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Jan 7

On this date in 1997, mobster Herbie Blitzstein was found dead in his Las Vegas home.

He’d been shot in the back of his head. Blitzstein was regarded as the “Lieutenant” to Tony Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s boss in Las Vegas. At first, police denied it was a mob execution. (Really?) Later it was revealed that rival mafia members from Buffalo and Los Angeles bumped Blitzstein off so they could take over the racket he was allegedly running. It was probably the last of the Vegas mob hits, more than a decade after a combination of law enforcement shakedowns and corporate casino takeovers had pretty much sidelined the crime syndicate families.

(Photo: KSNV)

The news of his death wasn’t on my radar screen that day. At that time, I was a TV news director in Kansas City, and we had plenty of our own stories to cover. But during my reporting career in Las Vegas in the ’80s, when cops paraded mobsters in and out of court, I’d stuck enough microphones in Herbie Blitzstein’s face that he knew my name. Called “Fat Herbie” because of his imposing, 6-foot, 300-pound frame he was sometimes a little more personable to reporters than his stone-cold sidekicks – you might get a “hello” or a smile out of him -- but make no mistake: he was into serious stuff. Spilotro and his gang, “Tony’s cronies,” as I used to call them in some of my stories, helped to skim millions from casinos, carried out burglary schemes, and most importantly, committed countless murders. Herbie was a “muscle man” for the mob, known for talents such as loansharking and fencing stolen goods.

Blitzstein’s boss Spilotro had come to his own bad end in 1986 when he and his brother Michael were killed by mobsters and buried in an Indiana cornfield.

About a year after Spilotro’s hit, I had a bizarre conversation with Herbie at a Vegas cheeseburger shop. He told me his former capo might have gone to hell where he’d be rumbling with a journalist. Before I can tell you how and why that happened, I need to take a detour and tell you about that legendary journalist: a man named Ned Day.

A streetwise Milwaukie native, Day cut his teeth and made a name for himself as a newspaper reporter in Las Vegas. He penned scoop after scoop, calling out corrupt politicians, mobsters, and shady business leaders. He later landed on the anchor desk at my competition, KLAS TV, and continued his award-winning career on air and as a newsroom leader. He mentored many talented young reporters who, to this day, are successful thanks in large part to the hand he placed on their shoulders early in their careers. But he died September 3, 1987, at just 42 years of age. Immediate speculation was that the mafia was responsible, but the truth was, he suffered a fatal heart attack while vacationing in Hawaii.

When you work at a rival station, do you do a profile story on another reporter who dies of natural causes? Not usually, but when that reporter was an institution like Ned Day, it’s the top story.

So, the next day when we learned of Ned’s untimely death, I was assigned to do a tribute piece for my station, KTNV. Ned’s colleagues at KLAS very graciously put together a highlight reel for me. Videographer Ronnie White and I went to the station to pick it up, sat with one of his colleagues in an edit bay, and shuttled through clips of some of Ned’s most iconic reporting. It included my favorite standup, shot on the Las Vegas strip, as part of The Mob on the Run –an acclaimed documentary Ned produced with his colleague, Robert Stoldal.

“Money. Power. Sex. That’s what it’s all about on the street of streets in Las Vegas,” Day said in his compelling delivery style.

Before heading back to our own studios to prepare the report, Ronnie and I wanted to see what the mob was up to, and we had time for lunch. We decided to stop at the Food Factory, a joint known for its world-class cheeseburgers – and owned by John Spilotro – Tony’s brother. John and his beautiful wife, Arlene, were good businesspeople and were always kind to whoever came through the front door, including news folks. That day, we were the first customers to show up for lunch. John came to the table and told us he was surprised and saddened to hear of Ned’s death. We told him we’d just been to Ned’s newsroom, and that they were taking it pretty hard. He got it, having lost his brothers a year earlier. He was genuinely sympathetic. He gave our food orders to the kitchen and went back to the front of the house.

Not too many moments later, in walked Herbie Blitzstein. I still remember what he was wearing – a white shirt, a big gold chain, and a smile.

“Hello, John!” he bellowed. I don’t think he saw Ronnie and me at first, although our commercially branded news car was surely out in the parking lot. “I’ve already had a glass of champagne today to toast the departure of our dear friend Ned.”

I could see John’s face from the side, turning a little red. He gestured in the direction of our table so “Fat Herbie” would see us. Herbie didn’t look embarrassed or show any shame, really, but he did come over to our table for a quick chat.

“Sorry about your friend,” he said. “But hey! If Tony done all those bad things you people keep reporting on, you know he’s in hell, right?”

How, exactly, do you respond to a question that no human can factually answer? I think I muttered something like, “Well I don’t know.”

“No, if the news was true, that he killed all those people, he’s in hell,” Blitzstein said. “And now Ned’s in hell, too, and Tony’s gonna beat the shit out of him every day.”

He turned around and left the restaurant.

Ronnie and I did not quote Herbie’s outburst in our story about Ned that night for three reasons; 1) We wanted to do a heartfelt tribute to a truly great journalist and didn’t want a Blitzstein’s quote to steal the headline, 2) We thought Herbie’s comments were made in a moment of sarcasm, and 3) We wanted to live at least a few more years.

That was the last time I ever saw Herbie Blitzstein. He’d been convicted earlier that year on charges of receiving stolen property and credit card fraud, and his appeals options were running out. He surrendered to a federal prison camp in Boron, California about a month after our encounter in the restaurant.

It is interesting to note that he defied death in prison. Due to bad healthcare, diabetes, and a heart condition, he nearly died. He felt so strongly about prison medical conditions in Boron that he testified in 1991 before a congressional subcommittee investigating the prison healthcare system. (His testimony begins on page 43.)He told of months spent in a private hospital and treatment in several other prison facilities – all of it very expensive for taxpayers and perhaps preventable. He said one prison doctor wanted to amputate his leg, and not because it was medically necessary.

“He looked at my record, and he talked to my doctor and two nurses and told them that, “Well, it don’t look like there’s much good. Just cut his leg off and send him back,” Blitzstein told the House Judiciary Subcommittee.

Blitzstein survived all that drama, and according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was released from custody on June 25, 1992. He returned to Las Vegas, and for some years, laid low as he completed the terms of his probation. But by 1997, informants were telling law enforcement that Blitzstein was operating an insurance fraud and loan sharking business out of his autobody shop. News reports indicated he was again under law enforcement surveillance at the time rival mobsters broke into his house and killed him. It was the end of an era long ago but is not forgotten.

Postscript: It’s a fact that no living human knows for sure whether there is a Heaven or hell. I believe both exist. We are supposed to live our best lives to earn a spot in Heaven. Most of us fall short; that’s why we are invited to ask for forgiveness. For the career he dedicated to making Las Vegas a better and safer community, and for his loyalty to colleagues, friends, and family, I’ve never doubted that Ned is flying with the angels watching over his daughter every day. When Tony Spilotro’s murder was solved years later, witnesses said he asked for a moment to hit his knees to pray for his wife and son before the fatal blows were delivered. If forgiveness for his sins was one of the things he asked for, as difficult as it might be for some to swallow, then Herbie might just have been wrong about Tony’s afterlife. And if you believe in purgatory, consider this irony: Herbie was born on November 2, All Souls’ Day.

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