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Hole in the Wall | S1E7

by Las Vegas Review-Journal | The Mob Museum
June 30th 2020

“This was the end of organized crime in Las Vegas.”

In 1978, mob-connected thief Frank Cullotta moves from Chicago to Las Vegas to work alongside his childhood friend, reputed Las Vegas mob ... More

a heads up before we get started. Mobbed up contains explicit content such as adult language and depictions of violence, including murder. Please be advised that this podcast might not be suitable for all audiences. Mhm. Yeah. Mm. This is Clay T White, and I am with Tim Harney in his office here in Las Vegas. It is June 12th, 2010. So how are you this morning? I'm fine. Clay T. Tim Hardy speaking. The interview you're hearing was conducted by Clay T. White, the director of the Oral History Research Center in the UNLV Library, special collections and archives. And as you just heard, she's sitting down with the Las Vegas resident named Tim Harney, who in the 19 seventies was living in the John S Park neighborhood of the city. It's a historic neighborhood that sits just north of the Las Vegas Strip. Tell me economically, what John is part was like in the seventies when you moved there. It was really pretty well off. Tim rattles off the names of a few of his old neighbors, the Binion family, the Max, the Boyds.

The stew packs all high profile names associated with the gaming industry names that are probably familiar to anyone listening who has been around Las Vegas for a while. All those people were living there. Put simply, there was a lot of money in the John s Park neighborhood in the 19 seventies. If you were in the business of stealing, that translated to plenty of targets. There was a very famous gang in town. I was called the hole in the Wall Gang. It was purportedly run by. And I think it was proven by Spilotro and ex cop and bunch of other criminals. And they were breaking into houses and they broken doors twice. A neighbor, they just the reason they call him the hole in the Wall Gang is if they If you locked out your doors and had your windows taped, that was what security used to be And put this tape, they will go right through the wall. They take a sledgehammer and just beat a hole right through the wall so they won't set off these window tapes and door tapes.

And virtually everyone there was being robbed. Mhm. Mhm. What? When she got power? A lot of power. You don't care about the money in the mine for the Las Vegas Review Journal in partnership with the Mob Museum. I'm read Redmond. He's one of you. You kill him. You're listening to mobbed up a true story about money. You're not supposed to have a profile like that, especially in Vegas crime. You want to be very quiet so you can steal the money. He always said If you pull a gun on somebody, you finish it. Because if you don't, it's going to come back to haunt you. And I have ever seen what's going on here and he's saying they're trying to kill me And I said he was trying to kill you and then shut up. And the fight for control of Las Vegas The FBI will continue to look to the future to use the latest and most sophisticated techniques to fight organized crime. The mom would have destroyed Las Vegas. The only question is not if, but when it would be destroyed.

I was there every day with these fellas. I had no idea that there was a mob and he once told somebody, There's bodies out there in the desert and there's more every day. But if there is one area where the word war is appropriate. It is in the fight against crime. When you grab them, you'll bring them to the desert. You're gonna know where the hole has been dug. Yeah, Part seven. Hole in the wall. Yeah, Throughout the 19 seventies, while Tony Spilotro was busy building a criminal empire in Las Vegas, his childhood friend Frank Kalata was back in Chicago, serving hard time. In the late sixties, Frank had been convicted on a handful of robbery and burglary charges, the most serious of them being a federal conviction for hijacking and interstate shipment of television sets. At Frank's sentencing hearing. In that case, according to a biography co written by Frank and Dennis Griffin, the judge stated, I am reluctant to say that somebody's business or profession is crime, but that is likely the case based on his prior performance.

