I am adding a new method of supporting the podcast. If you have the venmo app, how about donating an average of fifty cents an episode or just hit me up for a buck every time you think of it. Now on with the show. This is the first of a 3 part series telling the story of the Tony Spilotro Hole in the Wall Gang. In this first episode, your hosts tell about the early beginnings and the Las Vegas background that allowed such a gang to start. We use a few dramatic depictions of interviews with the participants who are not available. Plus we use interviews of a few of the actual people involved like Frank Cullotta and FBI agent Emmet Michaels, former Las Vegas Metro Commander Kent Clifford and Mob historian Michael Green. If we can’t get an original participant in these events because they are dead of impossible to find, we are using actors, lets give credit to our actors, Ben Ellickson of Chicago, the comedian Cojac of Kansas City and the man of a thousand voices, Alex Virgo of Kansas City.
Every good thief wants that one big score. How many movies have there been made about the big score or the last score before a master thief retires. My first one I remember was probably the Thomas Crown Affair, but there have been plenty like Heat, Heist, Oceans 11, 12 and Oceans 8 with an all-female cast. What is your favorite caper film? Personally, mine is Heat with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.
In this first episode we look at the Hole in the Wall gang that starts stealing fro Sears stores and from drug dealers and ends with the last big score, the 1981 burglary at Bertha’s Gifts and Home Furnishings at 896 East Sahara Street in Las Vegas.
The Bertha’s store was started by Bertha Ragland who came to Vegas right after WW II and opened a fine china and home furnishings store. She would eventually add a high-end jewelry store inside the home furnishing store. Bertha Ragland was a colorful and well-known successful Las Vegas business woman. Remember this was over 30 years ago and while credit cards were being used, in Las Vegas most still dealt in a lot of cash. The cash transaction report, or CTR, was in use but widely ignored by many financial institutions until the later 1980s when the DEA got very tough on money laundering. It was a well-known fact to her employees that she did not trust banks and kept large amounts of cash and jewelry inside a safe in the store.
To take you back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, remember Jane Byrne, she was mayor of Chicago and in 1981 she moved her family into the Cabrini Green high-rise housing project for 3 weeks. In 1981 The ground-breaking cop show, Hill Street Blues based on the Chicago PD was released. I was watching the Kansas City mob boys as they tried to regain some organization after the skimming search warrants were served in 1979 and Joe Agosto turned government witness.
In 1981, Anthony Accardo was the real power behind the throne of the Chicago outfit while Joey Doves Aiuppa was the boss to all outside observers. The FBI was conducting a multi prong attack on the Outfit and their connections to the Teamster’s union and Las Vegas casinos in Operation Strawman 1 and 2. In Operation Penfdorf the FBI taped Teamster’s official Allen Dorfman plotting to skim Teamster money with Outfit Capo Joey the Clown Lombardo and others. Operation Greylord and Operation Gambet was uncovering and identifying the Outift’s penetration of the Cook county Circuit court and other Chicago government entities. 1981 will be the last good year for the Chicago Outfit. A burglary in the Las Vegas store named Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings will provide one of the most important witnesses to come forward in the Outfit’s history.
First, we will examine another event that starts a relationship that ends at the big score at Bertha’s. We look back to the early 1960s in Chicago, a young thief named Frank Cullotta had become friends with Tony Spilotro. Their relationship was cemented when 23-year-old Frank Cullotta used his friendship with a fall partner, a young thief named Billy McCarthy. As a favor for the Outfit, Frank lured McCarthy into a spot where he was kidnapped and handed over for Spilotro to torture and murder. Also, during the 1960s, Tony and Frank partnered on several successful burglary scores. For example, a 1957 bank job where they broke through the wall of a basement into the basement of a bank. In their first big score Tony and Frank used sledge hammers, acetylene torches and other heavy equipment tools and started on a weekend so they had plenty of time to complete the job and get away before the bank reopened for business. Frank netted $50,000.00 for his end of that score. A lot of money in 1957. Frank Cullotta and Tony Spilotro would use these same techniques until their last burglary together in 1981.
So how did these 2 Chicago thieves and Outfit members end up burglarizing a Gift shop in 1981 Las Vegas? First we have to understand why Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cleveland mobsters were in Las Vegas. During the 1970s, the Outfit moved into the Las Vegas casino business after an agreement with the East Coast Families to take over all rackets in Atlantic City. Chicago, being the leader of this Midwest cabal of crime families led the way into Vegas. In preparation, in 1971, an Outfit associate and well-known gambler named Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal moved from Florida to Vegas and got a job at the Stardust. Later in 1971, 33-year-old Chicago Outfit member Anthony “Tony” Spilotro moved to Las Vegas. Aiuppa wanted an Outfit member to watch Rosenthal’s back and to take care of any problems that might threaten the skim.
