cullotta the life of a chicago criminal las vegas mobster and government witness

CULLOTTA
The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness
Dennis N. Griffin and Frank Cullotta
With contributions from Dennis Arnoldy
Huntington Press
Las Vegas Nevada
Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness
Published by

 

Huntington Press

 

3665 Procyon Street

 

Las Vegas, NV 89103

 

Phone (702) 252-0655

 

e-mail: [email protected]

 

 

Copyright ©2007, Dennis Griffin, Frank Cullotta

 

ISBN: 978-0-929712-96-3

 

Design & Production: Laurie Shaw

 

Photo Credits: Frank Cullotta, Dennis Arnoldy, Kent Clifford, Dennis N. Griffin, Gene Smith, Illinois Department of Corrections,
Las Vegas Review-Journal
, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be translated, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright owner.

 

Dedication

To the memory of my mother Josephine, who passed away in 1990. And to Ashley, my granddaughter, who left us in 2005. She was the light of my life.

Frank Cullotta
Acknowledgments

The information contained in this book was derived from many sources, primarily from Frank Cullotta himself and retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy. But there were many others who contributed to this project and I want to mention and thank them here. They include, but are not limited to, former Clark County Sheriff John McCarthy, Commander Kent Clifford, Detective David Groover and Lt. Gene Smith, former Strike Force Special Attorney Stanley Hunterton, and former FBI agents Joe Yablonsky, Charlie Parsons, Emmett Michaels, Donn Sickles, Lynn Ferrin, and Gary Magnesen.

The newspaper archives of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District held stories from the
Las Vegas Sun
,
The Valley Times,
and
Las Vegas Review
-
Journal
that provided key information regarding events and incidents of the Tony Spilotro era in Las Vegas. A series of 1983 articles by Michael Goodman of the
Los Angeles Times
further illuminated those times. My special thanks go out to Las Vegas TV station KVBC for allowing the use of their investigative report of Tony Spilotro’s trial for the killings of Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia (the M&M Murders).

The Illinois Police and Sheriff’s News Web site www.ipsn.org provided a wealth of information relating to organized-crime history in both Chicago and Las Vegas. The well-researched book
Of Rats and Men
(John L. Smith) was an invaluable resource. The movie
Casino
—in which actors Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro portray characters based on Tony Spilotro and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal— proved to be extremely informative.

Others deserve mention, but for various reasons they desire to stay in the background. Respecting their wishes, they will remain nameless, but not unappreciated.

Denny Griffin
Contents

 

Foreword

 

Introduction

 

Part One—From the Windy City to Sin City

 

1
Murder in Las Vegas

 

2
The Early Years

 

3
Bigger Things

 

4
The M&M Boys

 

5
Crime Wave

 

6
In and Out of Prison

 

7
The Straight Life Fails

 

Part Two—Las Vegas

 

8
Together Again

 

9
The Law

 

10
The Beat Goes On

 

11
Warning Signs and Murder Plots

 

12
Bertha’s

 

Part Three—Witness Protection and Beyond

 

13
Switching Sides

 

14
The End of Tony Spilotro

 

15
Looking Back

 

16
Where Are They Now?

 

17
Surprise Indictments

 

 

 

 

Foreword
Frank Cullotta is the real thing.

 

I found that out when I was working on
Casino
, a book about the skim at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. The story was about Anthony Spilotro, the mob boss of Las Vegas, and his relationship with Frank Rosenthal, the man who ran the mob’s casinos. Cullotta was an invaluable source for me, because by the time I started writing the book, Spilotro had been murdered and Rosenthal, who’d miraculously survived getting blown up in his car, was reluctant to give interviews.

But Frank Cullotta was alive and he’d not only known all of the major characters central to the book, he’d been one of them. He and Spilotro had been boyhood pals back in Chicago and it was Spilotro who convinced Cullotta to migrate west to a felony paradise. Cullotta had run the robbery, extortion, and murder departments for Spilotro’s Vegas mob.

Spilotro and Cullotta extorted cash from every illegal bookmaker, drug dealer, and burglar operating in Las Vegas. Those who refused wound up buried in the desert. Soon, no one refused and Spilotro became the indisputable boss of Las Vegas.

The police called Cullotta’s high-tech burglary crew “The Hole in the Wall Gang,” due to their penchant for breaking into buildings by blasting through walls.

