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IPSN, Spring 1994

Who Rules Vegas?

By William F. Roemer, Jr.


After completing three novels that were inter-woven with my real life experiences as an F.B.I. field agent investigating the highest levels of organized crime in the U.S., I have returned to writing non-fiction, my first real love. For the past year I have been researching the career of Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, and have recently finished the life story of this pint- sized Chicago hood - brutal, scheming and as anti-social any one hood could be.

One of the things that struck me during my investigations for the Spilotro book was the depth of strength the Chicago mob had in Las Vegas in the not too distant good old days. The Chicago "wise guys" had everything going for them as well as one could expect in the halcyon years of the "sin city" - now being nurtured as a great vacationland for the American family. The Las Vegas office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation placed hidden recording devices in the executive offices of the strongly "mobbed up" casinos. Those electronic surveillance devices or "ELSURS," as we called them in our official reports to Washington, clued us in as to the vast amounts of Nevada gambling profits that was flowing into Chicago mob coffers. We're talking about big bucks. Millions of dollars a year! An elaborate haul by any standards.

In the mid-1980s things were deteriorating badly for the Chicago point men operating in Vegas. Three landmark investigations aimed against the Chicago chieftains and their satellite mobs in Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cleveland - known by the government as Pendorf, Strawman and Strawman II - crippled the elite leadership of Midwestern Mafia crime, including such bigwigs as Jackie Cerone and Joey Aiuppa. They had received stiff prison terms for overseeing the administration of the casino "skim" (pilfering the drop from the table games and slots before it could be legally accounted for).

More importantly was the continuing diminution of the Vegas skim monies. what had once been a gusher of illegal revenue flowing into Chicago from the casino counting rooms was reduced to a trickle as a result of the now famous governmental Strawman and Pendorf cases. The pint-sized Tony Spilotro, who had been sent out to Las Vegas to oversee and assure Chicago's interests, was indicted through Justice Department's efforts in Strawman II but he had suffered a heart attack and had to be severed from the case, only to be placed on trial at a later time.

When he was barely out of his teens, the ambitious Spilotro was hand-picked to become an enforcer for "Mad Sam" DeStefano, a notorious juice lender and one of the worst torture murderers in the long and sordid history of crime in a city known for violent innovation. DeStefano's favorite torture device was the ice-pick, which he manipulated with painful impunity on delinquent borrowers. He showcased his skills to his youthful protégé - Tony Spilotro - just a kid out of Steinmetz High who loved extreme violence and exhibited a flair for it early on in his life by shaking down his classmates for lunch money.

Spilotro proved to be a real up-and-comer in mob circles. Undersized but ambitious, he was to become the third Chicago assigned "boss" assigned to enforce the mob edicts along the Strip and Glitter Gulch of legendary Las Vegas. Johnny Roselli was Chicago's first. He served under Frank Nitti, Paul Ricca and the recently deceased mob genius, Tony Accardo. Roselli's endeavors were found wanting, however, by Sam Giancana, who quickly replaced him with Marshall Caifano (a.k.a. Johnny Marshall), another prominent short guy tied in with the wise guys.

Through surveillance techniques, F.B.I. agents found out that every Friday night the lusting Giancana was escorting Darlene Caifano, Marshall's quite attractive better half - to a plush motel in Rosemont which he conveniently owned. (The motel spoken of is now the property of Donald Stephens, current, and apparently mayor for life of the good Village of Rosemont). Smart move for Giancana to send forth Caifano to the Nevada desert country while he had a ball balling Darlene during Friday night interludes!

Giancana had to be replaced, however, as the top boss of Chicago when he refused to testify under a grant of immunity and was sent to jail for one year after which he left Chicago for residency in Mexico. He remained there for eight years while mob interests were being run by the committee of the "Three A's" - Tony Accardo, Joey Aiuppa and Gus Alex. Accardo, of course, was always the key man of the triumvirate. It didn't take these guys long to realize that Caifano was not the enterprising fellow to oversee their interests in Las Vegas and none had an interest in little Marshall's perky wife.

They were also dismayed to learn that several other associates sent to work in the casinos now directly under their control - the Fremont, Stardust, Desert Inn and Riviera - were somewhat cavalier about the whole thing. The sine qua non of the Chicago mob was not legitimate gaming profit, but the skim.

As it turned out, I was the Bureau's case agent at the time who was working "Operation VEGMON" (Vegas Money), which followed the trail of the skim money from Vegas back to Chicago's environs. The courier for the boys was the wife of a wholesale meat supplier who plied the outfit casinos with choice cuts of steaks and chops. To maintain good will and keep his business intact, the owner of the firm sanctioned a plan to have his wife ferry the "skim" from Nevada to the notorious law firm of Bieber & Brodkin (mouthpieces for Chicago mobsters for years and years).

The woman (whose name I cannot reveal) traveled by train and, upon her arrival in the Windy City, she was afforded luxurious accommodations at the Ambassador East Hotel while Bieber & Brodkin made sure that the proper cut was distributed to the proper people. It was a nifty "quid pro quo" for both the businessman and the Chicago outfit, and neither the mystery woman nor her husband were ever prosecuted for their activities.

