In his golden years, Frank Cullotta makes an honest living telling stories about his dishonest past
Frank Cullotta doesn’t look like a gangster. On the street, the 78-year-old gives the impression of a grandfather who earned his gold watch for clocking 30 years at the office. This gentle veneer extends into casual conversation. Although Cullotta has a distinctly gruff Chicago accent, it’s not immediately apparent that he devoted the first half of his life to thieving and killing for the Chicago Outfit.
But it’s also true that Cullotta doesn’t mind talking about those days. Unlike some war veterans who are reluctant to talk about their tours of duty, and some ex-mobsters who fear the repercussions if they speak too freely, he readily tells stories about his criminal past.
In fact, he makes a living doing it.
Cullotta’s main enterprise these days is conducting driving tours of Las Vegas. He tells mob stories and points out places where key events occurred. He tells more stories over pizza. The tour has two related narrative threads: his criminal activities in Las Vegas in the 1970s and ’80s, when he ran a burglary crew dubbed the Hole in the Wall Gang and committed at least one murder (also recounted in his second book, 2013’s Hole in the Wall Gang), and the 1995 movie Casino, for which he served as a consultant. He has 68 reviews on TripAdvisor.com, and his rating is a perfect 5.0 — excellent. While online reviews can be fabricated to boost a business, most of the reviews of Cullotta’s tour clearly are from real people who loved their up-close-and-personal with a genuine ex-mobster.
“It was like spending three hours with your favorite uncle but way more interesting stories,” gushes Craig from Fresno. “What you get on this tour is a very unique and authentic perspective on organised crime in LV from someone who was there,” write Suzanne and Andrew McGuigan of Newcastle, U.K. “This is not a simple glorification either. Frank honestly shared the losses his way of life brought upon himself and those close to him.”
When Cullotta got caught in 1982 and decided to roll — become a government witness — he never imagined that telling stories about his past would turn into a paying job. During his years in the Witness Protection program, he was discouraged from working, in part to keep a low profile, in part because he spent so much time testifying. But Witness Protection didn’t provide much spending money, so Cullotta bought and sold cars to boost his income.
After voluntarily leaving Witness Protection in 1986, he worked the graveyard shift at a motel in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Relocated to San Diego, he got into more entrepreneurial lines of work. He ran a mobile car-detailing business that landed the contract for the U.S. Border Patrol’s vehicles. Meanwhile, the former gangster worked, believe it or not, as chief of security for a horse track. He eventually sold the car-detailing business and started a small limousine company, then sold it in 2010 and moved to Las Vegas. He had money in the bank but wanted to work.
“I thought maybe I’d sell cars,” Cullotta recalls. “But there’s so much paperwork being a common car salesman.”
Las Vegas job opportunities were hard to come by for someone with his background. “All I wanted was somebody to give me a job, and I would have worked like the average person,” he says. “I didn’t think I was above it. I know I would have been a good employee. But I couldn’t get an opportunity. Nobody would give me a break.”
Over the years, Cullotta had dabbled in celebrity. He served as a consultant to screenwriter Nick Pileggi and director Martin Scorsese during the writing and production of Casino. He even had a small role in the film as a hit man.
In 2007, he partnered with author Dennis Griffin on his first book, an autobiography, Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness. As the book reveals, as recently as 10 years ago Cullotta still had not embraced the public persona he markets today.
“Today,” according to the book, “Frank Cullotta resides in an undisclosed location and runs a legitimate business. He makes an occasional appearance in public as himself. But for the most part, he lives his life out of the spotlight.”
The shift to a higher-profile lifestyle occurred when a tour operator named Robert Allen offered Cullotta the leading role in a Las Vegas mob tour. He made good money for several years working with Allen, but when the checks started shrinking, he went out on his own. Over the past year, he’s been doing the driving himself in his white Lincoln MKZ. If the group is too big, he rents a van.
Cullotta says the tours and speaking engagements have transformed his personality. “You’re facing people all the time. You got to talk to them constantly. I didn’t realize I had that kind of personality. I was always basically a shy guy, but then I just opened up and found out that it works.”
It’s been good for his health, too. “I don’t get headaches anymore. I used to get migraine headaches for years. Not anymore.”
“Pressure. Lot of pressure from law enforcement, and pressure from actually committing crimes.”
Cullotta says his customers tend to fall into two demographic categories: American Baby Boomers and thirtysomethings from Australia, England, and Canada. “I find it amazing that so many people are so interested in history and organized crime,” he says. “They want to know how this town started, how I started. They want to know about different mobsters, the bad and the good about them. They are so interested in history. I take out the myths, because there’s so much fabrication. I tell them my life wasn’t the way it goes on the movie screen. It wasn’t always easy. They love my honesty.”
Cullotta’s third and, he insists, final book has just been released. Titled The Rise and Fall of a ‘Casino’ Mobster: The Tony Spilotro Story Through a Hitman’s Eyes, it’s about his onetime friend, the Chicago Outfit’s Las Vegas boss until his murder — by the Outfit — in 1986. Cullotta and Spilotro met as kids in Chicago, and they worked closely together in Las Vegas. That is, until Spilotro decided Cullotta had become a liability and needed to be eliminated. That’s when Cullotta called the FBI.
“Most of the people who claim they knew Tony very well are lying,” he writes in the book. “Nobody alive and free today knows more about Tony’s criminal career than I do.”
You might expect that there’s a Frank Cullotta in every former mob stronghold across the country, but it’s not the case. Probably the most widely known professional ex-mobster is Michael Franzese, who was a high-earning boss in New York’s Colombo crime family during the 1980s. After serving a prison stint for gasoline bootlegging, Franzese became a motivational speaker. He appears regularly at corporate events and Christian churches.
Chicago, perhaps the American city most immediately identified with organized crime, does not have anybody like Cullotta, according to John Binder, author of Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition. Binder himself conducts mob tours, but ex-mobsters avoid the spotlight in the Windy City.
“Turncoats tend to stay away,” Binder says. “WitSec relocates them out West — and even if it is safe to go back (which it may now be in a lot of cities), they are not doing tours and highly public things.”
While some may condemn Cullotta for capitalizing on his criminal past, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy doesn’t see it that way. “If you’re going to do history, you have to do it honestly, the good points and the bad points,” he says. “(Cullotta’s tours) are basically a reiteration of his life and how it impacted Las Vegas.” Arnoldy notes, too, that “law enforcement won the war, and Frank is the first to say so.” [Frank Cullotta pictured right at long-ago court appearance in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Mob Museum/Las Vegas Review Journal)
Arnoldy, who worked closely with Cullotta after he became a government witness, says the government benefited from the deal that gave him immunity from prosecution. “He gave us a lot of information regarding what went on here, which we used in our RICO investigation,” Arnoldy says. “He testified not just in Las Vegas, but in Chicago, Miami. He testified in Congress. It opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Arnoldy compared Cullotta’s contributions with those of Joe Valachi, who exposed the inner workings of the Mafia during congressional testimony in 1963.
Cullotta isn’t getting rich from his mob tours, but occasionally he lands a lucrative side gig. He recently made $6,200 speaking and selling books to a group of heart surgeons at a Strip hotel.
“I’m just trying to make a dollar without doing anything wrong,” he says.
For information on Cullotta’s Casino Mob Tour, call 702-622-0850.