The gang operated with very little trouble for years. Ultimately, however, one of the crew turned police informant to stay out of jail. He blew the whistle and Cullotta and his Hole in the Wall Gang were arrested in the middle of burglarizing Bertha’s, a large Las Vegas jewelry store.

The size and sophistication of the Cullotta crew surprised many in Las Vegas, especially when it was revealed that Cullotta had access to all the local police and FBI radio frequencies, not to mention a former Las Vegas police sergeant stationed outside Bertha’s as a lookout. While sitting in jail, Cullotta concluded that he’d been set up by Spilotro to take a hard fall. After much agonizing, he decided to roll and testify against his former partners and friends.

By the time I contacted the Justice Department, Cullotta had already testified and served his time. He was now a free man. The only way for me to personally contact him was through Dennis Arnoldy, the FBI agent who had debriefed Cullotta in safe houses and federal prisons.

Arnoldy said he couldn’t guarantee anything. Cullotta was in the Federal Witness Program living “somewhere in America.” But Arnoldy did say he’d somehow get Cullotta my number.

When Cullotta called the next day, I was surprised to find that he wasn’t hiding somewhere in America. In fact, he was in Las Vegas, the city where some of the most dangerous men in the state had already tried to kill him. He suggested that we meet in the morning in the parking lot of a Las Vegas shopping mall not far from the Strip.

The next morning I was there. No Cullotta. I checked my watch. He was five minutes late. Then, suddenly, Cullotta appeared. He just popped up. I was startled. I didn’t see him coming until he was right on top of me. He stood close. He was solidly built and wore a small narrow-brimmed canvas rain hat. I was even more surprised when I realized he was alone. No federal marshals or FBI agents were watching his back. He leaned against a car fender and listened to my pitch about the book. He agreed to meet again, but mostly he said he wanted to make sure I got it right, especially the part about why he decided to testify against his former pals.

Cullotta turned out to be an invaluable resource. His memory was phenomenal. He’s the kind of person who remembers his license-plate numbers from decades ago, and this is a man who usually owned three or four cars at once. Equally important to me, Cullotta had been either a participant in or an observer of most of the book’s important events. He either set up or committed robberies and murders. He was often the third person in the room during domestic disputes between Spilotro, Rosenthal, and Rosenthal’s wife, with whom Spilotro was having an affair. In fact, Spilotro’s fear that Cullotta would report back to the bosses in Chicago, who’d forbidden the affair, caused Spilotro to try and kill Cullotta. The failed murder attempt turned Cullotta into a government witness.

One of a non-fiction writer’s major concerns is knowing if the people you’re interviewing are telling the truth. That problem becomes even more acute when dealing with cops, lawyers, and crooks, to whom lying is not unknown.

In Cullotta’s case, however, he’d already been debriefed by the FBI and testified under oath in court about everything we were discussing, which could all be checked in the public record or in the volumes of FBI summaries. I felt confident that Cullotta was telling the truth, because his extraordinary immunity deal depended upon it. Cullotta’s freedom would end the minute he was caught in a lie and he’d immediately be sent to prison, where he was bound to get killed. Therefore, I was in the unique position of interviewing someone whose life literally depended upon his telling the truth.

Martin Scorsese, the director with whom I wrote the script for
Casino
, realized Cullotta’s value immediately and hired him as a technical advisor during the production of the film, which was shot on location in Las Vegas.

Before he could start working on the film, however, Universal Pictures insisted that Cullotta hire a bodyguard. They would pay for the extra protection, but they insisted he have security around the clock.

Cullotta hired an attractive young security guard he knew who had a serious crush on him. He also got her to carry two guns. As a convicted felon, he couldn’t legally carry a gun. There was no law, however, that said someone couldn’t carry a gun for him.

Cullotta had either been involved in most of the mayhem depicted in the film—his character as Joe Pesci’s right-hand man was played by Frank Vincent—or knew the participants well enough to help the actors and director with the kinds of details necessary to capture the characters and mood.

During the film, the Joe Pesci character decides to kill one of the gang’s associates who had become an informant. Pesci sends a hit man to do the job, but chaos erupts and the hit man winds up chasing the informant all around his Las Vegas house, in and out of rooms, until he finally kills him near the swimming pool and dumps the body into the water.

