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Cullotta, you S.O.B – I scooped your book!

Preface: In the 80’s Las Vegas mobster-turned government witness Frank Cullotta was writing his memoir from jail. But local media scooped him on his first edition. That’s right. I put it on TV.

The spring of 1983 was busy for Frank Cullotta –a mobster and cold-blooded killer. He’d flipped on his fellow mafia pals and entered the Witness Protection Program a few months before – after the FBI convinced him his former Chicago Outfit boss Tony “the ant” Spilotro was going to kill him.

Photo: Las Vegas Metro Police

I was a young 20-something reporter at channel 13 TV in Las Vegas at the time, relatively new to the federal court beat, where the FBI, IRS, and U.S. Attorney were making progress ending the era of mafia control in Vegas. Many large city mob families had shared that turf. Cullotta knew a lot about the Chicago family’s influence in particular, and as a federal witness, he was spilling his guts. One day, my favorite videographer Ronnie White and I learned that Frank had been snuck into the federal courthouse under tight security, whisked in via a rear door loading dock wearing a hood over his face. All that drama probably drew more attention than if he’d just walked through the front doors. That vision in my mind is almost laughable nearly 40 years later but was pretty awesome information on that day. We learned he spent several hours testifying before a grand jury that would later indict his old boss and former colleagues – “Tony’s cronies” as I used to call them in some of my stories. Cullotta was also busy testifying in county courtrooms against his old pals, and Las Vegans couldn’t get enough of this news.

Mob watchers were fascinated with Frank.

Somehow, he also found time in late ’82 and early ‘83 to begin writing his life story, right there in his cell.

When you’re in custody as a federal witness, you might prepare for testimony with just a few handlers such as a federal agent, a detective, and a prosecutor, but you’re guarded and watched 24/7, and paperwork about you passes through more than a few hands.

When you’re a reporter, all of those professionals are excellent sources – jail guards, bailiffs, court security, and clerks, for example. They’re just as important and often more able to help than the special-agent-in-charge (SAC) of a federal agency, or the defense attorneys who realize being on camera is good for business.

And so it came to be that an early copy of Frank’s jailhouse book was leaked to me and another to a Las Vegas Sun reporter. I had to make an agreement with the source not to air the story before a certain date, a few weeks later. I assumed at the time it was because they wanted certain court dates or pending arrests to clear, but that runway gave me time to do some legwork.

Frank wasn’t very far along in the story at that point, but what he had inadvertently given up was gold. I knew the Sun would print most of the book at the same time we went live with it, but TV could give life to stories in ways print sometimes couldn’t back in those days. We could get compelling sound and video to make it rock. It was enough to convince my managing editor, Chris Hansen, to put Ronnie and me on the next plane smoking’ to Chicago, where we’d get local color, and then finish our work back in Vegas. We’d do a five-part series, and then a documentary.

The real birth of the Hole in Wall strategy.

The key arrest for Frank, the one that set him on his journey to become a federal witness, occurred in Las Vegas, ironically on Independence Day, July 4, 1981. Frank and several sidekicks were busted as they tried to burglarize a high-end jewelry and home furnishings store called Bertha’s. An insider had tipped off the feds and local police, and it was all over for Frank. The perps were paraded into the courthouse as TV cameras rolled. News conferences were called where law enforcement proudly touted bringing the “Hole in the Wall Gang” to its knees. The burglary bunglers earned that nickname because of their strategy to break into homes and businesses by drilling in though walls and ceilings.

But the Hole in the Wall concept wasn’t born in Vegas. Frank Cullotta tried his hand at that first back in his hometown, and he provided juicy details in the book he was writing.

In his early manuscript, Frank talked about growing up in Chicago where he and Tony were first foes and later friends, how he started hustling and committing petty crimes as a youngster, and then graduated to become a daring burglar.

