Archive for the ‘joe aiuppa’ Category

Las Vegas & the Mob

March 5, 2017

In the 1970s several organized crime families had illegal business interests in Sin City. The most powerful operation there was run by the Chicago Outfit. The main earner for the mobsters was known as the skim, which was simply the removal of large amounts of cash from the casinos before it was recorded as revenue and transporting it back to the Midwest crime bosses.

In 1971 the Outfit sent one of its most fearsome enforcers, Tony Spilotro, to Vegas to make sure everything ran smoothly and any problems that arose would be dealt with swiftly, using any means necessary. Tony was a good choice or so it seemed. But his Vegas reign was marked by his thirst for power, weakness for women, and poor decisions that eventually cost the Mob its control over Vegas.

The Spilotro was dramatized in the blockbuster 1995 movie Casino, in which Joe Pesci played a character based on Tony. The film received accolades for its accuracy. One of the reasons for its realism was that director Martin Scorsese hired a man named Frank Cullotta as his technical consultant. Frank and Tony had been friends and criminal associates since childhood, and Frank was Tony’s underboss in Vegas – he knew the whole story. As screenwriter Nick Pileggi said, “If not for Frank Cullotta there would have been no Casino.”

For nearly a year Frank and I worked on a book that tells the true story behind the movie, and provides details about several unsolved murders.

That book is currently at the publisher with a tentative release date of April 26. We are planning a kickoff in Vegas shortly after the release. I’ll post more details as they become available.

Teflon Tony

February 19, 2017

In 1979, the two major agencies investigating Tony Spilotro—the FBI and Las Vegas Metro— resumed cooperating with each other. They both made bringing Spilotro down one of their top priorities. But by that time Tony had already been in Vegas and building his organization for almost eight years and was well entrenched as Sin City’s most powerful mobster. His gang was comprised of top notch professional criminals, and his ferocious reputation discouraged witnesses from coming forward.

In fact, a 1974 study by the Los Angeles Times found that in the three years Tony had been in Vegas, more gangland-style murders had been committed there than in the previous 25 years combined. A casino executive and his wife were gunned down in front of their home, another casino executive was murdered in a parking lot, a prominent lawyer was blown up in his Cadillac, a loan shark victim went missing, and another casino boss was beaten and crippled for life. It didn’t matter whether or not Spilotro was responsible for the violence. People, including the cops, believed he was, and his reputation for viciousness grew.

“Everybody on the Strip is scared to death of the little bastard. He struts in and out of the joints like Little Caesar,” the Los Angeles Times quoted one casino owner as saying at the time. The same piece also quotes a store owner who first met Spilotro when Tony stopped in to buy clothes for his son. “When he came in the store the first time, you almost wanted to pat him on the head, until you looked into his eyes.” Tony’s eyes, described as pale blue and reptilian, looked through people, and not at them. Many who dealt with Tony, including law-enforcement personnel, agreed you could find death in those eyes.

Among the homicides Tony was suspected of being involved in between 1971 and 1975, was the June 23, 1973 murder of William “Red” Klim. A Caesars Palace employee, Klim was shot and killed gangland style in the parking lot of the Churchill Downs Race Book. There were multiple theories regarding scenarios as to the motive for Klim’s murder. One held that the deceased was cooperating with authorities in an investigation of illegal bookmaking that targeted Lefty Rosenthal. Another suggested that the dead man had information pertaining to Spilotro’s implication in a fraud against the Teamsters Pension Fund. Yet another designated Klim as a loanshark who refused to pay the Ant a tribute. All three theories involved Tony either directly or as Rosenthal’s protector.

Although Spilotro was charged with Klim’s murder the following year, the case against him fell apart when witnesses were unable or unwilling to positively identify the killer.

