“I’ve known Tony since I was about 12 years old, we grew up together. At the end of 78, he called and asked me to come out to Vegas and, you know, watch his back, be his underboss, more or less, that’s the term they use. So that’s what I was noted for, the Underboss and the leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang” - Frank Cullotta
I love a story about criminal gangs, how they develop, how they work and how they end. I think the story of the Hole in the Wall Gang is as good as it gets. In the first of a three-part series, the reader learns about the beginnings of the men who will eventually start the Hole in the Wall Gang.
The Big Score
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? The first one I remember was 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.
Tony Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall gang started stealing from Sears stores and drug dealers, graduated to successful jewelry stores and fur boutiques and end with the last big score at Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings where they calculated they might find over a million dollars in cash and jewelry.
Bertha Ragland came to Vegas right after WW II and opened Bertha's Gifts and Furnishings where she sold fine china and home furnishings store. She eventually added a high-end jewelry store inside the home furnishing store. Bertha Ragland was a colorful and well-known successful Las Vegas businesswoman. 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 store safe. Bertha’s will become that last big score of the Hole in the Wall Gang.
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 three 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 FBI served 1979 search warrants looking for evidence of hidden ownership and skimming from Las Vegas casinos. A Las Vegas mob associate named Joe Agosto turned government witness, and he will sink the Midwest mafia families.
Chicago Outfit member Tony Spilotro relocated to Las Vegas and started his Hole in the Wall Gang. For that reason, I start with a look at the 1970s Outfit. During this time, Anthony Accardo was the real power behind the throne of the Chicago outfit while Joseph “Joey Doves” Aiuppa was the boss to all outside observers. From his modest retirement condo in Palm Springs, Accardo flew into Chicago to attend major sit-downs and mediate disputes. After the Kansas City F.B.I. exposed the Midwest Mob’s penetration of Vegas Casinos, the Chicago FBI continued with a multi-prong attack on the Outfit and their connections to the Teamsters union and Las Vegas casinos. Kansas City agents code-named their skimming case “Strawman,” and they gathered the first real solid evidence of the how Organized Crime families controlled an important Teamster Pension fund official named Allen Dorfman. In the next operation called “Operation Pendorf” (penetrate Dorfman) the FBI taped Teamster’s official Allen Dorfman exerting control over the pension find and other Teamster activities, conspiring with Outfit Capo Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo and others to bribe a U.S. Senator from Nevada and stealing Teamster money. In separate investigations, the Chicago U.S. Attorney and F.B.I. Agents launched Operation Greylord and then Operation Gambet to uncover and identify players in the Outfit’s penetration of the Cook County Circuit court and other Chicago government entities. Chicago Agents developed an informant who alerted authorities to a commercial burglary in Las Vegas. The subsequent investigation will provide one of the most valuable government witnesses to come forward in the Outfit’s history.
During the early 1960s in Chicago, a young thief named Frank Cullotta (right) became friends with another young thief named Tony Spilotro. They started as rival shoeshine boys, and as young adults, a 23-year-old Frank Cullotta used his friendship with a former crime partner, a 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. During this time 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 sledgehammers, 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 used these same techniques until their last burglary together in 1981.
So how did these Chicago Outfit members end up burglarizing Las Vegas jewelry stores? First, we must 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.
- READ: Untouchable "Little Jimmy" - Profile of Chicago Mafia boss James Marcello
In 1974, the Chicago Outfit, the Kansas City Crime Family, the Milwaukee family, and the Cleveland mob organizations pooled their Teamsters 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. In the following transcript from a federal trial, Allen Glick confirms to the media Rosenthal’s place at the Stardust.
Reporter – “Mr. Rosenthal what is your position in the Argent Corporation?”
Rosenthal – “I serve at Mr. Glick’s pleasure.”
Reporter – “And can you describe Mr. Glick’s pleasure?”
Glick – “We don’t have enough time.”
