Mobbed Up: The Fight for Las Vegas

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Implosion | S1E11

by Las Vegas Review-Journal | The Mob Museum
July 28th 2020

"I'm probably the only guy standing right now." 

Decades after it was at the center of a federal racketeering case, the aging Stardust hotel-casino is imploded to make way for a new resort p... 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. So mhm my secret. Yeah, without further delay, please join me in welcoming Frank Kalata two. What you're hearing right now is an event held at the Mob Museum a few years ago. After he's introduced a then 77 year old, Frank Collado steps out onto the stage, smiles and cracks a joke about his criminal past, telling the audience, You're safe. Thank you, Thank you. Thank you for coming. You're safe. It's June 14th, 2016, 3 decades to the day since Tony Spilotro was murdered. And unlike most other mob turncoats, Frank Kalata isn't dead or in hiding. Frank, Welcome to the museum. I know you've been here before.

Couple. We appreciate you coming there. Frank is up on a stage in public, ready to tell the story of how he ended up working for the infamous Tony Spilotro starting at the very beginning when they met in Chicago. Well, everybody knows the story, but I'll give you a little brief rundown, and we were shining shoes on the street in Chicago called Grand Avenue. He was on one side of the street and I was on the other. I didn't know we were about 11 or 12. He spotted me and started screaming and ran over. We met that streetcars streetcar tracks. And he said that Who thought you could shine shoes on the street? And I looked up and I said, I don't see your name in the street Sign over their way Because if you're here next week or tomorrow, I'm gonna break your ad I saw here. So what's your name? And I call and I just really want to When she got power.

A lot of power. You don't care about the money in your mind 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. You 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 you 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 I 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. No part 11 implosion. Whatever you might think about Frank Kalata on a personal level, and trust me, we're not trying to erase his criminal past or ignore the very real pain that resulted from the crimes he committed. But whatever you think of him, one thing is clear. He was an effective witness when all was said and done. Frank Alatas testimony had contributed to four murder indictments in Illinois. Five burglary and armed robbery indictments in Nevada and 19 federal racketeering indictments. Those 28 cases resulted in 21 convictions, many involving members of the hole in the Wall gang or conspirators who worked with them. But it's safe to say Frank's effectiveness as a witness made him plenty of enemies and dangerous enemies at that. But even still, after he fulfilled his obligations to the government, he decided he would rather be at risk than continue to drive nondescript cars and wear blue jeans as soon as he had the chance.

At age 47 Frank left the witness protection program. It was very, very hard, very, very mentally, so I finally got out of there. After two years, I wrote a letter to the U. S. Marshal. I sent it to his P O box because that's all you're gonna get out of them. And I told him his name was Janet as Johnny as I'm leaving the program now I know you're in a You work with an investigative operation. You could locate me if you want, but I'm freezing of all your obligations. In other words, if I do anything wrong, you're not responsible. I said thank you. And I was in. I sent a letter to know that's all they needed when he got the letter. Didn't even better to look for me because I freed them. In other words, if I went and stuck up a giant, they can't say that their witness went wild. All right, that's all they want to do is protect their own ass. And so, have you been living under under your actual name Since then, I've had different names, had several different names. They changed them several things.

I'm actually under my name now. Mhm. And what is it like then? Living under your actual name after after living under these these other identities Sort of weird. Yeah, because you're so used to being called other name. You know where you lived and it's just different, you know. But now I'm getting used to my own name again. Write that down. Sometimes I go to right the wrong name down and so when you leave witness protection. It was that scary. I mean, there were a lot of people who wanted you dead, right? That's scary. You make your own bed. Do you think that you're lucky to still be alive? Of course. Lucky and smart, I guess. Half and half. OK, I can't say I'm was all being smart. Luck has a lot the daughter, and that's why I'm still alive. Mm. Here's Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV. Is Frank a lot of lucky to be alive? He might be. It also might be that he's pretty smart in a street smart way.

We're not expecting Frank Kalata, necessarily through, uh, recite Shakespeare to us. But I also happen to think that if I walked out the door of my house and he walked out the door of his house, his chances are better than mine. He knows something about how to survive. Even after leaving witness protection. Frank didn't go back to living out in the Open until pretty recently. Sure, he might have gone back to driving Cadillacs and wearing nice clothes, but he still made a point of being hard to find 1995 review Journal reporter Jeff Gorman, who was then writing for the Las Vegas Sun, became the first reporter to interview Frank since he left witness protection. I was able to get an interview with Kalata and and talk about his days and a little bit and what led to his going into federal protection. He talked a little bit about the murder of listener, but it was like like um, you know and Frank, I thought was very, very candid. He acknowledged that he was not a good person, right? He acknowledged brutally killing this man, and he said he was really trying to change his life and I kind of believed him.

