The recent death of Lefty Rosenthal has one former private eye remembering the bad old days. A memoir.
Thu, Dec 4, 2008 (midnight)
It was 1975, and Larry Gandy and I were scraping mold off last week’s sandwiches and pennies off the sidewalk, another way of saying we were private investigators. Those days it was a tough line. Paydays came about as often as rain in the Mojave. We survived one case away from eviction every day we unlocked the office. We’d formed a three-way partnership on a handshake and operated under “Long John’s” state license as L.J. Heenan and Associates. Our agreement: Proceeds were to be split three ways. Larry and I had compiled a history of sporadic turmoil that dated back to the ice ages. Either of us would have taken a hacksaw to a penny to make a score come out even. On the other hand, Long John, a likable, easygoing six-foot-three-inch package of angles, was less forthcoming with his end.
We caught him once beating us on a score. Had it been someone else—well, Larry was crazy then, and those were the days I would trade a kiss on a doorstep for a fight in a parking lot. I snatched Long John’s smokes out of his shirt pocket, and we seated him in the office chair. (We had only one.) Long John had health problems, compounded by the fact that he was a heavy smoker—pipe, cigarettes, anything that held tobacco. His hands shook involuntarily, and he suffered occasional coughing bouts. As Larry and I stood on either side, he stuttered and pleaded innocence, then shook and coughed until it seemed he might die on us. We weren’t actually mad at him, just wanted to make a point. We certainly didn’t want him dead. Our survival, pathetic as it was, depended on his license, and he needed to be alive to keep it in force. So after 10 minutes of listening to lame denials and coughing spasms, I handed back his cigarettes and Larry told him to pony up whatever he felt he could.
Larry and I kept the doors open mostly by chasing bail-skippers. We once worked a case with “Two Gun” Tommy Ponder and “Pappy” Ralph Thorson, who, in his heyday, made Dawg the Bounty Hunter seem like a stuffed toy playing at being a chaser. (Pappy Ralph was the subject of a book that became the movie Hunter, starring Steve McQueen.) For those who don’t understand that seedy world, chasing is a breeze once you’ve kicked in the right door, found the right bail-skipper, hooked him or her up and departed without the local cops chasing you for kidnapping. We pulled 12-hour stakeouts that often led nowhere, lived off of coffee and scrambled eggs or doughnuts and catnapped sitting up. The work week was seven days that seemed like nine or 10, and no one wanted to film you in action or turn you into a celebrity or even fork out 82 cents for rights to your autobiography. Add to this that the bondsmen we chased bail for tried to screw us every possible way, and you can see an average workday wasn’t something we anxiously hopped out of bed to face. What I’m saying is it wasn’t easy.
The profession is grossly misportrayed in film, not just because it lacks glamour, but also because beautiful women never step in the office and hand you baffling cases. In fact, in all those hardscrabble months, we worked only one case that was a mystery, and we didn’t see it that way at the time.
By fall of ’75 when the case came our way, we were about bled out from swilling coffee, munching doughnuts and holding bail-skippers for ransom at an undisclosed location while the bondsman who contracted us tried to renegotiate his end of the bargain. After 10 months of bondsmen low-balling us, attorneys stiffing us and ourselves living off five hours of sleep a night, we had a mind to close the doors, and would have, save for the fact we had no alternative but to keep plugging away.
What we needed even more than sleep was a decent payday. We had a pile of accounts receivable mostly owed by attorneys (a few still in practice, so I’ll avoid names) who couldn’t get around to putting their John Henries on a check. We’d spun out on a couple of cases, had hired out to Pug Pearson (a onetime poker champ) to follow his wife whom he suspected of cheating. On the third day of the stakeout, we tailed her and their child to Willow Beach on the Colorado River, where the wife rendezvoused with an ex-con lover. We called Pug from the pay phone outside the restaurant, and he arrived an hour later, armed and with some sidekick. We pointed out the room. He asked in a down-home drawl if either Larry or I had a pistol on us that wasn’t traceable. Larry said taking part in murder wasn’t included in the service. We left him in a red-faced rage as he and his friend approached a motel room near the river bank. To our relief, he didn’t kill her, but when we tried collecting for our services, he ducked the bill. Three days’ work, no money. We knew the tune well.