In 1962, a 22-year-old Tony Spilotro earned his place in the Outfit from the torture and murder of two men who had angered the bosses, Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia. The opening scene of Casino was a depiction of the Spilotro’s torture and murder of Billy MCcarthy using a vice. Tony Spilotro and his wife, Nancy, move to Las Vegas and Frank and Geri Reosenthal are observed meeting them and help them get settled. The Outfit through the Teamsters has set up a deal at the Circus Circus casino and Tony opens a gift shop as a front business. An interesting side bar on the Circus Circus us that it has an actual circus inside. This became the first casino developed to attract families.
In 1974, the Chicago Outfit, the Kansas City Crime Family, the Milwaukee family and the Cleveland mob organizations pooled their Teamster’s Union contacts and paved the way for a 32-year-old mild mannered, bald, former Vietnam helicopter pilot turned real estate developer named Allen Glick to obtain a 62-million-dollar loan. Glick created the Argent Corporation and purchased the Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda and Marina casino/hotels. In return he was advised to promote a current Stardust employee named Frank Lefty Rosenthal to a high-level job in his organization.
We all remember the Robert DeNiro character Ace Rothstein in the Scorsese film Casino. Well that was the screenwriter Nicholas Pillegi’s depiction of Frank Lefty Rosenthal. The fictional Ace Rothstein was a very accurate depiction of the real Lefty who described as arrogant, egotistical, ostentatious, flamboyant, and conspicuous gambler. That was in 1974 and for the next few years things were going unimpeded for this cabal of Midwest mob families. Lefty was able to hire several corrupt employees and start a regular flow of money skimmed from the four casinos owned by Argent. This money was divided between Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Kansas City. Lets listen to what retired Gaming Board investigator Jack Miller has to say about this skimming.
The Outfit boss at the time was Joey Aiuppa and he wanted a guy who was loyal to Chicago to watch Lefty and back him up with any problems. Chicago Outfit mob associate would later say that Lefty did not make this easy. The Chicago Outfit does not pay Spilotro a salary for watching Lefty’s back or for helping Lefty with any strong-arm tactics he needed to run the casinos. In return for his work, the Outfit granted Spilotro a license to steal in Las Vegas. Working with the Outfit is not like a normal job, it is more like the Outfit grants a member like Spilotro a franchise to display a sign that they are a well-connected guy, and in return, Spilotro or the franchisee agrees to pay a street tax of a percentage of each score they earn from any illicit activity they conduct.
By 1979 Spilotro friend and professional burglar Frank Cullotta was fed up with Chicago. He would later relate that crooked Chicago law enforcement wanted to take a chunk of his money and the good cops wanted to put him in jail. He accepted Spilotro’s invitation to join a crew in Las Vegas. When Frank arrived Spilotro told him he wanted Frank to put a crew of Chicago guys together and start doing jobs and to be his inside man at the Casinos because the Nevada Gaming Control Board had learned enough about Spilotro that he was placed in the Black Book.
During the early 1970s, Las Vegas law enforcement including Gaming Control enforcement was not the most professional in the world. All gaming background investigations were conducted by the Clark County Sheriff’s office. The sheriff was Ralph lamb. He was an old school western style lawman who ran a large family ranch as well as serving as the sheriff. He was known to meet the lower level mobsters at the airport, rough them up a bit and tell them to go back home. He claimed he once grabbed Chicago Outfit mobster Johnny Roselli and “slapped the cologne” off of him. Lamb’s department once stopped a large group of Hell’s Angels and destroyed several motorcycles and gave the bikers haircuts before turning them loose. On the other hand, Ralph Lamb wrote a character reference letter attesting to the good character of Lefty Rosenthal in support of Lefty getting a license to be involved in the Florida racetrack industry. Being responsible for background investigations for gaming licenses was huge responsibility and opened the sheriff’s office to potential corruption. The FBI started looking into Outfit corruption in the gaming industry but they got little cooperation from local law enforcement. All local and state Nevada officials resented any intrusion on their jurisdiction. It was not that this was institutional corruption but more like a libertarian attitude against anything to do with the central government.
In the middle 1970s, Nevada was changing and they were realizing that Chicago and other eastern organized crime families were infiltrating their casino business. Informants were telling about the loss of thousands of dollars in tax revenue because of skimming. If the money is skimmed before the official count, the state cannot tax the entire amount of casino revenue. Ralph Lamb was charged with personal income tax evasion but would eventually be found not guilty. The bad publicity cost him the election in 1979. The Las Vegas city police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s office had merged by this time and were known as the Las Vegas Metro PD. A former Las Vegas PD sergeant named John McCarthy beat Ralph Lamb and became sheriff.