Before shooting the scene, Scorsese asked Cullotta how such a bizarre murder might have happened. Cullotta explained that Jerry Lisner, the victim, had failed to go down after he’d been shot because, “I didn’t have a silencer at the time and I had to use ‘halfloads,’ bullets where you take out some of the powder to lessen the noise.

“Lisner and I are coming out of the den and I pull the stick out and pop him two times in the back of the head. He turns around and looks at me. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks me. He takes off through the kitchen toward the garage. I actually look at the gun, like, ‘What the fuck have I got? Blanks in there?’ So I run after him and I empty the rest in his head. It’s like an explosion going off every time.

“But he doesn’t go down. The fuck starts running. It’s like a comedy of errors. I’m chasing him around the house and I’ve emptied the thing in his head. I’m thinking, what am I gonna do with this guy? I grab an electric cord from the water cooler and wrap it around his neck. It breaks.

“Finally I catch him in the garage and he hits the garage door button, but I hit him before it goes down and it’s like he just deflates.

“There was blood all over the place. My worry was that I’d leave a print in blood somewhere on his body or clothes. I hadn’t worn any gloves, because Lisner wasn’t dumb. He wouldn’t have let me in the door if he saw me wearing gloves. Because of the danger of my prints being on his body or clothes, I dragged him to the pool and slid him, legs first, into the water. He went in straight, like a board. It was like he was swimming.”

Scorsese dismissed the actors. He had Cullotta recreate the Lisner murder scene on film. The man you see in the film, chasing the victim around the house, emptying bullets into his head, and finally tossing him in the pool, is the real Frank Cullotta, the same man who did the actual murder for which he was given immunity. I cannot think of another film in which the killing being depicted on screen is reenacted by the man who committed the original murder.

It was much later, after the movie was done, that most of the people working on the film realized what had happened that day. But by then Cullotta was writing his own book and living somewhere in America.

 

Nicholas Pileggi

 

 

 

 

Introduction

During the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, the dominant organized-crime family operating in Las Vegas hailed from Chicago. Known as the Outfit, they removed large amounts of money from the Sin City casinos they controlled before it was ever recorded as revenue. This particular form of theft was referred to as the “skim.” They also received income from street crime rackets such as burglary, robbery, and arson. This era was dramatized in the 1995 movie
Casino
.

Las Vegas law enforcement was aware of the mob’s presence and the need to rid the streets and casinos of its influence and corruption. But the two agencies with the primary responsibility of battling the criminals—the FBI and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department—were experiencing their own difficulties. The feds had image problems due to agents accepting comped meals and shows from the casinos they were supposed to be monitoring. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was sent into chaos in 1978 when FBI wiretaps recorded two of its detectives providing information to the mobsters. But changes were on the way. The FBI began importing fresh troops from other offices to replace agents who were either reassigned or took early retirement as a result of the fallout from the comp scandal. And in November 1978, the voters of Clark County elected a new sheriff, a reformer who vowed to clean up Metro’s Intelligence Bureau and declared war on organized crime. It wasn’t long after the new sheriff took office in 1979 that the two agencies began to cooperate and launched a full-court press against their organized-crime foes.

Also in 1979, there was a personnel change on the criminal side. A career thief, arsonist, and killer from Chicago arrived in Vegas to take charge of the mob’s street crimes. That man was Frank Cullotta.

Cullotta had been invited to Sin City by the Outfit’s man on the scene, Tony “the Ant” Spilotro. Cullotta’s friendship with Spilotro dated back to their days as young toughs and thieves on the mean streets of the Windy City. His duties included assembling and overseeing a gang of burglars, robbers, arsonists, and killers. The crew Cullotta put together became known as the Hole in the Wall Gang, because of their method of breaking into buildings by making holes in the walls or roofs. In addition to stealing, the gang provided muscle in enforcement matters and otherwise did Spilotro’s bidding. For the next three years, Tony, Frank, and their crew ruled the Las Vegas underworld.

During that time the battle between law enforcement and the mobsters ebbed and flowed, with victories and setbacks for both sides and no apparent winner. But in 1982, a 1979 murder and a failed 1981 burglary contributed to a major turning point in the war: Frank Cullotta, Spilotro’s lifelong friend and trusted lieutenant, switched sides and became a government witness. Suddenly, the law had a source who not only knew the workings of the gang from the inside, but was willing to talk about it.

