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John L Smith: The Legacy Of A Las Vegas Law Man


You may not recognize the name Joseph Yablonsky unless you’re a longtime Las Vegan. 

Yablonsky was the Las Vegas FBI Special Agent in Charge in the 1980s and he died recently at the age of 90. 

“Joe Yablonsky will go down in Las Vegas history as one of its greatest characters. That doesn’t mean he was a sunny character. He was a very controversial guy in his three-year tenure in the early 1980s,” longtime Las Vegan and journalist John L. Smith said.

Yablonsky was known as the King of Sting because he did his own undercover sting operations when he was a special agent. He worked his way up from offices in the East Coast, where he was originally from, to Miami and finally to Las Vegas as the special agent in charge.

“Yablonsky was here at a very pivotal time when it came to fighting organized crime because believe it or not previous holders of that office at the local bureau headquarters were not exactly aggressive with organized crime,” Smith said.

When Yablonsky came, he teamed up with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department and new sheriff to take down the mob. It was part of a sweeping, nationwide investigation into the Teamsters Union pension fund and the loans made to casinos.

He also rooted out the skimming operations at several Strip hotels and put pressure on the infamous mobster Tony Spilotro.

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He was also behind the political corruption probe known as Operation Yobo, which took down several powerful politicians for accepting bribes from an undercover FBI agent.

Despite all of those accomplishments, Yablonsky rubbed a lot of locals the wrong way, Smith said.

When Yablonsky came to town, he told everyone he was going to "plant the American flag in Las Vegas," which did not sit well with many longtime residents, including the publisher of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper Hank Greenspun.

“This is one of the great conflicts of Yablonsky’s life in my opinion. I don’t think he ever got over his battle with Hank Greenspun,” Smith said.

To make matters worse, Yablonsky went after U.S. District Court Judge, and friend of the Greenspuns and several other important people in town, Harry Claiborne. 

Claiborne was convicted of felony tax evasion, in a case that many people argued was based on a sketchy witness and could have been handled in civilly -- not criminally.

Smith said that Claiborne claimed until the day he died that Yablonsky was out to get him. 

Nowadays, it's tough to get much comment about anything from any FBI agent but that was not the case with Yablonksy. He was outspoken about a lot of things and not everyone liked that approach.

“One of Joe’s problems – in my opinion – he kind of got out of the city – the East Coast feel – but it never really left him and so he was always on the hustle,” Smith said.

After three action-packed years in Las Vegas, Yablonsky retired. 


John L Smith, KNPR contributor 

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