Frank Cullotta, leader of the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang burglary ring in Las Vegas, died early Thursday in a Las Vegas hospital. He was 81.
Cullotta died from complications of COVID-19.
In his criminal heyday working for the Chicago Outfit’s Las Vegas overseer, Tony Spilotro, Cullotta was responsible for at least two murders, as well as hundreds of burglaries and other crimes. The Hole in the Wall Gang got its name from its technique of avoiding security systems by entering homes and businesses through a wall or roof instead of through monitored doors and windows.
Cullotta’s burglary spree came to an abrupt end on July 4, 1981, when he and his crew were busted in the act of entering Bertha’s department store on East Sahara Avenue. The FBI and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department knew about the planned burglary thanks to an informant within the ranks of Cullotta’s gang.
Not long after, Cullotta agreed to become a witness for the government in its prosecution of mobsters in Las Vegas, Chicago and beyond. He received immunity from prosecution in return. Cullotta entered Witness Protection for a couple of years, but left the program to resume a more normal life. He often remarked that he didn’t fear for his life because anyone who wanted him dead was either in prison or a grave.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cullotta was interviewed by Nick Pileggi for a book about the Chicago Mob’s control of the Stardust hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Cullotta then was contracted by director Martin Scorsese to serve as a consultant on the movie version of Pileggi’s book. Cullotta also had a small part – as a hitman – in the critically acclaimed movie Casino, which is marking its 25th anniversary this fall.
Pileggi told The Mob Museum he was saddened to hear about Cullotta’s death. Pileggi and Scorsese co-wrote the screenplay for Casino.
Pileggi, who lives in New York City, said he spoke at length with Cullotta when putting the book together over the course of about eight years. At the time, Cullotta was in the Witness Protection Program. FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy connected the two.
Cullotta provided Pileggi with a lot of information about the era in which Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a Chicago Outfit associate, oversaw skimming at the Stardust for mobsters in the Midwest.
“He was a great help to me in writing the book,” Pileggi said. Though a mobster deeply involved in the underworld, Cullotta was smart enough to have been a successful businessman if he had chosen that route, Pileggi said. “He could be very civilized and highly intelligent.”
Pileggi said he stayed in touch with Cullotta and even spoke with him about three weeks ago. “He sounded OK,” Pileggi said.
During this recent phone call, Pileggi said he and Cullotta talked about the former mobster’s upcoming book projects and his YouTube show, “Coffee With Cullotta.”
Pileggi said their friendship remained strong throughout the years. “We hit it off and became personal friends,” Pileggi said. “He was exceptional.”
Despite his extensive criminal history, Cullotta had many friends and admirers in his golden years, his Chicago-accented gravelly voice disguising a quick wit and grandfatherly demeanor.
Veteran true crime author Dennis Griffin, who co-wrote three books with Cullotta, remembered him fondly:
“I first met Frank in 2005 while researching for my book The Battle for Las Vegas. The next year we co-authored his biography Cullotta, and two more books followed. In the ensuing years Frank went from being just a business associate to one of my closest friends and my wife came to love him as well. Whether we talked in person or by phone, he always managed to leave me laughing, regardless of how bad my day may have been to that point. Frank may be gone, but he’ll never be forgotten.”
Cullotta spoke to a sold-out crowd at The Mob Museum in 2016 and held several book signings in the Museum’s retail store. He personally conducted Mob driving tours of Las Vegas for several years and recently was prominently featured in the “Mobbed Up” podcast series produced by a partnership of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Mob Museum. Cullotta also partnered with local entertainer Adam Flowers on the “Coffee with Cullotta” YouTube series.
Dennis Arnoldy, a retired FBI agent, worked closely with Cullotta after he became a government witness. He said Cullotta provided a lot of valuable information to the FBI and Las Vegas Police.
“A lot of people went to jail at least in part because of Frank’s information,” Arnoldy said. “He was very important to us in solving these crimes. He helped us connect the dots.”
Larry Henry contributed to this report.
Geoff Schumacher is vice president of exhibits and programs for The Mob Museum.