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The demise of Chicago mobster Tony Spilotro’s Hole in the Wall gang

By Gary Jenkins for Gangsters Inc.

Chicago mobster Anthony Spilotro had it made. He was sent to Las Vegas to oversee the Mafia’s operations there and was treated as a king. He also had a very lucrative side hustle going as the leader of his Hole in the Wall gang. But things were quickly taking a turn for the worse, in this third and final installment on Tony Spilotro and his crew the reader will learn how Spilotro’s den of thieves met its demise.

“Bertha’s? This was the greatest night of my FBI career.” - FBI Agent Emmett Michaels

By 1981, Spilotro knew he was in for a series of legal challenges. He was facing a RICO indictment for conspiracy to skim money from Las Vegas casinos. He knew the government had dedicated many resources toward him. He knew his Chicago Outfit bosses, Joey Aiuppa, Jackie Cerone and Angelo LaPietra were all facing these same charges. He needed money and a lot of it. Oscar Goodman, his Las Vegas lawyer, did not work cheap, plus if he went away to prison for a long stretch, he must provide for his family.

Las Vegas Metro partners with the FBI

Las Vegas Metro Intelligence Commander Kent Clifford and FBI agent Emmett Michaels focused on the Spilotro burglary crew for several reasons. First because of the bad publicity from the Frankie Bluestein killing, second because of the threats against Metro Intelligence officers, Sgt. Gene Smith and Det. David Groover of Metro and thirdly because of Commander Clifford’s trip to Chicago. They needed a win. The FBI and Las Vegas Metro formed a working relationship with the specific intent to bring down Spilotro and his crew.

Because of the former Sheriff, Ralph Lamb, and his corrupt Intelligence Unit detectives, the FBI had been hiding what they are doing from local law enforcement. In 1981, David Helfry, the USA Attorney in Kansas City, and his staff were working with FBI Agent Bill Ouseley and agents in Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas to put together the skimming cases. They called many parties into a grand jury trying to get somebody to turn and explain how the skimming worked. Even though Metro Intelligence cleaned up its act, the FBI is still distrustful and vice versa. Since much of the FBI information is coming from a Federal Grand Jury, they cannot share that intelligence with the local cops. The FBI had a Top Echelon Informant (Lefty Rosenthal, pictured below next to Spilotro) in Las Vegas, and they cannot share this information. During this time a couple of Chicago agents turn a guy who will make all the difference. Resultingly, the FBI required a lot of local cooperation to pull off what they believe will be the blow that brings down Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall Gang.

When the government decides to take down a crew and forms a partnership with the local cops, the target does not have a chance.  By this time, the Spilotro task force was very familiar with all the usual Hole in the Wall Gang hangouts. Unless there is a specific operation going, the Intelligence guys merely drove around watching the known spots like clubs, casinos, apartments or homes to see who their targets meet, they may follow the unknown parties to identify them and any other businesses they go into or to see what other connections they make. Many people think this is a waste of time and the officers themselves may not realize or understand exactly what they observe during this kind of surveillance. In his case, they were finding Tony Spilotro meeting with Frank Cullotta, Ernie Davino, Larry Newman, Wayne Mateki, Leo Guardino and Joe Blasko quite a lot. They knew these were all career criminals and had done high-end burglaries or robberies in the past. From their observations, they knew these men all socialized together. The cops suspected they might be the famous Hole in the Wall Gang, but they were unable to catch them in the act. 

The Big Score

In the Spring of 1981, Frank and his crew started planning their most ambitious job to date, Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings located just west of Sarah on Maryland Parkway, 896 E Sahara Ave. The surveillance officers started seeing a new guy they identified as Sal Romano hanging out with the gang. The surveillance officers did not have to research this new player because they knew something about Romano. Chicago cops had popped Sal at Chicago’s O’Hare airfield with some stolen furs. They turned him over to the F.B.I, and they turned him into an operative. They even set him up in an apartment in Las Vegas with a fake girlfriend (undercover FBI agent) who was supposed to be an airline attendant to explain why Cullotta and the others rarely saw her. The Bureau wired up this apartment for sound and video. Sal worked to get crew members over to his new place and talk about their jobs. Sal later testified he was recruited into the gang because he had electronic skills to deal with sophisticated burglar alarms.  

