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Myth or reality: Experts answer your questions and ours about the mob in Las Vegas

A hand gun that once allegedly belonged to mobster Bugsy Siegel is seen on display at the Mob Experience at the Tropicana, Monday, March 28, 2011, in Las Vegas.
Julie Jacobson
A hand gun that once allegedly belonged to mobster Bugsy Siegel is seen on display at the Mob Experience at the Tropicana, Monday, March 28, 2011, in Las Vegas.

Lake Mead is losing water, but as it does, people in Las Vegas and around the world are gaining something entirely different: a glimpse into the past.

Since spring, several sets of human remains have been discovered in the receding lake. Many are thought to be drowning victims. But in early May, a man’s body was found inside of a barrel and it’s believed he was shot in the 1970s or '80s.

That discovery spurred interest in Las Vegas’ mob history —and a realization— that a lot of people only know the myths.

'Sense of something's going on'

“I think there’s a sense around town that something’s going on," said Dr. Michael Green of the 1940s. Green is the associate professor of history at UNLV, and said the population of Las Vegas tripled that decade.

“At the [Las Vegas] Review-Journal, in those days, a note was posted to the bulletin board: He will be referred to only as Mr. Siegel or Ben or Benjamin Siegel, as opposed to Bugsy.”

Las Vegas survived the Depression “pretty well,” Green said, thanks to the Hoover Dam, illegal gambling and easy divorce.

Flamingo Hotel
File photo

“World War II had brought prosperity, but they're always these worries in Las Vegas. ‘What's going to happen next?’ So the idea that people want to come in and build hotels. … ‘Come on in, the water's fine,’” Green told State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann.

There were a few factors that drove mobsters to the growing desert town, including transportation: the highway from Los Angeles and the railroad equipped the town with a built-in market, Green said.

“The other thing is Nevada had made gambling legal,” he explained. “And there's an old story about Benny Binion leaving Dallas in 1946 and heading to Las Vegas, and he was asked, ‘Why did you leave?’ And he said, ‘My sheriff got beat.’ There's also a story attributed to Moe Dalitz, where they said, ‘You ran an illegal casino.’ He said, ‘I didn't know it was illegal,’ ‘How could you not know?’ He said, ‘Well, gee, the DA was in there gambling.’ So in other places, you had to pay to operate here, you might pay people off. I'm not saying there was no corruption. But you could get a license, you could run a casino. And at the time, the regulatory system was pretty limited. You could get away with a lot. So it's appealing on a number of levels with the growth of the area, the growth of Southern California and the ease of getting licensed.”

In 1950, Sen. Estes Kefauver chaired a Senate committee dedicated to exposing corruption and organized crime. They had hearings in 14 cities, including Las Vegas, which were held in the federal building that is now The Mob Museum.

Green said he thinks the hearings helped the mob in Las Vegas, which was the smallest of the cities they visited.

“It certainly puts an increased stigma on us,” he said. “In the sense that Kefauver is talking about organized crime. And we, as he says, ‘We are a case that speaks eloquently in the negative in terms of allowing legal gambling.’ But I don't think most people were worried about the stigma if the money kept rolling in.”

Many of those who were involved in organized crime were first-generation Americans who came through Ellis Island, or their children, from Southern or Eastern Europe.

In West Las Vegas, the Moulin Rouge was the most famous integrated hotel-casino, but that wasn’t seen much in the early mob-run properties on the Strip.

“You find that African Americans are discriminated against and do not get the opportunities in the casino business that exists today. Often were consigned to being porters, dishwashers, etc.,” Green said. “There was an old line that African American women built the Culinary. The Culinary Union in those days was under the leadership of Al Bramlet, the secretary treasurer who was quite a character in his own right; the Culinary had some mob ties.”

Nor were women a big part of mob leadership in Las Vegas. There were efforts to keep women from being dealers in casinos, let alone moving up to management.

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

Jane Ann Morrison, in her four decade long career as a columnist and reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, bumped elbows with some families of mobsters. She chatted with women like Nancy Spilotro during courthouse breaks, but “restrooms are not somewhere you interview somebody.’

“When [Anthony] Spilotro went missing, I had the Spilotros’ home number, and I called; Nancy answered the phone and I was identifying myself. I was working for the Reno paper at the time. And I identified who I was. She said to me, ‘Oh, you're the cat lady.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that's how I want to be remembered.’ So we chatted for a minute. She was very friendly. And then as soon as I brought up Spilotro, she shut me off,” Morrison said.
Many movies portray the wives of mobsters, often in a tawdry way.

