THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS
BY BYRON CRAFT
THE LITTLE PISSANT
TONY "THE ANT" SPILOTRO
In the wee hours of June 15, 1986, his clothes covered with dirt, Albert Tocco told his wife he had just dug the grave of two gangland members and feared he had left his fingerprints on the shovel. It is alleged that his wife, Betty, opted for witness protection for herself and their son before informing the authorities of the internment, because a week later, the bodies were found, one on top of the other, in a five foot deep makeshift grave. The shallow grave was in a cornfield within the 12,000-acre Willow Slough preserve, fifty miles south of Chicago.
The partially decomposed bodies of the two men buried in the Indiana wildlife preserve were clad only in underwear and had been beaten to death, probably by several men using their hands, feet and gun butts, said an Indiana forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies. Law enforcement officials strongly suspected that both were killed by the Chicago Outfit, because word on the street had it that John Fecarotta, a longtime mob muscle man, was targeted for death because he botched the burials of gang leader Anthony Spilotro and his brother Michael. The plan mapped out by the syndicate bosses was that the bodies were never to be found, but when they were, it meant someone had to pay for the blunder.
Law officials’ suspicions were confirmed when dental records supplied by the men’s brother, a dentist, identified them as Anthony and Michael.
Tony Spilotro was a celebrity amongst his peers and the press. He was nicknamed “Tony the Ant” by the media, after FBI agent William F. Roemer, Jr. referred to Spilotro in an interview as “that little pissant.” Since the media of the times could not use the word “pissant,” they shortened it to the “Ant.” Ant, they told us, was short for Anthony.
Born Anthony John Spilotro (pronounced spil-oh-tro) on May 19, 1938, in Chicago, he was the fourth of six children. He grew up on the city’s near West Side in an Italian-American neighborhood known as the Patch, an area that saw its share of young toughs grow up to become members of the Chicago Mob. His parents, Pasquale Spilotro Sr., emigrated from Italy and arrived at Ellis Island in 1914, and Antoinette Spilotro, ran Patsy’s Restaurant. Little Anthony was introduced to Mob Dom at an early age. His parents’ eatery became a hangout for the local mob. Mobsters such as Salvatore “Sam” Giancana, Jackie “The Lackey” Cerone, Gus Alex, and Francesco Nitti (Frank “The Enforcer”) regularly dined at Patsy’s, using its parking lot for mob meetings.
Along with his brothers John, Vincent, Victor, and Michael, Tony became involved in criminal activity early in life. Another of Tony’s brothers, Pasquale Spilotro Jr., went on to college and became a highly respected oral surgeon in the Chicago area. Tony dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and quickly became known for a succession of petty crimes, such as shoplifting and purse snatching. His first arrest occurred on January 11, 1955, when he attempted to steal a shirt from a retail store and was charged with larceny. Tony Spilotro was fined ten dollars and placed on probation.
Being arrested did not curb Spilotro’s criminal activities. Within the next five years, he was arrested over a dozen times. Nevertheless, smalltime criminal activity wasn’t enough for Spilotro. He had his eye on Chicago’s biggest outfit, the La Cosa Nostra.
At the age of 24, Tony Spilotro had befriended quite a few influential members of the Chicago underworld, that included Vincent “the Saint” Inserro, Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo and mob boss Joseph “Joey Doves” Aiuppa. Spilotro joined Sam “Mad Sam” DeStefano’s crew in 1962. Sam was deemed extremely unpredictable and too unmanageable to be considered for big-time leadership, however his sadistic nature was highly sought after by his bosses as a way to spread terror.
Owing to DeStefano’s guidance, Spilotro earned a contract to murder Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia, two young burglars known as the M&M Boys. All through their interrogation, Spilotro tortured the two men, purportedly squeezing McCartney’s head in a vice until his eye popped out of its socket. The corpses of the two men were found by authorities in the trunk of a car on Chicago’s South Side.
The vicious killings won Spilotro a good reputation with area mobsters, and earned him the status as “made” in 1963, in other words, a member of the Outfit. His promotion also scored him a job controlling the bookmaking in the territory on the Northwest Side of Chicago. Spilotro’s standing also caught the attention of local law enforcement and, of course, the sycophantic media, who started referring to Spilotro as “Tough Tony.” Other versions of Spilotro’s early folklore declare that, due to his 5 foot 2 inch stature, he became referred to as “The Ant.”