And then there was Marty Buccieri, a pit boss at Caesars Palace and a distant relative of Chicago underboss Fiori “Fifi” Buccieri. He reportedly had connections to most of the Vegas crime figures worth knowing and had used those connections to facilitate the granting of a number of Teamster Pension Fund loans to Allen Glick, CEO of Argent (Allen R. Glick Enterprises), the Outfit-installed owner of the Stardust, Hacienda, Fremont and Marina casinos. In the summer of 1975, law-enforcement sources learned that Buccieri had approached Glick and demanded a $30,000 finder’s fee for his help in obtaining the loans. At one point he’s said to have physically threatened Glick. The Argent boss then informed Lefty Rosenthal—the behind-the-scenes power of the operation—of the incident.

A few days later Buccieri was found shot to death. The law immediately suspected that Tony Spilotro was involved.

Another killing—one that was depicted in the movie Casino—was the November 9, 1975 murder of Tamara Rand, an erstwhile friend and business partner of Allen Glick. She invested heavily in his Vegas casinos and, in spite of having no gaming experience, had signed a contract as a consultant at the Hacienda for $100,000 per year. Rand believed that through investments she had purchased five percent of Glick’s casinos, so when Glick denied such a deal, she filed suit against him for breach of contract and fraud. A court trial could have blown the lid off the mob’s hidden interests in the Las Vegas casinos. Consequently, just days after a bitter argument between her and Glick, Tamara Rand was murdered at her home in San Diego.

Although Tony was a prime suspect in the Rand killing, there was insufficient evidence to charge him with the murder.

As the years passed Tony’s status grew until he was the undisputed king of the Vegas underworld. He knew everything that went on within the Las Vegas criminal element. No one did anything—from contract killings to burglaries, robberies, fencing stolen property, or loan sharking — without his approval and without paying him a monetary tribute where appropriate.

Even before the FBI and Metro launched their cooperative effort, Spilotro had been a target of the agencies at various times. But he had proved to be a worthy adversary. In spite of being almost continuously under investigation, and a suspect in some 25 murders and countless other felonies, Tony conducted his affairs for more than a decade without being convicted of even a minor offense. No matter what the law threw at him, nothing stuck.

Part of the reason for that impressive run could have been his skills and reputation as a criminal. Another likely factor was the legal work done for him by his lawyer, Oscar Goodman. Together, Tony and Oscar, each using his own unique talents, made a team that prosecutors seemed unable to beat.

But as the old saying goes, nothing lasts forever.

 

The Rise and Fall of Tony Spilotro

January 26, 2017

The manuscript is currently undergoing Phase I editing with the publisher. There will be two more phases of editing followed by formatting and cover design. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to get on the production schedule by spring.

cruise-mobster

Denny Griffin, true crime author

 

 

Possible Closure in 1981 Illinois Double Homicide Case

February 15, 2009

Authorities in McHenry County, Illinois, may be closer to solving a pair of 1981 killings thanks to a former mobster’s biography. For details please read http://www.lvrj.com/news/39633437.html.

Cullotta Interview

December 16, 2008

Las Vegas radio station KDWN has posted an interview of Frank Cullotta on its site. Please visit http://www.kdwn.com/index.php?page=0&sid=ibnvdupv2a62r4s4fmgksa2mu3030r00, scroll down and click on the Cullotta interview.

Legendary Las Vegas Casino Figure Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal Dead at Age 79

October 19, 2008

 

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.

 

 

This is my first gig with him and I’m anticipating a fun time.

 

Denny

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.

 

 

Lefty Has Left Us

October 15, 2008

Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal has gone the way of many of his former friends and associates. With his passing he’s joined deceased Chicago Outfit figures such as Tony Spilotro, Joey Aiuppa, and Joe Feriola. Even his former Las Vegas headquarters – the Stardust – is no longer with us, imploded last year to make room for something bigger and better.

As far as is known, whatever secrets Lefty knew about the mob will go to his grave with him.

Larry Neumann

September 30, 2008

There were some very dangerous organized crime figures plying their trade in Las Vegas during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Tony Spilotro and Frank Cullotta were among them. But one of their associates, although not as well known, may have been the most dangerous of them all. His name was Larry Neumann. Like Spilotro and Cullotta, Neumann was a native of the Chicago area. He was a burglar, robber, and arsonist; but his forte was murder. Larry Neumann loved to kill people.

