By Jeff Burbank
Who killed Rick Manzie, husband of popular singer and actress Barbara McNair, in the couple’s Las Vegas home 39 years ago this week? And who did his friend, fellow Chicago Outfit associate Tony Spilotro, suspect committed the gangland-style hit?
McNair’s brother Horace called Las Vegas police on December 15, 1976, after discovering the 36-year-old Manzie’s half-nude body in the dressing area of the 20-room house that Barbara and Manzie bought shortly after their marriage in 1972.
Horace told police that when he left at 4 a.m. that morning to buy groceries, Manzie was still alive. Meanwhile, McNair, who performed at the Condesa del Mar nightclub in Chicago the night before, was taken away in tears after Windy City reporters informed her Manzie had been shot to death.
The distraught McNair, on her way to a flight to Las Vegas, appeared not to have known of his manner of death, saying she had thought her husband died as a result of “some kind of illness.”
Las Vegas police Lt. Beecher Avants later revealed that Manzie, found clad only in a T-shirt, had been shot several times and lay dead for four to six hours. Officers found no signs of forced entry, struggle or burglary, and all the doors and windows were locked. The magazine Jet reported that an autopsy on Manzie determined he was shot in the head and needle marks were found on his arms, legs and buttocks.
At the time, Barbara McNair was a famous singer and actress. She got her start on Broadway in 1963 when she took over for actress Dianne Carroll in the musical No Strings. She became a hit recording artist for Motown records and became the first African-American woman to host a national TV variety program, The Barbara McNair Show, in 1969. She guest starred in TV dramas and movies, such as They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! with Sidney Poitier and Change of Habit opposite Elvis Presley.
In 1972, she and Manzie were married at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas and purchased their large home at 4265 S. Bruce Street near the Sahara Hotel. Their property is now an apartment complex.
Both McNair and Manzie were originally from Chicago. But while McNair was a celebrity and household name, Manzie’s reputation was suspect. While ostensibly her manager, he was a heroin user, gambler and a low-level associate of Chicago’s Mob, the Outfit.
In December 1972, months after her wedding to Manzie, McNair, while on the nightclub circuit, answered her hotel room door in McAfree, New Jersey, and signed for delivery of a small package. The package contained a half ounce of heroin. It was meant for Manzie, but authorities arrested them both.
The negative publicity embarrassed the straight-laced McNair, who insisted she did not use drugs. The charges were eventually dropped against her, but Manzie pleaded guilty to possession charges and was sentenced to one year of probation and fined $1,000.
Then, in July 1974, two of Manzie’s alleged Outfit friends, reputed loan shark Sam Marcello and Joseph Grisafe, a hulking 6-foot 6-inch enforcer, were killed and their bodies found stuffed in 55-gallon drums in northwest Chicago.
In 1976, just before his death, Manzie learned that Harry Margolis, a tax shelter consultant “to the stars” from California, had informed McNair that the money he held for her had shrunk from the $500,000 she thought she had to only $50,000.
According to Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, in the book The Last Mafioso by Ovid Demaris, Manzie “wanted Margolis whacked if they lost their lawsuit against him.” But then Manzie was whacked first.
No one was ever arrested for the slaying. But in 1982, Manzie’s death came up during testimony in pretrial motions before the racketeering trial of Tony Spilotro and three other defendants. Spilotro was an Outfit member sent to Las Vegas to oversee the crime group’s interests here in the early 1970s.
FBI agent Bud Hall said that less than a month after Manzie’s death, on January 12, 1977, Spilotro had a conversation with fellow Mob figure Frank “The Bomp” Bompensiero. The men talked during a meeting in Las Vegas with Jerry May, an executive of the Southwest Advertising Agency. From the conversation, it was believed that Manzie had been a friend or business associate of Spilotro, and that Spilotro was going to seek revenge.
“Spilotro indicated to Bompensiero that he would kill whomever killed Rick Manzie and that he had two killers working for him by the names of Joey Hansen and Paul Shiro,” Hall said in court.
But nothing, at least not known publicly, came of that. About four weeks later, Bompensiero was bumped off while he stood in a phone booth in San Diego.
For Manzie, the trail to his murder has stayed cold for 39 years. Barbara McNair died of natural causes in 2007.
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at email@example.com.