January 10, 2017   Tuesday

I listened to a most interesting talk this evening by author Gary Jenkins. He described how the F.B.I. brought down the huge Las Vegas Strip casino skim operations that were directed by multiple Mafia gangs, and which were fictionalized in the movie Casino (1995). Gary joined the F.B.I.’s surveillance teams in the initial stages of their “Strawman” skimming investigation. At that time, Gary was a Kansas City Police Detective, where he served for twenty-five years, and he now produces the true-crime podcast Gangland Wire Crime Stories.

Gary worked diligently to obtain the FBI’s recordings from their legal telephone wiretaps and bugs of conversations by Kansas City Mafia boss Nick Civella with his lieutenant Carl “Tuffy” DeLuna and other cohorts, and with his Las Vegas casino operators. Tonight, Gary played many of these taped conversations for his audience at the Clark County Library in Las Vegas. His new book Leaving Vegas: The True Story of How the F.B.I. Wiretaps Ended Mob Domination of Las Vegas Casinos is filled with the FBI’s transcripts.

These recorded conversations are very important to my research of organized-crime as it bears on the Nevada casino industry. Not only are the topics these mobsters discussed very relevant to me, but also how these gangsters discussed them. These recordings illustrate how gangsters really talk in private conversations with their cohorts and with the people they do business.

While Hollywood movies and TV shows invariably present these gangsters as bullying, threatening, and intimidating in virtually every scene, in these recordings, every underworld leader talked exactly like a normal person. Even though these hoods were deeply concerned about, and frustrated by, the actions of others, they did not make a single threat, never mentioned the use of violence, and did not even express any anger. As I listened to the FBI’s recordings, I focused on the tonality of the speakers as much as their subject matter. Their tenor and attitude was always casual and informative, identical to the way normal businessmen and friends talk.

In my research, I found every major gang leader from the 1920s through the 1980s talked normally and usually politely. Almost all of these top gangsters were in power before the advent of primary elections, when each political party selected a single candidate for each office privately behind closed doors. Many of the top gangsters in this era were powerful political leaders in their districts, and they always dealt with their voters and their problems helpfully and with understanding. Besides, what politician, law enforcer, prosecutor, judge, businessman, or union leader would seek out and make a business arrangement with a gang leader who constantly threatened and bullied them like a stereotypical Hollywood gangster? The dark, evil side of these criminals surfaced for the world to see only when they were threatened, or when those who exploited or took advantage of innocent victims, or attacked gangland competitors, were carrying out their terrible crimes.

Gary Jenkins responded to this Blog post. This former long-time Detective, who spent his career fighting organized crime, agreed with my point above but with very different and such effective imagery. “That is exactly what I want folks to understand, the skillful mob bosses are not cartoon figures. They are real people who talk and react like most of us. They make thoughtful decisions after careful consideration.” Wow! I had never thought about Hollywood’s presentation of gangsters as cartoon characters, but unfortunately that is really the way our film industry, during its first century of existence, has depicted the horrible exploitation and brutality of our worst criminal element.