Nevada's Black Book
By James Barrows
It used to take a lot of people to steal $20 million from Las Vegas casinos. Nowadays, someone who knows the programs on a video machine microchip can steal $20 million all alone.
If caught, they might end up in Nevada's Unsocial Register the Black Book.
Nevada used to worry about its image: guys in black shirts and white ties carrying violin cases (machine guns inside), standing at the check-in lines at hotel desks and dinner shows. Those guys are mostly gone. Casino security now turns its attention to computer nerds to protect gambling's integrity.
The Nevada Legislature decreed in 1953 that an applicant for a gaming license could be found unsuitable if convicted of a felony, larceny, narcotics or firearm violation in the past five years, was under age 21, or wasn't a U.S. citizen.
That was almost 40 years ago, before television; right after the U.S. Senate's Kefauver hearings into organized crime; after Joe Barbera was visited by friends concerned about his health at Apalachin, in upstate New York, in 1957; when Joe Valachi was singing tales of Mafia and omerta to a Senate committee.
And Marshall Caifano, Chicago extortionist and worse, had just been barred from what few casinos there were on the budding Las Vegas Strip. Caifano was a top lieutenant in Tony Accardo's crime syndicate.
With all this Mafia hysteria coming to roost with the bent-nosed guys running things on the Strip, Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer decided some changes were needed to clean up our image. The 1959 session of the Legislature took gaming control away from the Nevada Tax Commission, creating today's Gaming Control Board (they investigate and recommend) and the Nevada Gaming Commission (which has the final say-so.)
Thus was born Nevada's Black Book, a list of the people who were the type of person Nevada didn't want anywhere near a blackjack table, a craps table or anywhere in a casino. It preferred that it didn't want to see this type of person almost anywhere.
Leading off, in alphabetical order, was John Louis Battaglia, also known as ``Joe Batters'' for his handiwork on the skull of someone who had doublecrossed Al Capone; Caifano; Nick and Carl Civella of the St. Louis mob; Trigger Mike Coppola of Miami; Louis Tom Dragna, head of what they called ``the Mickey Mouse Mafia'' in Los Angeles; Robert L. ``Taco Bob'' Garcia, of various Southern California locations; Sam ``Momo'' Giancana, at or near the top of the Chicago mob's hierarchy; Motel "Max Jaben'' Grazebienacy of Kansas City; Murray "The Camel'' Humphries of Chicago, who did contract killings for Al Capone in the Œ30s; and Joe Sica of Los Angeles.
For the uninitiated, these are the types of guys you wouldn't mind accompanying you to face the town bully, but being a week late paying off that back-alley loan might cost you at least one finger.
The gaming board's first chairman, Raymond Abbatico, got the tip-off that Caifano was living it up along the Las Vegas Strip. He told the casino in question to kick Caifano out. The owners refused.
Abbatico rounded up a passel of brand-new gaming control agents in Carson City, flew them down to Las Vegas, popped into the Strip resort in question, and started grabbing dice off the craps table, and cards from the blackjack tables.
Under the new state law, gaming regulators could ``seize and remove from the premises any equipment and/or documents for inspection.'' Naturally, this seriously disrupted the play in that casino's pit. The management wisely decided that, after all, the state was right, and kicked Marshall Caifano off the premises.
So Caifano (aka, Johnny Marshall) filed suit in federal court in October 1960, complaining that Governor Sawyer, the gaming board and the hotel licensees had violated his civil rights. His case was rebuffed in Nevada. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state's right to ban people from places with "privileged licenses,'' as they are called. (A pub also operates under a privileged license: "We have the right to refuse service to anyone.'')
The federal appeals court said that if government couldn't keep the likes of Caifano out of its legal casinos, it would be "like a cattle rancher unable to eliminate from his herd an animal with hoof-and-mouth disease.'' Keeping their likes out of casinos "can well be regarded by the state authorities as a matter of almost life and death.''
That first Black Book (in 1960) weighed heavily on 11 men, most with organized crime backgrounds mob bosses, hit men. It did, in fact, have a black cover. And, although upheld in 1963 in the Sinatra-Cal Neva-Phyllis McGuire-Giancana affair (see accompanying story), its list stayed at 11 until the birth of Atlantic City in the early 1970s as a gambling rival to Las Vegas.
"Vegas East'' overstepped its reach on gaming controls, requiring background checks of even bartenders and cocktail waitresses. Las Vegas had been doing that through the Sheriff's Department work card requirements. New Jersey demanded licensing of companies that supplied its new casinos.
"See how much cleaner we are than Las Vegas,'' they mocked. Perhaps, but Jersey state regulations gradually gave way to practicality. The length of the list of excluded persons was topping the 350 mark in Jersey, and Nevada was still stuck on No. 16.
Well, not exactly. Casino officials who could issue "comps'' free rooms, free meals and drinks to high-rollers had the state's mimeographed list with its sometimes unidentifiable mug shots of the types of persons who were persona non grata in their places. Griffin Investigations, which checked out big slot machine jackpots when they hit, had (and still has) a more voluminous list. Perhaps 400 slot cheats are in its book, which is handier to those who work the casino floor.
Ruby Kolod -- part owner of the Desert Inn, convicted of threatening a Denver lawyer -- was honored in 1967 with the only temporary listing in the Black Book. They wanted to keep him away from the Tournament of Champions golf match at his Desert Inn golf course. His name was removed from the list three weeks later.
