Any of us who have lived in Las Vegas for any stretch of time get asked frequently about the Mob. The questions shoot out like water from the Super Squirter my kids used to use at the pool.
1. Does the Mob still run Las Vegas?
2. Was the town better when the Mob ran it?
3. Have you met any real members of organized crime?
My own answers to these questions would be, in order, 1. No; 2. Yes and No; 3. Yes, several.
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Through the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the Nevada Gaming Control Board was going through the growing pains that any large enforcement organization experiences. The general mission of the NGCB was to keep all elements of the gaming world on the up and up. That meant keeping careful tabs on gamblers, monitoring the flow of money into and out of casinos and doing whatever was necessary to keep nefarious characters from having positions of authority in gaming companies.
Obviously, there were huge leaks in this reservoir of responsibility. It has been documented in countless books and movies and through criminal investigations that skimming by the Mob was rampant in those earlier decades. The marijuana kingpin Jimmy Chagra used to store footlockers of cash in the casino cage at Caesars Palace before he and his brother Lee hit the tables.
“Count it down and we’ll settle up when I’m done,” he would say.
There was more laundering going on through those cages than was done by Western Linen, the company that cleaned the sheets for most of the Strip hotels.
The Stardust skimming scandal, which formed the undercurrents of the movie “Casino” came to an end around 1980, when Chicago mob elements were driven from town and the management of the casino was turned over to the Boyd Gaming operation. Earlier scandals at the Tropicana, Hacienda, and Marina hotels were also coming to an end.
Many of the men who run publicly traded gaming companies in Las Vegas today come from elite business schools, use proper grammar and diction, and avoid pin-striped suits and pinky rings.
As to whether the town was better when “the Mob ran it,” that notion is ridiculous on its face. However, the personal touches that existed then, in a much smaller Las Vegas, are sorely missed today. I knew all the maître ‘d’s in the showrooms in the ‘70s, and there was a bond with locals that is rarely seen today. We operated on a first-name basis. Naturally, that has evaporated with our climb to a population of nearly 2.5 million. Yes, I miss that friendly smaller town feel.
As to the final question: I lived for the better part of two decades on a street called Michillinda Lane, in what is now the east side of town but was considered central back then. There were two made Mafia members living on our street, both of whom are either still in prison or ate their last meal there. They no longer write or call.
Not coincidentally, half the homes on our block were burglarized, and not just for cash and loose jewelry. After a targeted home was surveilled and the owner was seen leaving his or her carport, the boys would pull a moving truck up and steal most of the furniture and appliances. They could empty a house in 20 minutes. Bekins Van Lines should be as efficient.
I think because the Boys knew I was a freelance writer and therefore devoid of any valuable possessions, they never burglarized me. I also learned that the kid who delivered my newspaper was the only son of one of these thugs, so I made sure to give him healthy tips whenever I saw him. I wrote it off as homeowners’ insurance.
I have also interviewed several guys with lengthy criminal records who had strong connections to organized crime. They tend to be far more interesting conversationalists than an entertainer interested only in promoting his most recent movie or hit record.
Two men who were to be put to death the following day in Carson City elected to make one of their final phone calls to me. They knew that sending their ultimate denials or admissions of guilt through a writer would reach far more people than anyone else. I had interviewed both of them before, and I guess we had formed a strange bond. I enjoy hearing confessions; maybe that’s the failed Catholic priest in me.
P.S.: I just realized as I dated this column that it’s being published on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Let’s call it a twisted homage to Honest Abe.