Frank Cullotta (right) claims that two Chicago cops came to see him at the Upper Crust. He believes the corrupt Chicago police commander William Hanhardt sent these officers. Frank said these guys told him that they grabbed Sal Romano with a load of stolen furs at O’Hare airport. They turned the case over to the Feds because it involved interstate transportation. Later, they checked on the progress of this case and found no record of the arrest.  Frank said he thanked them, offered to get them casino show or meal “comps” and they refused. Frank said the cops didn’t want anything; they just thought they should tell him about Romano. Frank said he went to Spilotro with this information and Tony brushed it off, telling Frank to put the guy with Larry Newman during the burglary and if Romano “did anything funny” have Newman kill Romano. Frank remembered that in retrospect, he did notice that when he went to Romano’s new apartment, it looked like a set or that the occupants had placed the toiletries, furniture, clothes and kitchen items, so it just appeared that Romano lived there with his new girlfriend. He noticed that whenever he engaged her in conversation, she was nervous and refused to look him in the eye.

Despite Frank’s information, Tony insisted Romano stay with the score. Frank said that Tony probably had a plan to kill Romano after the score was over. He never thought that Sal was actively helping law enforcement and figured the worst-case scenario would be that he would become a cooperating witness after the score was taken down. Tony and Frank did not know that the Feds and Metro Intelligence were all over Romano and he was briefing them about the gang’s plans and activities. Tony and Frank chose the 4th of July weekend to give them more time because Bertha Ragland closed the store an extra day, and the fireworks would cover any noise. As a bonus, the cops would be busy on the strip and in the residential areas that weekend.

The fateful night arrives. It is July 4, 1981. Like the profitable 1957 burglary Frank and Tony did back in Chicago, a long weekend. Frank was crazy with suspicion over Sal Romano. The tension ran high in the burglary crew. The burglars’ eyes flash around checking review mirrors for tails.    

The cops and agents drove by Bertha’s on their last moving surveillance close to the target and established assignments to fixed positions surrounding Bertha’s. They alerted the FBI surveillance plane so the pilot would circle overhead. FBI Agents and Metro officers formed into 2-man teams for the moving surveillance in a loose perimeter around Bertha’s. Agent Michaels and Commander Clifford set up a command post in a nearby building. They issued instructions that all moving surveillance crews will maintain a respectable distance and to not alert any of the suspects. They assign each two-person team to a gang member to monitor and report when they see any movement toward the target. Once they report gang members to driving in the direction of Bertha’s, the commanders notified surveillance to back off and wait. The moving surveillance teams know the Hole in the Wall Gang members will meet at Bertha’s. The command post assigns a ground crew to hide behind air conditioners on other buildings, inside a couple of empty storefronts and to watch from a nearby bank roof. Once the FBI rooftop surveillance observes Ernie Davino, Leo Guardino and Wayne Mateki walking in the vicinity, the moving surveillance officers moved in closer and parked. The airplane circled and reported the ground movements. Joe Blasko had provided each of the burglars with 2-way radios. He is sitting outside in a van with police monitors. Soon, one of the rooftop crews reported that they see men on Bertha’s roof. The surveillance officers tensed, their heart rate and breathing became more rapid.

Sal Romano tried to lay back and radioed Frank that his car is in a nearby parking lot and the battery is dead. Frank responded and pushed Sal’s car a short distance away and ordered him to ride with Larry Newman. Sal slipped away during this time. 

Once the rooftop lookout saw the men on the roof drop inside, they notified the command post. Agent Dennis Arnoldy remembered he saw some dark figures drop out of sight on the roof. In the command post, Agent Michaels and Commander Clifford waited a short time to let them start moving stuff around and setting up to open the safe. The officers must find evidence that the burglars move property inside the target business to upgrade a trespass charge to burglary. Burglary to most people is the forcible entry into a building; the officer must show an intention to steal to complete the elements of a commercial burglary. Several agents are assigned to follow the burglars inside Bertha’s. The mobile crews know the car descriptions of Larry Newman and Frank Cullotta.

“Cops were all over the place”

Upon orders from the Command Post, the Surveillance crews move in. They secured the outside of the store with officers stationed at each store exit and window to prevent escape. Agents entered with some uniformed officers. Davino and Guardino quickly gave up. Ernie Davino said, “Me and Leo got inside the place, and we never saw anybody and the next thing we know cops were all over the place.” Mobile crews stopped and arrested Blasko, Newman, and Mateki with no drama. Frank Cullotta made his arrest into a short car chase, and he later claimed he wanted to get into a well-lit populated area because he was afraid the cops would kill him out of revenge over the Spilotro response to the killing of Frankie Blue. As they transported the crew to jail, the agents and officers casually mentioned that somebody got away. These men were seasoned criminals, and they immediately suspicioned that Sal had set them up for the FBI.

