Listen

News 88.9 KNPR
Classical 89.7 KCNV
'Jazz'
NV89 Discover Music

an member station

Desert Companion

Tony Spilotro’s last act

pho009317.jpg

The Outfit's misfit: Tony Spilotro, left, with his attorney Oscar Goodman in April 1980
Photo Courtesy UNLV Special Collections, North Las Vegas Library Collection

The Outfit's misfit: Tony Spilotro, left, with his attorney Oscar Goodman in April 1980

Thirty years ago, the murder of the charismatic Vegas mobster marked the final act in the mob’s 40-year run in Las Vegas — but not the end of its lore 

On Sunday, June 22, 1986, Indiana farmer Michael Kinz was spreading chemicals on his cornfield when he came across a newly dug grave. Suspecting a poacher had buried the carcass of a deer shot out of season, Kinz called biologist Dick Hudson from the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. Hudson drove to the site that evening and started digging. He soon learned that the grave concealed not the remains of a deer but of a human body. “About three feet down, my shovel hit him in the midsection,” Hudson told the Chicago Tribune. “I thought to myself, this is a person. I’m not going to dig anymore.”

The Newton County sheriff and his deputies arrived next at the site, about 60 miles southeast of Chicago. They continued to excavate the grave and found not one but two bodies, one stacked on top of the other. They had been badly beaten and stripped of all clothing except their underwear.

The following morning the bodies were taken to Indianapolis, where autopsies were performed. Dental records confirmed the victims were Anthony Spilotro, 48, and Michael Spilotro, 41.

The press reported the story the following morning. The brothers were Chicago mobsters. Anthony — “Tough Tony,” “Tony the Ant” — had helmed the Chicago Outfit’s criminal operations in Las Vegas for 15 years. Authorities suspected him of committing and commissioning numerous murders. His younger brother had owned a restaurant, Hoagies, in Chicago and was linked to various criminal enterprises.

Support comes from

Their deaths did not come as a big surprise. Both had trials coming up. They’d been missing for 10 days, and Tony Spilotro was on the outs with his mob bosses. The day after the bodies were found, the Los Angeles Times quoted Bill Roemer, a former FBI agent who investigated organized crime in Chicago:

“Spilotro wasn’t doing his job in Las Vegas. He maintained too high a profile there. Mobsters flourish in darkness. Spilotro, facing three major trials, was obviously not following that dictum. He was under the glare of the harshest spotlight.”

Las Vegas police officials had similar thoughts. “The department had been receiving intelligence that Tony’s days were numbered,” Metro detective Gene Smith told author Dennis Griffin. “He’d been falling out of favor with the bosses for quite a while, because he wouldn’t give up his street rackets and keep a low profile.”

Spilotro’s attorney, Oscar Goodman, attended the funeral and noted the absence of several Outfit bosses for whom Spilotro had worked. “That said a lot to me about who was behind Tony’s murder,” Goodman writes in his memoir.

 

* * * * *

Twenty years later, details of the Spilotro murders finally came out, and they validated Goodman’s suspicions. In 2005, the feds indicted 14 members and associates of the Chicago Outfit, charging them with, among other offenses, 18 murders. This was the so-called Family Secrets case.

Just as Roemer, Smith, Goodman and others suspected in 1986, the Chicago bosses had decided it was time for Tony and Michael Spilotro to go. “The Spilotro act in Las Vegas had worn thin,” mobster-turned-informant Frank Calabrese Jr. wrote in his memoir. Chicago crime boss Joey Aiuppa had recently received a prison sentence for his role in the Las Vegas skim, and he blamed Tony’s high-profile misbehavior for having to spend his golden years behind bars.

The Spilotro brothers were summoned to Chicago for a meeting. They were given the impression it was going to be a positive affair, with Michael becoming a “made” member and Tony being promoted to “capo.” They misread the situation. On June 14, 1986, the “murder party” gathered in the basement of a home in Bensenville, Illinois. Jimmy Marcello picked up the Spilotros. When the brothers descended into the basement, they quickly realized they were in deep trouble. They were beaten to death, then and there, and later buried in the cornfield.