Whatever the moniker, Spilotro became a marked man, and federal law enforcement worked intensely to put him behind bars. The FBI managed to turn Charles “Chuckie” Grimaldi, a former member of DeStefano’s crew, into a federal witness. In November of 1963, Grimaldi gave evidence against Spilotro and DeStefano during the murder trial of Leo Foreman, a loan collector who had made the grave error of throwing DeStefano out of his office in May of the same year.
Foreman was lured to the house of Sam “Mad Sam” DeStefano’s brother, ostensibly to play cards. Once there, Anthony Spilotro and Charles Grimaldi dragged their victim into the cellar, where Sam DeStefano beat Leo Foreman with a hammer and then repeatedly stabbed him with an ice pick. He was then shot in the head and left in the trunk of an abandoned car. Despite overwhelming evidence, both Spilotro and DeStefano were somehow acquitted.
Tony Spilotro’s run-in with the law did not keep him from administering business as usual. Throughout the 1960’s there were a series of murders in which “The Ant” had allegedly participated, but no charges were ever made. Spilotro continued to gain notoriety throughout the syndicate and, by 1971, he was tapped to become the mob’s ambassador in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Anthony Spilotro had developed into an accomplished gangster and hit man. It was this success that caused him to be sent to Las Vegas by the Outfit hierarchy to oversee their interests, mainly the skimming of profits from casinos secretly owned by the mob.
Actively functioning at his new job, Spilotro worked the Chicago bosses’ ruse to embezzle profits from area casinos. The Outfit used a frontman as the casino’s owner, and placed one of their connected guys in the casino count rooms. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was their mobster of choice. Frank Rosenthal ran several Outfit-backed casinos and was an old childhood buddy of Tony Spilotro’s, so the combination of the two seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Rosenthal was the inside man, the person responsible for actually running the casino; Spilotro was the outside man. His primary task was to make sure all the many casino employees and other personnel involved in the skim stayed in line. Although Lefty could never be a “made” man, according to mob rules, because he was not of full Southern Italian descent, he was allowed, nevertheless, to access the rooms and remove as much cash as possible, aka the skim, before it could be recorded as revenue.
The skim assets also known as “shoebox money” were sent back to the Chicago Outfit and several other mafia families. To protect the skim assets, Spilotro was hired to keep a watchful eye on Rosenthal and the other members of the Outfit. Once in Vegas, Spilotro, under the alias Tony Stuart, took over the Circus Circus Hotel gift shop as a front, as well as control of the Vegas underworld. Setting up a headquarters in the gift shop, he took care of business, which included torturing and murdering at least five people, a few of which were found in the desert.
Tony “The Ant” took it upon himself to increase his position and, in effect, became the “boss” of Las Vegas, not only overseeing the skim, but taking over all the organized street crime in town. Contrary to popular myths, Spilotro held no official position as a “boss” or as a capo in the Outfit. In actuality, Tony worked under his own capo back in Chicago who was, at the time, Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo.
Anthony received another Chicago indictment in 1972, for again the murder of Leo Foreman. Spilotro had to return to the windy city to stand trial along with Mario DeStefano and his brother “Mad Sam” DeStefano. Mario and Anthony decided to assassinate “Mad Sam” with a shotgun to make sure the trial went smoothly for them. Ironically, Mario was found guilty, but Anthony was acquitted and he returned, once more, to Vegas.
Spilotro’s first underworld entrepreneurship in Sin City was extortion. He required all criminals to pay a street tax to continue doing business. If they did not pay up, they were threatened with death. In November of 1975, Tony Spilotro, with the assistance of Frank Bompensiero, murdered Tamara Rand, a real estate broker and investor from San Diego. At the time, Rand was suing Allen Glick, a mob frontman in Las Vegas, to repay a two million dollar loan she had made to him. “The Ant” sneaked into Rand’s house and fatally shot her. Tony “The Ant” Spilotro’s next shot at upward mobility came in 1976 when he opened his jewelry and electronics store, The Gold Rush, in partnership with his brother, Michael, and Chicago bookmaker Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein. His store, located one block off the Strip, became home to Spilotro’s band of burglars who would break into hotel rooms, wealthy homes and high end stores and appropriate their goods. The group then fenced the items they stole. Since they frequently gained entry into buildings by making a hole in the wall or the roof, they became known as “The Hole in the Wall Gang.”