 

Nicknamed “Lurch” because of his physical build, Neumann’s story is far different from the many young men forced into lives of crime due to economic hardship. On the contrary, Larry’s family was actually quite well off. In fact, when his father passed away he left his son a trust that produced a substantial monthly income. No, Larry Neumann wasn’t a criminal out of necessity. He robbed and killed because he liked it.

 

Larry’s first three known murders took place in single incident in Chicago in 1956. On that occasion he used a shotgun to kill the bartender and a waitress in a Chicago tavern. As he left the bar he encountered a young man delivering newspapers and killed him too. The local papers reported that the slayings inside the bar were the result of a dispute in which Neumann thought he had been short-changed in the amount of $2. After the dispute he left the bar, returned with the shotgun and opened fire. The newspaper man was slain simply because he happened to be walking by. Lurch was convicted and sentenced to 125 years. For all practical purposes that should have been the end of Neumann’s criminal career. But incredibly, the killer was paroled after serving only about 11 years of his prison term.

 

While in Illinois’ Statesville penitentiary, Larry met Frank Cullotta when both men were working in the prison’s psychiatric ward. This unit was home to convicts that couldn’t be housed in general population. They included those with mental problems, stool pigeons, and baby rapists. Known as the “goon squad” by the other inmates, Larry and his co-workers did many of the things the guards didn’t like to do. They dispensed medications, monitored the ward as part of the suicide prevention program and—the most fun of all—rolled in on unruly prisoners and beat them into submission. After Frank was transferred to the federal facility in Terre Haute to finish that portion of his sentence, Larry received his miraculous parole.

 

Following his release from prison in 1974, Frank returned to Chicago where he and Larry reunited. The former cellmates partnered up on a couple of scores, but didn’t work together regularly. In 1979, Frank accepted Tony Spilotro’s invitation to move to Las Vegas. However, that move didn’t end his relationship with Neumann.

 

Upon arriving in Sin City, one of the assignments Spilotro gave Frank was to put together a crew of top-notch criminals to operate his street rackets and provide muscle as necessary. Although Larry still lived in Chicago, Frank figured he’d be a good man to have come into town for special jobs. Frank made his proposal and Neumann agreed to help him out as needed. And he said that if Frank had any good leads for robberies in Chicago, he and his partner Wayne Matecki would gladly do the job and give Frank a cut of the profits. A short time later Frank gave Larry a tip on a guy in Chicago who was a prime target for a stickup.

 

The score Frank turned Neumann and Matecki onto was the robbery of a jeweler. Frank had information that this individual likely had between a hundred-fifty and two-hundred thousand dollars worth of jewelry on hand at any given time.

 

Frank remembers the caper this way:

 

“The guy’s name was Bob Brown. He was a friend of Allen Dorfman, who was involved in arranging Teamster loans to the Outfit. It turned out that Wayne knew Brown and wouldn’t be able to do the robbery himself, but he thought he could enter the store under the pretext that he was looking to buy a ring. After he got inside Larry could come in and stick the place up. That seemed like a possibility that might work. Wayne and Larry pulled the robbery, but not exactly in the way we’d discussed.

 

“Thirty-six hours after the job Larry was at my door in Vegas; he was carrying an attaché case. I said things must have gone well. He said there had been a change in how the robbery went down. I asked him what he meant. He said, ‘I had to kill him.’

 

“He told me that it started with Wayne going in the store as planned. But it had been in the back of his mind that the Outfit might figure out that Wayne had been in on the robbery and come after him. Larry said, ‘When I got in the store I said fuck it. I put my gun down and grabbed a machete that was hanging on the wall. I started stabbing him and Wayne broke a vase over his head.’

 

“I couldn’t believe he turned a simple robbery into a murder. I told him he was nuts. I didn’t dare say too much, though. Larry was a very dangerous individual; he feared absolutely no one. If I pissed him off he was liable to kill me, too. Even Tony came to be afraid of him. I sold all the merchandise to a Jew in Las Vegas. By the time I paid all the overhead we got about twenty-five thousand each. It was hardly worth anyone’s life.

