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The lucrative and violent years of Las Vegas mobster Tony Spilotro’s infamous Hole in the Wall gang

By Gary Jenkins for Gangsters Inc.

“They were motion detectors, but we weren’t too concerned about that, I could have shut off the alarm, but there was too much traffic in front of the building, so I just figured we’d just go through the roof.” - Frank Cullotta

In this second installment, I write about the Hole in the Wall gang’s early history as they stole, drank, gambled and ate pizza in Las Vegas. During this time the Chicago Outfit and three other Midwestern families manipulated the Teamsters Union pension fund to loan money to a man named Allen Glick. He purchased the Stardust, the Hacienda, the Fremont and the Marina. Frank Balistrieri, boss of the Milwaukee family, ordered Glick to promote a Stardust employee named Frank Rosenthal to a position of authority in his corporation.

In 1971, Chicago Outfit boss Joseph “Joey Doves” Aiuppa ordered Tony Spilotro to move to Las Vegas in support of their interests. Aiuppa’s actions replaced an aging Chicago Outfit member named Marshal Caifano who had been Chicago’s man in Vegas. Spilotro opened a gift shop in Circus Circus under his often-used alias, Anthony Stuart. The Circus Circus owner, Jay Sarno, had received a 43-million-dollar Teamster’s loan and would not question this new gift shop operator.

Black Book

The Nevada Gaming Control Board will learn about Tony Spilotro’s Outfit connections, and they placed him in the Black Book of banned persons. Despite this setback, Tony Spilotro lived a charmed life. For example, he invested $70,000.00 in the Circus Circus gift shop, and he sells it for $700,000.00. Spilotro’s charmed life in Las Vegas attracted the attention of law enforcement. With all this attention Spilotro used other people to pass messages back and forth between himself and Stardust casino manager Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. They avoided any overt contact because the FBI was now working closely with Las Vegas Metro Police Intelligence and Nevada Gaming Control. They all watched for any evidence of Chicago Outfit connections to casinos by the later 1970s. Frank Cullotta was not known to Vegas authorities when Spilotro brought him out to Las Vegas to be the underboss of Spilotro’s Outfit crew in Las Vegas.

Frank Cullotta said, “Them casinos, you know we could do anything we wanted in them, you know shows, getting people jobs in them casinos, we didn’t just put anybody to work in them, you know people that were related to people, everything was favors.”

Big Scores

During this time, Spilotro needed to make money so he will recruit men to commit big-time scores, like jewelry stores, banks or fur boutiques. He opened a jewelry store called The Gold Rush Limited just off the strip at 228 West Sahara, and the Gold Rush became his headquarters and a focus of FBI attention. By this time in his life, Tony Spilotro considered himself the Outfit boss of Las Vegas and law enforcement did not disagree. Spilotro was not a boss in Chicago because we know Chicago Outfit boss Joey Aiuppa assigned him to work under and report to “Lumpy” or Joseph Lombardo. Spilotro recruited Frank Cullotta (right) who will recruit other Chicago burglars to join his crew. Between Spilotro and Cullotta, they put together the burglary team that the press and law enforcement name The Hole in the Wall Gang.

One of the men Frank Cullotta recruited was a career criminal named Ernie Davino. Unlike the others, Ernie Davino was not from Chicago. He was a New Jersey mobster who migrated to Las Vegas on his own. Ernie was the son of Ernest “Tubby” Davino, a leg breaker and enforcer for New York mobster Albert Anastasia in the 1950s. Ernie Davino later claimed that he and a man named Leo Guardino started the Hole in the Wall Gang and eventually fell in with Frank Cullotta and Tony Spilotro. I think Ernie Davino and Frank Cullotta both wanted to be the alpha male of the gang, but Frank’s connection to Tony Spilotro gave him the upper hand. No matter who started this gang, it is undisputed that by the end, this was Tony Spilotro’s gang and Frank Cullotta was the gang’s leader.

Frank recruited a Chicago thief named Wayne Matecki. He was a good candidate because he had no criminal record and never moved to Las Vegas, so he was unknown to local cops. Anytime Frank lined up a score, Mateki would fly into town and leave immediately from an airport in California or Arizona. Frank tested Mateki early on by having him hide inside a Las Vegas store after closing. Mateki gathered up fur coats and other expensive items and piled them close to the front door. Frank drove up to the front door, and Mateki broke out with his arms full of fur coats and stoles. They filled the car and drove off minutes after the alarm sounded. Once Frank saw that Mateki had the heart to do a job, he became an integral part of the team. 

