“Las Vegas was a dream for someone like me. It was the crook’s adventure playground. Cops in our pocket. Money rolling in. Women rolling by. This was our town.” said ex-mobster Frank Culotta. He was looking out at the twinkling lights and neon signs as we drove down the infamous strip.
“But look at it now!” he pointed to a bystander in shorts and a baseball cap. “What the hell is he wearing with his belly hanging out like that? In my day you dressed up to go out.” He sighed. “I liked it the way it used to be.”
As of last week, the way it used to be retreated even further into the past. Culotta, the last surviving link with the Las Vegas mafia era, died of Covid-19 and underlying conditions, aged 81.
Last year, while I was researching a documentary with Nutopia Productions, he gave me a tour of Vegas like no other. In between deep breaths on his portable oxygen tanks, Frank told me about life in the Seventies and Eighties: the glamour, the robberies, the murders. Vegas was exploding with money and violence. Arriving in 1978, he found himself in a gangster’s paradise.
“In Chicago we had to hide our money. Never show off. Never look flashy. In Vegas, you stood out if you didn’t look flashy,” he explained.
Back then, Vegas was an “open city” meaning that any mob family in the States could have a piece. Each had their own casinos, restaurants, bars, prostitution rings and strip clubs.
“We had control of the Fremont, Hacienda, Marina and the Stardust,” he told me, pointing out casinos. By “we”, Frank meant the Chicago Outfit, the midwest Italian American crime syndicate that rose to power under Al Capone.
Frank was the last man standing, the sole survivor of this brutal period. With his death last week, that chapter finally came to a close. It’s an important chapter, too, not just because of the scale of “La Cosa Nostra” but because of what it took to bring it down: an epic law enforcement operation that saw 28 families run out of Vegas.
At the heart of it was Frank, who turned state witness in 1982 - testifying against his boss and friend Tony Spilottro, played by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
It was Tony who invited Frank to Vegas in 1978. They had grown up together on the streets of Chicago, where Frank’s father drove a mafia getaway car. Tony was running the Outfit’s Vegas empire, gathering millions of dollars by skimming off casino profits. When he needed an enforcer, Frank, fresh out of prison after eight years for robbery, was the perfect candidate.
Vegas was the one city where being a criminal was an asset. “It was a new town, a new scene. Maybe I could find a wife and really start a new life,” recalled Frank.
He opened a restaurant, The Upper Crust, and married Elaine, the daughter of an insurance broker. It was an ideal partnership: Elaine’s father would tip Frank off – who had what valuables and where – then Frank would rob them. He recruited others and they came to be known as the Hole in the Wall Gang, as they broke in using drills. They laundered the stolen jewellery through Tony’s business.
What neither Frank nor Tony knew, was that the FBI had made a breakthrough. It seems extraordinary now, but until 1978, despite the mafia having essentially created Vegas, no one at a Federal level understood its significance. But new technology had allowed the FBI to bug mafia-owned restaurants. It didn’t take long before the dots were joined, and the FBI launched Operation Strawman to clean up Vegas.
By 1979, Tony was “King of the Strip”. As well as money from the casino skim, (which Frank often delivered in person to the Godfathers back home) he was expanding his empire. One of the advantages of being in a gambling town is that everyone gambles. And, sooner or later, everyone runs out of luck. Whoever you were – politician, bell boy, judge, policeman – you invariably ended up owing Tony.
And if Tony couldn’t bribe you, he had other ways. When he became convinced that one of his crew was informing on him, he ordered Frank to kill him. It would change everything.
On the night of October 10 1979, Frank murdered Jerry Lisner in his home. It could hardly be called a clean hit: he had adjusted the bullets to make them quieter, but they misfired. He chased Lisner and managed to get him on the ground, strangling him with a cable. But the cable broke. He tried to pick up a knife but couldn’t reach. It was only when a friend entered with fresh bullets that he managed the kill.
I told Frank he sounded like a reluctant murderer. He shrugged: “I had to follow orders. It was kill or be killed.” Later on our tour, he refused to stop at one of the bars we passed as Lisner’s widow, now in her 70s, was still waiting tables there.
Frank got away with the murder for a while, but it made headline news. He had dumped Lisner’s body in the pool to destroy evidence, and the press appreciated the drama. This made the Chicago bosses nervous. They started to feel Tony might be a liability.
Across Vegas, things were heating up. A new sheriff, John Macarthy, had been elected on an anti-mafia ticket. The FBI was cleaning up its act, rooting out corrupt members, as was the local police force, known as Metro.
Frank introduced me to Lou Detiberiius, a retired Metro officer, who had in 1979 been charged with following Frank and his gang around town. Lou, like Frank, was Italian American but had been raised to believe the Mafia brought a shame on their culture.
The FBI had the money and the technology to bug, but Metro had the street power. “We made it clear we were following them. We would drive right behind them, sit in their restaurants, sit on roof tops with binoculars,” said Lou. “It got so that Frank and Tony would only talk to each other with their mouths covered, in case we had lip readers with us.”
They increased the pressure, stopping Tony and his cronies for any minor misdemeanour. Lou arrested Frank twice - over stolen furniture and jewellery.
By now the paranoia ran so deep that Tony was holding meetings in jacuzzis so no one could wear a wire. Elaine was sure he was trying to kill Frank. Tony was convinced that Frank would “roll” and become an informant.
Frank told me he had no intention of “flipping”, until the FBI played him a recording of Tony discussing murdering him. He had no choice, he told me: “There was no grey area with Tony.”
He and Elaine agreed to go into witness protection. Frank confessed to Lisner’s murder and testified that Tony had ordered the hit.
At the last count Frank was key to nineteen federal racketeering, four murder and five robbery indictments. Tony, however, never served jail time. He was murdered in 1986, apparently by his Chicago bosses, afraid that he too would roll.
Frank was in grave danger: mob hitmen were sent after him. In a bizarre twist of fate, it was Lou who was charged with protecting him and the two became friends. Only after twenty years in witness protection, did Frank return to Vegas in 2002, finally convinced he was safe. He wrote a memoir in 2007 and became something of a local celebrity.
“Hey Louie” Frank asked while I was there, “did you ever think back then that you and I would be together in a car and me not handcuffed? One day you’re trying to kill me, next day you’re my best friend. Amazing. Life’s amazing.”