True-crime writer Cathy Scott on four Vegas killings
At the Mob Museum, you're going to talk about Tupac Shakur, Susan Berman, Ginger Rios, and "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein; did you notice any commonality between those cases?
In both mob daughter Susan Berman and star rapper Tupac Shakur’s murder cases, conspiracy theories emerged almost from day one. With Berman’s, a theory that she may have been killed by the mob began the moment Los Angeles police officers arrived on the scene and saw a “Wanted Alive or Dead” poster for her father, Davie Berman. He was a Jewish-American organized-crime figure who eventually oversaw the skim at the Flamingo hotel and was a one-time partner of Bugsy Siegel. The poster hung prominently on a living-room wall in Berman’s house. Police told reporters that Berman may have been killed by the Mafia because of her late father’s connections. Within days, though, that theory was dismissed when it was learned that mobsters from those early Mafia days were now either dead or in their 80s and no longer active.
In Shakur’s case, also from the start, a theory circulated that Shakur faked his own death and escaped to Cuba, leaving his stardom behind. The theory still occasionally surfaces, in part because Tupac’s case remains unsolved.
A commonality in salsa dancer Ginger Rios and mobster "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein cases was that I interviewed their killers.
In the Rios case, I went to the Spy Craft store on Maryland Parkway where Rios, who disappeared in 1997. Shop owner Craig Jacobsen (aka John Flowers) was surprisingly angry when I interviewed him, because, as he put it, 20-year-old Rios had caused police to focus on him. Jacobsen gave me the creeps, so I didn’t stay long. Once he fled Nevada, I called him on the cell number he gave me, and he was on the offense again, telling me that when Rios reappears, he’d make her disappear for good. I spoke with him a third time and asked him flat-out if he killed Rios. He hung up on me.
Then, two months after Rios’s disappearance, Jacobsen’s wife, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, led investigators to a shallow grave in the remote Arizona desert. Nearby was a second shallow grave for another woman, whom Jacobsen eventually admitted to killing. Prosecution of Jacobsen in Arizona is pending in the murder of a third murder, this time of a 15-year-old Phoenix girl, which makes Jacobsen a serial killer.
It was the opposite reaction with Joe DeLuca, a one-time partner with Blitzstein in an auto shop. Blitzstein was once a loan shark and bookmaker for the Chicago Mafia before he went to work for mob enforcer Anthony Spilotro in Las Vegas. Blitzstein’s auto-shop business turned out to be a front for illegal street rackets, which included loan-sharking, prostitution, and insurance fraud. DeLuca, who discovered Blitzstein’s body, was friendly when I met him at the auto shop. He told me he didn’t know anyone who would want to kill Blitzstein. It turned out DeLuca had, in fact, set up Blitzstein in January 1997 to be killed execution-style in his east Las Vegas townhouse so Mafia from Buffalo and Los Angeles could take over Blitzstein’s illegal enterprises.
Which of the four was most challenging as a writer?
Each had its own challenge, mostly because it’s sometimes difficult with criminal cases for reporters to land interviews and get our hands on court documents and police reports. But I love a challenge, so I pursued each one and jumped the hurdles. In the Blitzstein case, however, the biggest challenge at first was when law enforcement wouldn’t talk to the media. The common theme early on from police was that Blitzstein, who was 62 when he died, had retired and was no longer a working member of the Mafia. That ended up not to be true. I was at the scene of his murder the day it happened, and men in black suits walked in and out of Blitzstein's townhouse and huddled with police detectives on the street. They turned out to be FBI agents, even though homicide isn't a federal offense and isn't in their jurisdiction. They typically don't go to murder scenes. So it was obvious that there was more to the story than reporters were being told, and it was a challenge at first to get to the story of what really happened that January day.
Do one or two of those cases linger in your mind?
Every case I cover stays with me in one way or another, especially when it involves murder. But Susan Berman's death, in particular, continues to haunt me, mostly because the circumstantial and hard evidence pointed to Robert Durst, a man who was supposed to be her best friend. From the start, he was a person of interest in the fatal shooting of Susan in her Benedict Canyon home. Yet the Los Angeles County district attorney's office didn't arrest Durst until 2015. So I continued blogging about the case, plus my publisher released the second edition of my biography of Berman, Murder of a Mafia Daughter.
For me, the case represents not only justice for Berman, but also for all the victims of Durst, who is a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie, and an admitted killer of Morris Black, an elderly former neighbor of Durst. As I researched Susan’s murder, I went to the Home of Peace Cemetery in Los Angeles, where Susan's casket is in a mausoleum, along with family members' caskets. Susan adored her father, so it was refreshing to see their final resting places next to each other.
The second that has stayed with me is the Tupac Shakur case. I began covering the shooting in the middle of the night on September 14, and was there while crime-scene analysts were still working. The biggest thing for me is that the case is unsolved, even though Compton Police gang detectives shared with Las Vegas police circumstantial evidence they'd gathered against street-gang member Orlando Anderson. Metro went to Compton during a gang roundup. Compton Police found a gun in Anderson’s home that was similar to the one used in Shakur’s murder. Vegas police opted not to interview Anderson. Eighteen months after Shakur’s death, Anderson was killed in an unrelated shootout in Compton, so that may be justice for some Tupac fans. Still, until Las Vegas authorities officially name Orlando Anderson the killer, the Shakur case remains officially unsolved.
The Ginger Rios and the Tupac Shakur cases are featured in my latest release, The Crime Book.