“The Ant’s” role as enforcer, however, was hampered after the arrest of Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno in 1977. After Fratianno learned of a contract on his life, he became a government informant and testified against Spilotro. Consequently the Nevada Gaming Commission blacklisted Spilotro. The ruling prevented Spilotro from being physically present in any Nevada casino. This meant that he could no longer step foot inside a casino ever again. The Gaming Commission’s verdict didn’t prevent Spilotro from continuing to conduct his business. The Hole in the Wall Gang had by then grown to include Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officer Joe Blasko and wise guy associates Frank Cullotta, Leo Guardino, Ernest Davino, Sal Romano, Lawrence Neumann, Wayne Matecki and Samuel and Joseph Cusumano.
The Hole in the Wall Gang’s thievery had expanded to include the tri-state area. Added to the mix, it was whispered that Spilotro had begun dealing in drugs through a local motorcycle gang. Spilotro continued committing robberies and violent crimes in Nevada, abused drugs, and he had also taken to Lefty Rosenthal’s wife. The two were having an affair that became all too public. In spite of his setback at the casinos, Spilotro believed he had Las Vegas by the tail.
Back in Chicago, the mob was not pleased with the attention that Spilotro was drawing. The blacklisting by the Gaming Commission and the affair created unwanted publicity for the Outfit. In the minds of the mob bosses, Tony “The Ant” Spilotro had two strikes against him… the third would come soon enough.
On Independence Day in 1981, The Hole in the Wall Gang had planned to rob the upscale Bertha’s Gifts & Home Furnishings. They believed that the heist would pull in at least one million dollars after fencing the goods. To the culprits’ surprise, when they had penetrated the roof of Bertha’s, the police surrounded the store and arrested Cullotta, Blasko, Guardino, Davino, Neumann and Matecki. The cops threw the book at them. The gang was charged with burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, attempted grand larceny and even the possession of burglary tools.
Sal Romano was the cause of the bungled burglary. He was the groups’ alarm systems specialist, but had turned informant after the Vegas police had pegged him for another crime. Romano had told the police about the planned heist. The Hole in the Wall Gang was locked up in the Las Vegas police department’s holding cell. Cullotta also turned informant after he learned that Spilotro had put a contract on his life. Culotta’s testimony, however, was not sufficient to put Spilotro away… he was acquitted again.
Not surprisingly, the Chicago Syndicate bosses were not pleased. The exposure was something that the mob did not need – especially in Vegas – where the pickings were good and easy, and all you had to do was keep a low profile. “The Ant” was incapable of discreet behavior. In the mob’s opinion, Spilotro had made a public spectacle of himself and had to be removed. In January of 1986, a meeting of the Outfit was called. Most of the upper echelon attended. Joseph Ferriola was the boss. Ferriola told the group that Spilotro was a problem and how things had gone down since he took over Vegas. Rocco Infelice said, “Hit him.” Everyone else at the meeting was in agreement. Joe Ferriola closed the meeting with, “OK, that’s it, I got nothin’ else.”
Enough was enough. Las Vegas was a place for the mob to make money, and they did not want any problems with the authorities. So Tony Spilotro, along with his brother, were called to a meeting back in Chicago with the understanding that Michael would become a made man. Instead the brothers were tortured, beaten to death and buried in a cornfield in Indiana.
If Anthony Spilotro had left a legacy, it wasn’t apparent until more than two decades after his death. In 2005, the movie Casino, directed by Martin Scorsese, was released. The film was eagerly anticipated. The character Nicky Santoro in the film, played by actor Joe Pesci, was based on Spilotro. By 2007, throughout the federal government’s investigations targeted at clearing up unsolved gangland homicides, several men confessed to the Spilotro killings. Albert Tocco and Nicholas Calabrese pleaded guilty to taking part in the hits on Anthony and Michael. James Marcello was also found guilty of the murders of both brothers. On February 5, 2009, he was sentenced to life in prison.
In the end, Spilotro justice finally caught up with the “Pissant”. Some think that it was a shame that the mob did the job, instead of the courts. Our civilized society can take heart. Without the hard work of federal and local investigators and the indictments which resulted, nothing would have happened. Spilotro would still be taking care of business. Indirect justice was better than no justice at all.
Hollywood and the social media pop culture like to glamorize the likes of Anthony Spilotro. These media hungry sycophants want you to believe that there is something great and endearing about such criminal leviathans as Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel and Bonnie and Clyde. In reality, they were lowlife murdering scumbag felons. This magazine series is titled, The Men Who Made Las Vegas. In keeping with that precept, the great contribution that Tony “The Ant” Spilotro bequeathed to our gaming city was when he took a dirt nap in Indiana.
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft
chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.