Having a cooperating witness with Cullotta’s knowledge could provide the government with the breakthrough it needed to bust the mob’s back, but only if his information was credible. It was a sure thing that any criminal defense attorney would challenge Cullotta’s veracity. It would certainly be brought out during any court proceedings that the government’s chief witness was a career criminal and an admitted killer, a man who had made a deal with prosecutors in order to obtain a lighter sentence. Under those circumstances, how much value would Cullotta actually be?

To address those issues, government lawyers decided not to use any information Cullotta imparted to them or their investigators as the basis for charges or in court, unless it was double- or triple-checked for accuracy. The man assigned the task of determining Cullotta’s truthfulness was Dennis Arnoldy, the FBI’s Las Vegas case agent for the Spilotro investigations.

For the next five years, Arnoldy debriefed the erstwhile gangster, obtaining the intimate details of life inside Spilotro’s crime ring, and transported him to appearances before various grand juries, courts, and commissions. During that time a personal relationship developed between the two men that continues today.

In my book
The Battle for Las Vegas—The Law vs. the Mob
, I told the story of Spilotro’s Las Vegas years primarily from the law-enforcement perspective. That book contained many insights that were disclosed to the general public for the first time. While researching
Battle
, I had the opportunity to talk with Frank Cullotta and became convinced that his life story would be a fascinating read and provide the other side of the Las Vegas mob story. It turned out that Frank had already been having the same thoughts.

Now, he has taken this opportunity to tell the tale. Some people, including his own brother and sister, might not be pleased to see it in print. But Frank believes that this is the only venue available to him to get his account on the record. In these pages, he discloses criminal activities for which he has either received immunity or the statute of limitations has long since expired. The story takes the reader beyond
Battle
and into the often dangerous, sometimes humorous, but always exciting real-life world of cops and robbers.

This book is by no means an attempt to make excuses for Frank’s conduct. He did what he did, he is what he is. It’s highly unlikely that this straight-from-the-shoulder account of his career as a criminal will make him a candidate for sainthood.

The story begins with Frank’s early years growing up in Chicago, where he embarked on his decades-long career as a criminal. As Frank advanced from juvenile crimes into burglary and armed robbery, he met and became friends with other hooligans, one of whom was Tony Spilotro. The two men again joined forces in Las Vegas, where Frank was Tony’s main man.

Although Spilotro got most of the notoriety, it will become clear here that Frank was an accomplished criminal in his own right. He planned and carried out the most daring robberies and burglaries committed by the Hole in the Wall Gang. In addition to thieving, Frank and his crew served as Tony’s enforcers, shaking down bookies and drug dealers and plotting or committing murders.

To get a feel for the two men and their relationship, Frank relates some of their individual and joint escapades in Chicago, including the true circumstances behind the so-called M&M murders. The movie
Casino
contains a scene based on those killings, in which actor Joe Pesci’s character places a man’s head in a vise and squeezes until the victim’s eye pops out.

Next Frank takes us to Las Vegas and tells the real story of life inside Spilotro’s Sin City gang, their battles with the law, and why he switched sides. Dennis Arnoldy adds insights from the law’s perspective, providing the reader with the unique opportunity of examining specific events from opposing viewpoints.

If you’re a true-crime or organized-crime enthusiast, a
Casino
fan, or simply interested in Las Vegas history, I don’t think you’ll come away disappointed from reading
Cullotta
.

Denny Griffin

 

Las Vegas, March 2007

 

 

 

 

 

Part One
From the Windy City to Sin City

 

 

 

 

1 Murder in Las Vegas

At approximately 4:30 a.m. on October 11, 1979, a dead man was found floating face down in the swimming pool of his residence at 2303 Rawhide Avenue in Las Vegas. He’d been shot in the head several times by a small-caliber handgun. The corpse was that of 46-year-old Sherwin “Jerry” Lisner. His wife Jeannie, a cocktail waitress at the Aladdin, found the body. She’d left work early, after becoming concerned when her husband failed to answer her telephone calls, and made the grisly discovery.

According to investigating police officers, Lisner had put up quite a fight. Bullet holes were discovered throughout the dwelling and blood was found on the walls and floor leading from the garage, through the residence, and out to the pool. Although the house had been ransacked, the cops didn’t believe robbery or burglary was the motive. They declined to speculate on the reason Lisner was killed, but they did have a theory on how the murder went down. The killer knocked on the garage door, surprising Lisner. When he answered the knock, the shooting started. Although wounded, the victim attempted to escape his assailant, running through his home with the would-be killer in close pursuit and bullets flying. After a valiant effort to survive, Lisner’s luck ran out when he reached the pool. No murder weapon was found and no suspect named.