 

“Larry went back to Chicago right afterward. Within thirty days he moved to Las Vegas.”

 

Shortly after arriving in Vegas, Frank Cullotta and fellow burglar Leo Guardino used the proceeds from their first three scores to open a restaurant called the Upper Crust, located on Maryland Parkway at Flamingo Road. The eatery became a hangout for Frank’s crew and other Vegas wiseguys. The motivation for Neumann’s next two killings began with a phone call he received while at the bistro talking with Frank and Leo.

 

“One day Larry, Leo, and I were sitting in the Upper Crust when Larry got a phone call,” Cullotta remembered. “He went to the phone and when he came back he was violent. He said some guy had gotten in a beef with his ex-wife in a lounge back in Chicago and grabbed her by the throat. I said she wasn’t hurt and they weren’t married any more, so he shouldn’t get so upset. Larry said, ‘What he did was a sign of disrespect to me. I’ve got to go back and kill the bastard.’

 

“I told Larry he couldn’t do that; it wasn’t right. For the next hour and a half I talked to him about it, trying to convince him not to do anything. When we finished, I felt in my heart that I’d succeeded.

 

“About ten days later Larry said he had to go to Chicago. I asked him if he’d take this kid named Tommy along with him. I had something in the works that I was going to use Tommy as an alibi for. I figured if he was out of town there would be less chance that someone would connect us. And in case Larry still had bad intentions about that thing with his ex-wife, he probably wouldn’t do anything foolish with Tommy around.

 

“I got a call the next day telling me about a big killing in McHenry County. A guy and his girlfriend were shot in the head in a lounge. I called Tommy to find out what was going on, but he didn’t want to say anything on the phone. I told him to have Larry call me. When he called he said he’d be back in a week. In the meantime he was going to keep Tommy under wraps so nobody could talk with him.

 

“The following week Larry was back. I asked him if he’d killed those two people; he said he had. I told him I thought he’d promised me not to do it. He explained it this way: ‘I thought about what you said, but I couldn’t control myself. I found out the tavern this guy was in and went there; I left Tommy outside in the car. I asked the guy why he grabbed my ex-wife’s neck. I was getting more and more pissed off. I pulled my gun and shot him in the forehead. And then I shot the broad. The guy gurgled, so I shot them both again.’

 

“I told Larry that the girl was innocent and supposedly had a couple of kids. All he said to that was that the kids were probably better off now.”

 

Neumann’s homicidal tendencies weren’t lost on Tony Spilotro. According to Frank, Spilotro, considered by some to be the most dangerous man in Las Vegas at the time, once said of Neumann: “Jesus, don’t ever unleash that bastard on me, whatever you do.”    

 

In addition to these six known murders Neumann committed, he wanted to kill or participate in the killing of two more people. One was a member of Cullotta’s crew suspected of being a police informant. The other was the wife of a man who had made a deal with federal prosecutors to testify against Spilotro and Cullotta. Tony Spilotro nixed both hits. He wasn’t convinced the suspected informant was guilty; and he didn’t want to bring on the additional heat that would have resulted from killing the witness’ wife. The fearless Neumann wasn’t happy with Spilotro’s decisions and threatened to do the murders anyway; but Frank managed to talk him out of it.

 

When Cullotta flipped and became a government witness in 1982, he was required to testify against his former associates, including Larry Neumann. He remembers his court appearance regarding the murder of Chicago jeweler Bob Brown:

 

“As they were taking me to the courtroom we had to walk by two holding cells. Larry Neumann was in one of them. The cops ordered him to turn his back as I walked by. Larry said, ‘Fuck you, you cocksuckers! I know who you’ve got there.’ They told him again to turn his back; he said the same thing. He didn’t say anything to me directly, but when our eyes met I had the impression he was thinking, ‘What the fuck are you doing to me?’

