The year was 1981. The location: Alias Smith & Jones restaurant on Twain Avenue on the east side of town, a popular watering hole since burned down in a suspicious fire.
I was on a first date with a young woman, sharing chicken fingers, when my companion gently nudged me in the ribs. She had a concerned look on her face.
“That man keeps staring at me,” she whispered, nodding towards a side table. “He’s making me uncomfortable.”
This was a subtle challenge to a guy on a first date. Should I reveal my inner machismo and quickly rise and confront the gawker and tell him to put his eyes back in his head? Or should I let her comment slide and profess to be non-violent?
When I eventually glanced over to see who was visually stalking her, I felt an instant chill. A short, stocky man with coal black eyes and dark hair was sure enough firing lasers at my date. When he saw me noticing he turned his gaze directly at me.
This wasn’t a glare you easily forget. The man in the booth across from us that night was none other than Anthony Spilotro, or as he was better known, “Tony the Ant.”
Spilotro was widely known as a mob lieutenant from Chicago who considered Las Vegas his own private playground in the 1970s and ‘80s. If there was a lucrative business operating anywhere in town, Tony and his pals wanted to partner up with it.
My late friend Ned Day, the most widely read newspaper columnist in Las Vegas back then, had the cajones to refer to Spilotro as a “fire hydrant who walks like a man.” I wasn’t nearly as brazen.
I had been told by an acquaintance that he was seated near Spilotro in Jubilation Nightclub a few years before when he saw a cocktail waitress spill a drink on the mobster. Tony called the woman the worst name you can call a female and demanded an apology. She declined, exclaiming that she apologized only to gentlemen.
Two days later, the waitress’ picture appeared in the morning paper as a missing person. Her body has never been found, and my source is convinced her death was caused by that spilled drink.
In the Martin Scorcese film Casino, Joe Pesci played a character named Nicky Santoro, closely based on Spilotro. In scenes that are not easy to forget, the Pesci character brutally murdered several people, in particular one poor sap whose head was put in a vise and squeezed until his eyes popped out. That was based on the actual murder of a fellow thug named James Miraglia.
It is estimated by FBI sources that Spilotro may have committed as many as 20 murders during his reign of terror in Las Vegas. But the killing stopped in June of 1986 when Tony and his younger brother Michael were tortured and buried alive in an Indiana cornfield.
It goes without saying that on that night in 1981 I didn’t valiantly rise up from our booth in the restaurant and get in Tony’s face. Nor did I tell my date until we were safely away from the restaurant that the man who found her so alluring was the Chicago syndicate’s main enforcer in Las Vegas. When I did fill her in, she asked if I thought she should move back to the Pacific Northwest.
There are several old-timers in Las Vegas who will tell you they miss the days when the guys with bent noses were running the town.
“The mob guys always knew their customers’ names in the showrooms and the casinos, and they passed out comps like breath mints,” my friend Arnie said recently. “Nowadays we’ve got a bunch of bland bean counters running these joints. You’re just a number when you walk into a casino. They don’t care who you are, just how much you lose on the tables or spend in the shops.”
While Arnie may have a valid point about the present-day stream of hotel operators being less colorful than the boys in the pinstriped suits, for my money I prefer the current breed. With Spilotro and his pal Lefty Rosenthal (Robert DeNiro in Casino) muscling their way around Las Vegas 40 years ago, there was no chance the city could ever grow beyond its profile as an eccentric Western getaway where gambling was legal and a guy with hot blood running through his veins could find an accommodating companion.
Has Las Vegas grown faster than I would have preferred? Is the crime rate too high? Are the schools too crowded? Obviously, the answer to those questions is “Yes.” But these current challenges, which we must constantly confront if we are ever to become a truly great American city, would never have presented themselves at all had we not cleaned up our main industry.
Only by driving out the Mob was the casino and gambling industry able to reach legitimacy and become a staple on Wall Street and an accepted form of entertainment across the country. Had the Ant, Lefty and their peers been able to operate unchecked, there is no doubt the Las Vegas that thrives today would have shriveled up like a human skull left rotting in a vise.