And I think he did, because he he was helping the FBI long after he got out of still helping him long after he got out of protection for context. This was 13 years after Frank had first agreed to become a government witness. Also going on at this time, Frank was serving as a technical advisor and consultant on Martin Scorsese's film Casino, which tells the story of characters played by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, based on Tony Spilotro and Lefty Rosenthal in fact, Frank actually makes a brief appearance in the movie, and you're not going to believe this. But he plays a hitman based on himself. They were filming Casino, and they are showing this murder, this particular murder of listener there filming it. And Kalata was a consultant on the movie and said, No, no, no, that that's not how it happened. Well, what happened? And he starts explaining it and it hits Scorsese that Kalata did the murder. And ultimately, Scorsese says something like, You did the murder and Kalata says, Yeah. Do you have a Screen Actors Guild card? Yeah, So coladas in the movie doing it.

If you've seen the movie casino, then you've seen Frank Kalata reenact a murder that he actually committed in real life. I know it's a lot to take in. Here's Frank talking about his appearance in Casino at the Mob Museum. Well, the guy was holding the hand like this with the gun, you know, is that what kind of guys are walking around with a gun like that? These gangbangers do that. There's no accuracy like that. So, Marissa, how would you do it right? I should think all the gun and you shoot it. I said no special about her. Mm. Mhm. Do you think there are still people out there that want Frank? Dad, I do. Well, let me say this when I talked with Frank at length about that when we were first starting to do the book. This is true Crime Author Dennis Griffin, who co authored a biography with Frank in 2007 titled Kalata. The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas mobster and Government Witness. I told him I said, Frank, if it wants, the book is out. You're going to have to help with promotion.

You might have to do book signings in other ways before the mob Museum, but I said you might have to show up. You might have to talks libraries or whatever. You might have to be on the public. Are you okay with that? And Frank told me at that point that his main concern was he said, that most of the guys mob Guy said he worked with or four or dealt with were either dead or in prison. His concern was primarily if somebody wanted to like the old gun slinger movies, where the young up and comer wants to gun down the metering gunman to build a reputation that that was more is concerned than somebody actually knew it was that some up and comer wanting to get a reputation might be want to take him out? Well, I'm the guy that got Kalata as a historian. Uh, you know, I'm not as close to the individuals involved as you know, prosecutors and FBI agents and others are. So I can't say I fully understand the mob mindset, but frankly, I'm amazed by that decision by Kalata, and I am surprised that he never had any close calls.

This is my museum vice president of exhibits and programs, Jeff Schumacher. You would think because Chicago outfit still exists to this day, one might think that sometime between the mid nineties and 2019 that somebody would have tried to take a shot at Frank Kalata because of what damage he did to the outfit that has not happened. Mhm Mm. Since publishing that first book in 2000 and seven, Frank Kalata has co authored two more books with Dennis Griffin. The first of those, which was published in 2013 is titled Frank Kalata Hole in the Wall Gang In My Own Words. The second, published in 2017, is titled The Rise and Fall of a Casino Mobster. The Tony Spilotro Story Through a Hit Man's Eyes.

Books like this are rare. Frank is one of very few people who was deeply involved in organized crime in the Sarah lived to tell his story, is willing to tell it and has the legal protection to do so. He's now 81 years old and living under his real name in Las Vegas. You know, it almost felt like I never left. I like Vegas. I love Vegas. As a matter of fact, Frank is certainly not shy about appearing in public anymore, despite the risk it may pose to his life. I got a lot of action on YouTube. You know YouTube. He's spoken at public events. He does book signings. He runs a YOUTUBE channel and he even gives private tours up to seven days a week. How long have you been doing these tours? This is about four years, but I do another one. I don't do it personally when I get a percentage of, uh, It's a larger vehicle with videos in there. You know me. And he came back to Las Vegas and I don't want to call him a community celebrity, though he is, and I'm not criticizing him in any way when I say this.

But he got involved in doing tours and talks, and he's a historical source. He really is. He was here. He was part of this. Now any person telling these stories will occasionally give in to what you might call the vagaries of memory. I tell my story of my involvement. Do I embellish it? I don't think I'm embellishing it, but we might. I don't know that Frank a lot is embellishing anything. I do know this. I was doing a talk at the State Museum and it had to do with organized crime, and I do my spiel. And one time I did one, and the widow of a casino executive stood up and screamed at me for the things I supposedly said about her husband. We're taking questions and this guy raised his hand and stands up and he says, I'm Frank Kalata. This kid knows what he's talking about. I thought, Oh, thank God, I'm so glad you think I know what I'm talking about because I didn't want him thinking I didn't know what I was talking about in the same boat. It feels very good to let the people that are interested in organized crime know exactly what went on in my life and I tried to.

