From 1967 through 1982, Frank Rosenthal was a main player in the mob-controlled casinos of Las Vegas. He was the real power behind the Chicago Outfit’s front man Allen Glick, calling the shots from the Outfit’s headquarters at the Stardust Hotel & Casino. Rosenthal’s role in Sin City was dramatized in the 1995 movie Casino, in which actor Robert DeNiro played a character based on him. DeNiro’s co-star, Joe Pesci, portrayed Rosenthal’s buddy-turned-enemy, Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro.
Although Lefty died of natural causes at his Florida home on October 13, his life had nearly been claimed by violence on at least two occasions during his Vegas heyday. He knew about one of those instances for sure, and may or may not have been aware of the other.
I’ll talk about those incidents shortly. But I’ll begin with a little background on Mr. Rosenthal.
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 Chicago 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.
Spilotro’s function in Vegas was to serve as Rosenthal’s muscle should anyone threaten the mob’s casino interests, including the lucrative cash-skimming operations that provided millions of dollars to the crime bosses. However, Tony was an ambitious guy and wasn’t satisfied to just hang around until Lefty needed his help. In short order he became involved in street crimes ranging from loansharking, robbery, burglary, and arson for hire, to murder.
As Tony’s power grew, he brought in other heavies to give him a hand. One of those was Frank Cullotta, an accomplished thief, arsonist and killer, from Chicago. Cullotta assembled a crew of crooks and murderers that became known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. Tony and his boys ruled the Las Vegas underworld.
As Tony’s influence expanded, so did his ego. He wanted even more power and sought Rosenthal’s support; but the bookie refused. That was a sure way to get on Spilotro’s bad side. And a rift developed between the two men. The situation became even more complicated when Tony began having an affair with Lefty’s wife, Geri. As time passed, Tony came to despise Lefty.
And Rosenthal was having other problems as well. He was locked in a battle with the Nevada Gaming Control Board over obtaining a gaming license. The Board was aware of his associations with organized crime figures—including Spilotro—and didn’t want to grant him a license. Lefty tried to bypass the licensing requirements by using various job titles, such as the Director of Food & Beverage and Entertainment Director. Those moves bought him some time, but would eventually be unsuccessful and end his career as one of the most powerful casino men in Las Vegas.
While this was going on, the relationship between Tony and Lefty deteriorated to a critical point. Tony told Cullotta that if not for Rosenthal’s standing with the mob bosses he’d “whack the Jew bastard.” However, as Lefty’s problems with the gaming regulators increased, his value to the Outfit decreased. Tony became more serious about getting rid of Lefty and began preparations.
Frank Cullotta recalls the conversation in which Tony informed him that he might want Rosenthal hit:
“I’ve got a job I might need to have done,” Tony said. “I want you to prepare for it. Make sure Larry [gang member Larry Neumann] is ready to go and get one other guy. Who else can you get?”
“What’s the job?”
“I might want to get rid of the Jew [Rosenthal].”
“For something like that, I can have Wayne [gang associate and killer Wayne Matecki] come in from Chicago.”
“I’m not sure right now I want to do this, so don’t do anything until I tell you. I’m going to bring in a couple of other guys, one from California and the other from Arizona. They’re going to dig a big hole in the desert. They’ll cover it with plywood and dirt. You’ll know where the hole is, because I’ll take you there and show you. When I’m ready to get rid of the Jew, I’ll tell you. Then you scoop him up from the street. Don’t kill him on the street, Frankie. Kill him when you get to the grave we’re going to dig. Then dump him in and cover him up. That will be the end of that.”
For reasons unknown to Cullotta, Tony never gave the final order. Lefty knew Spilotro detested him and was capable of killing him. But it is doubtful that he knew his erstwhile friend had actually set a plan in motion.
However, Lefty had a near death experience that he was painfully aware of on October 4, 1982, when he 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, though. 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.
Who was responsible for the attempt on Lefty’s life? The theories vary. Those who believe Tony Spilotro was behind the incident admit that the Tony wasn’t known for using explosives. But they argue that he had motive and could have brought in an outside expert to handle the bombing. Others think the Chicago bosses, with pressure from their Kansas City colleagues, ordered the hit because they felt Lefty might turn on them and begin cooperating with the authorities. Those who support this idea point out that car bombings were common in assassinations by mob families throughout the Midwest.
Others attribute the bombing to Geri Rosenthal’s biker-gang and drug friends in California. Their rationale is that Geri—who had fled to California after cleaning out the safety deposit boxes loaded with cash and jewelry—was rapidly going through the loot she’d left Las Vegas with. Her new associates no doubt 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.
The late Lefty Rosenthal has been described by many who dealt with him as having been extremely egotistical with an abrasive personality. He was not a very nice guy, according to them. With his passing, another chapter of Vegas history comes to a close.