 

* * * * *

Tony Spilotro’s death is generally agreed to mark the end of traditional organized crime in Las Vegas. Surely a few wise guys still lurked in the shadows of Las Vegas in the years following, but if they were active, it was mostly penny-ante stuff. Lucrative casino-skimming operations were a thing of the past, and nobody was orchestrating the kind of criminal rackets that Spilotro had going in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Goodman told journalist John L. Smith that Spilotro’s death left a huge void not only in his law practice but his life: “Until Tony got killed, I didn’t realize how much time out of my life he took. It was like I had nothing to do. It was like my whole life was taken up taking care of Tony Spilotro, and everything else was ancillary and had to be fit into little niches.”

Spilotro’s death also left a void for the local press, which had thrived for years on news coverage of his criminal exploits. Spilotro was a full-time job for some local reporters, as he was constantly in court facing charges or battling with gaming regulators over his eventual inclusion in the Black Book, Nevada’s list of “undesirables” banned from entering casinos.

“During that period of time, almost every day we were doing a story on Spilotro,” says Bob Stoldal, who was KLAS Channel 8’s news director during that era. “Almost every day there was a breaking piece of information.”

The mob had a 40-year run in Las Vegas. It started in 1945 with the purchase of the El Cortez hotel-casino by Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway. It accelerated with the opening of Siegel’s Flamingo in 1946 and Lansky’s Thunderbird in 1948. The Cleveland Syndicate, led by Moe Dalitz, financed the Desert Inn in 1950. Mobsters also were behind the Sands (1952), Riviera (1955), Dunes (1955), Tropicana (1957) and Stardust (1958). The mob had its hooks into other casinos as well.

Skimming was the primary enterprise. Over four decades, hundreds of millions of dollars of untaxed cash was quietly removed from Las Vegas casinos and shuttled to mob chieftains in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and other places. The Stardust alone was netting $400,000 per month in untaxed cash for the Chicago Outfit, according to testimony from Carl Thomas, who orchestrated the skimming operation there.

During the ’50s and ’60s, the mob was relatively free to maneuver in Las Vegas. Nevada’s regulation of the casino industry was meager, and the FBI had not yet ramped up its Las Vegas office, leaving room for mobsters to enjoy secret ownership of casinos and to skim the profits. Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb occasionally rousted a troublemaking gangster, but the big players — such as Dalitz —
were left alone.

That started to change in the 1970s as state and federal law-enforcement agencies devoted more resources to rooting organized crime out of Las Vegas.

Spilotro’s main job was to make sure the Stardust skim made its way safely to Chicago. But Tony had bigger plans for Las Vegas. He wanted to export the mob’s tried-and-true criminal rackets — loan-sharking, extortion, robbery, burglary — to his new hometown in the desert. It would be his undoing.

 

* * * * *

Frank Cullotta is a living link to Tony Spilotro. They were teenage friends in Chicago and committed crimes together there for several years. In 1979, Spilotro summoned Cullotta to Las Vegas to serve as his criminal lieutenant. Cullotta put together a crew that became known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. They burglarized businesses, houses and hotel rooms, sometimes by punching a hole in the wall to avoid tripping the alarm. Along the way, Cullotta murdered a man named Jerry Lisner, who was feeding information to police about Cullotta and Spilotro’s activities.

In 1982, Cullotta and Spilotro were on the outs. Facing a long prison sentence and fearing that Spilotro was going to have him killed, Cullotta switched sides and became a government witness. Entering the Witness Protection Program, he moved away, assumed a new name and ran a small business.

In the mid-’90s, when he felt comfortable he wouldn’t be whacked, Cullotta left Witness Protection and resumed living as Frank Cullotta. He served as an adviser for the movie Casino and had a small role. He essentially played himself.

Today, Cullotta is 77 years old and long retired from the criminal life. He has a gruff, grandfatherly presence and drives a Prius. Yet he still lives and breathes the mob as a freelance raconteur. He’s published two books about his life, and he’s working on a third, focused on Spilotro. He’s the star attraction on mob-themed bus tours, and he’s often paid to talk to conventioneers. His blunt, unapologetic recollections about his criminal past are delivered with a Chicago accent freckled with colorful language.

Las Vegas has grown and changed so much since the late ’70s that it can be difficult to picture what it was like when Spilotro and other Outfit members and associates were running around like they owned the place. To get a few glimpses of that era, I asked Cullotta to give me a driving tour of some of the places where significant events occurred.