As a young thief, he bungled one of those burglaries – badly – and the outcome was hilarious. He’d cased an electronics store in an old Chicago neighborhood and devised a scheme to steal some TVs. Fencing them, he figured, would get him some serious C-notes. But he knew an electronics store would have alarms and probably surveillance cameras. So, he had to gain entry another way. One night after the businesses in that block had closed, Frank broke into a neighboring business – a deli if I remember. He then made his way into the false ceiling and scooted across it to position himself directly over the electronics store. He was about to break through the ceiling panels onto the floor below to begin his heist when police entered the store. His heart must have been beating hard, but he sat quietly above while the cops searched. They were puzzled because they thought they’d seen a flashlight inside, but they were not seeing any signs of forced entry or of any would-be burglars. They were about to leave when Frank, a pudgy guy, hit a patch of bad luck – the floor below him. That’s right, he fell right through the false ceiling and landed at the feet of one of the cops. The cop, a rookie, was so tickled to make his first major arrest, he asked Frank to pose for a photo.

Most of the rest of the book Frank was writing was about really, really bad stuff. Cullotta copped to the murder a fellow mob-affiliated con man, Jerry Lisner, a brutal affair in 1979. It was, he said, a hit ordered by Spilotro. Cullotta wrote that he chased Lisner through his Las Vegas house, firing several shots into Lisner’s head. Lisner would not die, so Cullotta covered his head with a pillow and kept firing till Lisner took his last breath. Leaving a trail of blood all over the Lisner house, Frank then dumped Jerry’s body in the backyard swimming pool and slipped away into the evening. Lisner’s wife came home from work and found him dead, and the murder was never solved until Frank confessed, as a federal witness who was given immunity.

Cullotta’s book also found him confessing to his role in the killings of two Chicago gangsters – William McCarthy and James Miraglia in 1962. McCarthy’s head was put in a vise and the handle was cranked until his eyes popped out. The other guy was strangled. Their bodies were left in the trunk of a car – another mob signature. In his written story and in court testimony he implicated Spilotro for cruelly cranking that vise, but Spilotro was never convicted of the murders.

Frank also wrote a salacious scene about sex with another mobster’s widow – just hours after her husband had been whacked. It was truly gross. That section was left on the cutting room floor, as they say, and wasn’t mentioned in the series or documentary.

Ronnie and I got pretty good stuff in Chicago. We tracked down that policeman whose arrest of Cullotta landed at his feet. He was a very colorful cop. The Chicago PD let us use an interrogation room for our interview and the officer still had the photo. He gave us a copy. It was classic.

In Frank’s old neighborhood, we found graffiti that glorified C-notes and degraded G-men. As we walked up to people on the street to ask about Frank Cullotta, we learned he was more reviled than revered. We were cussed out in Italian. We were spit at. That happened with cameras rolling, and it was what we used to call a “money shot,” or “a beautiful moment in television.”

We’d shared in confidence with management at our ABC affiliate there, WLS, that we had the “book” and that we’d give them a copy of it and any of our footage they wanted when it was time to air the story. They very resourcefully got us the address of the house where Frank’s mother was living. She and her other son wanted no part of the Witness Protection Program and were trying to lay low. We knocked on the door. I wish I could say we got an exclusive, but all we got were some muffled threats coming through the other side of the locked front door. We didn’t have cell phones back then, but we had pagers. Not many minutes after our visit to Mrs. Cullotta’s house, I got a page to call our assignment desk back in Vegas. We found a pay phone (remember those?) and called in. The head of the local FBI had called station leadership and reported that Frank was going ballistic and threatening that I’d better stay away from his mama. The bureau was afraid he would stop talking if we bothered his family again. The call to back off was fine with me because it was clear she wasn’t going to talk to us. It was a good thing Frank didn’t know at that time that I was about to scoop his autobiography!

Taking a detour for a Teamster on trial.

