Chicago conspiracy trial makes Las Vegas' bad old days seem like yesterday

Las Vegas is a town built by hucksters and hoodlums, fat gamblers and skinny girls.

Its street historians and eyewitnesses to its notorious transition from wiseguy paradise to consummate company town have dwindled to a precious few. And most of those wouldn't talk on the record if they were subpoenaed.

Maybe that's why a federal criminal conspiracy trial that's ramping up in Chicago, called U.S. v. Nicholas Calabrese et al., but better known as the historical hit on "Joey the Clown" Lombardo's West Side Crew and officially called Operation Family Secrets, is so compelling on so many different levels.

There's a historical component to it that will surely send a chill down the backs of corporate casino public relations executives and the academic and journalistic chrome polishers who make good livings in this town by buffing its image to a high gloss.

In fact, I'm willing to bet that when the trial begins in June that Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and one of the most active federal prosecutors in America who still has his job under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' regime, will be remembered in modern Southern Nevada as the fellow who reminded us of our racy roots.

Earlier this year, Fitzgerald and his crew created a document that's sure to be must-reading for anyone looking for the government's view of the violent, complex criminal conspiracy that once had a genuine gangster element influencing casinos and intimidating gamblers around Las Vegas.

The government's broad-ranging view of the case, known as a Santiago proffer, is a 64-page narrative that includes some names of people believed to be part of the conspiracy, if not always part of the indictment. With 18 murders and numerous other crimes included in the indictment, there's a lot of bloody ground to cover.

Frank Cullotta, the former thumper for Las Vegas street enforcer Anthony Spilotro who eventually cooperated with the government against his lifelong friend, receives the star treatment in Fitzgerald's game plan.

Lombardo's attorney, Rick Halprin, said Cullotta was deemed unreliable in his original testimony in the 1980s and was likely only making an appearance in the trial "to sell his book."

Halprin told the Chicago Tribune, "In my view, that book belongs in the fiction section."

Surely the devoted defense lawyer wishes Fitzgerald had filed his proffer on the pulp fiction shelf, too, for it paints a vicious picture of his client and Lombardo's crew.

Defense attorneys will howl, but there's no denying Cullotta was on hand to watch the criminal rise of Lombardo, co-defendant and suspected hit man Paul Schiro, and the late Spilotro.

Cullotta, the document reveals, met Lombardo in 1958, when the future boss was running a dice game, and soon went to work for him as a street juice collector on a bar and tavern route.

His criminal career progressed from there.

After a street fight didn't go his way, Cullotta moved to Las Vegas and witnessed the rise of street enforcer Spilotro to the brink of stardom. The proffer reveals in cold candor Cullotta's direct link to a long list of crimes, ranging from burglary to murder. Along the way, some co-defendants in the Chicago case are present.

But Las Vegas street life historians will be intrigued by the description of the Spilotro-Lombardo connection. Recently convicted Crazy Horse Too defendant Rocco "Rocky" Lombardo, Joey the Clown's brother, won't like it much: He's mentioned by Cullotta as a criminal conspirator.

Like a juicy trailer of "coming attractions," there's still enough information redacted from the proffer with a black marker to whet the interest for weeks to come.

But the picture painted by the federal prosecutor is a reminder of the time "the Outfit 'ran' Las Vegas and it was important to know who was reporting to whom and who was doing what for whom."

Cullotta won't be the only former Outfit guy with a story to tell.

Another that's sure to intrigue Las Vegas street historians is Sam Guzzino, who will testify "he traveled to Las Vegas between one and three times a month, each time carrying around $250,000 in illegal gambling and prostitution proceeds with him to "launder" through Outfit-controlled casinos.

And I thought what happens here stays here.

I can almost hear the great Las Vegas image machine spinning this one now.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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