Rosenthal – “That’s a good answer, we don’t have enough time.”
Reporter - “Do you see yourself growing with Argent corporation, taking a higher position possibly?”
Rosenthal – “You will have to ask Mr. Glick about that.”
Glick – “Mr. Rosenthal is in as high as a position as you can have now.”
We all remember the Robert DeNiro character Ace Rothstein in the Scorsese film Casino. Screenwriter Nicholas Pillegi modeled Ace Rothstein on the real Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. Pillegi described his fictional Ace Rothstein as an arrogant, egotistical, ostentatious, flamboyant, and conspicuous gambler just like the real-life Lefty. By 1974, Lefty Rosenthal was at his peak, and his Outfit bosses demanded he produces them a return. Lefty hired several corrupt employees and started a regular flow of money skimmed from the four Argent casinos, Stardust, Hacienda, Fremont, and Marina. Lefty set up an operation to remove casino cash before his staff recorded the counted and sent it to Chicago who in turn shared a percentage with the Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Kansas City crime families.
A license to steal
The Chicago Outfit did 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 regular 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 later related he left because 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 him in Las Vegas. When Frank arrived, Spilotro told him he wanted Frank to put together a crew of Chicago guys and start doing jobs. He also asked Cullotta be an inside man at the Casinos because the Nevada Gaming Control Board had banned Spilotro put his name in the Black Book of Banned Persons.
During the early 1970s, Las Vegas law enforcement including Gaming Control enforcement was not the most professional in the world. The Clark County Sheriff, Ralph Lamb, directed all background investigations into casino licensees. Lamb 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 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 excellent 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 a 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 realized that Chicago and other eastern organized crime families had infiltrated the casino business. Informants told about the loss of thousands of dollars in tax revenue because of skimming. When casino employees remove money 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 the Las Vegas Metro police will combine with the Clark County Sheriff’s office to form one department. A young Lieutenant named John McCarthy will be elected to run the combined departments. The ranking officers under Sheriff Lamb had neglected the Intelligence Unit, and Sheriff McCarthy found it infested with corruption. McCarthy promoted a 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 found that most of his officers were a little bit corrupt taking favors from strip casinos. He learned about who informed Tony Spilotro about any law enforcement activities that might affect 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 expensive whiskey, scotch, and vodka. He asked, “What this?” Unit detectives replied, “The Strip casinos donate that to us as Christmas presents every year.” Commander Clifford replied, “Remove that stuff, and I never want to see anything like this again.” Commander Clifford will soon transfer all the existing officers out and replace them with men he could trust. The National Law Enforcement Intelligence Units organization refused to share any information with the Las Vegas police. The FBI declined to work with them in any manner. The FBI had indicted a unit member named Joe Blasko for working with Spilotro. The police department fired Blasko he will eventually work directly for Spilotro and become a member of the Hole in the Wall Gang.
At this time, the FBI transferred in agents who had experience working organized crime cases back East. Agent Emmett Michaels was a blunt, straightforward hard-charging FBI agent. He was assigned to head up the surveillance squad, and they focused their efforts on Spilotro. He soon noticed the changes in the Las Vegas Metro Intelligence and forged a friendship with Commander Kent Clifford.