Most mob fans have seen the famous photo (below) taken of the entire crew, except Tony Spilotro. They are all standing in front of a jail door and what I noticed was that Frank was standing off to the side with a disgusted look. He tried to tell Spilotro. I can only imagine what he was thinking.

The Purge

Over the next few days, Tony Spilotro pays bail to get his team out of jail. Then the purge started. Tony ordered Frank to kill Sal Romano. Frank applied a little reasoning to this plan when he asked, “How we gonna do this Tony, the guy is in witness protection, he’ll be surrounded by agents?” Tony replied, “I know a guy that can poison his food.” Frank said, “Yeah but, where is he?”

Spilotro’s irrational behavior scared Frank Cullotta because he talked about killing every member of the crew at one time or another. FBI agents approached Frank with a tape from a Chicago wiretap. They played this tape, and he heard a voice telling Tony Spilotro that he must clean his dirty laundry. From that tape, Frank believed that he would be on the hit list. Agent Dennis Arnoldy convinced Frank to become a government witness. Frank once said, “I had 37 friends killed by the Outfit and did not want to be number 38.” Over the next few years, Frank Cullotta testified at numerous Chicago Outfit trials. He proved to be invaluable in many ongoing Outfit investigations.

With Cullotta’s testimony and the physical evidence, Larry Newman and Wayne Mateki were convicted un the machete murder of the Chicago jeweler Bob Brown. McHenry County authorities never charged Newman for killing bar owner Ron Scharff. Newman died in prison. I guess that Wayne Mateki is dead.  Leo Guardino will be convicted, and I believe he is deceased. Ernie Davino was a standup guy to the end. He was convicted and sentenced to many years. He testified for Tony Spilotro trying to refute the testimony of Sal Romano. He testified that nobody planned these burglaries and Spilotro was not part of the Hole in the Wall Gang. The jury returned a not guilty for Spilotro in that trial. During his time in prison, Davino will find redemption in a rosary. He said, “I noticed this rosary on my bunk when I first arrived, and I asked this kid if it was his and he said no it must be yours. “Ernie said he could not quit thinking about this rosary and one day he started praying the rosary prayer. At that, Ernie Davino, career criminal developed faith in a higher power and worked in a prison ministry after release. He is living back in New Jersey.

Sal Romano testified in many Outfit trials, and the last one was the Family Secrets trial in 2007. I believe he is deceased. In the 2007 Family Secrets trial, Nick Calabrese testifies that Chicago Outfit boss Joey Aiuppa ordered him and a team out to Las Vegas to kill Tony Spilotro. They had a plan that involved using explosives and automatic weapons. The hit team abandoned that plan, and a scheme was hatched to lure Tony Spilotro and his brother Michael to a meeting in a Bensenville Illinois house with the promise of a mob promotion for Tony and that Michael would become a "made" member of the Outfit.

Calabrese testified he and around ten other outfit killers, including James LaPietra, John Fecarotta, John DiFronzo, Sam Carlisi, Louie "The Mooch" Eboli, James Marcello, Louis Marino, Joseph Ferriola, and Ernest "Rocky" Infelice were waiting as the two brothers entered the basement. Calabrese said he tackled Michael Spilotro and held his legs while another mobster strangled him with a rope. He said he heard Tony Spilotro ask his executioners, "Can I say a prayer?" There was no reply.

An Indiana farmer will find the decomposed beaten and bloodied bodies of the Spilotro brothers a few weeks later in a shallow grave in his cornfield.

For a decade, the men of Spilotro’s Vegas-based Hole in the Wall Gang ruled in Las Vegas and cut a swath of high-end burglaries and thefts throughout the Southwest. They had money, women, drugs and all the action they could handle. By 1982, their string of luck ran out, and the only gang members who grew old are Ernie Davino who found God and Frank Cullotta who found Hollywood.

Also read:

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.

For further reading I suggest the below books:

Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness by Dennis Griffin and Frank Cullotta

The Hole in the Wall Gang by Frank Cullotta and Dennis Griffin

The Rise And Fall Of A 'Casino' Mobster: The Tony Spilotro Story Through A Hitman's Eyes by Frank Cullotta and Dennis Griffin.

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 FBI 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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