Enter Bob Nolan, a welcome paycheck but hardly a femme fatale.
Before Bob became a City Councilman, he was a North Las Vegas P.D. detective. We knew him from our days as cops, Larry with the Las Vegas P.D. and myself with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. Those were the Lamb years. Ralph, with a five-point gold star that said Sheriff, ran the county; Darwin held down the political tag team on the County Commission; and Floyd pulled his weight hard-fisting legislation through the State Senate. One set of good ol’ boys ran Southern Nevada; another did likewise in Reno and Carson City. And the mob ran the Strip. Connections meant everything; things got accomplished based on who you knew. It hasn’t changed. The circle of connections is just wider now and finally includes a few good ol’ gals. For the most part, policy when it came to the “boys” was hands-off. Cops knew who the front men were and how they got their positions in the casinos. They also knew the brass wanted no waves. After all, election campaigns cost money, and the Strip was a money machine. But this isn’t about the Lambs or even politics. Like too many lame Hollywood films set in Vegas, this is about private detectives and the mob.
That particular day Larry called and said we had case, a stakeout, and asked if I could get us a room at the Hilton, one facing east. He said to keep it on the QT, that he’d meet me there and fill in the details. I drove to the Hilton and paged Gene Desel, Chief of Security, who arranged a room on the fifth floor, at casino rate. He and I had been deputies together. As I said, who you knew got things done. Larry met me in the room. With him was Bob.
We set up shop at the window using binoculars with a built-in camera, state-of-the-art in those days. Our target was the very house on the golf course Martin Scorsese used in the film Casino. Lefty Rosenthal’s pad. Our job—to record all traffic coming and leaving, or anything suspicious. The paymaster behind the operation? Allen Glick, Argent president, titular owner of the Stardust, Fremont and Marina casinos. But why hire a P.I. to do the work? It seemed odd, even then, the front man spying on the bag man. Surely Glick knew that Lefty’s purpose in the scheme of things was to call the shots behind the scenes and keep the skim going.
The client wanted license plates of every car that parked at Lefty’s and those that cruised by, anything that seemed peculiar. Of course, what seemed peculiar was our being there on the fifth floor spying on a mob bag man. Alternating 12-hour shifts, we sat at the window eating room-service meals and spying on Lefty, hoping against hope we’d witness some major event—if not a murder, at least a domestic squabble. We photographed visitors (including Oscar Goodman) and kept meticulous records of what we saw, and when the assignment came to an unremarkable end three days later, Larry took the log to the office and wrote a report. Then we forgot about it, because we needed the next payday.
Following that, as before, we worked for slow-paying attorneys, chased bail-skippers for bondsmen determined to shortchange us and turned a dollar where we could, a few paydays coming from some pretty seedy people. In mid-1976 we shut the office doors with about $6,000 in accounts that were uncollectible. Long John took full-time work at the federal public defender’s office. Larry went into real estate. I tried insurance for a time and played tennis every day, then went into dealing cards and roulette and continued playing tennis every day.
I’d put the incident aside, and then in the early ’80s I got call from an FBI agent who asked if he and his partner could come by my townhouse and have a chat. A chat? I couldn’t imagine why the FBI was interested in me. About the worst crime I was guilty of was double faulting on match point. I asked what it was about. He wouldn’t say. Any cop or former cop with half a brain knows not to talk with the FBI in a private place. “Carrows by Palace Station,” I said.