After the Three A's ridded themselves of Caifano's employ, they installed our story's hero, "Tony the Ant," who provided them with a menacing presence of enforcement in Las Vegas. His tough guy resume was impressive, even by the Chicago outfit's exacting standards of violence and mayhem. Spilotro was allegedly linked to at least 25 mob hits over his blossoming career, including the viciously notorious rub-out of William "Action" Jackson, a 340-pound juice man who was impaled on a meat hook while being slowly tortured to death.

I had a couple of personal encounters with Tony. Twice he tried to ambush me; once while he was in the company of his grisly mentor, Sam DeStefano. The first time Spilotro was hiding in the West Side apartment of one of Sam's juice collectors whom I was attempting to "turn." DeStefano and Leo Foreman were waiting in the apartment with Spilotro but I failed to show due to unplanned developments.

The second run-in occurred in Columbus Park at Central Avenue and the Eisenhower Expressway. I was on my way to rendezvous with an informant when I was accosted by Spilotro, who was not armed. Given his small stature and the notable absence of a weapon, it was not all that hard for me to fend off the little runt and send him on his toddling way.

For all of Spilotro's gun work, I could see why Accardo and company chose the little man to enforce their fiats in the west.

Unfortunately for Tony Spilotro, he managed to invoke the ire of his superiors when five of his underlings chose to become government witnesses - a practice frowned upon by all. Three testified against Aiuppa, Cerone and other n'er-do-wells named in the government's Pendorf and Strawman Indictments. The other two spouted here-to-for or unknown happenings in cases against Tony himself. The once-reliable Spilotro had definitely become a security risk to his bosses. He was indicted in Vegas for heading a burglary ring, and violated mob decorum by conducting a fling with the wife of a Chicago pal - one Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, who aided Tony in his Las Vegas startup years earlier.

The federal government investigators were moving closer and closer to Spilotro. Clearly, swift action had to be taken just in case the diminutive guy decided to "flip."

Tony and his brother, Michael, were last seen the afternoon of June 14, 1986, when they left Michael Spilotro's Oak Park home to run an errand. Several days later, the partially clad bodies of the two brothers were unearthed from a five-foot grave in a cornfield a hundred yards off the main road near Morocco, Indiana. They had been beaten, kicked, stomped and presumably buried alive by their assailants. It was plain to see their services were no longer of necessity to mob guys calling the shots.

For Tony Spilotro, it was a fitting, if not ironic, ending for he had inspired so much terror in the hearts of mob juice customers by the simply-stated reminder: "If you don't get the money you owe me, I will put you in the ground!" He foretold his fate.

What goes around comes around and now a replacement for the role of Las Vegas overseer had to be found. This time, however, the Chicago leadership turned to a man who was the complete antithesis of the brutal Tony Spilotro who spoke in the "dese, dems and dose" street vernacular. They selected the refined, urbane Donald "Wizard of Odds" Angelini. To the best of my knowledge, he never intimidated or killed anyone, unlike his predecessor.

Don was a real cut above the average Chicago wise guy in the brains department. The guy exudes class. White haired, trim, very well spoken and nice appearing with an ingratiating smile, Don Angelini could have undoubtedly been anything he wanted to be in this world. I first got to know Donald in the late 1950s when he received his real estate license. From the very beginning, however, he was deeply involved in the Outfit's gambling operations.

Bill Kaplan, a holdover from the days of Al Capone, had built up a lucrative racing and handicapping service on Clark Street, just north of the old Sherman Hotel where the State of Illinois Building now stands. He had supplied odds to bookmakers all over the world in the years before the nation's scattered wire services were legislated out of existence by the government and supplanted by the Las Vegas casinos. Kaplan was one of the last of the Chicago independents. He had thus far resisted "Milwaukee Phil" Alderisio's attempt to squeeze him out of his game. But it soon became apparent that Kaplan was not strong enough to keep the heavy-hitting Alderisio at bay much longer.

Bill Kaplan went to George Bieber and Mike Brodkin - capable attorneys for the "boys" - to cut the best possible deal, knowing that he was negotiating from a position of weakness. He agreed to hand over 50% of what he had built-up with the proviso that mob muscle man Phil Alderisio would remain out of the picture. The accommodating lawyers brought forth the dapper Don Angelini as the intermediary and the deal was struck.

Posing as a degenerate gambler, I had been assigned to infiltrate what was now commonly known as the Angel-Kaplan Handicapping Service to learn the locations of hundreds of wire rooms, and the identities of illegal bookies who serviced clients around the world. As a side note to all of this, I wagered a sum of money with Angel-Kaplan on the outcome of the 1961 National League pennant race. My favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, were pre-season longshots that year, but they managed to win the N.L. pennant as it turned out and Donald and Bill both thought I was a genius handicapper as a result. These guy leaned on me for my Notre Dame expertise - I happened to know a lot about the football program at my old alma mater.

Unfortunately, I never succeeded in "turning" Don Angelini. I turned scores of mob guys but Angelini was never one of them. He always let me know that our mutual interest was sports - it did not extend to the operations of the Chicago outfit. The boundary lines were very clear-cut in our professional relationship.