Unless something drastic happens. I look at the prior employment record and there is no verifiable gainful employment. For example, I look at the prior criminal record and it is substantial. I wonder what it takes to persuade Frank John Kalata that the way he has lived in the past is not good for him, much less the community or society. Frank ended up serving about six years in prison before he was paroled in 1974. When he got out at 36 years old, the career burglar took a long, hard look at his life and decided he needed to make a change. Believe it or not, Frank says he was determined to be done with crime, and he tried his hand at legitimate business. Well, I owned a big nightclub in Chicago called Spanky's, and, uh, I was making a lot of money there, and I had no intentions of moving to Vegas, although Tony asked me several times Tony spots to I need you in Vegas. I need you to back me up, over. He's your you know, when I trust these, I got guys around me. He's when I need somebody I grew up with. Hey, could you come on?

I said, Yeah, but not right now. I should let me get rid of my place. I had a beef stand at the time, Then when I sold the beef, then I bought the nightclub. Frank insists that his business was legit and that he managed to go completely straight for a few years, his only slip up being one little tiny arson job on a competing disco that was being built a couple blocks away from his lounge. But other than that, he says, he stayed away from crime. He was committed, and he wanted to go and legit business. This is true crime author and Frank's eventual biographer, Denis Griffin, so he gave it a legitimate shot. I think he was very sincere when he wanted to go straight, and he, you know, wanted to, uh, I think for his mother's sake, too. He put her through a certain amount of grief, and I think he, uh, he had some regrets about that. But it just wasn't as he as he thought, and he finally said, The hell with it. He went back to the old ways. After a few years of running the lounge, Frank grew bored, so he sold off his interest in the club and went right back to his bread and butter stealing, all the while keeping in touch with his friend Tony out in Las Vegas.

And Tony ask me again, and I told him not not yet. Things kept on like this until one day in 1978 when Frank says he got a more, you know, convincing offer to join Tony out in Vegas, an offer that came from Chicago outfit figure Joey The Clown Lombardo again Not to be confused with Joe Lombardo, the current sheriff of Clark County, Nevada. I get a visit for about 67 months. After all these times, Tony asked me to come out. Believe this. 1978 Joe Lombardo was equal to Tony at the Times. First power because he comes into my lounge. I know Joe Royal Very well. Remember, I was connected to the Alpha, but I wasn't a boss. He reaches on his his congratulations. Is your moving to Vegas? Uh huh. I looked at him as I guess I'm moving to Vegas. Yeah. Mm. Frank Kalata packed up his life in Chicago and drove out to Nevada in 1978 to start working for his old friend Tony Spilotro.

By this time, Tony had established a far reaching network of loan sharks, freelance bookies and drug dealers. Frank's job was to make sure everyone was paying their taxes, kicking money back up to Tony into the outfit. According to Frank, Tony told him to put together a group of guys help out. He said, I need you to get some guys. He's like I said, I got guys with me but I want our guys from Chicago I said, Hi, Tony, But you got to earn these guys got to earn. I'll get you guys they ain't gonna work for Not and we don't give paychecks on. It's still they could still do anything they want. If I wanted to whack somebody, I'll give him the okay and then I'll get the okay from Chicago. It's okay, So that's when I formed a cruel guys. That crew, which would include burglars, arsonists and murderers, would eventually come to be known as the hole in the Wall Gang. Mhm.

I want to start off by saying that I'm not a gangster anymore. I don't use drugs anymore. I'm not a drug pusher anymore or alone Shock. I'm not a priest or a minister. Marnie Davino. I live in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. I thank Christ for my life for what it is now, and this is my story. This is Ernie D'Avino, one of the only other living members of the so called Hole in the Wall Gang. The audio you're hearing is from a documentary by Freebird Media titled Ernesto Ernie Davino, The Last Stand Up Guy. As you just heard him say, Ernie isn't the gangster he once was. But back in the late seventies, just like Frank Kalata, he was a career criminal. What I really thought when I got to Vegas was that I had arrived, that this was me, that this was a criminal town. I was a criminal and I'm here. This is it. This is what I am. This is who I am. And all of this is I thought I was in heaven. According to Ernie, the hole in the Wall Gang had already gotten started before Frank came to town.

