warned. “These fuckin’ cops here are real cowboys. Any time they see a car with Illinois plates they think you’re a gangster from Chicago.”

“You know, I think somebody’s been following me around,” Bluestein said.

“It’s probably the goddamn cops,” Frank told him.

“No, I don’t think so; I think it’s somebody looking to rob me. Anyway, I’ve got a gun in the car. If anybody tries anything I’ll be able to take care of myself.”

“Do yourself a favor. Get that gun the fuck out of your car. I’m telling you these fucking cops are nuts. If they think you’ve got a gun they’ll shoot you,” Frank said.

When Bluestein’s pizza was ready he got up to leave. “Get rid of that piece and get the right plates on your car,” Frank warned again as Bluestein walked away.

About twenty minutes later, the waitress told Tony he had an important phone call. Tony went inside and came back out with a shocked look on his face. He said, “That was Herb Blitzstein [a Chicago criminal who had joined Spilotro in Vegas] on the phone; the cops just killed Frankie Blue.”

 

 

Based on Cullotta’s account, Frank Bluestein not only knew there was a gun was in the car, he was prepared to use it if he felt threatened. Is it possible he mistook the cops—who were in plain clothes and driving an unmarked car with Arizona plates—for the robbers he thought were following him?

Many years from now when I get the opportunity to interview Frank Bluestein in the next life, that’s the first question I’m going to ask him.