Former private investigator turned true crime biographer Dennis N Griffin chronicles the life of notorious Chicago hitman Frank Cullotta in this irresistible read. The author gives readers an impartial view of the mobster's life that's compelling at every turn without glorifying the horrors of Cullotta's atrocities. Yet as Griffin recounts six-decades of career criminality, it's hard not to feel that the subject is a victim of his own sad circumstances. From the childhood abuse at the hands of his father, which spawned a life of crime, to cleaning up his act by becoming an FBI informant, Frank Cullotta ultimately comes full circle. Whether or not you are a fan of gangster biographies, it's not hard to appreciate Griffin's craft.
Frank Cullotta was, and some would say, still is, a particularly dangerous man. The career criminal is described by Dennis N Griffin, in his biography of Cullotta, as a “thief, arsonist and killer from Chicago” who “arrived in Vegas to take charge of the mob’s street crimes”. Set over a period of 60 years, Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness charts the Chicago gangster’s early childhood, at the hands of an abusive father, who Cullotta “idolised” for his success as a getaway driver, as well as his move to Las Vegas and consequent role in bringing down some of Las Vegas’ and Chicago’s most dangerous criminals.
It soon becomes apparent when reading Griffin’s biography that the author has presented a particular non-biased view of the mobster. Cullotta is a name which could strike fear into the hearts of most illegal bookmakers and small-time criminals in both Las Vegas and Chicago, but Griffin attempts to steer clear of such glamorisation. While the writer does refer to Cullotta as “an accomplished criminal in his own right”, Griffin makes clear at the beginning of the biography that the book:
is by no means an attempt to make excuses for Frank’s conduct. He did what he did, he is what he is.
It’s highly unlikely that this straight-from-the-shoulder account of his career as a criminal will
make him a candidate for sainthood.
Throughout Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness, it’s clear that Cullotta preferred to be guided by forces outside of the “Outfit”, a crime syndicate based in Chicago. From his early realisation that by holding up taverns, he could earn much more than he would from working at his uncle’s newspaper stand, Griffin’s biography depicts how this life changing decision lead him on a decades-long crime spree, which ended when he “rolled” and became an informer for the FBI. It’s in Las Vegas where Cullotta reaches the peak of his crime career, as the right-hand man to Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. Having struck up an unlikely friendship as boys, when they competed for spots on the street for their respective shoe shining businesses, Frank arrived in Vegas at the invitation of Spilotro from 1979. While Spilotro was in charge of “skimming” profits from casinos in order to fund the Outfit, Cullotta acted as his aide, confidant and henchman. However, the latter description suggests that Cullotta had only a marginal role in the mob control of Vegas, when in actual fact, as Nicholas Pileggi points out, Cullotta was a central figure. Pileggi interviewed Cullotta for his book, which would become the Martin Scorsese film Casino and informs readers that:
Cullotta had been either a participant in or an observer of most of the book’s important events. He
either set up or committed robberies and murders. He was often the third person in the room during
domestic disputes between Spilotro, Rosenthal (Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal – a Las Vegas casino
executive who oversaw the Outfit’s casinos), and Rosenthal’s wife, with whom Spilotro was having an
Spilotro’s period in Las Vegas was a notably violent one: As Griffin suggests, “in Tony’s first three years in Vegas, more gangland-style murders were committed there than in the previous 25 years combined” and it wasn’t long until Spilotro’s lust for power and urge for violence turned on Cullotta. Following pressure from the FBI and Spilotro’s requests for “contracts” (essentially, death warrants) to be put out on certain mob associates, without clearing permission with the Outfit, Cullotta began to realise that Spilotro wanted him dead in order to clear his own name with the mob. It was when, on April 30th, 1982, that the FBI informed him the Outfit had issued a “contract” for Cullotta that he decided to cooperate with the authorities and become a government witness. As Griffin makes clear, in order to secure the safety of his family, Cullotta had no choice but to become an informant. While doing the “right thing” proved difficult, Cullotta brought to justice criminals such as his old colleague, Larry Neumann. Griffin records a tense meeting between the two former associates:
When Frank was escorted into court for one of his appearances against Neumann, he had to walk past
the holding cell that held the defendant.
”Turn your back,” one of Frank’s escorts told Neumann.
”Fuck you, you cocksuckers! I know who you’ve got there!” Neumann yelled.
As Frank passed by the cell, Neumann didn’t say anything to him directly, but their eyes met for a
moment. Frank’s impression was that his former friend couldn’t believe what he was doing to him. It
was a very uncomfortable few seconds.
Such moments are a constant theme in Griffin’s book, as it darts from an elaborate robbery to a particularly grim murder. Yet, for those who can stomach it, Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness is a must. Few crime authors have such intimate access to key figures such as Cullotta, so savour Griffin’s book while you can: Other than meeting the man himself, there’s really no other way to gain such intimate knowledge of one of Vegas’ most dangerous and interesting criminals.