Ernie Davino’s friend, Leo Guardino was a Chicago burglar. After a lifetime in and out of jail, he struggled to earn a legitimate living. Frank Cullotta described Leo Guardino as a Chicago career criminal who was trying to go legit when he joined the Hole in the Wall Gang. I speculate that Guardino thought Cullotta and Spilotro’s scores would be lucrative and might become his last big scores so that he could retire from the life.  Ernie Davino, who was very close to Leo Guardino, once said, “I think Leo wanted out, but Frank and Tony kept him in and took advantage of him.”

Spilotro recruited the disgraced former Las Vegas Metro cop named Joe Blasko into the gang. He was valuable in counter-surveillance and monitoring police scanners during jobs. Frank did not like the idea of working with this former cop, but Tony Spilotro told Cullotta he must use Blasko on scores so that he could make some money.  Davino said, “Joe Blasko was a great big guy, and I never minded that he used to be a cop.” The crew had divided opinions on working with this ex-cop. Davino remembered, “He was very helpful on jobs with his ability to spot cops.” 

Stone Killer

One of the most unusual members of the Hole in the Wall Gang was a guy named Larry Newman. He was 6’- 4“ and 250 lbs. When Frank first met him, he was serving time for a triple murder. In 1956 Larry Newman became angry at a Chicago bartender. He left and returned with a shotgun killing the bartender, a waitress and a newsboy who stumbled into the tavern. He served 11 years of a life sentence.  

Frank Cullotta remembered, “I first met Larry Newman in Statesville penitentiary, we both worked in the same department, in the ward for the criminally insane, he was a strange guy, a Jewish lad, his IQ was 169, he was a very bright man, but he was a very dangerous man too.”

Frank recognized Larry Newman as the kind of guy he could use because the guy was capable of doing anything Frank asked, up to and including murder. Larry Newman was not the usual Outfit associate. He did not grow up with other gang members nor did he have any relatives that were known to the other gang members. Newman had Frank’s trust because of their time in prison together. Larry Newman was a child of a wealthy Chicago family and had enough monthly income from a trust fund that allowed him freedom from work, but he chose to become a criminal. 

Hole in the Wall gang successes

During these years when the Hole in the Wall Gang was doing high-end commercial burglaries, Larry Newman continued his murderous ways. In an eerily similar crime to his first known murder, Newman became angry with another bartender.  A Henry County Illinois man named Ron Scharff ran a joint in suburban Chicago, and he ejected Newman’s former girlfriend. She called Larry and mentioned this incident. He became enraged and talked about going back and killing this guy. Frank Cullotta learned of this threat and told Newman to forget about it. But Newman being “Larry Newman” flew back to Chicago and murdered Ron Scharff and his waitress anyway. Exactly like the previous killing without the newsboy walking in on the murder.  Ron Scharff’s son, Paul Scharff wrote a book, Murder in McHenry on this incident.

Paul Scharff learned that Larry Newman killed his father from Frank Cullotta and Denny Griffin’s first book, Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness. Paul said, “Remember, Larry Newman had a huge trust fund and did not have to kill and hurt people, he loved doing this stuff.”

To demonstrate just how dangerous Newman was, Frank set up a score on Chicago jewelry store owner named Bob Brown. He put Wayne Mateki and Larry Newman together and gave them the description and address of Bob Brown’s store. Frank thought there would be as much as $100,000 in jewelry in the store. Frank warned them, “This guy is connected, so keep your mouths shut.”  What they did not know was that Bob Brown was close to the Outfit’s man on the inside of the Teamsters Union. Allen Dorfman. He warned them that above all else, do not tell Spilotro because Dorfman was very close to Spilotro’s Chicago boss, Joe Lombardo. When Newman and Mateki returned, Newman told Frank that he killed the jeweler. Mateki related to Cullotta that they ambushed the man inside his store after closing. Before they left, Newman grabbed a machete off the wall and hacked him to death. Newman claimed he wanted to avoid any chance the guy could ever identify them because it might be a death sentence. He told Frank he hacked him up to make it look like a crazy man committed this murder. I guess Newman learned something working in the Statesville penitentiary ward of the criminally insane.   

Frank’s main crew were three men he knew from Chicago, Larry Newman, Wayne Mateki and Leo Guardino, the ex-cop Joe Blasko, and Ernie Davino from New Jersey. To be a trusted member of this gang, everybody had to have somebody who wanted them in and vouched for them. Tony Spilotro had a long history with Frank Cullotta. Tony had known Joe Blasko since he was a dirty cop who fed him information. The old Chicago Outfit burglar Leo Guardino vouched for Ernie Davino.  Frank had served time with Larry Newman and committed other crimes with Wayne Mateki. This little gang had all the bases covered, Leo Guardino and Ernie Davino specialized in the physical act of breaking into buildings. Larry Neumann and Wayne Matecki were capable of anything, including armed robbery and murder. Joe Blasko was an expert in counter-surveillance and could use his cop connections to get information like license plate registrations and addresses. The gang will take on one more man to add some electronic expertise to their kit of tools. A long time and well-known Chicago burglar and electronics expert named Sal Romano completed the Hole in the Wall crew just before they were to hit Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings. Frank Cullotta will later claim that Ernie Davino invited Sal Romano to burglarize Bertha’s. 

