LAS VEGAS — One of the biggest news stories during Channel 8’s 60 years on the air has been the mob in Las Vegas.
With few exceptions, the mobsters who once ruled the streets and ran the casinos are long gone. Most of them are either dead or in prison, but they will forever be linked to the image of Las Vegas.
The cliche, of course, is that Las Vegas was better when the mob ran things here. It’s wrong, and for more than one reason.
The mob never ran the town, but there was a time when they operated most of the resorts, and local officials kept their distance. In time, all of that changed. And our crews were there to document every part of the rise and fall of the Las Vegas mob.
For the most part, the mobsters KLAS-TV used to chase understood that it was our job and they didn’t seem to take offense, though there were exceptions. When things started to go sour for the mob here, a lot of people ended up dead.
From its beginning, KLAS-TV chronicled the mob. Ben Bugsy Siegel was murdered six years before Channel 8 went on the air, but Siegel’s mob colleagues were still firmly in control of casinos on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown thru the 50’s and 60’s. Las Vegas was an open city, but our unofficial godfather Meyer Lansky insisted that any violence, such as Siegel’s murder, happened somewhere else, which gave rise to a still-popular perception.
“The only thing I remember about mobsters is, because they were in control, you never really had any crime at the hotels,” said Gardner Jolley, son of KLAS-TV’s original owner. “Anyone caught burglarizing the room, they had their fingers broken or you never heard from them again.”
Jolley was just a youngster when his father became the majority owner of Nevada’s first TV station. Locals knew the shady backgrounds of those who ran the casinos, but the mobsters mostly kept their noses clean because the money was so good.
“We had a control over them and everybody who went to work in the gambling business needed a sheriff’s card, so we could kind of tell everybody where they were at,” former Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb said. “They kind of policed their own people and we never had any trouble.”
There were threats on the lives of lawmen and regulators, and as Channel 8 was to learn, reporters were also not exempt from the wrath of the mafia.
Rackets boss tough Tony Spilotro was used to having cameras in his face, but when Spilotro issued one of his infamous death stares, it wasn’t to be ignored.
Tony Spilotro to a reporter: “I’m warning you now, you gotta knock it off.”
Future Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman became a media star because he represented the likes of Spilotro, Lefty Rosenthal, Meyer Lansky and drug kingpin Jimmy Chagra. When federal officials and Nevada lawmen began to crack down on the mob, Goodman and his notorious clients became nightly fixtures on KLAS-TV.
“If Moe Dalitz was going to open a new hotel, which he did, we would make mention of the fact that he had a background of the mob and so forth,” former KLAS-TV news director Hank Thornley said. “Now you’ve got a museum. We didn’t soft pedal any of it, but we didn’t honestly go out aggressively for it. Bobby Kennedy was doing enough of that.”
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s obsession with Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa sparked an intensified federal presence in Las Vegas. Hotels were bugged. Owners were followed. Las Vegas was viewed suspiciously as a safe harbor for mobsters.
After all, tens of millions of mafia-tainted Teamster dollars had financed most hotel-casinos on the Strip, but the money came with strings attached. The mob skimmed untold riches. In the 70’s, the golden era ended as a new breed of mobster came to town.
“The case of the enforcers coming along to make sure the titular heads were protected, but at the same time, those people were their own entrepreneurs, in the case of Tony Spilotro, the hole in the wall gang, the robberies, the burglaries, the loan sharking — that came with it,” Silver said.
Silver was there when the tide turned, when the law cracked down on mobsters who were no longer so discreet. Father and son hitmen Tom and Gramby Hanley firebombed restaurants and performed contract killings, including the murder of Culinary Union boss Al Bramlet.
Local unions were riddled with mob corruption. Mob-related murders and robberies rose. 8 News Now was there for every court appearance, every black book hearing, every homicide scene. Goodman became a fixture on our nightly newscasts.
“None of my clients ever asked, should they kill anybody,” Goodman said. “Nobody said, should we burglarize this. Some of my detractors would have me as consigliari.”
To I-Team chief reporter George Knapp, Goodman said, “I know you used to follow him (Spilotro) around all the time and had that camera out on him.”
“I heard the FBI yelling and screaming that he killed 26 different people,” Goodman said. “And the only thing I can say is, shame on them if he killed 26 people, they should have put him in jail.”
Oh, yes. Our cameras were also around when Spilotro associates appeared outside the Culinary Union hall, when Rosenthal’s Cadillac was shredded by a car bomb on East Sahara Avenue, when gaming agents raided the Stardust hotel and found evidence of a massive skimming operation. Channel 8 posed questions to godfatherly casino kingpin Moe Dalitz and to mob frontman Alan Glick when the hole in the wall gang was taken down for robbing Bertha’s. When Frank Cullotta became a government witness, we were there.
“I always jokingly say that Channel 8 ran the mob out of town,” former 8 News NOW anchor Gary Waddell said. “I don’t know if that’s true, but we certainly shined a light on it.”
It was still a dicey time. As pressure on the mob mounted, more people ended up dead. Threats were made against the lives of government officials, including gaming regulator Jeff Silver, who worked closely with a scruffy newspaper columnist turned Channel 8 muckraker named Ned Day.
“Ned was the consummate journalist of Las Vegas for those times,” Silver said. “He did things no other individual would do. Ned was courageous to a fault.”
Day tormented and insulted mobsters, who put out a contract on him. At one point, his car was firebombed — likely the happiest day of his life. He and fellow KLAS-TV hall of famer Bob Stoldal put together the definitive account about the rise and fall of the mafia here, “Mob on the Run,” the culmination of many years of work by Channel 8 news crews.
“He could write stories and columns better than anybody I know,” Waddell said of Day. “He and George and the news director at the time decided they were going to take on the mob. It was Ned’s stories and Channel 8’s coverage that shined the light on Tony Spilotro.”
That relentless attention, combined with pressure from law enforcement, led to Spilotro’s murder and burial in a Midwestern cornfield. His associate, “fat” Herbie Blitzstein, was also murdered some time later. Joey Cusumano survived an attempted assassination and went straight. The mob was finally exorcised from the casino industry, as the corporations moved in.
“I’m glad the story gets told now, because people can see the times were important for the development of the gaming industry and what we have now,” Silver said.
Sept. 3 will mark 26 years since Day died while in Hawaii.
In the mid 90’s, we had the honor of updating “Mob on the Run.”