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Meeting Frank Cullotta

May 25, 2017

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Jim Cooley describes meeting Frank Cullotta
Meeting Frank
I sat with my head on a pivot and my heart in my chest. It was early for me as I was up late the night before announcing an MMA event in this amazingly over-the-top town, Las Vegas. I was not sure what to expect or how to act. What do I say to him? What will he ask me? My friends had made the usual sarcastic comments upon hearing of who I was meeting. Things like, “Don’t go to his car with him,” and “Don’t make him angry.” I laughed and smiled, but it did get me thinking. Of course they were only joking and he was not going to kill me. Yet, I still had no idea what to expect.
My line of work brings me into contact with some very famous people. I have enjoyed a casual cocktail with people like Mike Tyson and interviewed A-list celebrities including actors, athletes and musicians on numerous occasions. Having traveled all over the United States while announcing in front of huge raucous crowds, I have come into contact with people from every walk of life. It has given me a unique perspective on people and left me almost numb when in the face of fame and celebrity, as a result I rarely get nervous or flustered in any situation. I consider myself cool and collected and a bit of a chameleon. I can attend an event with outlaw bikers at their clubhouse in the afternoon and in the evening go to a black tie affair with someone like Evander Holyfield. From a t-shirt and jeans to a suit and tie, I am thoroughly comfortable around any person from any culture.
I found out very quickly though, that nothing had prepared me for this day. This was not breakfast with a celebrated athlete or a first meeting with a well-known actor. This was a meal with an admitted killer. A sit down, so to speak, with a real-life Mafioso.
I was sitting in a half circle booth waiting for the gangster who once ran Vegas. The man who stood up and did not back down from the very Mob he was part of when his life was on the line. The restaurant was a who’s who of Vegas stereotypes. There were the locals who looked like they could have eaten in this place every day, the ones who smoke cigarette after cigarette and sit in front of a video poker machine with dreams of wealth. There were tourists who were taking in the scenery of this storied restaurant while having their photos taken by the staff. There were the twenty something weekend warriors who had clearly had a bit too much to drink the night before and were hoping to find solace and headache relief in mimosas and scrambled eggs. Perhaps they had received their hangover from the bar in this very building. The one that was recognizable to anyone who has seen the movie Casino. This was the Peppermill in Las Vegas and I was here to meet him.
To say I was nervous would be a serious understatement. Truth be told, I was more nervous than I can ever recall being at any time when meeting another human being. However, that is exactly what I had to remind myself of, this is a human being, a man just like me. His past is just that, his past. The difference was this was a man I had studied; a man I had wanted to meet for some time. This was a man whose books had intrigued me and left me wanting more of the story. As I pondered all of this in my head I happened to look up and I saw a figure making his way toward the booth. He was graying but somehow still seemed young and spry. A shorter than average man who obviously had lived his life to the fullest, yet he was still stout and solid. At 78 years old you would assume he was past his prime, but upon seeing him I was not sure that was true. On any other day I would say this was merely an older gentleman who happened to be a snappy dresser. However, this gentleman was different. Once known for being a feared fighter, a stone killer and a master thief who had connections to the storied Chicago Outfit. Best friend and cohort of famed Mob enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. I had seen this man’s life play out on the silver screen. I had read of his experiences in books and been amazed at the life he had lived. This however, was no book, nor movie, this was real life.
As he approached the table I stood up to greet him. Keep in mind I am six foot two inches tall and weigh 240 pounds. As an ex bouncer and mixed martial artist I do not rattle easily. But at this moment none of that mattered. I was scared. I was intimidated. This man was probably 7 or 8 inches shorter than me and 32 years my senior. Yet I was close to puking from nerves. Just as I felt I was going to stumble over my words and come off like a blundering idiot fan boy, Frank Cullotta reached out his hand and said “You must be Jim.” His smile and demeanor were very disarming. All of the sudden I was comfortable. I was relaxed as we sat for our meal. I had been worried over nothing. This was not the 70s or the 80s, this was 2016 and Frank Cullotta was a different person. A Las Vegas Mob Tour guide and an author with a family and a contagious smile.
Over the next couple of hours, we shared stories and he told me things I never knew about the Chicago Outfit, his life and the mafia in general. I was enthralled. Not only was I sharing a meal with the former “Boss of Vegas,” but very quickly I realized something. This man was an encyclopedia of organized crime. In addition to living it and being there he also had clearly studied and in the process become one of the most knowledgeable people I had ever come across on his chosen subject. I have heard the so called “Experts” speak and have learned what I could from them. But it is apples and oranges between these guys and Frank.
My belief has always been that reading a book written by an expert on a subject is the quickest way to gain facts. However, reading a book written by someone who lived the material is life- changing and the quickest way to feel the history. In this case, when you read a Frank Cullotta book you have the unusual advantage of being treated to both. A man who lived it and is also an expert on the topic. This is the reason I maintain that reading a Frank Cullotta book is a must for any mafia fan (for lack of a better term), true crime buff or those just intrigued by biographies and history. This man doesn’t just write about history he is a living piece of history and is an expert at sharing it in the most creative and engaging ways. I left that day feeling like I had been one of the luckiest people alive. I had the opportunity to break bread with and learn about one of the most interesting figures alive today.
In the past year I have become friends with Frank and I consider him to be one of the most genuine and honest men I have ever met. He has given me life advice, shared with me things he has not to my knowledge even written in his various books. Hell, the guy even flirted with my mother right in front of me! It was tongue in cheek and I took it as such, but that is Frank You never know what you will get. He is all at once funny, intriguing and real. So if this is not your first Cullotta authored book then you know what to expect, unbelievable stories, amazing insight into the world of organized crime and the history of both Chicago and Las Vegas all rolled into one. Comedy mixed in with heart pounding drama and a historical account of when organized crime ruled the United States.
In his new book, The Rise And Fall Of A ‘Casino’ Mobster, Frank tells his the inside story of Tony Spilotro and the days when they ran Las Vegas. In the process he names the killers in many murders that are currently listed as unsolved. So get the book and sit back and enjoy as you delve into the mind of a gentleman, a family man, a thief, a killer, and a man who today has nothing to hide.
Jim Cooley “The Voice Of Champions”
VOC NETWORK
(925) 389-0138
www,lastroundpod.com