We met in the parking lot of a small shopping center in the southeast corner of Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road. This was where Cullotta owned a restaurant, Upper Crust Pizzeria. “I came out to Las Vegas to do things for Tony, but I needed money to live on,” Cullotta explains. “I was short about $35,000 to open the place, so I did two burglaries to get the money.” Next to Upper Crust was a bar, My Place Lounge, which had strong Outfit connections.

Today, those establishments are gone, replaced by a Cricket cellular outlet and a furniture store. But Cullotta remembers sitting on the patio in front of his restaurant, talking with Spilotro and others with whom they collaborated on their criminal exploits. “It was our hangout,” he says. “We’d spend a good portion of our day there. Tony would come in every day.”

Across the parking lot is an old Pioneer Citizens Bank. One day in 1980, a bank employee walked into the restaurant and told Cullotta’s wife that FBI agents were lurking on the bank’s second floor. They were spying on Cullotta and company.

Then Cullotta’s restaurant partner, Leo Guardino, found an FBI camera and microphone in the ceiling of the restaurant’s storage room. Cullotta traced the camera’s wire into the adjacent real estate office. He unhooked the equipment and took it to Spilotro’s house, where they scraped off some paint and discovered “Property of U.S. Government” printed beneath it.

A couple of days later, FBI agents showed up at the restaurant and said they wanted their equipment back. At first Cullotta played dumb, but attorneys advised him to give it back or possibly face charges. “I wanted to put the thing on a Greyhound bus,” Cullotta says.

It was indicative of the scrutiny on Spilotro and friends. “We were trying to go legit with this joint, but the cops kept bothering us,” he says. “There was no way in the world they were going to let me go legit.”

It was in the My Place Lounge where Spilotro told Cullotta to kill Jerry Lisner. “We discussed it in the lounge because it was louder with the music, etc.”

pho009318.jpg

Crime and time: Goodman and Spilotro, 1980
Photo Courtesy UNLV Special Collections, North Las Vegas Library Collection

Crime and time: Goodman and Spilotro, 1980

cullotta-bertha_5-16-cropped.jpg

Crime and time: former mobster Frank Cullotta
Photo by Geoff Schumacher

Crime and time: former mobster Frank Cullotta

Our next tour stop was a store on Sahara Avenue a few blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard. This was the place where the Hole in the Wall Gang met its demise.

In 1981, the store was called Bertha’s Gifts and Home Furnishings. Cullotta says the crew had cased the store for years and believed the vault contained $1.5 million in cash and jewelry. They decided to avoid the alarm by climbing on the roof and drilling down into the vault.

The plan was kept close to the vest among the burglars, but one of them told an associate named Sal Romano about it. Cullotta says he didn’t trust Romano, whom he suspected was working with the FBI. He told Spilotro about his concerns, but Spilotro wasn’t worried. “He was punch drunk, Tony was,” Cullotta says.

On the night of July 4, 1981, the burglars climbed onto the roof. Cullotta was watching from his car idling on Sahara. FBI agents and Metro Police officers, hiding all around the store, waited until the burglars drilled into the building before they closed in. “I says, ‘It’s all over,’” Cullotta recalls.

Just as Cullotta had suspected, Romano had become a government informant a few months before the Bertha’s burglary.

Dennis Arnoldy is a retired FBI agent who participated in busting the Bertha’s burglars. He remembers how it all went down: “We came up over the back building. We hid behind these air conditioners that were as loud as hell. I got the word to go forward when they had broken through the roof. That was the completion of the burglary charge. We arrested them on the roof.”

Relations soured between Spilotro and Cullotta after Bertha’s. Cullotta became worried that Spilotro, his childhood friend, was planning to have him killed. Then FBI agents in Chicago heard that the Outfit had put out a contract on Cullotta. When they told Cullotta this, it confirmed his worst fears, and he switched sides.

 

* * * * *

Although Spilotro was an intense, murderous gangster, he also was one of the few of his ilk who attempted to put down roots in Las Vegas, to engage with the community beyond the Strip. And since for much of his time in Las Vegas he was banned from the casinos, he often was seen around town, coexisting with regular people on multiple levels.