During this time just before John McCarthy was elected, the Metro Vice and Narcotics Unit had been neglected and was infested with corruption. McCarthy will promote former vice officer who was known to be incorruptible in a sea of corruption. When Kent Clifford was promoted to command the Metro Intelligence Unit, this Eliot Ness will find that most of his officers were either a little bit corrupt taking many favors from strip casinos to actually informing Tony Spilotro about any law enforcement activities that were investigating Spilotro or his friends. Clifford made an impression when on one of his first days in the Unit’s office he found 30-40 cases of booze. He asked what was this and he was told that the Strip casinos donate that to give to the officers as Christmas presents every year. he ordered his men to remove the cases of alcohol and told them he would not allow anyone to take any favor from any casino again. Commander Clifford will soon transfer all the existing officers out and replace them with men he could trust. By this time, the National Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit organization refused to share any information with the Vegas police department. The FBI refused to work with them in any manner. About this same time the local FBI office had indicted a unit member named Joe Blasko. He will be fired and eventually work directly for Spilotro and become a member of the Hole in the Wall gang. FBI agents overheard Joe Blasko and another vice and narcotics officer giving Tony Spilotro information on FBI investigations.
The FBI started transferring in agent who had experience working organized crime cases back east. Agent Emment Michaels was a blunt, straightforward hard charging FBI agent. He was assigned to head up the surveillance squad and they focused their efforts on Spiloto. He soon noticed the changes in the LV Metro Intelligence and forged a friendship with Commander Kent Clifford.
By 1979, Frank Cullotta is putting together several of his old Outfit comrades into a burglary gang. The press will name The Hole in the Wall gang because they often knock a hole in a wall of a business to avoid alarms on doors and windows. They will hit houses and businesses all over the southwest. They set up their own scores and hit scores set up by Tony Spilotro. Frank Cullotta runs the day to day operations of this gang and makes sure a piece of every score is given to Spilotro in the usual Outfit protocol. During this time Tony Spilotro orders Frank Culotta to murder a Las Vegas resident named Jerry Lisner because he thinks Lisner is an informant. Cullotta will take another member of the Hole in the Wall Gang, Wayne Matecki as a back up on this hit. Frank and Mateki went to Lisner’s house and Frank shot him, but Lisner ran away and refused to go down. Frank chased him down shooting until he ran out of bullets and Mateki brought more in so Frank could reload. He finally got Jerry Lisner killed. This scene was depicted in the Scorsese film, Casino. During the filming of this scene, Scorsese will complain that it did not feel right. Frank Cullotta was on the set as a technical consultant. he overheard Scorsese complaining and he told him that they were not doing it right. Scorsese replied, “Who are you” and Frank replied, “I am the guy who done it.”
During this time, the Hole in the Wall gang is hanging out at the Upper Crust Pizza restaurant and bar owned by Culotta. Las Vegas Metro Intelligence Unit led by an incorruptible new Commander who transfers in young aggressive police officers and create a partnership with the Emment Michaels and the Las Vegas FBI and join and form a task force. The Spilotro task force will soon focus their attentions on the Upper Crust. This focus on the Upper Crust will lead to disastrous consequences for one Chicago Outfit hanger-on and a confrontation between Kent Clifford and the entire hierarchy of the Chicago Outfit
National newspapers take notice of the presence of Tony Spiloto. The Wall Street journal even name Aiuppa and Spilotro as the men behind a strong move West by the Chicago Outfit. Tony Spilotro has given up his gift shop in Circus Circus after the Gaming Control Board discovered Spilotro’s ties to the Chicago Outfit. Spilotro opens a jewelry store called the Gold Rush a block off the strip. He will use this front to fence stolen goods obtained by the Hole in the Wall Gang. As police intelligence units in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City serve search warrants on mob leaders to uncover evidence of Vegas skimming activities, The FBI and Las Vegas metro police start to tighten the noose on Tony Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall Gang with heavy surveillance of the Gold Rush and Cullotta’s Upper Crust restaurant. The gang is making money and attracting law enforcement heat. The next year will not be without incident. We will hear about successes, failures and WTF situations. All the time Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall gang are doing burglaries and loansharking, the upper echelon in Chicago, Kansas City are quietly taking millions out of the casinos.
Don’t forget to listen to Aaron on the Big Dumb Fun Show.
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