I do know I don't try. I tell the truth about everything that took place in my life and surrounding my life. There's no sense to exaggerate. There's no sense to exaggerate, and I go on. I tell all these history buffs what they think they know. I tell them what's right. So they become famous on my knowledge. It doesn't bother me about Are there any of the other guys from the hole in the Wall Gang or from your time in Vegas when Tony was still around? Aren't even still still around? Have you heard from them? No. We wouldn't contact each other. The only ones that are still alive from what I understand is Leo Guardino. He lives in Illinois. Wayne Mottaki still is an ally. Ernie D'Avino. I'm in a jail ministry right now. This is Ernie Duvenaud in an interview for a documentary titled Ernesto Attorney Davino. The Last Stand Up Guy, released about five years ago by Freebird Media. And when I go to that jail and I started out by telling those people that I'm not a priest, I'm not a minister, I'm just an ordinary guy like all of you.

And I've done a lot more time than I pray none of you ever have to do. And the words you start rolling out to these people to try to get away from their criminal ways, their addictions and other things that are keeping them in the county jail that may be on to prison. The piece that I feel and the overall goodness that I feel with that throughout, you know, my entire body when I do this is all the proof. I need to know that I'm doing the right thing. If people think that well, this is an act, well, what am I getting out of it? If it's an act, why did I do it? I had no reason to do any of this. The documentaries producer John Paxton Jr told me in an email that Ernie has never gotten the chance to confront Frank. He also told me, Quote, Frank bent the truth to serve him according to Ernie and I believe Barney to this day end quote. We reached out to Ernie Davino ourselves but didn't hear back.

I'd like to be remembered as a guy who made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of wrong turns in life, a lot of bad choices, a lot of poor choices of friends. And in the end, you come to realize his mistakes, regretted them as I do and found a better way in life through Christ and is able to be speak about it to others. Do you let them know that that it is the wrong way? It's not the right way. It's not for anyone to lead a criminal life to be a street guy. It's the real tough guy is the guy goes to work every day. He's still around. He's trying to be famous. Tell stories, write books. If you tell the truth, he could get a booked on. But he lies so much he tells too many different stories. Can't blame the guys trying to make a buck, but he's still around, and that's basically that's it. And me, everybody else is dead.

Yeah, Yeah. Mhm. Yeah. Mm mm. At the very beginning of this series, I posed the question. Was Las Vegas better off when the mob was running the show when casinos up and down the strip were mobbed up? It's a question that I asked a lot of the voices you've heard throughout this series, and now that we've established some more context, I want to share a few more of the answers I received. It's easy to be a nostalgic about what went on before, how the baseball players of thirties were better than baseball players today. Talk about the movies were better than than now. This, of course, is longtime Nevada senator and former Gaming Commission chairman Harry Reid. But Hindsight's 2020 and I believe that Nevada has now evolved into the premier gaming regulating authority in the world. That's bull. Of course, it wasn't better review Journal reporter Jeff Gorman.

It wasn't better in those days. That wasn't good, that the mob was skimming money from casinos, that they were out there on the streets, you know, involved in loan sharking that they were robbing places like Bertha's trying to rob places like Bertha's. That wasn't good. I mean, Las Vegas is far better off without the mob, and Las Vegas cleaned itself up. I mean, we became more corporate, right? Howard Hughes came in and he was the start of it. He bought a number of hotels or casinos, and eventually Las Vegas and and and the state's gaming regulation relations clean themselves up in Las Vegas is now a bona fide city and tourist attraction. All because of that. I mean, it's taken some time, but no, it wasn't better when the mob ran things. The mantra that Las Vegas is better when the mob ran it. I hear it all the time. Once again, this is Mom, Museum vice president of exhibits and programs Jeff Schumacher.

I think it is a reflection among longtime Las Vegas of a bygone era when Las Vegas was much smaller. Keep in mind the dramatic growth of Las Vegas over the decades, and a person who was here in the 19 fifties or the 19 sixties remembers a place that was so dramatically smaller than the city and the metropolis. We know today that it's like night and day They're very, very different places. This all raises the question. What about now? Is organized crime completely out of Vegas? And I get asked this a lot. Is organized crime still there in Vegas? Well, yes, it is. Former Review Journal reporter and columnist Jane and Morrison. Yeah, well, what has happened with organized crime is that it has become It's the Yakuza, the Japanese. It's the Russians. It's the Israelis. They're all kinds of crimes like that, where you're talking about technical crimes.