Before I go on to finish this story, I want to share an interesting side trip we took while in Chicago. Teamsters boss Roy Lee Williams was scheduled to be sentenced in federal court. He’d steered millions of pension fund loan dollars to help build casinos the mob ran in Vegas, but this particular sentencing was for trying to bribe Nevada Senator Howard Cannon. I gave Chris some flack about his orders for us to temporarily stop our Cullotta work to cover the sentencing, but he’d arranged an opportunity for us to report live from the WLS newsroom following the sentencing. We couldn’t turn that down – I mean to be in the same newsroom with major market reporters, are you kidding me? I thought I should be hired there; I had a few good sources, and I owned a trench coat! And, no other Vegas reporters were there to cover the story.

We were greeted warmly at the courthouse by the Chicago media, who thought we were there just because of the sentencing, lol.

Cameras were not allowed in federal courtrooms, but you could get video of defense attorneys, alleged criminals, and prosecutors coming into the building. One of the videographers, with a gleam in his eyes, asked his colleagues, “Shall we treat our friends from Vegas to the cord trick?” “Yes,” they all said enthusiastically. They told us to stand clear of the revolving doors that Williams was soon to walk through and to let the instigator get the first close-up. Then, they promised us, we’d have the opportunity to get plenty of great video. TV equipment back in those days was bulky and heavy, and cameras were connected to large tape decks by thick cords. Microphones were not wireless and they, too had long, thick cords that connected to the recording deck. Lots of things can happen in those situations. Well, the instigator who positioned himself right in front of the revolving doors, had an incident. I am not sure if it was his camera or microphone cord that “accidentally” got stuck and stopped the revolving door right as Williams, breathing through an oxygen tank, entered. But for several frantic moments, the instigator tried to free the cord from the stuck revolving door. The once powerful but by then frail Roy Lee Williams, trapped inside, was pounding the glass with his fists, demanding to be let out. So that was the cord trick. We got plenty of video. I love the Chicago TV media!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

We returned from Chicago to put our stories and documentary together. Thanks to channel 13’s legacy of good reporting, we had file video of Jerry Lisner being wheeled out of his bloody backyard in a body bag. We got great interviews with the FBI and US Attorney about Frank Cullotta’s effectiveness and soundbites with the mob attorneys, including Tony Spilotro’s famed counsel Oscar Goodman. (Some years after the Cullotta documentary, Goodman would stop me midsentence in an interview, with the camera rolling, when I was asking about organized crime. He then handed me one of my favorite soundbites of all time. “There’s no such thing as organized crime, Lynn,” Goodman said. “I tell my clients all the time, there’s nothing organized about what they’re doing.”)

Frank Cullotta’s book and testimony as a federal witness bore that out – some of the crimes the mob was guilty of in that era were surprisingly unsophisticated and sloppy. Much like Frank falling at the feet of a rookie cop, the Chicago mob’s Las Vegas enterprise unraveled as they snitched each other out and as law enforcement artfully staked them out, catching them in one crime after another. It was the most fascinating assignment a reporter could imagine.

Ronnie White did an excellent job shooting the stories, creating graphics, and editing all of it. Had I been a better storyteller, it would have been fabulous, but it was pretty good, chock-full of rich content, and “everyone” was talking about it.

The FBI wasn’t mad that we obtained the book. But we did hear that Cullotta had been writing the book while in jail as part of a deal he’d made with a very gifted and legendary reporter for another station in town, a journalist named Ned Day. Rumor had it Ned would be his co-author and they’d publish the book someday in the future.

“Ned’s mad,” someone told me. But if that was true, Ned’s classy actions showed otherwise. He mailed a letter to me that said, “I know someone told you I was mad, but how can I be when you’re just a good reporter doing her job?” He hand-signed it, “Ned.” I knew I was a hard worker and that some people thought I was a good journalist, but Ned’s brand of journalism and network of sources was something I could never match. He was someone I idolized even though I did not know him well. His letter brought tears to my eyes and to this day, I am still moved whenever I think about that gesture.