“You don’t find, I think, a lot of source material unless you’re talking directly to them,” Green said. “We tend to forget Nancy Spilotro was a mother. She took the kids here, she went to events there, and it was not just a matter of her being the wife of a guy who was reputed to be a cold-blooded murderer.”

'They tried to do that nasty business outside the city'

Eventually, the term “open city” was thrown into the mix of Las Vegas, which Geoff Schumacher, the vice president of exhibits and programs for The Mob Museum, said referred to the fact that any organized crime entity had a chance to operate in Las Vegas without facing territorial conflict.

You didn’t see mobsters shooting at each other in casinos, because that’s bad for business. Schumacher said if someone was going to get whacked, it would happen elsewhere.

“Gus Greenbaum was killed in 1958 in Phoenix, he was running the Riviera hotel at the time. Michael and Tony Spilotro were killed in Chicago, even though they were operating in Las Vegas at the time. There are many examples like this. “Russian” Louis Strauss, he was picked up at the Desert Inn by a couple of guys and they drove toward Palm Springs, and that's where they killed him, and then dumped him in the desert, presumably,” Schumacher said. “So they definitely tried to do that kind of nasty business outside the city limits. You mentioned dumping or burying bodies in the desert. That is a reputation that Las Vegas has, like you walk around, outside out in the desert in Las Vegas, you're bound to run across a victim of the mob. There weren't nearly as many of those as we think, at least, that we know of, because if you look back in the records … the bodies found in the desert or dumped in the desert, you can count them on two hands, probably, as opposed to the hundreds that people believe are out there.”

Then, a New York Times bestseller was released, seeking to “expose” Las Vegas for what it was: The Green Felt Jungle. “It created this aura about Las Vegas that people had suspected before,” Schumacher said. Nationwide, people had a general sense of crime in the city, but not the properties or the names until that book came out.
He pointed to the depiction of Johnny Rizzoli as this classy guy, dating starlets and on top of the world. “I can imagine a lot of guys wanting to come to Vegas and do that same thing.”

Downtown Las Vegas, September 1972
Downtown Las Vegas, September 1972

By the mid-1980s, there were several efforts to knock down the mob on a federal and state level. Gov. Michael Callahan, Schumacher said, started to appoint people to the Gaming Control Board who would be tough on the mob.

“That increases the pressure on the mob to try to seek out informants, and perhaps this person's body, this body in a barrel, was somebody who had been discovered to have been an informant or government witness. There was a lot of paranoia in the mob at that time about who they could trust,” he said.

Morrison said she was never threatened by the mob while she covered their court cases in those decades. “I got death threats from politicians … Tony Spilotro was very polite to me. I was not a man who was punching him in the chest with my fingers. I wasn't doing that. I was just asking him a straight question.”

Las Vegas’ casinos are corporatized now, and have been since the 1990s. “It would be difficult for the traditional mob to be involved in a lot of what they’re doing,” Schumacher said.

'The mob is still here, but it's a different mob'

A lot of the mobsters from that era have died, but news still pops up about them in the Northeastern U.S. About 10 years ago, the DeCavalcante crime family in New Jersey was busted. One of the people involved was Charlie Stango, who was arrested in his suburban Henderson home.

“The guy taking out his garbage cans next door and chatting with you about, let's go ahead and say it, his cat. You know, that's the guy who's a cold-blooded killer from New Jersey,” Schumacher said.

He was reportedly released from federal custody in July and returned to New Jersey after serving seven years of his 10 year sentence.

Are there any depictions in movies or books that were close to the truth? Morrison said 1995’s “Casino” starring Robert De Niro was "spot on."

“It wasn't just [author] Nick Pileggi making something up, or Martin Scorsese making something up. I mean, it was a rough time. I felt that the movie captured the era very well,” Morrison said.

And is the mob still here?

“The mob is still here, but it’s a different mob. It’s not the traditional Italian mob. It’s the Russians, it’s the Israelis, it’s people like the Yakuza from Japan. They all have things going on that can be somewhat under the radar because people don’t suspect them,” Morrison said. “There was a certain point where you had to buy your liquor from a certain place because it was the sheriff’s brother. Now is that mob? Or is that just smart business?”

 Jane Ann Morrison and Geoff Schumacher
Kristen DeSilva
Jane Ann Morrison and Geoff Schumacher with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann at Nevada Public Radio on Dec. 21, 2022.

Guests: Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs, The Mob Museum; Jane Ann Morrison, retired Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist; Dr. Michael Green, UNLV's associate professor of history

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Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.
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