A Gentleman Burglar

Sal will eventually reveal that a part-time gang member and Chicago thief named Peter Basile vouched for him. Since Sal was a long time Chicago Outfit burglar, it is more likely that a Chicago member vouched for Romano. Frank would later claim, “I had a terrible gut feeling about this guy, Sal Romano not being a good guy.” 

Sal Romano was a gentleman burglar. Years later in court, Sal told a story about Outfit member Paul Shiro sending him and a crew to do a burglary. This job was down in Phoenix, and after he made entry, a small dog started barking and raising a ruckus. Romano backed out and took his crew with him. When he returned to face Shiro who asked him why he didn’t just kill the dog to which Romano quietly replied, “I don’t do dogs.” 

During these years Frank opened a pizza place and claimed he was the first person to introduce Chicago deep dish style pizza in Las Vegas. Law enforcement will locate Upper Crust Pizza, and the adjoining My Place lounge at 4110 S. Maryland Parkway and focus a lot of attention. This is now the Pioneer Plaza, a small strip mall. Cullotta tells a funny story about finding an F.B.I. camera and microphone hidden in the ceiling of this place. He gave it to Spilotro’s attorney Oscar Goodman who made the feds produce a letter certifying they had court authorization to install this device. Most mob fans have seen the famous picture of Cullotta, Spilotro and most of this gang sitting at a sidewalk table in front of the Upper Crust. They look like Tony Soprano and his crew out in front of Satriale's Pork Store. Cullotta once said, “I asked Tony about buying this place (Upper Crust), and he said, “yeah I’m game, so we put together $65,000 doing burglaries in three nights.”

The Night Cops Killed Frankie Blue

A tragic story started at the sidewalk table at the Upper Crust, and it became known as, “the night the cops killed Frankie Blue.” Frank Bluestein or Frankie Blue was a young guy whose father, Charles Bluestein was an Outfit associate involved in the Culinary Workers Union in Vegas. Frankie Blue moved to Las Vegas worked as a maître d’ at the Hacienda Hotel & Casino. Remember, this was an Outfit controlled casino that was part of the four casinos that Lefty Rosenthal managed for Allen Glick. 

Ernie Davino told about their life in Las Vegas and this time, “We were comped for everything we wanted at the Stardust. Frank Cullotta, he got married at the Stardust. The Upper Crust is where we hung out. This is where the schemers met us with tips on jobs where the money, jewelry or drugs was and then come back and got their cut out of the job. The bar next door was My Place, Tony Spilotro’s favorite bar. We all felt safe there, this was our joint.”

Las Vegas Metro Intelligence detective were conducting stationary and moving surveillance on the Spilotro crew.  On the evening of June 9, 1980, two of Kent Clifford’s Intelligence Unit members, Detective David Groover and Sergeant Gene Smith were conducting another routine surveillance of the Tony Spilotro gang. On that night as they were camped outside the Upper Crust pizza parlor and the adjoining My Place bar, located at Flamingo Road and Maryland Parkway. One of the officers, Detective David Groover, would later remember, “We put in a lot of long, tedious hours watching those guys. But in that kind of work things could change very quickly, and that night they did.”

Frank remembers that former Chicago resident Frankie Bluestein came into the Upper Crust driving a late model Lincoln with Illinois tags. He knew Frankie Blue and that he was about ½ a wise guy but not a real criminal. Frank, Tony, and some others were sitting in front, when Frankie Blue parked in front, went inside and ordered a pizza. He came back out to chat with them while he waited.

Frank Cullotta remembers, “The guy comes up to the joint and we say hello to him, I say, Frankie, what the fuck you still got Illinois plates on that car, he said I haven’t had time to get rid of them. I said well if I was you, I’d get rid of them, you’re driving a big Lincoln and these cops, anybody that drives a car like yours from Illinois, in their eyes you are a gangster. Frankie Blue laughed and said that might be good because somebody was following him, and he thought they were trying to set him up for a robbery. The guy also volunteered that he wasn’t afraid because he had a gun. Then the guy got his pizza and left.”