Picking out two FBI agents in a chain restaurant is about as difficult as spotting a buffalo grazing on a putting green. I stepped up and identified myself. Of course, they already knew who I was, because they had my picture in hand. We sat in the corner and ordered coffee. One advised me of my rights. I flashed on all my recent criminal activity—perhaps making a bad line call in a tennis match or leaving too measly a tip after eating out. Nothing came to mind. Still, when a federal cop pops the Fifth Amendment in your face, you have to take it seriously. I didn’t laugh.
One asked if I recalled conducting a surveillance on Lefty Rosenthal’s house. I had no idea where the question was going. I admitted I had.
“Why were you watching him?”
We played the semantic game for a time. Neither of them found me amusing, and they were less than entertaining. The questioning went on.
“Did you give the surveillance report to anyone?”
I told him I never saw the final report.
“Do you know who might have given it to someone?”
“We can’t say.”
“Oh, that who. No.” By then I’d figured who, and it wasn’t Glick.
“No idea who might have?”
“We worked with Bob Nolan. Ask him.”
“You didn’t give it to anyone? You’re sure?”
I’d been screwed over a few times as a cop. I’d learned from those experiences that citizens have more rights than cops. Not power, but rights. I exercised mine, said I’d done nothing illegal and had no idea about what happened with any reports. Then I explained that I’d given up the game some time ago, and if they wanted to play cops and robbers, they could find someone else to play it with. I paid for the coffee, mine, not theirs, and left.
Larry and I don’t agree over how much money we were paid. Larry says $1,000 or more apiece and expenses; I say about $500. Whatever, it was money, and it was well-needed. Back then all we could do was be thankful for the hand up Bob offered and speculate about what was really behind our watching Lefty’s house. We thought for a time that it involved Lefty’s wife, the one who had the affair with Anthony Spilotro.
If you live long enough, the inexplicable—perhaps even a 33-year-old mystery—might just spin itself into something that makes sense. The other day I opened the local section of the paper, and three decades after the meeting with the FBI, the surveillance Glick paid us to conduct, Lefty’s never drawing a day in jail and even the capture of the “Hole in the Wall” gang at Bertha’s furniture and jewelry store in 1981 finally fit in a neat package. The stakeout had nothing to do with any affair. Tony “The Ant” Spilotro was behind it, had put Glick up to having Lefty (he hated to be called that) watched. He wanted to know if the basketball fixer was a snitch. I suspect that the FBI, in a raid on the Gold Strike, Spilotro’s business, or the Stardust, where he kept a safety deposit box, came upon the report. What the feds were after that day at Carrows was to find out whether Lefty, their snitch, had been compromised. If so, who was responsible? I should have connected the dots long before, but unless Lefty’s name came up in conversation or Larry and I got together and reminisced about those days of penny-scraping, I never gave a thought to him or why he was never indicted.
The rest is history. The mob no longer calls the shots in Vegas. Casino corporations now fill that void. Lefty survived a bomb blast at Tony Roma’s while getting in his car and retired to Florida, a wealthy thief and a rat. Tony the Ant was beaten and buried still alive in a cornfield in Indiana. Both mobbies are dead now, as is Bob Nolan. Larry got into real-estate appraising. I teach English at a two-year college, and while I don’t have to scrape pennies off a sidewalk these days, I’m not vacationing in the Bahamas, either. Casino, which portrayed Lefty as a gambling guru and stand-up guy, neither of which he was, added millions to Scorsese’s coffers and further bloated the already bloated myths of the mob in Vegas.
I heard or read somewhere that Lefty coached Robert De Niro in playing his part. If that’s fact, it proves that even in retirement the narcissistic snitch couldn’t surrender his self-aggrandizing ways. Those who lived here in the mob’s heyday and knew the players saw through the chimera of the Lefty character in the film. What kind of movie would it have been if the truth about him had been revealed? Who then would have played the character? Or would it have been a different film, one about a private eye eating a moldy sandwich and wondering when the next case would bring him some coin—a comedy starring, say, Jim Carrey?