But the police had their suspicions on the why and who of it. They knew that the dead man had mob connections and was in legal trouble. He’d been arrested by the FBI on July 11 and charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, aiding and abetting, grand larceny, and conspiracy. Free on $75,000 bail, Lisner was scheduled to go on trial October 29 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Lisner was also believed to have been acquainted with Chicago Outfit enforcer and Las Vegas organized-crime kingpin Tony Spilotro. And it was rumored that the deceased had been negotiating with the FBI to work out a deal in the federal cases pending against him in Washington. Could those negotiations have included providing incriminating information against Spilotro, one of the FBI’s prime targets?

Metro investigators knew all this and suspected that Spilotro might well be behind the killing. However, they couldn’t immediately prove their suspicions and kept their thoughts to themselves.

As it turned out, the cops were pretty close to the truth in their idea of what occurred at Lisner’s house that night. But they were wrong about Lisner being surprised by the arrival of his killer; he’d expected him. And the victim had drawn his last breath in his living room, not outside by the pool.

There was no error, however, in law-enforcement’s belief that Tony Spilotro was behind the murder. When the soon-to-be dead man answered his door that evening, he invited his murderer inside. In a matter of moments the visitor began to fire a total of ten bullets aimed at his host’s head, with several finding their mark. The assassin wasn’t Tony Spilotro himself, but he was there at Tony’s behest. The man was Spilotro’s trusted associate who ran a crew of burglars and robbers known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. His name? Frank Cullotta.

 

 

 

 

2 The Early Years

Frank Cullotta was born in Chicago on December 14, 1938, the son of Joseph and Josephine Cullotta. He had two siblings: older sister Jean and a younger brother Joseph. The family lived in a working-class and mostly Italian neighborhood called the Patch. His father had a unique job. He drove the work car—getaway car— for his crew of burglars and robbers. Joe Cullotta exhibited a cold businesslike demeanor to all, including his family. He also had a violent temper. Any love and warmth the children experienced in the Cullotta household came from Josephine.

Joe Cullotta, age 38, was killed when the car he was driving crashed during a high-speed police chase when Frank was about nine years old. In addition to his own memories, as Frank grew up relatives and associates of his father told him story after story of Joe’s exploits and expertise as a criminal. The elder Cullotta was considered by friend and foe to have been the best wheel man in Chicago. He was also highly dangerous, capable of mayhem and murder. Josephine Cullotta herself never discussed her husband’s criminal activities with her children, either before or after his death. She limited her comments about him to simply saying that he was a good man. But Frank witnessed his father slap his mother around on more than one occasion. And Joe’s violence toward his family wasn’t limited to his wife; the children were also victims of his anger.

One of the things that set Joe off was when one of the kids got a bad report card. Josephine made an effort to keep that kind of news from her husband, but if he did find out, there was hell to pay. On one occasion when Frank brought home a derogatory report, Joe got wind of it and went into a rage. Josephine tried to calm her husband, to no avail. Frank dove under his bed as his father headed toward him.

At that point his sister intervened. “I’m not going to let you hurt him, Dad,” she said, stepping in front of her father to block his path.

Joe Cullotta glared at his daughter in disbelief. “Oh yeah? Here,” he snarled, as he kicked her and sent her sprawling down the stairs. Although she suffered the consequences, Jean’s heroic action saved Frank from a beating.

Joe Cullotta’s ferocity wasn’t limited to his family. Young Frank personally witnessed his father in action in a situation that today would be called road rage. He was with his father driving on North Avenue when a couple of guys in another car got under Joe’s skin. One of them spit out their window and some of it got on the Cullotta vehicle. Joe flew into a maniacal rage. He chased the other car down the street and ran it up on the curb. He then dragged the two occupants out and beat them senseless.

In spite of Joe’s lack of affection and propensity for violence, he was a good provider for his family. He made sure they never wanted for anything. The Cullottas had new furniture every year and the kids had the best toys. Frank didn’t learn until later that virtually everything his father provided was stolen.