He and another thief who would join Frank screw a guy named Leo Guardino. We're already working together in Vegas. Well, the original. What you would call the hole in the Wall Gang was Leo Guardino and myself. We started out together before Frank a lotta came Frank would later write in a 2014 memoir. Ernie was a short, muscular guy and I liked him. I've been taken. Ernie on some burglaries with me. He was a talented thief, and although he wasn't a killer, he was willing to use muscle. Frank Collado was they had done some time. It was definitely a street guy. There's no question about that. The only problem with Frank was Frank was for Frank, and that's it and no one else. He was always that way right from the start, and he was the one that actually brought Tony Spilotro into the picture, so to speak. Things changed for Ernie and Leo once they connected with Frank and started working for Tony Spilotro. Everything got easier and everything got better.

I could walk into a place and all of a sudden people are handing me money to handing me deals and and everything else and all the guys that I had on Shylock when now I didn't have to go hunt them down anymore. They were coming and bringing the money to make everything just sort of not was at the time. Yes, it was great, but all they were doing was leading me to further incrimination and further trouble with the law. But things did get as far as uh, my criminal activity. Things became much better when all of a sudden, now that I have affiliations with Tony Spilotro. Frank also brought in a guy named Wayne Mottaki, who used to work as a doorman at Frank's nightclub in Chicago and someone he met in prison. A convicted triple murderer named Larry Newman who had somehow managed to get out on parole after serving only 11 years of a more than 100 year sentence. But to tell you a story about to describe Larry Newman as a young man, he was.

He went to some club where they had gambling at that time in Chicago, and he had an argument with the cocktail waitress, and then a couple of the bouncers came over to throw them out. They roughed him up a little bit. He went home and got a shotgun and came back and killed all three of them. They really didn't care. That's the kind of guy Larry was right up to the end. A few other guys came in and out of the crew, but this was the core of the hole in the Wall Gang. Ernie Davino, Leo Guardino, Wayne Mottaki, Larry Newman and, of course, Frank Kalata. And when they weren't muscling bookies for Tony, you're taking care of problems in the outfits casinos. The crew was free to set up their own scores. They had to make a living, after all, and they had a network of tipsters and that the temperatures would provide lucrative targets for the game. This again is true crime author and Frank's eventual biographer, Denis Griffin, who told me these tipsters would offer Frank and his crew information on potential scores in exchange for a cut around 10% of whatever the crew came away with.

One example he gave me was that insurance agents would give the crew information on where valuables are being stored in their clients, homes or businesses. Once the crew had that information, it was just a matter of getting in so I could shut off alarm. So could Leo. They were just local alarms, Ace like it was simple. But some houses you couldn't walk to the to the alarm because they were right by the front door. And there's neighbors can see you going by the dark back then, people don't sit by the window like they do now, look out. So we started tapping the walls. I didn't. Leo, Leo and the other guys I saw they'd have to wall and Leo says, the only way we could go on and shoot a bag And I thought, Fucking pop, hole in the wall. Say pop all stuck. All these buildings are easy. They got a little screening in there. He just cut that out afterwards, go right into the master bedroom, usually in the rear house, and that sort of they keep their money hidden in the safes, in the floor, in the wall, they get it and leave.

Pretty soon, bashing holes in walls became the cruise trademark. That's how he got the name Hole in the Wall Gang the first time I met Frank, when his security guard drove us around Las Vegas. We didn't just stop by the former home of Jerry Lisner, the alleged con man he murdered in 1979 and told us about on part one of this series. Frank also show me some of the neighborhoods that the hole in the Wall Gang used to steal out of. We did a lot of burglaries in our when I first moved out. I was very plan of money in this area. After the break, Frank and the hole in the Wall Gang set their sights on a million dollar score, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, As Frank Kalata shows me some of the neighborhoods he used to burglarize with the hole in the Wall Gang.