Besides Upper Crust Pizzeria and My Place Lounge, Spilotro was a frequent visitor to restaurants such as Port Tack on West Sahara Avenue and Villa d’Este on Convention Center Drive, bars such as Champagnes Café on Maryland Parkway and discos such as Jubilation on Harmon Avenue. He also found time for family activities, such as watching his son’s Little League games. One night at Villa d’Este, he raised a healthy cash donation for a busload of nuns.

In his memoir, longtime casino host Bernie Sindler tells a touching Spilotro story. Muriel Rothkopf, wife of Desert Inn executive Bernie Rothkopf, was a lush and a lounge lizard. One night at the Chateau Vegas, a popular bar on Desert Inn Road, she got loaded with a guy at the bar and woke up the next morning lacking her $100,000 diamond ring. “She was devastated,” Sindler writes, “and very afraid of what Bernie would do if he found out about her escapade.”

Muriel went to Sindler for help. He contacted a wiseguy named Tony Domino, who in turn contacted Spilotro. Spilotro distributed a description of the ring throughout his criminal network and soon had a line on where it was. Employing some hardball tactics, Spilotro’s henchmen recovered the ring, and Tony presented it to the eternally grateful Muriel.

 

* * * * *

When you look at mob history objectively, with emotional distance, free of that intangible relish, you start to ask questions. Why do these particular criminals get so much attention? Why are their crimes remembered when so many others are long forgotten? What does it say about us that we’re endlessly fascinated with the mob?

“You feel like you’re looking at this tapestry that never ends,” says Tony DeStefano, a New York journalist and author of several mob histories. “You see how everything relates to everything else that came before it. And there’s lots of drama to it, lots of betrayal, some very Shakespearean-type stories.”

Thirty years after his death, Tony Spilotro remains practically a household name in Las Vegas. This would be true even if Joe Pesci had not portrayed him in Casino. A lifelong criminal and a vicious killer who was involved in a scheme that took millions of dollars out of community tax coffers, Spilotro nonetheless maintains a central role in the oft-repeated reflection that Las Vegas was a better, safer place when the mob was in charge.

Spilotro looked and acted the part. With his charismatic, tough-talking lawyer by his side, he went toe-to-toe with the powers that be, and he won more often than he lost. Authorities suspected Spilotro of participating in as many as two dozen murders, yet he was never convicted of homicide.

Whenever somebody turned up dead in Las Vegas, investigators immediately suspected Spilotro. A Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial once ridiculed this cavalier approach as “Blame Tony Syndrome.” In 1975, Caesars Palace pit boss Marty Buccieri was murdered. Spilotro was the prime suspect, but it turned out two guys from out of town did the deed. The fact that Buccieri was shot with a .25-caliber handgun, rather than Spilotro’s trademark .22, was a telling piece of evidence. Of course, Spilotro still could have done it or hired the guys who did.

Some Las Vegans admired Spilotro’s defiance of the feds, who’ve often had a difficult time looking like the good guys in Las Vegas. Goodman, Spilotro’s lawyer, once said he’d rather his daughter date Spilotro than an FBI agent. Goodman’s hyperbole reflected an attitude in some circles at the time that the feds were overzealous in Las Vegas.

Arnoldy looks back on his years chasing Spilotro as the best of his life. But he doesn’t glamorize the era or the hoodlums who dominated the headlines. “On the outside it may have looked good, but inside it was a cancerous thing,” he says.

The skim, after all, was not a victimless crime. “Our tax money was going to Kansas City and Chicago,” Arnoldy says. “It was a drain on taxes.” Also, the fact that the Outfit had hijacked the Stardust from its owner, Allen Glick, created “a wariness to invest in the hotels in Las Vegas because you don’t want to put a lot of money into something and one day a guy knocks on your door and says, ‘I own this now.’”

With that in mind, it’s perhaps no coincidence that just three years after Spilotro’s death, the most expensive Las Vegas resort in history to that point opened its doors, triggering a building boom that completely reinvented the Strip and the surrounding community. Nicholas Pileggi, in his book Casino, argues that a Tony Spilotro could not exist in today’s Las Vegas.

