Monday, December 07, 2015

Frank Cullotta is At Peace with His Past

Frank Cullotta keeps reaching toward his face, trying to adjust something no longer there. His glasses.

Cullotta just finished a series of Lasik surgeries to right his vision. Gone are his recognizable, oversized frames. He now sees clearly but continues to focus his memory in the long-ago past.

Cullotta was a famous hit man for the Chicago Outfit, a self-described former “gangster, burglar, murderer, extortionist, arsonist” who admitted to the 1979 killing of con man Sherwin “Jerry” Lisner in Las Vegas. As was customary in those days, Cullotta acted on the order of Chicago Outfit overlord Tony Spilotro. The murder scene was depicted in the film “Casino.”

Cullotta was a consultant on the film, as he edged his way back into society while living under an assumed name. He spent two years in the federal witness-protection program after cutting a deal with the federal government in exchange for information about his former associates.

Today, the 76-year-old Cullotta earns a legal living as an expert in the culture that led him underground. He works as a guide for the Mob Museum, leading “Casino” tours of the primary points of interest featured in the 20-year-old mob movie, most of which was set in Las Vegas. The tours begin at the Mob Museum with a private walk-around hosted by mob historian Robert George Allen and include a bus tour of the city’s famous mob locations. The five-hour tours run monthly and cost $180, including a champagne toast and pizza dinner.

Guests visit such locations as the Casino House, where Cullotta carried out the Lisner murder; the setting for the Frankie “Blue” death scene in the film; the Las Vegas Country Club clubhouse where Spilotro and Moe Dalitz used to play cards; and the site of the Hole in the Wall Gang’s botched Bertha’s Household Products robbery on July 4, 1981, which led to Cullotta’s arrest. The bus also pulls into Piero’s Italian Cuisine, also used in “Casino.”

You see, too, the spot at Tony Roma’s on Sahara Avenue where in 1982, Lefty Rosenthal was nearly killed in a car-bomb explosion, spared by the hard-metal plate under the driver’s seat of his ’81 Cadillac Eldorado.

“I tell people that Lefty was a creature of habit,” Culotta said. “He always liked to have his ribs at Roma’s, once a week. He was an easy target.”

Cullotta is introduced to those on the tour by “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas” book author Nicholas Pileggi. “He brags about me, saying there would have been no book or movie ‘Casino’ if it was not for me,” Cullotta said.

Cullotta considers the obvious: He is the rare (hopefully) person taking these tours who actually has committed a murder.

How does it feel to be walking around with that experience, even more than 35 years later?

“Honestly, it never wakes me up,” Cullotta said. “If you do think about it, it’ll put you in the (effing) nuthouse. When I do these tours, then everything pops up into my head; people want to know if it bothers me. Of course. But if I thought about it 24 hours a day, I’d wind up in my car with a gun in my mouth.”

Cullotta says he compares his experience to that of a serviceman carrying out an order for his government.

“It’s like fighting a war,” he said. “I hate to use the military as a comparison, but that’s how it felt; I was carrying out an order.

“People are fascinated by me, and I understand that, but there’s a big difference in me today than there used to be. I mean, I used to be surrounded by celebrities, showgirls, politicians, a lot of money, people wanting to attach themselves to you. But it came at a price.”

Which was?

“I lost my freedom,” Cullotta said. “I had to change my life completely. But I have paid my debt to society. I’m under no pressure. I used to have headaches all the time, from tension, and I don’t have headaches anymore. I’m clean today. I’m very clean.”

Thanks to John Katsilometes.

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