Former Mobster’s Death Recalls Las Vegas Era Portrayed in Movie ‘Casino’
Posted on: August 21, 2020, 02:01h.
Last updated on: August 21, 2020, 05:27h.
A former mobster who had a bit part in the 1995 Martin Scorsese movie Casino has died in Las Vegas, capping a colorful period in the city’s underworld history.
Frank Cullotta, 81, died Thursday, Aug. 20, in a Las Vegas hospital from complications of COVID-19, said Geoff Schumacher, vice president of exhibits and programs for The Mob Museum in Las Vegas.
Cullotta arrived in Las Vegas from Chicago in 1978 to serve as lieutenant for his boyhood friend, Mafia member Anthony Spilotro. Known by the nicknames “Tough Tony” and “The Ant,” he had been the Chicago Outfit’s overseer in Las Vegas since the early 1970s.
Cullotta was a “very important figure” in Mob history in Las Vegas and Chicago, Gary Jenkins, a retired Kansas City Police Department Intelligence Unit detective, told Casino.org. In the 1970s, Jenkins helped investigate a Mafia skimming pipeline from Las Vegas to Kansas City.
In Vegas, Cullotta handled street rackets for Spilotro, leading a band of outlaws known as the Hole in the Wall Gang. Cullotta also was responsible for at least two murders. Cullotta’s street crew, involved in hundreds of burglaries, achieved their name by knocking a hole in the wall at homes and businesses to enter and leave without tripping a security system.
This spree ended July 4, 1981, when they were arrested breaking into a gift and jewelry store on East Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas.
Learning Spilotro had him targeted for death, Cullotta became a government witness, testifying against mobsters he knew. He also entered the federal Witness Protection Program.
Midwestern Mafia families were active in Las Vegas during this era, skimming millions in untaxed gaming revenue from casinos around town.
Silver Screen Debut
Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, an attorney who represented Spilotro, did not think highly of Cullotta. In his 2013 book, Being Oscar, co-written with journalist George Anastasia, Goodman refers to Cullotta as a “lowlife.”
According to the colorful former defense counsel, the FBI hated Cullotta when they were investigating him. But after he flipped, they fell in love with him, Goodman wrote. “He was still the same rotten person he was when he was on the streets. But now he was their guy and could do no wrong.”
While in Witness Protection, Cullotta connected with author Nicholas Pileggi, providing inside information for the book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. The book became the basis for the movie Casino, which Pileggi co-wrote with Scorsese.
Cullotta served as an adviser on the film and also appeared briefly on camera as a hitman.
Actor Frank Vincent portrayed a character based on Cullotta, while Joe Pesci played a hot-headed crime figure modeled after the volatile Spilotro.
Spilotro and his brother, Michael, were beaten to death in a 1986 Mob hit near Chicago and buried in an Indiana cornfield.
After coming out of Witness Protection, Cullotta moved back to Las Vegas and hosted a podcast and YouTube show.
Cullotta cohosted the YouTube show, Coffee With Cullotta, that has more than 20,000 subscribers. He also appeared in a multi-part podcast, Mobbed Up: The Fight for Las Vegas, produced by the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper in partnership with The Mob Museum.
Cullotta also cowrote The Rise and Fall of a ‘Casino’ Mobster and other books with true crime author Dennis N. Griffin.
Griffin told Casino.org he developed a cherished friendship with Cullotta.
“I believe his contribution as a government witness helped break the back of the Outfit’s control in Vegas and, in effect, altered the history of Sin City,” Griffin told Casino.org. “I’m going to miss him a lot.”
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