Who wanted mob frontman Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal dead?
The failed assassination attempt by a car bombing nearly 35 years ago remains one of the most captivating high-profile cold cases in Las Vegas history, up there with Tupac Shakur’s.
Rosenthal’s brush with death had the markings of a mob hit. That’s the popular theory after being reinforced in “Casino” when Robert De Niro’s character, mob operator Sam “Ace” Rothstein, feuds with Nicky Santoro, a character based on notorious hitman Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro.
A panel of experts from that era tackled the question last week during a “Media and the Mob” presentation, the latest in a series of the Mob Museum’s “Courtroom Conversations.”
Rosenthal, the Chicago mob’s under-the-radar boss of the Stardust and other casinos, had just finished dinner with friends at Tony Roma's restaurant on Oct. 4, 1982.
He had parked in public view between Marie Callender’s and Tony Roma’s restaurants. The walk to his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado should have been his last. When Rosenthal turned the key in the ignition, a fireball demolished his car but Rosenthal miraculously survived.
I asked panelist Oscar Goodman, the prominent mob attorney who became mayor, whom he thought was behind it.
Goodman, after getting “maybe the second phone call that night,” rushed to the scene and found Rosenthal on a gurney in front of Tony Roma’s. “I said, ‘Who did this to you?’ and it was one of these things,” said Goodman, holding his hands out, palms up, in a gesture that suggests someone doesn’t know.
“So I have no idea who did it to him,” added Goodman.
Bob Stoldal, a former television executive, chimed in, “We’ve asked that question a lot. I asked a former FBI agent and the feeling was it wasn't a…it had more to do with his personal life than it did as a mob hit, so to speak.”
George Knapp, a longtime investigative reporter who worked with Stoldal at KLAS-TV, Channel 8, said there are only a few Spilotro “guys” left “and they say they didn’t do it and I think they have their own theories, but they said Tony didn’t order it, that it was somebody else.”
Goodman added, “I’ll tell you the good news, though, and I heard this from an FBI agent. The blast from a car flew down Sahara for three quarters of a mile and could have caused so much havoc by hitting people or hitting things that it’s a miracle nobody got hurt. An absolute miracle.”
It was reported at the time that the only other reported injury was to a U.S. Secret Service agent, who was struck in the eye by a piece of flying glass. He was in town as a member of the advance team for President Ronald Reagan’s visit three days later.
During the investigation, it was discovered that “Lefty” had luck on his side. A metal plate directly underneath the driver’s seat diverted most of the force of the explosion away from Rosenthal.
Former Gov. Bob Miller, who served as Clark County district attorney from 1978 to 1986, said as D.A. he got one of the first calls about the explosion.
“We never ascertained who or why,” he said.
Panel moderator Geoff Shumacher, the museum’s director of content and historian, responding my email, wrote: “According to ‘Casino’ the book, by Nick Pileggi, the leading theories at the time of the bombing were that either Spilotro was responsible for it or Frank Balistrieri, the Milwaukee Mafia boss who was known as the ‘Mad Bomber.’”
In the 1970s, the car bomb was the signature act of “the Midwestern mobs.”
There were reports Balistrieri blamed Rosenthal for federal scrutiny the mob-controlled casinos were facing.
“But another theory,” wrote Schumacher, “expressed by (former Spilotro associate) Frank Cullotta and others, revolves around Lefty's estranged wife, Geri, and who she could have put up to it. At the time she was living in Southern California and hanging out with a bunch of bad characters, including outlaw bikers. The theory is that she could have gained a huge financial windfall from his estate if he died.”
Rosenthal’s wife died of a drug overdose a month after the car bombing.
When a member of the audience asked Goodman if he ever felt intimidated or threatened by his clients or law enforcement, he said, “I felt like I was the safest person in the world. I had the FBI following me… every…single… day.”
Longtime Las Vegas court reporter Jane Ann Morrison, now a columnist at the Review-Journal, asked Goodman why he agreed to be in the movie, “Casino,” when he has stated the “media created this evil Spilotro” when Goodman always described him as a gentleman.
“I’m questioning why you would appear in a movie that portrayed him as a stone-cold killer,” said Morrison.
Goodman said Spilotro was always a gentleman, “to me,” and then added “that’s a very good question and I’ll probably read it in your column, along with some cats, tomorrow,” a reference to Morrison’s affection for felines.
Goodman, who loved sparring with the media over the years, turned serious.
“My ego was so big that when (Martin) Scorsese asked me to be in the movie I didn’t even take the time to read the script. Had I read the script I would said to him, ‘You either change the characterization that Pesci was playing, in certain respects, because I never heard Spilotro use a racial epithet and or did I ever see him use a narcotic or a dangerous drug and that was prevalent in the movie. Had I seen that or had read it I would not have played myself in the movie.
“But I had such a big head and that they paid me so much money that I couldn’t say no,” he said.
Rosenthal moved to California a few months after escaping death and then to Florida where he operated a sports betting website. He died Oct. 13, 2008 at the age of 79. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
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The punch line
“Today was National Hug a Newsperson Day. But if you see Bill O’Reilly, maybe just go with a fist bump.” – Late-night host Seth Meyers.