Then what happened?

Our documentary won a state Associated Press Award.

You might be wondering if I saved my copy of Frank’s original manuscript, the raw video from standups, interviews, and other b-roll. Did I save myself a copy of the stories and the documentary?

I did not. A couple of years later, I accepted a job on an investigative team at a CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge. Believing all of that to fairly be Channel 13’s property, I left all that behind somewhere in a box.

Tony the ant got murdered.

While I was working in Baton Rouge covering state government corruption and not the mob, Tony and his brother Michael were murdered. They were found buried together in an Indiana cornfield. The case remained unsolved for decades until details surfaced as part of other investigations. As it turns out, the brothers were killed in a Chicago basement where they’d been lured. They believed that Michael was going to finally become a “Made Man” in a mafia induction ceremony. But instead, they were tortured there, and their bodies were then transported to the farm grave. It’s hard to believe in hindsight that a cold-blooded and calculating killer who controlled the Chicago mob’s interests in Las Vegas for decades was gullible enough to go to a basement believing his brother was about to be honored. The day their bodies were found, my partner on the Newsline 9 I-team brought me a piece of wire copy (remember the old AP and UPI?) detailing the hit on the Spilotro brothers. I was so busy then, I hadn’t even been following the story that they’d been missing.

I got married.

About a year later, I missed Las Vegas so I left Baton Rouge and returned for another stint, finishing my reporting career at Channel 3 (the best reporting years of my life, I thought).

Sadly, just after I returned, Ned Day, who was only in his early 40’s, died of heart failure while vacationing in Hawaii. He never helped Frank to finish the book.

During that second tour of duty in Vegas, I met the love of my life, Tim Heider, at a drug bust. He was a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. We got married and moved to Cleveland where he worked as a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He won many national awards. I worked on the management side, eventually leading TV newsrooms in Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Portland, Oregon. We left the news business and started second careers in public relations, in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

What became of “the mafia?”

Truth be told, it had pretty much been cleaned up by the mid 80’s as corporations took over casinos and gangsters died off or were shipped off to the big house. Frank Cullotta’s testimonies helped do a lot of the mop-up work that closed murder cases and sent bad guys up.

Chris Hansen went to work for one of the major news networks, and I lost contact with him.

Ronnie White died in early 2021. He had as many sources as I did. The Las Vegas TV market is better because of the high journalistic standards he set and upheld. I am glad he lived long enough to know he was appreciated. In fact, because of his service to seeking the truth and telling the story, the mayor of Las Vegas and the city council, declared February 16, 2010, to be “Ron White Day.”

And, in the “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” category, the mayor who signed that proclamation was Oscar Goodman! He turned his attention to politics after his legal career, and after leading City Hall for 12 years, opened a steakhouse downtown, where he holds special event dinners and gives talks about the old mob days. He was a driving force in bringing the famed Mob Museum to fruition, and I highly recommend touring it if you’re in Vegas. Oscar’s wife is the mayor now. They are like Vegas’ royal family.

Frank Cullotta’s next chapter was as interesting as the first. He served a short prison term and continued to help the government. But after several years in the Witness Protection Program, enough of the people he’d testified against were either dead or locked up for long prison terms. In what some may consider to be a bizarre twist, he came in from the cold and lived openly in Las Vegas. He made a living conducting “mob tours” for tourists and giving lectures at the Mob Museum. Many respected him in that phase of his life and reported they enjoyed his outgoing personality. The movie, Casino portrayed a character like Frank, and Frank served on the movie set as a consultant. The Jerry Lisner murder was played out in the movie, too, with Frank calling the casting shots.

What about that book?

Frank found an experienced co-author to help him finish his book and the first edition was published, I believe, in 2007. Another book would follow. He also hosted a series of popular video podcasts, “Coffee with Cullotta.”

Frank died of COVID in 2020. He and I never met in person.

And that’s the story of how I scooped a mob guy on his own autobiography.

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