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The mob gets star billing in Vegas

With a tour of gangster sights and a proposed wiseguy museum, the city starts to embrace its roots. You got a problem with that?

March 17, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — , a city forged on gambling, booze and flesh, has been strangely reluctant -- and perhaps a little nervous -- to make money off its mob roots. Until now.

On a recent drizzly night, a small, white Vegas Mob Tour bus rumbled past aging strip malls, its passengers eager to see the spots where wiseguys were killed.

Thug Jerry Lisner was repeatedly shot, strangled with an electrical cord and dumped in his swimming pool on a tree-lined street named Rawhide. Tour guide Robert Baltus pointed out the street but not the house -- the owners are uneasy about publicizing its bloody past.

In a Tony Roma's parking space next to a light pole, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal was nearly blown up in his booby-trapped Cadillac Eldorado. "He should have been in 50 different pieces," Baltus told a dozen silent tourists, but a steel plate under the car saved the casino executive's life.

Paul Johnson, 56, was transfixed as the bus whizzed past a pizza parlor, church and hotel that at one time were linked to the mob. An industrial electrical contractor from Dickinson, N.D., Johnson said he had run across mobsters during his oil industry days. But he wasn't spilling anything about his brush with organized crime. Not in this city.

"Vegas was built with mob money," he said. "They did a hell of a job."

Americans have long been entranced by hooligans who laundered money, bootlegged, bullied and killed. Entrepreneurs have bused tourists to mob haunts in Newark, N.J.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Chicago. Vegas' own godfathers were immortalized in the 1995 Martin Scorsese movie "Casino," which was partly filmed here.

Sin City has dusted off its gangster skeletons with the Vegas Mob Tour based at the Greek Isles Hotel & Casino, "Sopranos"-inspired dinner theater at the Riviera Hotel & Casino and a proposed mob museum.

The tour offers insight into how this city has -- mostly -- made peace with gangsters such as Tony "the Ant" Spilotro and mob bosses who helped turn the remote town into a resort by investing in casinos that mainstream businessmen scorned.

The tour devotes time to Frank "King Rat" Cullotta, the hitman-turned-informant who killed Lisner, a low-level criminal whom Spilotro feared was a turncoat. Baltus said Cullotta -- who's still alive -- told him that after the slaying he drove to a pizza restaurant for a snack.

You can learn more, Baltus tells passengers, by buying "Cullotta" the book or "Cullotta" the DVD -- both available at Greek Isles.

The latest mob enterprises are possible because of the Vegas ingenuity that has milked cash even from the atomic bomb, and the long passage of time since underworld types ruled the Strip. The last element, said mob tour founder Robert Allen, a native Chicagoan, might be most essential.

"I can only do this tour," he said, "because Tony Spilotro's dead."


Two years ago, Allen put down the morning paper, inspired.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal had pieced together a "wise guide": a map that included the Tony Roma's, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's Flamingo Hotel, and the unusual spot where a thug named Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein was killed: his home. This, the paper said, defied an axiom of the city's gangster era: No one is killed in Vegas; they're driven to the desert first.

Why, Allen wondered, wasn't anyone in town making money off mob stories?

There was the dashing Siegel, who opened the Flamingo months before he was gunned down in Beverly Hills in 1947 -- possibly at the behest of another underworld figure, Meyer Lansky. In the 1970s, Lansky and others were charged with skimming tens of millions from the Flamingo, but a judge ruled he was too ill to stand trial.

Spilotro was a suspect in dozens of killings, according to the book "Of Rats and Men" by local columnist John L. Smith. Spilotro and his gang were charged in connection with a gift shop burglary, but before the case could be retried, Spilotro and his brother were killed and buried in an Indiana cornfield in 1986.

"Maybe people were afraid to tell their stories before," Allen said.

So Allen -- a comedian who had performed at the ostensibly mob-financed (and since-imploded) Dunes Hotel -- linked up with Denny Griffin, a former healthcare fraud investigator who has written several books about Vegas mobsters. Watching older casinos tumble like dominoes to make way for mega-resorts, Griffin fretted that Las Vegas was throwing away its history, particularly the organized-crime chapter.

"The mobsters weren't founding fathers in the sense of George Washington, but they served an equally important role here," Griffin said.

Griffin made sure the tour's hoodlum highlights tracked with his research. Allen sketched out a script and hired guides such as Baltus to deliver it with streetwise swagger. The tour's sights aren't spectacular -- the bus often idles in parking lots -- but the stories are.

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