 

Neumann was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died behind bars of natural causes in January 2007. His unclaimed body was cremated at state expense.

            

       

 

 

Skimming the Las Vegas Casinos – Part III

September 11, 2008

While FBI agents and prosecutors from several offices participated in the investigations that brought down the mobsters and ended organized-crime’s hidden control over the Las Vegas casinos, personnel assigned to Sin City itself played a major role, albeit with one rather embarrassing moment.

 

The agents were confident that casino money was leaving Vegas illegally and ending up in Chicago, but they needed to prove it. The feds placed the Stardust and certain employees under physical surveillance. After months of investigation, they identified a pattern for one method of the skim involving Allen Glick’s Stardust and Fremont casinos. Their big break came in May 1981.

 

“One of the people we were watching was a guy named Bobby Stella,” former agent Emmett Michaels remembers. “One Tuesday afternoon my partner and I saw Stella leave the casino carrying a brown paper bag. We followed him to the parking lot of a hardware store on Maryland Parkway. This particular business had several locations in Las Vegas. A man identified as Phil Ponto, who was also employed by the Stardust, met Stella there. We found out later that Ponto was a ‘made man,’ affiliated with the Chicago Outfit. The two talked for a few minutes, then Stella passed the bag to Ponto and drove away. We stayed with Ponto and the bag.”

 

Ponto left the hardware store and drove to his home, located off Paradise Road near the Las Vegas Hilton. He went into his house, but emerged a few minutes later to retrieve the bag from his car. The surveillance continued, but there was no activity of importance the rest of the week. Things changed on Sunday, though.

 

“Ponto left his house around 7:30 that morning and placed the brown bag in the trunk of his car. For some reason he then moved the car across the street, and then went back inside,” Michaels continued. “He came back out a few minutes later and drove to church. After mass he drove around town for two hours with no apparent destination or purpose. He drove in and out of shopping malls and parking lots, but made no stops. Eventually, he pulled into another one of the hardware store locations; this one was on Tropicana. There he made contact with another man we weren’t familiar with. The new guy was wearing a suit and driving a rental car. They talked for a few minutes, and then Ponto handed the bag over to the new guy. We dropped Ponto and followed the stranger as he headed toward California on Interstate 15.”

 

With the agents watching, the guy in the rental car pulled into the second rest area outside of Las Vegas. There, he emptied bundles of money from the paper bag and placed them in special pockets sewn into the inside of his suit coat. When all the money had been transferred, the courier continued on to the Los Angeles airport where he caught a flight to Chicago. Agents from southern Nevada contacted the Chicago FBI office, asking agents there to pick up the surveillance of the subject when his flight arrived. After reaching Chicago, the man paid a visit to Outfit boss Joe Aiuppa, presumably to deliver the money. The courier was subsequently identified as Joseph Talerico, a Teamster official.

 

The agents had validated their theory of the skim, but they were a long way from having proof that would stand up in a court of law. Additional investigation indicated that money was also being skimmed from the Glick-controlled Fremont. The G-men believed the cash was taken from there on a monthly basis and delivered to Chicago. They developed a plan that called for the lawmen to get marked money into the skim pipeline. That meant agents would have to visit the Fremont the evening before a suspected shipment and do some gambling at the tables. Emmett Michaels, Charlie Parsons, and Michael Glass were tasked with getting the marked money into the system. In order to get a sufficient number of $100 bills into the drop boxes, they had to lose.

 

“I always had trouble losing when I was playing with government money,” Emmett Michaels recalled with a grin. “I played blackjack and often had some incredible runs of good luck. Sometimes I’d be so desperate to lose so that I’d have to buy more chips, that I’d play very recklessly. I’d throw even the most basic strategy out the window and call for a hit on a hand of nineteen. The dealer and the other players would look at me like I was crazy. But when I was on one of those streaks, I’d draw a damn deuce.”

 

Sometimes that kind of luck drew attention that wasn’t necessarily wanted. “There were times when I’d have stacks of chips piled up in front of me and the pit boss would come over and invite me to get some of the perks reserved for high rollers. It was usually a different story when I was spending a night out somewhere else and playing with my own money.”