“Today in Las Vegas the men in fedoras are gone,” he writes. “The gamblers with no last names and suitcases filled with cash are reluctant to show up in the new Las Vegas for fear of being turned in to the IRS by a 25-year-old hotel-school graduate working casino credit on weekends.”

Perhaps this helps to explain why, three decades after Tony Spilotro’s death, the public remains as interested as ever in his story. We pine for a past when Las Vegas was smaller and simpler, when a slot jackpot sent coins streaming out of the machine, when there was no texting while driving — when a small shopping plaza at Maryland and Flamingo was the community’s focus of attention.

 

* * * * *

One cannot write about Tony Spilotro without mentioning his darkest claim to fame. In 1962 in Chicago, two young crooks, Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia, killed two connected men and a waitress in the Chicago suburb of Elmwood Park. This was a big mistake, because the Outfit’s top leaders lived there and didn’t want to make any waves that might draw police to their doorsteps. Spilotro was assigned to deal with the situation.

With Cullotta’s help, Spilotro found McCarthy, but he couldn’t locate Miraglia, and McCarthy didn’t want to talk. So Spilotro put his head in a vise and started squeezing. He tightened the pressure each time McCarthy failed to give up his partner’s whereabouts. When one of McCarthy’s eyes popped out of its socket, he finally told Spilotro where to find Miraglia. Then Spilotro slit the burglar’s throat. Spilotro tracked down Miraglia the next day and slit his throat as well. The victims were later discovered in the trunk of an abandoned car.

This is the sobering story one needs to repeat on those occasions when a local nostalgist remembers Spilotro as a polite, church-going fellow who liked to watch his son’s Little League games. 


What is the Outfit?

In Chicago, the mob is called the Outfit. It’s not the Mafia or the Syndicate or the Combination. If you pay even passing attention to mob history and legend, when you see the phrase “the Outfit,” you know it’s a reference to traditional organized crime in Chicago.

The Outfit boasts the most notorious lineup of bosses, racketeers and killers in American mob history. It all started with Big Jim Colosimo, who built a prostitution empire before he was knocked off in 1920 to make way for his clever nephew, Johnny Torrio. Thanks to Prohibition, Torrio made the Outfit bigger and richer than Big Jim could have imagined.

In 1925, bootlegging rivals tried to take out Torrio with gunshots, kicks and baton blows. He survived, but the experience got him thinking about retirement. He handed the reins to his tough young disciple, Al Capone.

You know ol’ Snorky — “Scarface” in the papers — the most famous mobster of all time. He ramped up everything, including the violence, making the Outfit the most powerful mob in the country. Most of Chicago’s cops and politicians were on Capone’s payroll, giving him the idea he was invincible.

The feds, however, were untouchable — at least some of them were. While the Prohibition Bureau’s Eliot Ness annoyed Capone by busting his illicit breweries, the Treasury Department’s Elmer Irey assigned his Intelligence Unit to build a tax case against the Big Guy. In 1931, Capone’s epic run ended with a conviction and an 11-year prison sentence.

Capone was suddenly out of the picture, but the Outfit prospered under a succession of bosses who kept a lower profile: Frank Nitti, Paul Ricca, Murray Humphreys, Tony Accardo. The Outfit actually grew larger and stronger after Capone, shifting its primary focus from bootlegging to gambling. “By 1934, Accardo was overseeing an empire that numbered more than 7,500 gambling establishments in Chicago alone,” writes Gus Russo in The Outfit. The Outfit’s run of success culminated with, arguably, its most audacious achievement — the election of a president in 1960.

The Outfit has existed for almost 100 years now. Today, it’s a shadow of its former self — depleted by relentless law-enforcement pressure — but it’s still working various rackets around Chicago.


Recommended reading

Calabrese Jr., Frank with Keith and Kent Zimmerman and Paul Pompian. Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster’s Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago’s Murderous Crime Family (2011)

Griffin, Dennis N. The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob (2006)

Pileggi, Nicholas. Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas (1995)

Roemer Jr., William F. The Enforcer: Spilotro: The Chicago Mob’s Man Over Las Vegas ( 1994)

Russo, Gus. The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America (2001)

Smith, John L. Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman’s Life from Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas (2003)

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum and the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas.

 

More Stories

KNPR
KNPR's State of Nevada
KNPR
KNPR's State of Nevada