It's organized, you know, and it's big money, but it's not. It's not, uh, you know, the thuggish kind of crimes that we had back in the day. Jeff Schumacher also pointed to the drug trade and sex trafficking as examples of the kinds of organized crime that continue to plague modern day Las Vegas. But as far as traditional elements of organized crime, what we think of when we hear about the American mob or the American Mafia, well, that's pretty much been snuffed out. You just don't hear about the traditional mob here anymore. They may visit. Uh, they may spend time in the nightclubs here on the strip like they used to, uh, but they're certainly not skimming from the casinos, and they're not running any kind of major operations. In 1999 report released by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission concluded that the gaming industry in Nevada had been effectively sanitized that elements of organized crime were no longer pulling any strings at Vegas casinos, the commission's report states Quote.

All of the evidence presented to the commission indicates that effective state regulation, coupled with the takeover of much of the industry by public corporations, has eliminated organized crime from the direct ownership and operation of casinos. There's a lot of debate around which specific factors had the biggest impact in terms of getting the Las Vegas Strip out from under the thumb of the mob. There were, of course, watershed moments, like the skimming convictions that came out of the Strawman investigation or Frank Coladas decision to flip following the attempted burglary at Bertha's. But the mobs downfall in Vegas wasn't triggered by any one particular event. It was the result of a whole bunch of different factors, all coming together at the local, state and national levels. So the mob held sway on the Las Vegas Strip in particular from the late 19 forties to the early 19 eighties.

Let's sum it up that way. Uh, there was a great deal of mob involvement in the casinos, different casinos at different times. But the mob was pretty involved. But a couple of things happened along the way that started nudging the mob out of Las Vegas. First off increased state gaming regulation, namely the creation of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and the Nevada Gaming Commission. That was a big development. Another development that I feel strongly about is that the arrival of Howard Hughes in Las Vegas in 1966. It wasn't long after his arrival that the famously reclusive billionaire started buying up Las Vegas casinos. As the story goes, he was staying at the Desert Inn hotel, and because he didn't want to leave his room, he just bought the whole thing. And he didn't stop there. During his four year stint in Las Vegas, Howard Hughes would buy properties all over the state of Nevada, including a total of six casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

What he did, though, was in each case he bought a casino that had previously been controlled by the mob and what he was doing was he was showing corporate America that owning a casino in Las Vegas was something that can be done in a mainstream way that traditional mainstream people and organizations and corporations in America can be involved with this casino industry without suffering from the the taint of the mob that you could run a casino and run it cleanly and professionally, and it didn't have to have the mob involved. Now there's some dispute about well, how involved did the mob continued to be and he was his casinos. That can certainly be debated. But the public perception was Here is this world famous industrialist who's come to Las Vegas, and he's putting his imprint on the city, and he is not a mobster. He's above all that, and he is bringing in professionals to run these casinos.

And maybe we could do that, too. Howard Hughes didn't eliminate the mob from Las Vegas. In fact, for a little perspective, he died a couple years before Frank Kalata moved out to Vegas. But as Jeff argues, he opened the door for clean corporations to come in. Finally, the biggest blow to the mob nationally and to Las Vegas was the when the Fed started using the RICO Act. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which passed in the 19 seventies, allowed for individuals to be prosecuted as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Essentially, the government needed to prove that the enterprise existed and that the defendant was associated with it and had committed at least to racketeering activities on its behalf. Things like money laundering, embezzlement, kidnapping and murder. Pivotal mob prosecutions like the ones you've heard about on this series the Tropicana, Argent and Family Secrets trials wouldn't have been possible or wouldn't have been nearly as effective without the RICO act and, uh, allowed for a much more sweeping indictment of a particular mob operation.

And, uh, the RICO Act was devastating to traditional organized crime, particularly in the eighties and nineties. And this was also true in Las Vegas. These were mostly RICO cases that were brought because this is the best way to prosecute the mob. And so you had these. These different factors went into it, but really, by 1988 the mob was essentially out of the casino business in Las Vegas. Speaking from experience. If you go around asking different historians, when was it over for the mob in Vegas? What was the tipping point? You'll get a lot of different answers. What's the old saying? Success has a million fathers, and failure is an orphan. The success in driving out the mob has many fathers. Some experts would point to the strawman prosecutions some the murder of Tony Spilotro. Some might even point to the day Frank. A lotta flipped Frank himself told me that the hole in the Wall Gang bust at Bertha's on the fourth of July 1981 was the end of organized crime in Vegas. Point being, there's no single event or moment that definitively signaled the fall of the mob in Las Vegas.