 

In spite of his undesired prowess at the table, Michaels and his colleagues were able to drop enough money to accomplish what they wanted to do. Now that they knew their plan would work, the next step was to choose a time when the courier would be picked up and nabbed with the proof of the skim in his possession.

 

 

The Cookie Caper

 

In order to conduct electronic surveillance and searches and to make arrests, a judge had to approve and sign warrants. Some of the lawmen involved suspected that a certain judge might not be keeping the FBI’s operations a secret. They found it hard to believe, for example, that after bugging a table in a Stardust restaurant where the casino manager and assistant manager ate their meals every day, the only thing the men seemed to talk about was golf and women. But the government was required to follow the law and obtain the appropriate warrants and authorizations regardless of their suspicions.

 

“Harry,” a bail bondsman who came to Las Vegas in 1958, thinks he knows another method by which the bad guys found out about whose phones were being tapped. “I had a lot of juice with the phone company then. I know for a fact that a phone company employee regularly provided a list of numbers that were going to be tapped. I know because I received a copy of those lists myself. There were a lot of people who were very glad to get that kind of information.”

 

In addition to the phone company employee, Harry alleges there was an even better source for leaks. “There was a concern at the phone company that a phone might be tapped without having full legal authorization. So the company hired a lawyer to review all the paperwork for each tap. It turns out that the lawyer they retained worked out of Oscar Goodman’s office. Did you ever hear of anything so outrageous?”

 

Whether leaks resulted as Harry contends, were the work of an unscrupulous judge, or a combination of both, the bottom line is that the targets frequently knew ahead of time what the lawmen were planning.    

 

Stan Hunterton, the former Strike Force attorney, was involved in preparing and submitting warrant applications to the court and helping plan some of the law enforcement activities, including when arrest warrants would be served.

 

“Joseph Talerico was always the courier for the skim money from the Argent casinos,” Hunterton recalled. “The routine was for him to come to Vegas and get the money. His contact here was Phil Ponto. This Ponto was what we called a sleeper. That’s someone with no criminal record, but Ponto was actually a ‘made man’ out of Chicago. One of the agents thought he recognized Ponto’s name from a book written by mobster-turned-informant Jimmy Fratiano. It turned out the agent was right, only in the book the name had been misspelled as Ponti.

 

“On January 3, 1982, not long after the indictments in the Tropicana case, the FBI was ready to arrest Talerico and Ponto when they exchanged the skim money. The day started off with a variation on the part of Ponto; he was carrying a box instead of a paper bag. I guess everybody assumed they’d decided to put the money in a box that day and didn’t think too much of it. But when the arrests were made, there was no money. The box contained cookies and wine.

 

“It was obvious that the bad guys had become aware of what was coming down. They had set us up, no doubt about it. I can smile about it all these years later, but I can assure you there was nothing funny about it at the time. An awful lot of time and effort had been spent getting to that point, and then it all went down the toilet. Needless to say, we were the butt of a lot of jokes in what became known as the cookie caper.”

 

Hunterton hauled Talerico and Ponto before a grand jury in 1983. Their first effort to avoid talking was to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Hunterton countered that by granting both men immunity. Even with no legal reason to remain silent, the pair still refused to testify. They were each sent to jail for contempt, but their lips remained sealed. They never did answer the government’s questions.

 

 

Strawman case agent Lynn Ferrin remembers the skimming investigations very well. “They were exciting times,” he said.

 

“When we were watching Ponto and Talerico, we made high-quality films of their meetings. On one occasion we brought in three lip readers to try to figure out what their conversations had been. One of the experts came very close to what we believed had been said; we would have loved to be able to use his interpretation in an affidavit. But the other two had differing opinions. With that lack of agreement, we ended up disregarding all of their versions. I even rented an apartment next to Ponto’s residence for a while during the surveillance. I spoke with him occasionally. He was very quiet … a real sleeper.”