The law was often on Joe Cullotta’s tail. When the family was living on the east side near Grand and Ogden, a few doors from future Outfit boss Tony Accardo, Frank came home from school one day and found a police detective sitting in his house. His mother neither acknowledged the stranger nor provided an explanation as to why he was there. That cop stayed for several hours, then left when another one replaced him. This routine continued for several days. To add to the mystery, Joe Cullotta had apparently gone missing. If his wife knew where he was, she wasn’t saying.

After about a week, the cops stopped coming and Joe Cullotta made his appearance. It turned out that Frank’s father was a suspect in the robbery of the
Chicago Tribune
. He and his crew got away before the police arrived, but a witness had identified them. Joe was eventually captured and charged in that robbery, but he beat the case in court.

In spite of Joe Cullotta’s sometimes abusive behavior toward his wife and children, Frank came to idolize his father and admire his success as a criminal. That adoration contributed to Frank’s decision to follow in his footsteps. And once he started down that path, there was no turning back.


 


 


 

Frank’s disdain for authority, for rules and regulations, became apparent early on. Going to school was problematic for him. He hated it. He considered the teachers to be a bunch of mean old biddies. There was another problem, too. Frank wore glasses. In those days kids who wore eyeglasses were looked on as freaks by some of their classmates. When nasty comments or dirty looks were directed at Frank because of his eyesight, he responded with his fists.

Ongoing difficulties regarding Frank’s conduct resulted in his mother enrolling him in a Catholic school. The nuns were tough on him and routinely slapped his hands or knuckles with a ruler. On one such occasion Frank fought back; he took the ruler away from the nun and broke it over his knee. That incident resulted in expulsion and a return to the public school system.

The change of scenery didn’t improve Frank’s attitude toward school. When he acted up, the teachers made him sit behind the piano or put him in the closet. This made him even more hateful and defiant. He started coming to school late or not showing up at all.

When Frank’s mother received calls or letters from the school about his behavior, she did what most parents would do: She punished him. He had to come straight home in the afternoon and be in the house by a certain time at night. Then she took away his allowance. To compensate, while walking to school he started stealing the money out of the bags customers left out to pay for their newspapers. Eventually, the paperboy got tired of finding the bags empty and began to keep an eye out for the thief. One day he spotted Frank in the act and the chase was on. Frank got away and started taking a different route to school.

Stealing the paper money accustomed Frank to having some cash in his pocket. He liked the feeling and knew he needed to find another source of income. Like many other kids in his neighborhood, he decided to try his hand at shining shoes.


 


 


 

Frank started shining shoes up and down Grand Avenue. One day he noticed a kid about his age, though much shorter, shining shoes on the opposite side of the street. The competitors glared at each other for several seconds.

The stranger hollered, “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?” Frank replied, “I’m looking at you. What about it?” Like a pair of Wild West gunfighters ready to do battle, the boys walked toward each other. Stopping a few feet apart in the middle of the street, they put down their shoeboxes.

The stranger said, “This is my fuckin’ territory and I don’t want you on this street. Understand?”

“I don’t see your name on any street signs and I’m not leaving.”

The challenge had been made and answered. Some pushing, shoving, and name-calling followed. As the confrontation ended, the other boy said to Frank, “I’m coming back here tomorrow and if I see you, we’ll have to fight.”

Not backing down, Frank said, “Then that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Frank returned to the same spot the next day as promised, but the other kid wasn’t there. In fact, the two didn’t meet again until about a week later. Frank didn’t think he’d intimidated his competitor. He figured the boy was around and they were simply missing each other.

The next time the two met, the stranger approached Frank, but he wanted to talk, not fight. “I’ve been asking around about you. What’s your last name?”

“Cullotta.”

“Was your father Joe Cullotta?”

“Yeah. So what?”

“Your father and my father were friends. Your old man helped my old man out of a bad spot one time.”

As the boys talked, the stranger explained that his father ran a well-known Italian restaurant on the east side called Patsy’s. Joe Cullotta frequented the restaurant and liked Patsy Spilotro. Joe had come to Patsy’s rescue when he was being harassed by a gang of criminals known as the Black Hand. Frank’s adversary-turnedfriend was Patsy Spilotro’s son Tony.

