Las Vegas Hole in the Wall Gang Lore Lives On

With news of the death of mobster Frank Cullotta, burglary gang story resurfaces

Posted Aug 31, 2020

The coverage of outlaws over the years in dime novels and TV movies, exaggerated and romanticized, captivates the public, despite many of those criminals having committed heinous murders. It is the crime syndicate connection, experts say, that is the romantic allure for people.

"The public is drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear," Scott Bonn, a criminology professor and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, wrote in Time magazine. "As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real."

Indeed, outlaws embody freedom in their refusal to obey laws. Miscreants like Billy the Kid and Jesse James have not lost their appeal despite the passage of time. They became outlaw heroes.

Such is the case with members of the Las Vegas mob, including the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang, which operated in Las Vegas from 1979 until they were caught on July 4, 1981. One of the burglars was Frank Cullotta, a Chicago mob-associate-turned-federal-informant who died in a Las Vegas hospital on Aug. 20 of COVID-19. He was 81.

As an enforcer and associate, Cullotta carried out orders but was not a made member of the mob. Associates, according to The Mafia Encyclopedia, are used as drivers, bodyguards, enforcers, hit men, errand boys, or money collectors for high-ranking members of the Mafia.

Cullotta’s bosses were Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, sent to Las Vegas by the Chicago outfit to manage the syndicate’s illegal casino skim, and "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, who was a capo for Spilotro. Together, with Spilotro’s brother Michael, in 1979, they formed the Hole in the Wall Gang burglary ring, so named because of gaining entry to homes and buildings by drilling through exterior walls, roofs, and ceilings of the locations they burglarized. They brought associates on as burglars, including Cullotta, a childhood friend of Spilotro, shortly after Cullotta moved to the desert town that same year.

The gang’s crimes abruptly ended that Fourth of July when police and the FBI caught the Hole in the Wall Gang during a burglary-in-process at Bertha's Gifts and Home Furnishings near downtown Las Vegas after an insider tipped off the FBI and Las Vegas Metro Police. Law enforcement stopped the burglars as they bore a hole through the roof of Bertha’s.

They arrested six burglars, including Cullotta. Each was charged with burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, attempted grand larceny, and possession of burglary tools. They were locked in a small Las Vegas Police holding cell in downtown Las Vegas, where officers filed past the cell and took multiple shots of the gang of six, which became official police photos and also live today on the internet.

Cullotta was sentenced to eight years in prison. He served two years at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, San Diego, until he became a federal informant, or a "rat," and went into the Witness Protection Program in 1984, was released, and placed on two years' probation.

Cullotta had been arrested for an earlier burglary in which a woman's home was broken into and her furniture stolen. The furniture was found in Cullotta's home, which led to an indictment for the possession of stolen property. Cullotta was also a suspect in the 1979 murder of mob associate Sherwin "Jerry" Lisner in Las Vegas, a murder Cullotta later admitted in court to committing.

The Hole in the Wall Gang crimes have been glamorized as the years have passed, with the story retold in books, magazines, and newspapers. With Cullotta, he successfully legitimized himself by conducting what he called "Frank Cullotta's Casino Mob Tour," charging for a 2 1/2-hour tour of sites where the movie Casino was shot. Cullotta played a hitman in the film based on the book of the same title by Nicholas Pileggi.

“Cullotta tried to glorify his past, make himself bigger than he was, and cash in on it,” said Kenny “Kenji” Gallo, a former associate for the Colombo family and the Milano family syndicates, who turned state’s evidence and went into the federal Witness Protection Program afterward, as did Cullotta. Today, Gallo, an author, runs a fitness center and trains first responders, sportspeople, and police officers.

As a mob associate, Gallo said, "You get a set amount of money, a cut. You’re not in charge. You’re not a boss. You do what you’re told.”

Gallo first met Cullotta in Los Angeles. "I got to know Frank after I flipped," Gallo said. "We knew some of the same people. He still tried to hang out with those people. I just moved on."

"That isn't the greatest part of my life," Gallo continued. "For a lot of those guys, it was the best part of their lives. But there's no happy ending to that life, ever. Some try to glorify themselves, pump themselves up. Cullotta worked for a guy who ran the Hole in the Wall Gang. That’s it. He tried to milk that part of his life that happened from 1979 to 1981. Guys like that go around to their old haunts to be around those guys, to relive their pasts. They still dress up in silk suits and wear pinky rings.”

Larry Henry, a veteran journalist who writes a column titled "The Mob in Pop Culture" for The Mob Museum's website, sees it differently. “For the public as well as mob historians, old mobsters are a link to that world," Henry said. “There’s an enormous fascination with the mob. They can’t talk to those who were killed, but, before his death, they could talk to Cullotta, who lived to tell the story."

Myram Borders, who wrote about the mob as a journalist for more than three decades for United Press International (UPI) wire service and covered the Hole in the Wall Gang burglaries, had a front-row seat into that world.

"Ironically," Borders said, "Frank had a peaceful passing, which is pretty unlikely for a lifelong Chicago mobster who turned on his own. He became a government witness, named names, and lived to become a tour guide of his past crime scenes for Las Vegas tourists," adding, "Only in Las Vegas."