By 1986, the year that Spilotro was greased and the torch was passed to Angelini, I was retired from the Bureau and working in Tucson as an attorney representing news organizations who were being sued for libel by organized crime figures.

Conditions had changed markedly in Las Vegas since the early days of Marshall Caifano's capers. What Don Angelini had come to oversee was just a fraction of the gambling empire Chicago controlled in the 1950s. Joey Lombardo had been the "cap" or captain who oversaw Spilotro. But he had gone away on sentencing after being convicted in the Pendorf and Strawman cases.

Angelini found himself operating with a new crew of underlings in Vegas at a time when Chicago's flagship casinos were badly crimped. Though the outfit's top leadership was momentarily crippled by the government's successful prosecutions, we in the F.B.I. were unable to finger Angelini in Las Vegas. Oh, we know he was there all right. We "fisured" him several times as he stepped off the plane at McCarran Airport, but never on Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip, or downtown.

Eventually, matters caught up with Donald, however, but not in Las Vegas. Occurrences in San Diego, where he tried to infiltrate the Rincon Indian Reservation with the assistance of Sam "Wings" Carlisi and John "No Nose" DiFronzo came to the fore. These three ranking Chicago bosses were attempting to skim the legalized gambling operations on the Reservation. "Wings" Carlisi skated, but Angelini and DiFronzo were convicted and each received 37 months for their part in the scheme.

There are those who believe that the San Diego case was only a slight jolt and Donald will soon return to the streets ready to resume his status as a boss in the Chicago outfit. I sure hope not, because if anyone could bring the outfit out of its present doldrums, Angelini has the brains to do just that. But I surmise that he is too smart to fall into that trap because he knows that law enforcement will make him a sitting duck - the main target - like all the top guys in recent years.

I arrested Donald twice in my career. I won't be around to do it again, but dedicated F.B.I. agents in Chicago like Pete Wacks will, and the "Wizard" knows that to be true, and will assuredly exercise the proper caution.

My last encounter with Don Angelini occurred a few years ago at Giannotti's Restaurant in Norridge. I was doing consulting work for the TV program "Hard Copy" and the film crew was with me when we filmed outside the restaurant. I was tipped off that Donald was inside, so when we finished our business, I went in and shook hands with the man they called the "Wizard." He told me that he had read my book, so with curiosity, I asked him how he liked it. Angelini gave me the Italian salute with his fingers flipped out under his chin. But then, before I could take offense, he winked and smiled in his usual custom.

I know this and have a feel for man, and I think Don Angelini is smart enough to realize that he must leave the outfit's heavy work to guys like Sam Carlisi, head of a West Side street crew specializing in gambling operations, juice loans and terror.

The media calls Carlisi "Wings" - but his mob code name is "Black Sam." I never met him during the time I was in Chicago, but he was the driver for Joey "O'Brien" Aiuppa when Aiuppa was the boss of Cicero and then, eventually, the entire Chicago outfit. A mob chauffeur is an important job in the outfit - not so in the real world. But many of the top bosses in Chicago put in their time over the years chauffeuring their superiors before climbing to the top spot.

After the unlucky Spilotro brothers were lured to their deaths in 1986, informants later told us that Carlisi's driver, Jimmy Marcello, set up the meet that spelled doom for Tony the "Bug."

Most people mistakenly believe the erstwhile Michael Spilotro was the wrong guy in the wrong spot at the wrong time. But it was Mikey who received the marching orders to bring Tony to the party for a "sit down" with "Black" Sam. Tony was grooming his brother Michael and made him privy to what was going on. Both brothers had to go when a murder decision was made. It was that simple. A double hit.

Sam Carlisi was lucky to beat the federal government in the San Diego caper. However, the government struck back on December 16 of this past year. Carlisi and seven "associates" (James C. Marcello, 52; Anthony "Little Tony" Zizzo, 58; Gill M. Valerio, 42; Richard Gervasio, 43; Brett O'Dell, 39; Joseph J. Bonavalente, 37; and Anthony "the Hatchet" Chiaramonti, 59) were convicted on assorted racketeering, extortion, loan sharking and gambling charges.

"Black" Sam is 71 years old now, and will probably spend the rest of his years in a federal prison. He joins a long line of losers, beginning with Al Capone, who were all top bosses of the Chicago chapter of La Cosa Nostra before death or prison overtook them. Tony Accardo was the only one who beat us. No time for him. So I have to believe that Don Angelini - with the weight of history against him - will think twice with his incisive mind about assuming the mantle of leadership of LCN once he gets out.

The last time I spoke with Supervisor Lee Flossi of the Chicago Bureau of the F.B.I., he told me that as yet no clear leader has emerged to oversee gambling operations in Chicago and Nevada. I'm not saying that the mob is beaten. Not by a long shot. Such would be naïve. There is too much revenue potential and influence at stake and I'm quite sure the outfit will plumb the depths to stay afloat. But I do not believe Angelini will want to risk the drop a second time.

Bill Roemer's biography of Anthony Spilotro is titled The Enforcer: The Chicago Mob's Man Over Las Vegas.

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