After listening to Tony’s story, Frank remembered hearing about the incident at Patsy’s restaurant. The Black Hand consisted of Sicilian and Italian gangsters who extorted money from their own kind and Frank’s father hated them with a passion. Their method was to shake down business owners by demanding money in return for letting the business stay open. They were making Patsy pay dues every week. When Joe Cullotta heard about it, he and his crew hid in the back room of the restaurant until the Black Handers came in for the payoff. Then they burst out and killed them. After that Patsy wasn’t bothered anymore.

Patsy’s wasn’t the only time Joe Cullotta had trouble with the Black Hand. In another incident, a member put a threatening note on Cullotta’s door. When Joe saw that note, he went crazy. He found the guy who was responsible for the threat in a barbershop getting a shave. He walked up to the chair and blew him away, right in front of the barber. The Black Hand became aware that it was Joe Cullotta who killed their man, but they didn’t retaliate. They may have come to the conclusion that he was a man better left alone.

Finally, the man in charge of the Black Hand was murdered while he was asleep in a hotel room. His wife, in the bed right next to him, wasn’t killed. Frank heard that his father was in on the murder, but he never found out for sure. In any case, that killing marked the end of the Black Hand in the Cullotta neighborhood.

Frank and Tony Spilotro had some things in common other than their fathers having been friends. They were nearly the same age—Tony was seven months older—and neither liked school or had much respect for authority. Their main difference was the makeup of their families. Tony had five brothers and there’s no evidence that Patsy Spilotro engaged in criminal activity.


 


 


 

In Tony Spilotro, Frank had made a friend who would play a major role in his future. At the same time, he was learning a lot about getting by on the streets. And his formal education continued to go poorly. He was sent to a vocational school where he tried to turn over a new leaf by staying out of trouble. That effort didn’t last long, though. In fact, his behavior turned violent.

The new place was a trade school for boys who couldn’t handle a normal academic environment. Frank liked working with his hands and was actually doing well in shop. But the principal, Mr. Jones, was a real tough guy. He was always on the kids about haircuts and wearing their pants too low. He regularly badgered Frank.

One day Mr. Jones stopped Frank in the hall and asked him to step into the bathroom with him to talk. Frank thought it was a little weird, but went along. Once inside, Jones said, “I’ve told you and told you about wearing your pants like that. Now get them up where I want them.”

Frank stared back defiantly. “They’re staying where they are.”

Jones flew into a rage. “We’ll see about that!” he yelled, pushing Frank and slapping him.

Frank kneed Jones in the groin. When the man doubled over, he kneed him in the head. Frank left Jones on the floor of the bathroom and walked out. No action was taken against him, possibly because Mr. Jones felt he was in the wrong for slapping Frank around and decided to let the matter drop. That wasn’t the end of it for Jones, though. A couple of other kids were having similar problems with him and Frank’s anger hadn’t been completely sated. The trio decided to give the principal another lesson.

As Mr. Jones walked down a hallway during recess one day, the three boys threw a blanket over his head and pushed him into an empty classroom. He tried to resist, but he couldn’t fight off three tough and angry kids. They tied him up and hung him out a window, dangling by his ankles. The police were called and someone identified Frank as being involved. He was expelled from the trade school and sent to a place that he found to be a hell of a lot worse.


 


 


 

Montefiore School was a reformatory for troublemaking kids who couldn’t get along anywhere else. Two young men who fit that definition and found themselves in Montefiore were Frank Cullotta and Tony Spilotro. Frank was the first to arrive, followed by Tony a week later.

The student body of Montefiore was primarily black. Tony and Frank were two of the half-dozen or so white kids in the place. They had a bad time of it and were regularly involved in physical confrontations with their black classmates. In addition to the fights, the two boys had to rely on public transportation to get to and from Montefiore. Using a bit of ingenuity, they solved that problem in short order: They began stealing cars.

Frank had already figured out how to hotwire his mother’s car. He showed Tony how simple it was and Spilotro was impressed. The pair stole any car they wanted, drove to school, and parked a couple of blocks away. Most of the time they drove the same car back to their neighborhood.

Having their choice of vehicles was convenient, but it didn’t resolve the problem of dealing with their fellow students. The combat continued.

One day as Frank came out of wood shop, he found Tony surrounded by four or five blacks. One of them wanted to fight Tony alone. “Come on, white boy,” he said. “Just you and me.”