 

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The Rise And Fall Of A ‘Casino’ Mobster

April 28, 2017

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My latest book, The Rise And Fall Of A ‘Casino’ Mobster, has been released. Following is the background leading up to writing the book.

I first spoke with Frank Cullotta by phone in 2005 while doing research for my book The Battle for Las Vegas. The following year we met in person in Las Vegas and agreed to co-author Frank’s biography, CULLOTTA. Although Tony Spilotro, Frank’s one-time friend and criminal associate, was frequently mentioned in that book, it was Frank’s story. In 2013 Frank and I conspired on another book, Hole In The Wall Gang, which also included Tony but was again, Frank’s story.

In 2015 Frank asked me if I’d be interested in doing another book with him. He explained that he was getting up in age and wanted to set the record straight about Tony Spilotro—to correct the misinformation about Tony that is out there and provide his personal insights about the man, his rise in the Chicago crime family called the Outfit, his fall from grace and ultimate murder by his former associates.

Thinking I already knew pretty much all there was to know about Tony; I interrupted Frank and expressed my concerns.

He said this book would be different, though, in that the focus would be on Tony and not him. It would include his personal knowledge and beliefs about murders that Tony committed, ordered, planned or was a suspect in. Much of that information would be disclosed for the first time—even to me—and several of the murders he’d discuss are still officially unsolved.

I was intrigued, but pointed out that several killings had been covered in CULLOTTA and Hole In The Wall Gang and I didn’t want to just do a rehash of what we’d already written. Frank said that although it would be necessary to talk about some of those killings again because they are part of Tony’s history, he assured me that anyone who read the book (including law enforcement) would learn a lot.

In addition to clarifying Tony’s role in various killings, Frank said he wanted to discuss the details of Tony’s own murder which were revealed in the Family Secrets trial in 2007. During that trial one of the killers took the stand and explained exactly how Tony and his brother Michael were murdered. Frank also said he planned to provide the inside story of Tony’s racketeering mistrial in 1986. Finally, the book would contain Frank’s opinion on how Tony’s poor decisions and ill-advised actions contributed to the Chicago Outfit losing control of Sin City. I told Frank I was in.

During the writing process I learned the rest of the story about Tony Spilotro’s rise from a Mob wannabe to a feared enforcer and boss. I also gained a better understanding of how his weakness for women and his quest for money and power eventually contributed to the Mob’s ouster from Las Vegas, and in the end cost him his life.

I’m glad I didn’t turn this project down.

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

February 6, 2017

The manuscript is at the publisher and is in the second of three phases of editing. When the editing is completed, the cover will be designed and we’ll go on the production schedule. I’m hoping the book will be released by early May.

Our current plan is to do a kickoff book signing at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

cruise-mobster

Denny Griffin, true crime author

 

The Rise and Fall of Tony Spilotro

December 17, 2016

Former mobster Frank Cullotta and I have completed our third manuscript together and it is currently at the publisher. I’ll post the release date as soon as I know the production schedule.

This book will revisit some of Tony’s greatest hits because they are a part of his history. It will also  provide previously undisclosed insight into Tony the man, as well as Tony the enforcer; and Frank will name the killers in several Mob murders that have remained officially unsolved.

cruise-mobster

Denny Griffin, true crime author

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.

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.

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.            

 

 

 

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.