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.
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 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.