When Tony accepted the challenge, the black kid picked him up and flung him over his head to the floor. Tony got up and outboxed his opponent. Then one of the other blacks said, “Let’s kill the motherfuckers,” and the gang started to attack.

Frank grabbed one of the long poles with a hook on the end that was used to open and close the upper windows. He swung it at the blacks and caught a couple of them in the head, giving him and Tony time to run out of the building. Frank didn’t go to school the next day, but Tony did; he took a knife with him and stabbed one of the black kids, resulting in expulsion.

But Tony wasn’t through with Montefiore yet. He, his older brother Vic, and Frank stole a car and went back to the school. They wanted to get the leader of the blacks, a boy named Jackson, who they believed was the instigator of all the problems. They pulled up to the schoolyard in the hot car around lunchtime. Vic Spilotro was armed with a 45-caliber pistol.

The three entered the building and found Jackson in the cafeteria. They yanked him outside, beating him with the gun as he was dragged to the car. Jackson’s friends seemed stunned and didn’t immediately react. After a few seconds they came outside, but didn’t interfere as their leader was placed in the stolen car and driven away. Jackson was pistol-whipped and beaten, then dumped off back at the school.

Frank, Tony, and Vic were subsequently charged with the kidnapping and assault. Tony disappeared for a while and nobody could find him. However, he did show up for court and was released to work at his father’s restaurant. Frank was thrown out of Montefiore and placed in a reformatory setting, where the kids had to live in cottages right on campus. The time he spent there was difficult on his mother. But she remained loyal and visited him every day.

Frank was eventually released from reform school and placed back in the public system. As soon as he reached the age of 16, he dropped out of school for good.


 


 


 

Josephine Cullotta cashed in some savings bonds her husband had left in Frank’s name and bought him a used car, an Oldsmobile 98. To Frank it was big and beautiful. He loved it and washed it all the time.

One day while he was giving the car a bath, an old neighborhood acquaintance stopped by. The man’s name was Bob Sprodak; he was also known as “Crazy Bob.” Sprodak was a year or two older than Frank and it was common knowledge on the street that he always carried a gun.

“Nice-lookin’ car you got there,” Crazy Bob said. “I’ve got a car parked down the street, but mine’s hot. You workin’ anywhere?”

“My uncle’s getting me a job at a newspaper stand downtown. I’ll be starting any day now.”

Then Sprodak did something that would change Frank’s life forever: He reached into his pocket and pulled out a big wad of money.

Frank was impressed and curious. “Where’d you get that?”

“Sticking up places; I do armed robberies. I hold up taverns, restaurants, and gas stations. There’s a lot of money in it and it’s real easy.”

Frank had more questions. “Do you work by yourself?”

“Usually, but you’re welcome to come with me sometime if you want. Sometimes it’s better to have another guy along.”

“I don’t know. It sounds pretty dangerous,” Frank said. “What do you do if somebody fights back?”

“Then you shoot him.”

Frank wasn’t completely sold on the idea. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”

The next day Frank’s uncle took him to the newspaper stand to start work. It was then that he learned there was a little more to the job than selling newspapers. “This is very important,” the uncle said, holding up a cigar box. “Guys are going to come by here and give you money and slips of paper. They’ll be for their bets on horse races. You take the money and slip of paper and put it in this cigar box. Whatever you do, don’t mix the bet money up with the newspaper money. Got it?”

“Yeah, sure. What do I do with the bets and money after I collect them?”

“Just put them in the box like I told you. Somebody will stop around every so often and pick them up.”

Frank tried the job for a while. But the weather was turning cold and he had to sell papers and collect illegal bets while standing next to a 55-gallon drum with a fire in it in order to keep warm. From time to time a car pulled up and a guy got out to collect the contents of the cigar box.

As it got colder, Frank thought more and more about Crazy Bob and that big wad of cash. He started to ask himself what the hell he was doing out there freezing to death for a few quarters when there was an easier way to make a lot more money. He told his uncle he was quitting.

“Quitting? What the fuck do you mean you’re quitting? You can’t just quit!” the uncle stepped in close, threatening him.

Frank wasn’t intimidated. “This is bullshit. I know of better ways to make money than standing out here freezing to death. I’m all done.”

With that decision Frank’s life turned another corner. The days of stealing newspaper money and fighting with teachers and other kids were behind him. From then on, the cars he stole would be work cars, used in burglaries and armed robberies. The next phase of his career was about to begin.