John L. Smith On Las Vegas Mobsters And The Cops Who Chased Them
Two recent deaths in Southern Nevada due to COVID-19 have some long time residents remembering the bad good old days when the mob ran things and the police worked overtime to stop them.
Former Chicago Outfit enforcer Frank Cullotta died late last week at age 81. He was a former member of the Tony Spilotro Hole in the Wall Gang, then turned on Spilotro and went into witness protection.
And there’s former Las Vegas Metro Police undercover detective John Hunt, who died earlier this month at age 71.
John L. Smith has written of mobsters and the men who chased them. He’s also a regular contributor to State of Nevada.
Cullotta's death made headlines but there weren't many headlines for Hunt.
“It’s the story of America," Smith noted, "Everyone remembers Billy the Kid, don’t they. Probably can’t recall too many detectives that chased Al Capone around and risked their lives."
Cullotta was not exactly Al Capone but notoriety sells more than the hardworking law enforcement officers who to stop the criminals, Smith said.
Smith has talked to Hunt's colleagues from Metro Police and his widow, who also lost their son Timothy to the virus.
“The man lived an amazing life, working undercover, working in patrol as well and being a regular beat cop as well and just holding up a high standard that Metro should really be proud of,” Smith said.
Cullotta, on the other hand, was a career criminal. He learned it from his father who was a 'wheelman' for robberies, Smith said.
Cullotta grew up with Spilotro in Chicago and followed him out to Las Vegas.
“Cullotta was a guy who was a proud hoodlum," Smith said, "He was violent. He also dealt in stolen property quite a bit. In fact, that was probably his specialty, especially in Las Vegas, and that’s eventually how some guys at Metro with the FBI, of course, worked a case against him.”
Hunt had a much different backstory.
“You couldn’t find a person with a more opposite life than Frank Cullotta in John Hunt,” he said.
Hunt was born and raised in St. George, Utah. He was brought up in a Mormon family. He moved to Las Vegas and became a police officer, working his way up the ranks.
“Wound up in Metro intelligence, where he did a variety of things for some really creative police work,” Smith said.
At one point, Hunt worked undercover at a restaurant frequented by Spilotro and his gang. Hunt was able to lay low and get information for law enforcement, Smith said.
“John Hunt worked undercover pretty much right under their noses,” he said.
Metro and the FBI eventually built a case against Cullotta for his involvement in stealing property. He was facing a judge with a reputation for handing down harsh sentences. This made Spilotro nervous.
“When Tony gets nervous, people tend to disappear,” Smith quipped.
Cullotta knew all too well what would happen to people who made Spilotro nervous. He admitted to killing an associate of Spilotro, who was going before a grand jury on an unrelated matter, because Spilotro was worried about what the man would say.
When Cullotta found that Spilotro had decided to have him killed, he really only had one choice to become a cooperating informant, Smith said. The former gangster was put into the witness protection program and testified in several trials.
“One of the things that needs to be remembered about Cullotta is after he cooperated, and became, as Oscar Goodman would have said, ‘the rat,’ he really reinvented himself,” Smith said.
After living and working California for some time, Cullotta returned to Las Vegas. He started writing about his life, selling books, making live appearances and being part of documentaries.
“As far as I know, never committed another crime,” Smith said.
Smith got to know Cullotta after he got several calls from people on the street, who were not happy to see Cullotta living happily ever after, telling him that the former gangster had died.
Smith wrote a column about the rumors that had been swirling, and subsequently, got a call from Cullotta letting him know he was very much alive.
The two communicated over the years.
“I got to the point where – I don’t know – he wasn’t a pal but I got to the point where I understood him better,” Smith said.
Cullotta did a lot of things and a lot of those things were bad, Smith said, but the former mobster never really seemed to be sorry for those bad things.
“He doesn’t lose any sleep at night because he killed people,” he said.
Looking back at Cullotta's life and the pressure he was under when he did flip on this former mob associates, Smith thinks it is remarkable Cullotta lived to tell the tale.
“You have to admit for a guy raised in that hoodlum element to live to be into your early 80s, I think you pretty well beat the odds,” he said.
John L. Smith, contributor