By John L. Smith
Former Chicago hit man Frank Cullotta now makes an honest living leading tours of his old mob haunts in Las Vegas.
Retired Chicago mobster Frank Cullotta comes from a family of wheelmen. Making a clean getaway is in his blood.
Back when Frank was just a boy, his father was killed steering a car for the Outfit with the cops in hot pursuit. Frank was a loyal driver during a long criminal career as Chicago mob enforcer Tony Spilotro’s loyal lieutenant. Cullotta was along on plenty of capers.
When Cullotta was compelled turn on Spilotro, the reputed killer who was depicted by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, the loyal underling was marked for death. A consummate survivor, Cullotta cooperated with the FBI, endured threats and epithets, and emerged a winner in a death-defying game of chance. Spilotro and younger brother Michael were murdered in 1986. Their bodies were uncovered from an Indiana cornfield.
Less than a decade later, Nicholas Pileggi captured the Las Vegas mob zeitgeist in his nonfiction bestseller Casino, which became a star-studded blockbuster that entertained the masses and helped slap a coda on the mob era on the clean-shaven and corporate Las Vegas as the new century approached.
These days Cullotta faces a dilemma almost as great as getting a death sentence from his old pal Tony: how does a lifelong wise guy earn an honest living in Las Vegas, the town that used to be an open city for the mob?
In a way, he went back to his roots and what he knows best: making a clean getaway. Only this time Cullotta isn’t behind the wheel of a tricked-up sedan.
Instead, he’s giving customized bus tours in Las Vegas, the town whose casino racket he once helped manipulate on behalf of Spilotro and the crafty and craven Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the fellow depicted by Robert DeNiro in “Casino.”
Cullotta moved from an undisclosed location in California back to Las Vegas in recent months to participate in the sales of the memoirs he’s written with Las Vegas-based mob aficionado Dennis Griffin. In addition to the DVDs and posters Cullotta signs and sells to organized crime buffs, he also plays the gracious and gravel-throated host of a bus tour of Las Vegas haunts from his days running the streets with Spilotro’s “Hole in the Wall” gang of killers, thieves and burglars. (Although no jury ever convicted him of homicide, during his violent reign in Las Vegas, Spilotro is said to have been good for nearly two dozen murders. Cullotta is an admitted killer whose dirty work was depicted in Casino.)
Leading tours and selling copies of his paperback isn’t an easy score, he says. But it’s a legal living. And the G doesn’t breathe down his neck as long as he remembers to pay his taxes.
“It is a challenge to do things on the legal side,” Cullotta says, admitting he doesn’t have a lot of practice. “Sometimes the legal side isn’t that legal, you know what I’m trying to say? There’s graft in anything you do, even on the legal side. ... It’s difficult to be legit, and I am legit. But I’m always having to fight the system for some reason. It seems like nobody wants me to be legit.”
Cullotta, 75, gets assistance from his literary sidekick Griffin and from businessman Robert Allen, who has had to negotiate with state authorities to get the tours approved. Together they not only started cashing in on the fascination with the mob in Las Vegas in the wake of “Casino,” for which Cullotta served as a paid consultant, but now have added a bus tour of the Outfit’s greatest Vegas hits as well as “Mob-Con,” an annual convention featuring a variety of members and associates of the hoodlum element from Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.
It's called, “The Real Story Behind ‘Casino’ Told in Frank Cullotta’s Own Words.” For a C-note fans will get a tour, interview with Cullotta, autographed copy of his book, a photocopied sheet of autographs from the cast of “Casino,” and a pizza party. Fans of the mob subculture will find it an offer they can’t refuse, but Cullotta acknowledges there are only so many legal ways for a retired hit man to earn a legal score.
Truth told, he passes by spots in Las Vegas that he would have considered easy money back in his days on the street. One place he’s agreed to pass on during his tour: the former Las Vegas home of Sherwin “Jerry” Lisner, a small-time con man whom he killed in 1979 on Spilotro’s orders.
One of the challenges of going from connected guy to square citizen, Cullotta says, is making a living without using his old juice contacts.
“It’s very difficult when you don’t have the clout and the connections to get things done,” he says. “Out there I’m like a book salesman going in and out of places. It’s really rough, really hard to earn a living like that.”
Despite Cullotta’s certified reputation as a killer and convict with connections in Chicago and Las Vegas, a New York publisher has yet to discover Cullotta’s potential as a storyteller. It’s something Metro and the FBI appreciated back in the 1980s, when he was compelled by a keen sense of survival instinct to turn against Spilotro and his gang. Although Cullotta’s testimony didn’t convict Spilotro in court back in 1986, the heat he put on his old pal was great enough to melt the tenuous confidence Tough Tony’s supervisors in Chicago had in him. Spilotro and brother Michael were murdered on orders of Joe Ferriola, who was then the Outfit’s acting boss. Evidence of the crimes were detailed during the “Operation Family Secrets” trial in Chicago.
When Cullotta looks back on his life, he acknowledges his deadly sins and shrugs when folks ask him about the prison time he did. Sometimes he thinks about his old man, who tried to resist the pull of the Outfit without a lot of success. “What did I know?” he asks. “I was eight or nine years old at the time. I loved my father. He was good to me. I didn’t even know he was a criminal.”
Although Cullotta played a bit role as a hit man in Casino, “type casting” some would say, he remembers the movie gig he turned down years ago when he was approached to be a consultant on the film The Thief. He could have taught the cast and crew plenty about burglaries and gun heists, but to share such information in those days would have marked him as a snitch. That would have meant a bullet in the head, he laughs.
Nowadays, such a cinematic offer would be hard to turn down. The mob, such as it is, went Hollywood years ago.
Until that big break comes his way, former hit man Frank Cullotta is earning a living on the square in Vegas, one busload at a time.