Why the Spilotro Brothers Were So Brutally Murdered

An episode of the Mafia's Greatest Hits on the American Heroes Channel focused on Anthony John "Tony" Spilotro, a crime figure known for his exploits in Las Vegas on behalf of the Chicago Outfit. (Spilotro was the inspiration for the character Joe Pesci played in Martin Scorsese's Casino.)

Two bodies were found buried here.

Spilotro was sent to Las Vegas to protect and oversee the Outfit's money, the illegal casino profits known as the "skim." (Spilotro actually served as a replacement for Outfit member Marshall Caifano, another violent mobster who was a suspect in more than 10 hits.)

In addition to his ability to draw intense heat from law enforcement, Spilotro broke some internal rules as well, including one that prohibited screwing around with the wives of associates.

The Outfit bosses whacked him and his brother, and according to Frank Cullotta, probably not how it was depicted in the movie. 

The Spilotro brothers were likely killed in Chicago, law enforcement alleges, and not in a cornfield. The murders are believed to have occurred at a meeting about Tony's younger brother getting inducted into the Chicago Outfit.

(Tony had undergone open heart surgery prior to the fatal meeting,  Cullotta told Cosa Nostra News, adding that he believes Outfit men punched Spilotro in his sutured chest, apparently reopening his wound. Then they punched him some more. This is based on the crime scene photos, which Frank's seen and said "are disturbing.")

It's likely brother Michael was beaten with baseball bats, according to Cullota.

Their bodies were supposed to disappear forever. No bodies, no investigation. But despite all the trouble the Outfit went to, having the Spilotro brothers buried in the middle of nowhere (in a cornfield alongside Highway 41 in northwest Indiana), the remains were discovered by a farmer.

Frank Calabrese Jr., in an exclusive interview, said the bodies had been found because the men in charge of the burial did not dig the grave deep enough.

The discovery of the Spilotro brothers' bodies was a result of a change the Outfit made in terms of how its crews were historically organized.

Tony Spilotro

Why So Brutal?

Taking a closer look at why the Outfit wanted the Spilotro brothers dead, there are the obvious reasons, as noted above. But why were they killed in such a brutal manner?

Spilotro engaged in very visible low-level street rackets, such as loan sharking and extortion. He supposedly started consuming drugs as well as selling them, and also started an affair with Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal's wife. Plus, his protection crew -- Cullotta and his Hole in the Wall Gang -- eventually got into a lot of trouble robbing jewelry stores and committing other acts of mayhem.

Lefty Rosenthal and wife, Geri.

Spilotro was the boss in Las Vegas but the Hole in the Wall Gang was Cullotta's creation. They were his guys.

The Hole in the Wall Gang began operations because the crew members had to earn while being on-call for Spilotro, who was there as the muscle for Lefty Rosenthal. (The mob doesn't send these guys paychecks.)

To facilitate their ability to earn somewhat freely, Cullotta and his crew bribed Las Vegas Metro cops; some decided it was easier to simply look the other way. The robberies increased. In a city built on gambling and tourism, a rise in street crime attracts a lot of attention.

The FBI was all over Spilotro by the time of the darkly comical Jerry Lisner hit in October of 1979.

Anne and Michael Spilotro

Lisner had turned informant. The order went to Cullotta. One night, he entered Lisner's house and shot him in the head twice. Lisner screamed and jumped on Frank and the two of them rolled around. Then Cullotta emptied the .22 caliber into him, but he still didn't go down.

The problem, as Cullotta realized, was that our professional hit man had used half-charges to lower the volume of the shots. (No silencer-equipped pistol was available.) The depleted gunfire barely penetrated Lisner's skin.

Luckily for Cullotta, the wheelman waiting outside came in to see what was holding Frank up. In the end, Frank and the wheelman strangled Lisner, bashed his head in and dumped him in the backyard swimming pool -- a quick remedy for destroying trace evidence.

Meanwhile, the Feds went to work, agents installing wiretaps on the phone lines connected to Spilotro's Gold Rush jewelry store.

The technicians accidentally tripped an alarm.

Metro PD showed up but apparently didn't spot the wiretappers on top of the telephone poles. At the time, any of them could have been on the take.

From those wiretaps, the Feds soon heard something that terrified some of them.

Two Las Vegas Metro cops had walked into the Gold Rush. Detective Sergeants Joe Blasko and Phil Leone first gave Spilotro the names of federal informants, then a list of names of undercover Feds.

The Feds acted swiftly -- both officers were fired and arrested and charged with obstruction and bribery. Both cases were dropped but Metro's reputation was in tatters.

Frank Cullota

Then John McCarthy was elected Sheriff, and he went to work fixing Metro's reputation through good law enforcement procedure. In fact, he's been historically credited for building the strong reputation Las Vegas has to this day in terms of law enforcement.

McCarthy completely reorganized the police force, promoting committed younger men as well as some outstanding trustworthy members of the old guard.

He named Kent Clifford, 33 at the time, to Commander, in charge of the Metro Police Intelligence Bureau. Clifford, the youngest men ever to hold that rank, cleaned house even further.

Clifford knew the fastest and most effective way to get the mob out of Las Vegas would be to cross one boundary he absolutely couldn't cross.

"We couldn't just shoot them and get it over with," he said.

So he chose what he considered to be the second best course of action: get under Spilotro's skin by magnifying surveillance and acting on even the smallest illegal acts.

"If one of them didn't signal at a turn, they were arrested and their car towed," Clifford said.

That alone could cost a wiseguy up to $3,000. Plus, the inconvenience, the sheer "what-the-fuckery" of it all... Clifford was counting on it to rattle cages.

One day, Metro shot and killed a Spilotro associate. 

Spilotro put out contracts on the cops who shot the associate.

And Clifford caught the next flight to Chicago.

He was soon sitting down with Outfit bosses, he said. He put them on notice that if they broke the rules, he was going to break some rules, too.

"If you kill my cops, I'm coming back with 40 men and we're gonna kill everything that moves, walks or crawls in your homes," he said he told them.

He and the 40 men were going to go rogue -- and slaughter the wives and children of the bosses of the Outfit -- that was the message he sent. They got it.

He flew back to Chicago, and soon enough, word reached him that Spilotro wanted to meet him alone, face to face.

Spilotro told Clifford that he had gotten him, Spilotro, in a lot of trouble. He also told Clifford that he was crazy to threaten the Outfit bosses.

"They got 400 guns on the street," he told Clifford.

"That makes us even, then. Any one of my men is worth about 10 of yours."

So in the end, maybe that explains the reason for the brutal way in which the Spilotro brothers were killed.


Popular Stories

Hoodwinked: Restaurateur on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares Was a Mobster

Junior Gotti Cleans Family Business's Slate

Twisting Ndrangheta's Historical Misogyny Against It

Does It Take Talent to Make an Inherently Dramatic Mobster Boring?

Gotti Confidant John Carneglia Officially a Free Man Tomorrow

Ready? Longtime Gotti Confidant John Carneglia Back in Brooklyn

The Happiest Father’s Day to All