By 1979, Frank Cullotta put together several of his old Outfit comrades into a burglary gang. The press named this crew the Hole in the Wall gang because they often knocked a hole in a wall of a business to avoid alarms on doors and windows. They hit the homes of wealthy people and jewelry stores and fur boutiques all over the southwest. They set up scores and completed scores set up by Tony Spilotro. Frank Cullotta ran the day to day operations of this gang, and he gave Spilotro a piece of every job. According to the usual Outfit protocol, Frank gave Tony an equal share to anybody who participated in the crime. During this time Tony Spilotro ordered Frank Culotta to murder a Las Vegas resident named Jerry Lisner because he thought Lisner was an informant. Cullotta toke another member of the Hole in the Wall Gang, Wayne Matecki as a backup on this hit. Frank and Mateki went to Lisner's house, and Frank shot him, but Lisner ran away and refused fall. Frank chased Lisner through the house while shooting until he ran out of rounds. Mateki brought in more bullets, so Frank reloaded, and he finally got Jerry Lisner killed. Martin Scorsese depicted this murder in his film, Casino. During the filming of this scene, Scorsese complained that it did not feel right. Frank Cullotta was on the set as a technical consultant, and when he overheard Scorsese complaining, Frank said, “No wonder you are not doing it right.” Scorsese replied, "Who are you" and Frank replied, "I’m the guy who done it." Scorsese replied, “Somebody take this guy to Wardrobe.” In the irony of all ironies, Frank Cullotta played himself committing a murder that he did in real life.
During this time, the Hole in the Wall Gang is hanging out at the Upper Crust Pizza restaurant and bar owned by Cullotta. Kent Clifford, the new commander of Las Vegas Metro Intelligence Unit, transferred in young, aggressive police officers and created a partnership with FBI agent Emmett Michaels and his surveillance squad. They focus on the Spilotro crew. Soon the officers notice Cullotta, Spilotro and other known hoodlums hanging out at a pizza joint called The Upper Crust. They focus their activities on the Upper Crust will this led to disastrous consequences for one Chicago Outfit hanger-on and a confrontation between Kent Clifford and the entire hierarchy of the Chicago Outfit.
Hitting the front pages
By this time, the national newspapers notice the presence of Tony Spiloto. The Wall Street Journal named Aiuppa and Spilotro as the men behind a strong move West by the Chicago Outfit. The Gaming Control Board discovered Spilotro’s ties to the Chicago Outfit and forced him to sell his gift shop in Circus Circus. Spilotro opened a jewelry store called the Gold Rush, a block off the strip. He used this front to fence stolen goods obtained by the Hole in the Wall Gang. The FBI and 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 Intelligence start to tighten the noose on Tony Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall Gang with massive 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 while the upper echelon in Chicago and Kansas City are quietly taking millions out of the casinos.
Frank Cullotta provided much of the material for this series on the Hole in the Wall Gang. You can find Frank and take his mob tour of Las Vegas.
About the author:
Gary Jenkins retired from the Kansas City Police Department in 1996 after a 25-year career. Gary attended the UMKC School of Law and the Missouri Bar admitted him in 2000. He continues to practice law today. He is a Board member of the Jackson County Historical Society. During the past ten years, Gary produced three documentary films. The first two were Negroes To Hire: Slave Life in Antebellum Missouri and Freedom Seekers: Stories From the Western Underground Railroad.
Gangland Wire is Gary's third documentary film. During Gary's KCPD career, he was assigned to the KCPD Intelligence Unit, investigating organized crime. In the 1970s, a grassroots development in the City Market neighborhood became known as the River Quay. A Mafia dispute over parking rights and strip clubs would destroy the area. The resulting investigation will allow F.B.I. Agents to convict La Cosa Nostra leaders in Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Filmmaker Gary Jenkins takes the viewer on an insider’s journey deep inside the Kansas City Crime Family, using excerpts from wiretaps and interviews with participants.
Additionally, Gary created a Smartphone app titled Kansas City Mob Tour. Gary’s app, utilizing maps, text, photos, and video, conducts the user on a tour of famous Kansas City mob sites.
Gary produces and co-hosts a podcast titled Gangland Wire Crime Stories. Using the audio podcast format, Gary tells true crime stories from his experience and obtains guests who have either committed crimes, investigated crimes or reported on criminals.
Gary's most recent project is his book documenting the investigation into Las Vegas skimming activities. Gary uses actual wiretap transcripts to tell the story of this investigation. The book is titled Leaving Vegas: The True Story of How the F.B.I. Wiretaps Ended Mob Domination of Las Vegas Casinos.
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