Vegas museum to link crime and law

After years of trying to forget Bugsy, Moe, Lefty, Tony the Ant and other mobsters who made their mark here, this city of casinos has decided to play them like a hand of aces.

It's betting $50 million.

Las Vegas is spending that much for a museum that will tell the story of the city's rise from a desert watering hole to glittering magnet for dreamers by focusing on what may have been the key — organized crime.

The old downtown federal courthouse and post office is to be transformed into the Las Vegas Museum of Law Enforcement and Organized Crime. Or, as locals call it, the Mob Museum.

It is appropriate, says Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, because the city owes much of its success to the "made" men and associates of organized crime. They built the first big casinos in the 1940s and helped steer development into the 1980s, when mob control gave way to corporate owners.

"If we didn't have the mob in our background, we'd be like El Paso with gambling," he says.

Goodman, 69, knows a thing or two about the subject. He served as defense lawyer for prominent mob figures including Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, an enforcer from Chicago whose bloody character was memorably reprised under another name by Joe Pesci in the 1995 film Casino.

Another client was Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, a sports handicapper who ran the Stardust and other properties when they were mob owned. Robert De Niro played the Rosenthal-based character in the same movie.

"Had I known who I was representing when I represented them," Goodman quips, "I would have charged them a lot more."

The mayor has been pushing for a museum devoted to the mob since winning election in 1999. The concept will incorporate law enforcement's side of the story and organized crime's development nationally, since so many crime families kept a finger in the Vegas pie.

The recently retired special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Las Vegas office, Ellen Knowlton, heads the board overseeing the project. She says the bureau and Justice Department in Washington have provided assistance, as have former police and agents.

"I wanted to make sure the FBI was accurately represented," she says. "I was not interested in any project that would glorify any criminal activity."

The museum's creative director, Dennis Barrie, also helped create the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. He says the project will tell a story about America.

"Why do a spy museum? Why do a rock museum? These are all part of our culture," Barrie says. "Certainly organized crime is, and has been, a part of our culture."

Even the building is appropriate, he says: Its courtroom hosted one of 14 Senate hearings into organized crime led by Tennessee Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver in the early 1950s.

Joe Yablonsky, a former chief of the FBI's Las Vegas office who retired in 1984, says he was concerned the exhibits would show wiseguys "in some sort of favorable light," but he is reassured by Knowlton's role. He says the heart of the story is that the mob operated in Las Vegas by skimming cash from casinos and sending it via bagmen to crime bosses in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Kansas City and other cities.

"I believe that the cases we developed during my tenure there may have put an end to the skim," says Yablonsky, 79, now living in Florida.

Much of the story of the mob in Vegas has been told in books and movies. Bugsy, the 1991 film, depicted Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, played by Warren Beatty, who built the Flamingo with the mob's capital, the first high-dollar attraction on the Strip. Six months after the over-budget project opened, Siegel was shot in his girlfriend's Beverly Hills home.

Former New York cop turned crime writer Dennis Griffin, author of The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob, says Vegas was an "open city" — no one family or organization controlled it. Cooperation was required, he says, because various families had a representative on the Teamsters union pension board, and its funds were a source of money for new developments.

"I don't consider it glorification. It's telling the facts, what it was like to work as a mobster," he says.

Crime is a proven attraction in Sin City.

Six nights a week, tourists fork over $56 or more for a ticket to a narrated bus ride called the Las Vegas Mob Tour. Visitors hear stories and see the house where much of Casino was filmed, a church built with mob money, the restaurant where Rosenthal's car was bombed.

Bobby Baltus, a tough-talking tour guide in pinstripes, says visitors eat it up.

"Let's face it, these guys built this town," he says. "If it wasn't for them, there probably wouldn't be a Las Vegas."

And, he says, "where else in America could a mobster's lawyer become the town's mayor?"