 

Regarding the cookie caper, “It was a real bad day for us and me personally. If I’d been living in feudal Japan I’d have been required to fall on my sword. We’d been doing these Sunday surveillances on those guys for several months and everything had always gone like clockwork. But on that day the crooks were so confident and comfortable; we’d never seen anything like that before. We didn’t know for sure who, how, or why, but someone had obviously ratted us out to the mob. We were highly confident that the leak wasn’t from any of our people. Many of us believed that the federal judge who signed the order authorizing the electronic surveillance at the Stardust was the culprit. That was only speculation, but after that it seemed like the bad guys were aware of what we were doing. We had to call Washington and tell them what happened and that we couldn’t say for certain why it had gone wrong.

 

“Prior to that day I had been in favor of simply stopping Ponto one of those mornings and grabbing the bag from him. He certainly couldn’t have complained to the police and it would have given us the probable cause we were looking for. But headquarters and DOJ [Department of Justice] were afraid something would go wrong and never approved the snatch. If they had, it would have caused a lot of ripples in the various crime families. They may have even taken action against some of their own if they suspected them of being involved in stealing the skim.”

 

Another incident that Ferrin described as “sensitive” involved aerial surveillance. “Our plane developed some problems and was forced to land on the golf course at the Las Vegas Country Club. It turned out to not be a very discreet surveillance.” This scene was depicted in the movie Casino.

 

But other covert operations went very well. “Our guys did a tremendous job. Agents posing as maintenance men bugged a table in a restaurant at the Stardust in front of a room full of guests and casino employees. It was a good placement.”

 

After the cookie caper, the FBI changed tactics from covert to overt and went after the Stardust’s new owners, the Trans Sterling Corporation, openly. “We had enough information to start going over their records,” Ferrin said. “The Carl Thomas method of the skim primarily involved stealing from the count room. We found that another method of theft was also going on at the Stardust. This one involved the cashier’s cage.

 

“We looked at thousands of fill slips from the Stardust for the years that we knew the skim was going on. The fill slips were used when chips were removed from the cage to replenish the supplies at the gaming tables when they ran low on chips. The slips were required to have the signatures of four different casino employees. The money involved was about $20,000 per slip, and was presumed to reflect [casino] losses at the tables. We eventually discovered a pattern of forged signatures on the fill slips. That discovery led to the next step. We took handwriting samples from over two hundred Stardust employees and sent them to the FBI lab in Washington. Analysis revealed that the casino manager, Lou Salerno, was responsible for most of the forgeries.

 

“We got some good convictions in this phase. More important, though, through our investigation we were able to help the Nevada Gaming Control Board seize the Stardust. They revoked the licenses of the Trans Sterling people and fined them $1 million. The Stardust was eventually purchased by the Boyd Group, ending over a decade of mob control.”

 

That wasn’t the entire story for Lynn Ferrin, though. “The cage manager was a guy named Larry Carpenter. During the course of the investigation, he came to hate my guts. We lived in the same neighborhood and some mornings I’d come out to go to work and find that somebody had spit all over my car. I’d have to clean the car off before heading for the office. I suspected that Carpenter was responsible.

 

“Carpenter was gay and had full-blown AIDS. I thought maybe he was trying to infect me by having me come in contact with his body fluid and absorb it through my skin. Anyway, I stayed up all night to see if I could find out who was sliming my car. Around 5 a.m. I caught Carpenter coming around the corner on his bike. I could tell by the look on his face that he was the one. It never happened again after that morning. Carpenter later committed suicide, hanging himself when he went to jail.”

 

But there was more. “Lou DiMartini was a floorman at the Stardust. He claimed that during the investigation I caused him to suffer irreparable harm by asking his employer questions about him. He filed a $1 million civil suit against the government and me individually. It took seven years and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was decided in the government’s and my favor.”  

 

How does Ferrin sum up the results of the Strawman investigations?

 

“I think that our investigation basically broke the back of the mob’s efforts to control the casinos in Las Vegas.”

 

That last statement seems to say it all.            

 

 

 

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