It's very hard to pick one moment where you say organized crime in Las Vegas as we knew it is done. But I think the closest we can come is the Boyd Group taking over the Stardust on behalf of the state. This would have been 1983 the Boyd Group being the company today known as Boyd Gaming, which owns casinos across the state of Nevada and the United States. now, Does that mean organized crime went away, even from the casinos? No. And there may be ways they are involved now that we don't know. I think it's harder now for organized crime to be involved in the direct way that it was. It doesn't mean that street crime ended. It doesn't mean the mob didn't redirect its efforts. If you think about it. Organized crime really grew a lot during Prohibition, but then prohibition ended. There's no need for the illegal hooch, so they redirect. There's no reason to think organized crime didn't redirect, and I can think of ways it did or ways it probably did. But in terms of the Strip, I think if we had to pick a moment, that would be mine.

Yeah. On November 1st 2006, long after its mob days were over, the Stardust Hotel closed its doors for good. Just over four months later, on March 13th, 2007, the building was set to be imploded. Considering that the Stardust was once one of the mob's most lucrative properties, one of its steadiest streams of illegal skim money, the casinos implosion seems like an all too fitting parallel to the end of the mobs rain in Las Vegas. But that's where the symbolism ends. When the mob imploded when it lost its hold on the Las Vegas Strip, it never bounced back. Organized crime, or at least traditional organized crime, was effectively wiped out of the casinos for good. The demolition of the aging Stardust. On the other hand, it wasn't really an ending so much as it was a new beginning for the property. The building was being torn down to make way for an even bigger casino project. And after changing hands again in the years since, the site is now set to be home to the most expensive resort ever constructed in the United States. Most of these properties ended up being torn down and rebuilt in a very different form.

The dunes into the Bellagio, the hacienda, no Mandalay Bay and so on. Well, those hotels were nice but designed, in essence, to be hotels attached to casinos. The Tropicana is probably the last man standing in terms of the older casinos that were mob run the flamingo. None of the original survives. The Sahara was never mobbed up to the degree that places like the Tropicana originally was, and then was again in the seventies and early eighties. So a lot of it is gone. It lives on. We have the evidence that it was here, but don't go to the strip looking for it, because you're not going to see a lot of it. But you will see a lot of other fun things. The implosion of the Stardust and many of these other formerly mobbed up casinos was a promise that something bigger and depending who you ask better was around the corner. So with that in mind, we'll go out with a bang with audio of the startups implosion recorded by the Review journal in 2007.

No, no, no. Yeah, mhm. But actually, if you think back, I'm probably the only guy standing right now out of Chicago. And so one thing I've been curious about is do you see yourself? And maybe maybe you don't care about this, But do you see yourself as a good guy because you flipped a bad guy? Is that important to you at all? Yes, it is important to me. I know I wasn't a good guy. Then. I'm a religious gain. I believe it or not. And I think that has a lot to do with why I'm still surviving today. Yeah, I'm a very well. I always believed in God. I always does. Do I sit and pray every night? No, you don't have to.

As long as you're sorry for your sins, you will be forgiven. And you will go to this other place if there is another place. And yeah, I am sorry for all the things I've done. Yes. No. Mm hmm. This has been mobbed up a production of the Las Vegas Review Journal in partnership with the Mob Museum. To learn more about this series and to check out some of our other podcasts had over to review journal dot com backslash podcasts To learn more about the mob museum, visit the mob museum dot org Mopped up was reported and produced by me. Read Redmond. As always, you can reach me on Twitter at Red Raymond or by email at our Redmond dot review journal dot com. If you have any questions or any other mob stories you think might be worth digging into, let me know our audio editor and sound designer for this series is Jonathan McMichael, who also composed the theme song You've Heard at the beginning and Ending of each episode. Additional sound effects and music are from Motion Array and Stephen Arnold music.

The biography Kalata. The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas mobster and Government Witness, written by Denis Griffin and Frank Collado, served as a reference for this episode, thanks to the Oral History Research Center at the UNLV Library, special collections and archives for providing access to select clips used in this episode and, as noted throughout the series, thanks as well to Frank Kalata, Michael Green, Jeff Gorman, Dennis Griffin, Jeff Schumacher, Senator Harry Reid and Jane and Morrison for sharing their stories and insights on this episode. And most of all, thanks to each and every one of you for sticking with us throughout this entire series without you tuning in every week and telling your friends about the show, a series like this wouldn't be possible in the first place. So again, a sincere thank you that'll do it for us on this season finale. Be well and hope to see you again soon

Implosion | S1E11
Implosion | S1E11
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