It's astounding to me just how many houses he claims they hit. So how many of these houses did I rob? Well, let me put it like this. I may rob myself out there, maybe 10, but the guys that I was with that I ordered the rap albums or whatever. You know, they work for us. Let's say they missed the rap to 5300 almost once again. Here's true Crime author and Frank's biographer, Denis Griffin, and I asked Frank one time, Mr Frank, did you feel guilty? You know about the you know, these are innocent victims. I mean, they're just kinda cute public nieces. Not really, he said, because he said, don't forget, he said, the insurance agents, they also are the ones but have to handle the claims or get the report. He said. Most of these so called victims, he said. They claim stopped that We never talk. So he said, You know, there might be a little bit of large scene everyone's soul. As Frank and I drive through one of the neighborhoods he used to steal from, he takes a guess at just how much money he and his crew took out of it.

We must have stole a few million dollars at her easily a few million dollars out of just one neighborhood. It sounds like they're making pretty good money, especially considering this was over 40 years ago. But just like running a legitimate business, Frank told me there were plenty of costs associated with running an illegitimate one. You have to make sure everyone in the crew gets paid purchase equipment, hire specialists, payoff tipsters, cover legal fees and, of course, kicked back a percentage of any big scores to the outfit. Meanwhile, mounting pressure from the Las Vegas Metro Police and the FBI was making it more and more difficult to operate. In particular, law enforcement have been turning up the heat. On Frank's boss, Tony Spilotro, 1978 federal agents raided Tony's jewelry store and headquarters, the Gold Rush, ceasing thousands of items Lawrence filed in federal court after the raids included a 23 page list of items seized, including, as Gina Morrison would report in the Review Journal what appeared to be the store's entire stock of jewelry.

Once you have the search warrants being served, you know you're under investigation. A drawn out court battle followed the 1978 raids, and years later a federal magistrate would rule that most of the evidence taken that day had been seized illegally. But according to Tony Splatters, case agent with the FBI, Marc Casper, they did get something out of it knowledge because of the ongoing activities. Basically the wiretaps that we had and the investigation we had that became a just a a book of knowledge of what Tony was doing. And his activities continued on after these searches. Also, in 1978 state regulators struck another big blow when they banned Tony Spilotro from setting foot in a casino by adding his name to what is commonly referred to as the Black Book. Well, it was. It's officially known as the list of excluded persons, but I just had a black cover to it and That's why they called it the Black Book.

It wasn't really a book. In fact, this is Jeff Silver, a former member of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. They only had a few names in it. But these were people whose mere presence in a gaming establishment was deemed to be so antithetical to good, good, uh, regulatory control and the reputation of the industry that they had to be excluded. And they couldn't even step foot on the premises. Meanwhile, federal investigators were closely monitoring the activities of Tony and his associates around the clock. Here's our reporter, Jeff Gorman, and the feds just were, like I said, it was a night and day surveillance, and it got to the point where Spilotro stopped driving because he didn't want to get caught on a speeding get a traffic ticket for speeding. And so they were. They were just They were all over the place with Spilotro. In those days, everyone in Tony splatters circle seemed to be growing more and more paranoid. They were constantly spotting FBI agents following them, and, of course, there was always the looming possibility that someone within their circle might be feeding information to the government.

It's around this time, in October of 1979 that Frank carried out the murder you heard about in part one of this series, when he shot an alleged con man named Jerry Lisner to death. Because Jerry was rumored to be an FBI informant. Tony was very paranoid. He had an extreme amount of heat on them, and, uh, he knew there was a rat within. He's just the knoll, so he had a weed assault. One day, Tony asked Frank to come over to his brother's house, So I go over to Johnny's House. Johnny SPLA chose brother. He lived at the other under the street from Tony. So Tony says, we're going to go into Jacuzzi to bring a baby so I shouldn't tell me to bring up anytime soon. He said, Yeah, he said, Well, she's got one for you. Johnny's wife, she says. It's in the bathroom, so I go in the bathroom, taking my clothes. I'm gonna get the painting stuff. The door opens stony. What are you looking at? I'm standing there naked. He's done. He's I was wondering why it's taking so long. It didn't dawn on me at the time was checking to see if I had a wire on me.

