By Danny Axelrod
Mystery and true-crime author Dennis N. Griffin wants you to know that if it weren’t for the government, there might never have been any Lefty Rosenthal or Tony Spilotro for him to write about or for Martin Scorsese to make a movie about.
From his consulting on the Vegas Mob Tour by bus here in town, to the speaking engagements he conducts showing scenes from the film Casino and setting the record straight, Griffin wants you to know the real story about the mob in Vegas.
He is the author of The Battle for Las Vegas, and more recently the co-author of Cullotta, the story of Tony Spilotro’s right-hand man-turned-government witness. He is also the author of numerous works of fiction. We sat down with Griffin in the perfect place to discuss all things criminally moribund, the bookstore Cheesecake and Crime, on Eastern in Henderson. The bookshelves are lined up like a murderers’ row, and the cheesecake is to die for.
Talk a little about your journey from a New York State Health Investigator to a Las Vegas true-crime expert.
After I retired in ’94, we moved out here. I decided that the last case I had done, an investigation of the medical examiner’s office in upstate New York, was so bizarre that I felt the story needed to be told. I had this crazy idea in the middle of a football game one Sunday afternoon, during the second half of a 12-pack, that I was going to write a book. I started the book that would eventually become The Morgue, a fictionalized account of those events. I started getting positive feedback on the book, so I said, “Well, let me try another one.” I did another one loosely based on something I had been involved with back in New York. When I finally got my third book out I said, “I better write something about Las Vegas.” I did a book called Killer in Pair-a-Dice, and then I did a follow-up with the same female homicide detectives, One-Armed Bandit. I am three quarters of the way done with the third one, Vegas Vixen.
… I was at a writer’s conference in Orlando, and I was talking to this writer, and she wondered if, with my background, had I ever considered nonfiction. I did some research and realized no one had ever done a history of [Las Vegas] Metro. I wrote a book called Policing Las Vegas. In the book, I knew there had to be a section on the mob in Vegas, but I didn’t know what to write. I asked one of the intelligence officers what I should write about and he said, “How about Tony Spilotro?” I asked, “Who’s Tony Spilotro?,” and he said, “Did you ever see Casino? Joe Pesci’s character was based on Tony Spilotro.” I had thought that that was just a Hollywood fictionalization of the mob. I started researching Spilotro. I became hooked on that story. I wondered if I could get enough information to do a book on Spilotro. Turns out the timing was just right: Most of the police and FBI agents involved in the case had just reached the 20-year mark and had retired, and they could now talk publicly about it. Through that book, I was put in touch with Spilotro’s lieutenant, Frank Cullotta, who turned government witness back in ’82, and together we co-authored his biography, which came out last July.
What are some aspects or details in the Cullotta book that either weren’t represented, or weren’t represented accurately, in the film Casino?
He told me one thing he disagreed with is that the F-word was used in the movie around 422 times. Frank told Scorsese and [screenwriter Nicholas] Pileggi that Tony could be a gentleman, though he cursed at times when it was appropriate, but he was told that the cursing was Joe Pesci’s idea, basically the idea of a little guy trying to be tougher. He also said that Tony could be even more violent than the depiction in the movie. Otherwise, there were a lot of instances in the film where the character representing Cullotta, named Frank Vincent, was present, like when they had the guy’s head in the vice, or at the end in the cornfield. Cullotta was incorrectly placed at those events.
Looking at Vegas today, a lot of old-timers say that it was a better town when the mob ran it. Are you inclined to agree?
I am, and I think it came down to one thing: customer service. The mob knew how to take care of the customer. They may have occasionally killed one of their own, but they were careful to keep it from spilling out into the public domain. That would have been bad for business, and they realized that. They knew that the secret to success in the casinos was making the customer happy and keeping them coming back. That’s something that seems to have changed over the years, as the corporations have taken over. It’s missing that personal touch.
For more about Griffin, his books and his appearances, go to dennisngriffin.com.