I experienced a flashback to the 1960s when I read about the death of retired Chicago mobster Johnny Marshall (aka Marshall Caifano) in Florida a few days ago. Marshall, who died Sept. 12 in Ft. Lauderdale at the age of 92, mounted a serious challenge to Nevada's "Black Book" 40 years ago, and I was a bit player in that courtroom drama.
Shortly after I went to work for the Nevada Gaming Commission and Gaming Control Board in mid-1963, Marshall's lawsuit against then-Gov. Grant Sawyer, the board and commission, and five Las Vegas casino executives, went to trial in federal court. I flew south to serve as the spokesman for Sawyer and the gaming agencies in a civil rights case that attracted national attention.
Born Marshall Caifano, a career hoodlum who had a 30-year police record when he filed suit against the state in 1960, he legally changed his name to Johnny Marshall in Las Vegas in the 1950s. His lawsuit sought $150,000 in damages from the state and casino executives on grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was ejected from several clubs in accordance with Gov. Sawyer's controversial "hang tough" gaming control policy.
Marshall was one of 11 original "honorees" in the state's Black Book, which was published in early 1960 in an effort to ban known hoodlums from Nevada casinos.
In his lawsuit, Marshall claimed that he suffered "humiliation, embarrassment, loss of the right to public accommodation and freedom of movement" when he was thrown out of several Vegas casinos, as required by Sawyer's tough new policy. The Gaming Board and Commission designated the Black Book 11 as "undesirables" and ordered casino owners to prevent the presence of these "notorious and unsavory" characters on their licensed premises. In other words, toss 'em out!
In a showy enforcement action on Oct. 28, 1960, Marshall was having a drink at the Desert Inn Hotel-Casino on the Las Vegas Strip when a Gaming Board "flying squad" descended upon the casino led by then-Board Chairman Ray Abbaticchio, an aggressive former FBI agent.
According to court papers, Abbaticchio and his gaming enforcers "confiscated cards and dice ... in full view of public patrons (of the D.I. and other casinos), such action being extremely detrimental to the gambling business of these hotels, as the state defendants well knew and intended." Obviously, their intent was to drive Johnny Marshall and his unsavory friends out of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada.
When the case finally went to trial in Las Vegas three years later, it attracted "name" journalists from Chicago and beyond. Although Marshall claimed that his feelings were hurt when he was thrown out of the D.I. and other Strip casinos, Abbaticchio's successor Edward A. Olsen, a longtime Nevada Associated Press correspondent, testified that Marshall had a reputation as a "trigger man" for the Chicago Mob. Asked whether there was any connection between out-of-state mobsters and legalized gambling in Nevada, Olsen replied, "There well may be, and that's why we're trying to keep them out." I quickly relayed Olsen's juicy quote to the media.
If looks could kill, I would have been dead when I ran into Marshall in the Las Vegas courthouse men's room. Fortunately, however, I survived to fight another day. It didn't take long for visiting federal Judge Myron D. Crocker, of Fresno, to decide the case in favor of the state. He affirmed that Abbaticchio's raids constituted "a reasonable exercise of the police powers of the state," and commented, "None of the defendants violated any of Marshall's constitutional rights."
Later, a federal appeals court declared that Marshall's "entry upon the gambling premises would present an emergency comparable to that presented by an animal running at large while suspected of being afflicted with the foot-and-mouth (sic) disease." I loved it! (and still do).
Immediately following the judge's favorable decision, Gov. Sawyer issued a press statement, which included the following quote: "At the outset of Nevada's war against hoodlums and undesirables ... I said in regard to Marshall and all of the other Black Book figures, 'They could sue and be damned.' Judge Crocker's decision vindicates my original feeling, which I again reemphasize by warning all persons of Marshall's ilk to stay out (of Nevada)." He added that the decision "reaffirms the right of Nevada to determine its own affairs" and "provides a further base for the strengthening of the (gambling) industry and our general economy."
Olsen reiterated his defense of the Black Book later that fall after the state revoked Frank Sinatra's gambling license. Referring to Chicago godfather Sam Giancana's visit to Sinatra's Cal-Neva Club at North Lake Tahoe, the Gaming Board chairman said the Mob boss "may well have been inspired by nothing more than a desire to cherchez la femme (singer Phyllis McGuire), but as far as Nevada is concerned, people with gangster reputations had better chase their girls elsewhere ...."
Clearly, the 1963 Marshall and Sinatra cases represented landmark victories for Gov. Sawyer's strict gaming control policies, including the Black Book, and the state of Nevada.
Early in 1964, Marshall was convicted of extortion in Los Angeles federal court and charged with insurance fraud in Chicago; he spent several years in federal prison on the extortion charge. And I never heard of him again until I read the news item about his death earlier this month. I was surprised to learn that old mobsters still go to South Florida to die. Some things never change.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was press spokesman for the Nevada Gaming Commission and Gaming Control Board during the period 1963-66.