Frank tells me that he had nothing to worry about, that he was to use his words very faithful and very honorable. So I put the bathing surround. We're going to Jacuzzi. Who's in there? Joe Blasco. Joe Blasco was an ex cop who was working with the hole in the Wall Gang. He'd been fired by Las Vegas Metro for feeding information to Tony Spilotro, Tony's brother Johnny and me. We start discussing all the shit that's going on, Frank says. Tony knew there was a rat in the group. He just didn't know who it was. He had everyone getting his brother's Jacuzzi because it was the only place he could be. Sure he wasn't being recorded. So after I get out, I laid a trap in the bathroom. Just see if they were going through my clothes. I sent him a certain way when I went into my clothes removed around. Sorry. I know Tony was right about one thing. There was a rat among his ranks, but it wasn't frank or anyone else who was in the Jacuzzi that night. As time went on and money grew tighter. One potential score always stuck with Frank in the back of his mind, a score he thought could net upwards of a million dollars, but one he deemed too risky When he first heard about it, it was a home furnishing store near downtown Las Vegas called Bertha's.

Now people would say, I'm furnishing. I got information on that score from somebody that was related to somebody there, that the lady never paid her taxes or she did a little bit. She hit a lot of money from the government. You know, Frank had taken a look at birth, as when you first got into Vegas, Game one of his associates, and they thought it might be a a loop IQ score, and they looked at over that they went in proposing the shoppers and I looked around in the store and stuff, and they thought it might be a good score, but they never did anything with it. There was just something They cased the place a little bit, but didn't make at that point make a plan to actually take it down. A few years later, in 1981 things had changed law enforcement was cracking down and there wasn't much money coming in. Frank and Tony, both our primary targets of law enforcement, both local and fed. So Frank's always getting busted and he's out on bail from discharge and that charge and discharge, and he's got a lot of money tied up in bail bonds.

The finances are starting to get pretty, uh, pretty thin, so he knows he needs a big score. So he comes back again with the idea of birthday. Frank and the Hole in the Wall Gang decided to hit Bertha's on the Fourth of July in 1981. Why Fourth of July? It's a busy time in Las Vegas. Everybody's on the strip. Maybe 300,000 people, 350,000 people. All metro is down there. Firecrackers, noise, everything. It was all working for us. July 4th 1981 was predictably hot. It was July in Las Vegas. After all, the hole in the Wall gang waited for the cover of nightfall to make its move. Here's how we're going to arrive This place Frank walks me through the night of the burglary as we're sitting in his SUV in an alley on the side of what is now a pretty nondescript jewelry store. As he's going through the plan step by step, I can picture a younger Frank 30 years prior, huddling up with his crew to run through assignments one last time, almost like a quarterback going over routes with his wide receivers before breaking to run a play.

We're going to go through the roof on top of the vault, laying on top of the ball, cut it open with 17 thanks and torches. We had the water to cool off the metal once one of the guys drops into a ball. The other two guys that were up there with him with Trow duffel bags down there so we could load everything up and they could load everything up in the bags and bring it up. How they were going to get out of the roof. You see the gangway there between the two buildings? You see that? We had a ladder put their 8 ft ladder, probably about a week, a couple days before we attempted the Robert arrived at Mhm. Yeah, that roof right next to it. That building I should say there was five FBI agents on that roof. We didn't know that or else we want to cover to the robbery. They were on this roof also, where it's the city impact and there's a gangway. As you can see, the gangway they went up on it. There's also another building there on that roof. That's right. The FBI in Las Vegas Metropolitan Police were watching from an adjacent rooftop, and so an informant tipped off the FBI and police to a burglary they were planning at Bertha's review, Journal reporter Jeff Gorman.