The 1967 Legislature required casinos to file audited financial statements. The murder of a mob-connected junket representative in Hawaii in 1970 put people who arrange junkets under licensing scrutiny. In 1973, state gamers made license approval a little tougher, tacking on "due disregard of the law,'' associating with unsuitable people and "reflecting discredit on gaming or Nevada'' as grounds for denial.
With Atlantic City's rebirth after Jersey voters gave the nod in 1978, amid all the heat to clean up gambling's image nationwide, came the Argent matter, in which at least $20 million was skimmed from the Fremont, Stardust, Hacienda and Marina Hotels. Many skimmers were involved. Frank Rosenthal, who once claimed he ran things at the Stardust, got called in for licensing, and was excluded after a face-to-face showdown with Gaming Commission Chairman (now U.S. Senator) Harry Reid.
The state shut down the Aladdin Hotel for having hidden owners. Show director James Tamer got a page in the Black Book for that and went to prison. Carl Thomas got 15 years in the joint for skimming $280,000 from the Tropicana in 1978 and 1979, then testified against the Stardust-Fremont skimmers.
Rosenthal subsequently escaped death in 1982 when his Cadillac exploded one night on the Strip as he was starting it. His wife was said to have had an affair with Tony "The Ant'' Spilotro before Tony ended up in a shallow grave in a cornfield a convenient distance from Chicago, which Tony represented as muscle here. Rosenthal used Caifano's legal wiles to keep from being Black Book-ed, but to no avail.
Rosenthal had been nominated for the Black Book in 1979, based on his conviction in the early Œ60s for a 30-year string of gambling arrests (just one conviction, for trying to fix college basketball games) and his being banned from Florida racetracks. Despite his legal wrangling, he finally made the list in 1989.
With Atlantic City breathing down Nevada's neck with its tough-on-licensing rules, mob membership could exclude Nevada applicants, even if there had been no convictions.
By this time, of course, computers with microchips instead of reels began to appear. After a slot machine maker rigged electronic poker machines ten years ago to limit the number of jackpots, Nevada regulators set technical standards for gaming machines.
Convictions of a slot-cheating gang put the spotlight on the massive amounts that could be tapped. No 20- or 30-way splits on the proceeds, either. Just two or three people involved. John Vaccaro Jr. was the first cheater to earn a Black Book nomination. He and wife Sandra may have rigged $20 million in jackpots. John got nine years in prison plus the listing.
By 1988, funerals had pared the Black Book to just nine names. Spilotro, Giancana dead. Police had prepared packages on 65 people worthy of inclusion. State regulators wanted to keep it exclusive. Rosenthal's inclusion made him only No. 14.
Then Nevada went after the slot cheaters, which was fine until Ron Harris, who worked for the Gaming Control Board as its computer chip checker, decided to use his inside knowledge. One jackpot on a keno machine (if you knew the computer code sequences): $100,000. He hit several (perhaps many), so say investigators.
In the 1990s, gaming provides nearly half the money it takes to run state government. Nevada's involvement in gaming, said Anthony Cabot and Richard Schuetz in a review of the state's gaming license process nine years ago, is based on "the impact of the industry's product on society.'' Keeping out the bad guys keeps gaming's image shiny and helps keep the tax men (state and federal) off gaming's back. If the casino is cheated, the state loses money.
Frank Masterana made the list in '88 for running an illegal sports betting business over $1 million a year but his attorney, Louis Weiner, got state gamers thinking perhaps they ought to make that ban just for casinos with race and sports books and live games, but not neighborhood bars or drug stores with just slot machines. They eventually agreed.
"I don't need to go into a casino,'' Masterana said. ``In fact, it might help me. Now I won't lose money at the craps table.''
Gaspare "Jasper'' Speciale, who ran a loanshark operation out of his Tower of Jewels on the Las Vegas Strip and booked a few bets out of a flower shop, got nominated just before Christmas of 1988. His lawyer protested that Jasper's doctor had an office in a Vegas casino but Jasper made the list anyway, in March 1989. He died just after Christmas of '91. His name was dropped from the Unsocial Register four months later.
In all, 46 people had earned Black Book listings (as of November 1999). Sixteen have died. Just missing the list: "Fat Herbie'' Blitzstein, murdered in early 1997 a month after his nomination. "The only way to beat the Black Book is to drop dead before the hearing,'' said Herbie's lawyer.
Eight others made the list that year, the most inducted in one year since the first issue. Slot cheaters all, they included Gaming Control Board computer whiz Ron Harris. Recent nominees: Reno slot cheat John Mealey Jr., and San Diego's Peter Jay Lenz, who ran illegal games there and in Phoenix. Lenz was a pal of sports game rigger Richard "The Fixer'' Perry, added to the book seven years ago after helping in the downfall of UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
One of the original 1960 Black Book honorees, Joseph Sica, died in late 1982. Gaming officials got around to de-listing him in February 1998.
Nevada's list may keep growing, if cops can find Michael Joseph Balsamo (one of a dozen aliases), with six gaming cheating convictions. He and his nine pals allegedly cheated slot machines of $6 million nationwide. Balsamo has been in Jersey's Black Book for 15 years.
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