Las Vegas Metro Intelligence Sergeant Gene Smith remembers he and his partner Detective David Groover saw an unknown guy talking with Tony Spilotro and Frank Cullotta and other members of the gang. They watched as he drove away in a 1979 Lincoln Town Car with Illinois tags. They wanted to identify him, so they followed a short distance until the guy started driving at a high rate of speed and swerving in and out of traffic. The officers threw a Kojak light on the roof of their car and pulled up behind the Lincoln.  Suddenly, the Lincoln pulled over, and the driver jumped out. Both officers exited their undercover vehicle drew their weapons. Sergeant Smith saw a gun in the driver’s hand, fired immediately and killed Frankie Blue instantly.

Kill Some Cops

The reaction of Spilotro was tremendous. Tony Spliotro asked Frank Cullotta to hire a couple of black guys to come to town and kill some cops. He wanted this to look like a race problem as revenge against Las Vegas Metro Intelligence but not bring heat down on the Outfit. Intelligence Unit Commander Kent Clifford learned that Spilotro had put a hit out on his cops. During this time, somebody fired a shotgun into the side of one of the cop’s homes and another person fired a shotgun into Spilotro’s home. Commander Kent Clifford took drastic action to stop the escalation of hostilities.

Commander Kent Clifford remembers, “After two of my men had shot the Bluestein kid, tensions were high, so that’s when I went to Chicago and talked to them. I went to 5 of the mob bosses’ homes early in the morning. After the first one, none of the rest was home. After that, I went to Dorfman’s office and told him to tell them that if they kill my men, I will return to Chicago with 40 men and kill everyone I find around those five houses.”  Commander Clifford claims he received a phone call later that afternoon advising him that his men were safe in the future.

I would imagine that Aiuppa and the rest of the bosses were wondering what the hell Tony Spilotro was doing out in Las Vegas. Drawing attention like that can endanger the skim. While many speculate Spilotro fell into disfavor because of a supposed affair with Lefty Rosenthal’s wife, Jeri, this is not the kind of activity that ordinarily gets an Outfit man killed. The Chicago Outfit bosses will more likely criticize any member for bringing heat that threatens any income, for earning illegal income and not sharing with the bosses, for informing or for stealing money from the bosses, not necessarily in that order. Spilotro brought unnecessary heat which threatened the skimming operation and supposedly was not sharing his burglary income.    

In the third and final installment, I describe the night of the burglary of Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings. The Hole in the Wall Gang was doing good scores and making money. Ernie Davino said, “Once I got connected to Spilotro, people started throwing money at me.”  The gang felt safe at their joint, the Upper Crust Pizza and My Place lounge. They are treated like rock stars and get comped at the Stardust. They have connections all over Vegas. They are the only mob in Vegas. What can go wrong?

Frank Cullotta provided much of the material for this series on the Hole in the Wall Gang. You can find Frank and take his mob tour of Las Vegas by clicking here to go to Trip Advisor or call Frank directly at
+1 702-622-0850. He also can be reached at fcullotta@yahoo.com

About the author:

Gary Jenkins retired from the Kansas City Police Department in 1996 after a 25-year career. Gary attended the UMKC School of Law and graduated in 2000. He was admitted to the Missouri Bar, and he continues to practice law today. He is a Board member of the Kansas City Police Pension System and The Jackson County Historical Society. During the past ten years, Gary produced three documentary films. The first two were Negroes To Hire: Slave Life in Antebellum Missouri and Freedom Seekers: Stories From the Western Underground Railroad.

Gangland Wire is Gary's third documentary film. During Gary's KCPD career, he was assigned to the KCPD Intelligence Unit, investigating organized crime. In the 1970s, a grassroots development in the City Market area became known as the River Quay.  A Mafia dispute over parking rights and strip clubs would destroy the area. The resulting investigation will allow F.B.I. Agents to convict La Cosa Nostra leaders in Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Filmmaker Gary Jenkins takes the viewer on an insider’s journey into the heart of the Kansas City crime family, using excerpts from wiretaps and interviews with participants. 

Additionally, Gary created a Smartphone app titled Kansas City Mob Tour. This app utilizing maps, text, photos, and video conducts the user on a tour of famous Kansas City mob sites.

Gary produces and co-hosts a podcast titled Gangland Wire Crime Stories. Using the audio podcast format, Gary tells true crime stories from his experience and obtains guests who have either committed crimes, investigated crimes or reported on criminals.  

Gary's most recent project is his book documenting the investigation into Las Vegas skimming activities. Gary uses actual wiretap transcripts to tell the story of this investigation. The book is titled Leaving Vegas: The True Story of How the F.B.I. Wiretaps Ended Mob ...

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