Breakfast was a well known gift store gift shop. It was high end gifts. They thought they could get about a million dollars in merchandise from this burglary. It was a big deal, but law enforcement knew about it. The FBI and Las Vegas Metro police had been tipped off about the burglary, the quote unquote rat and the hole in the Wall gang. The guy providing information to the feds turned out to be a thief named Sal Romano, a relative newcomer who had been going out on scores with the crew off and on in the months leading up to the Bertha's job. I didn't like sour amount I didn't trust them. A guy couldn't make eye contact something bad, something suspicious about this guy. As they say, Hindsight's always 2020 it turns out Frank, 100% right. Romano was in fact, a federal informant, so he had told the FBI what was coming down. The FBI and neutral intelligence working jointly mhm, have the place coverage. Thanks to Sal Romano, the FBI in Las Vegas, Metro had eyes on every single move the burglars made on the night of July 4th, 1981.

In the hours leading up to the would be burglary police records, state quote, Frank A. Lotta was observed in the immediate area of Bertha's and commercial center for approximately a two hour period, driving his 1981 Buick Riviera gray in color bearing in Illinois Plate, obviously conducting a counter surveillance, looking for police units. After that, law enforcement watched as members of Frank's crew drove up in a station wagon and parked behind a Chinese restaurant across the street from Bertha's. After they got out of the car, the record state, these persons were observed by surveilling units to unload equipment along with a ladder and proceed to the east side of Bertha's furniture store building near a doctor's office and gain access to the roof with some equipment from the next door rooftop. Metro officers and FBI agents then observed three of the men using electronic equipment and hand tools to cut a hole in the roof of Bertha's. A couple hours later, they watched as one of the men dropped in. As soon as these, that feds on the roof seen Leo dropping the whole.

Now they got a burglary, not an attempted burglary. Now they got a burglary. They could arrest them, and as soon as they broke in, they were able to take them down. They arrested six suspects, including Kalata. Stan Hunterson, a prosecutor with the organized Crime Strike Force in Las Vegas, was on standby that night in case the FBI needed anything. This looked like it was going to be really good takedown because they were all going to be in the same place. Our information look pretty reliable about it, and it worked out just fine. Looking back on that night and knowing what would come next, Frank A. Lotta told me this was the end of organized crime in Las Vegas on Part eight of Mobbed Up.

We head out to Kansas City, where the FBI is about to strike gold. This was not on the radar. It came out of the blue, you know. And then I'm saying, you know. Then, as I listened for the third time 1/4 time, I'm saying, Oh my goodness, this could be the one of the biggest things happen in the FBI organized crime programs. This is Ben, Part seven of Mobbed Up, a production of the Las Vegas Review Journal in partnership with the Mob Museum. Mopped up is reported and produced by me. Read Redmond. If you have any questions, or if you have any mob stories you want to share, I'd love to hear them. You can find me on Twitter at Red Redmond, or send an email to our Redmond at review journal dot com. Our sound designer and audio editor for this series is Jonathan McMichael, who also composed the theme song You're Hearing Right Now. Author sound effects and music are from Stephen Arnold music and motion array, thanks to Frank Kalata, Dennis Griffin, Jane and Morrison, Marc Casper, Jeff Silver, Jeff Chairman and Stan Hunterson for Sitting Down with Me for this episode.

Additional audio clips used in this episode come from the Oral History Research Center at the UNLV Library, special collections and Archives, as well as the Freebird media documentary Ernesto Ernie D'Avino, the last standup guide available in its entirety on Freebird Media's video page. To learn more about the Mob museum, make sure you head over to the mob museum dot org. You can learn more about mobbed up and check out some of the review journals. Other podcasts at review journal dot com Backslash podcasts Thanks, as always, for tuning in, and we'll be back with more next week.

Hole in the Wall | S1E7
Hole in the Wall | S1E7
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