Who killed Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel?

Who killed Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel?

Speculation rages on over celebrity mobster’s murder

The Flamingo Hotel in the late 1940s.

To this day no one knows who killed Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

The shooting in Southern California happened on June, 20, 1947, six months after Siegel’s mobbed-up Flamingo hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip opened disastrously during a rare winter rainstorm. The resort, built on the road to Los Angeles, closed in early 1947 but was back in business by springtime as the Fabulous Flamingo. It is still in operation at the same site, though the original structure has been replaced by a modern hotel-casino, still called the Flamingo.

Siegel’s bloody death at his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s rented home in Beverly Hills that June night remains a popular Mob mystery. Every year as the anniversary of his death approaches, speculation over who killed the 41-year-old Brooklyn-born mobster seems to intensify, centering on several theories.

Virginia Hill testifies before the Kefauver Committee in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Getty Images.
Virginia Hill testifies before the Kefauver Committee in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Getty Images.

While the debate continues over who pulled the trigger, one thing is certain: The death scene 71 years ago was gruesome.

Authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, in their 1963 true crime book The Green Felt Jungle, about Mob influence and political corruption in Las Vegas, described what happened that night in Beverly Hills. Other writers have filled in the picture with additional details.

At 10:45 p.m., a sniper armed with a .30-caliber military carbine rested the barrel on the crossbar of a rose-covered pagoda’s latticework outside and then fired nine steel-jacketed slugs through a window into the living room of the pink Moorish mansion at 810 N. Linden Drive.

Siegel, reading a copy of the Los Angeles Times he had picked up at a restaurant earlier, was shot four times, twice in the head and twice in the torso while seated on a chintz-covered sofa, a table lamp illuminating his head. The drapes were open. One head shot propelled an eye 15 feet away onto the tiled dining room floor.

Of the five shots that missed, one destroyed a marble statue of Bacchus on a grand piano and another punctured a painting of a nude holding a wineglass.

Siegel’s close friend and Hollywood business associate Allen Smiley, an investor in the Flamingo, was seated on the sofa with Siegel but hit the floor after the shooting started. Smiley’s jacket was ripped by gunfire.

At the time, Virginia Hill was not home. A week earlier, after an argument with Siegel, she had left for Paris.

So who did this? And why?

More than a few people are satisfied with the premise put forth in the 1991 movie Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty as Siegel and Annette Bening as the tempestuous Virginia Hill, who, in real life, was a rough-around-the-edges extravagant spender originally from a small central Alabama town near Birmingham.

(To those who knew Siegel, he was just Ben, never “Bugsy.” According to former Las Vegas casino executive Bill Friedman in his 2015 book 30 Illegal Years to the Strip, “Bugsy” apparently was a childhood nickname reflecting something crazy Siegel said to other kids, that newspapers later picked up on.)

In the movie, based on the 1967 book We Only Kill Each Other by Dean Jennings, Mob leaders meeting in Havana, Cuba, including Siegel’s boyhood friend, racketeer Meyer Lansky, angrily discuss the cost overruns during construction of the Flamingo. After all, it was their money that Siegel was wasting. Some voice suspicion that Virginia Hill was stealing cash from the project.

According to the movie, Lansky (played by Ben Kingsley) phoned Siegel at the Flamingo during the disappointing rain-drenched opening, telling him to report to Los Angeles for a meeting with “Gus and Moe,” presumably underworld figures Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway. Later, at Hill’s home, Siegel is shot more than a dozen times by an unseen assailant firing from outside the residence.

The actual killing was in June, of course, not immediately after the December 26, 1946, grand opening as the movie portrays it, but the implication that the shooting was a Mob-ordered hit has gained traction in more places than just the big screen version of events. Those who support that theory don’t doubt who ordered it, they just aren’t certain who might have pulled the trigger, though many point to a couple of suspects, including New York killer John “Frankie” Carbo.

A 2008 story about Siegel in the Las Vegas Sun, for instance, notes that Carbo and another hit man, Frankie Carranzo, have been mentioned as Siegel’s “likely” killers.

Others also point the finger at Carbo.

According to New York journalist and author Larry McShane, even former Philadelphia Mafia boss Ralph Natale, later a Mob turncoat, believes the Siegel hit was carried out by Carbo and was set up by Lansky, Siegel’s childhood friend.

Bugsy Siegel Mugshot
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel

West Coast hit man Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, who temporarily served as head of the Los Angeles crime family before becoming a government witness, supported the Carbo theory. Fratianno’s telling of it is laid out in a 1980 book about his criminal life, The Last Mafioso, by Ovid Demaris, one of the authors of The Green Felt Jungle.

In the book, Fratianno claims that L.A. Mafia boss Jack Dragna told him Carbo did the killing on Lansky’s orders.

The motive: Siegel was a dreamer who had been dreaming with “important” people’s money in constructing the Flamingo. Messing with someone else’s money is the “fastest way to get clipped,” Dragna told Fratianno, according to the book.

One who disagrees with the Mob hit theory is Bernie Sindler, an emissary of Lansky’s in Las Vegas during that era.

In a 2017 interview at The Mob Museum with author Geoff Schumacher, the museum’s senior director of content, Sindler, now in his 90s, said killing Siegel would have required permission from Charles “Lucky” Luciano, “who was the head of everything.” Luciano would not have given permission because Lansky, who was close to Luciano, would not have allowed the killing to happen, Sindler said in the interview.

According to Sindler, that made Siegel “untouchable.”

Bugsy Siegel
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel circa early to mid-1940s. Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections.

The alleged financial motive for wanting Siegel killed was not a factor, Sindler indicated in the interview. Lansky paid back any Flamingo investor who wanted out, and by May 1947, after the hotel-casino had reopened, it raked in $10 million in four weeks, Sindler said.

Moreover, the method used to kill Siegel was out of sync with the Mob way of doing things. Firing a weapon from outside a house increases the risk of missing, Sindler said. That is not how Mob hit men carried out their deadly assignments. The preferred method was a shot to the back of the head by a killer seated behind the victim in a car. That sort of killing reduces the risk of missing.

The shooter, Sindler contended, was one of Virginia Hill’s brothers, a U.S. Marine named either Bob or Bill — he couldn’t remember which. The Marine brother was stationed at Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, California.

About two weeks before the Flamingo opened in late 1946, just after the end of World War II, Sindler saw Virginia Hill and her military brother in front of the Flamingo, arguing about Siegel beating her up. Siegel and Hill had a love-hate relationship, Sindler said, adding that Siegel’s beatings left her with bruises.

Standing in front of the Flamingo, Sindler heard Virginia Hill’s brother say he was going to kill Siegel. Sindler’s response: “You shouldn’t talk that way around here because if people hear this, they are going to take it the wrong way.”

Months later, after the Flamingo reopened, Virginia Hill moved to Europe, and Siegel was gunned down, Sindler noted. One of her brothers, Chick Hill, had been at the house in Beverly Hills when Siegel was killed.

In 1966, Virginia Hill died of an overdose of sleeping pills in Austria. She was 49.

Meanwhile, the quest for an answer to the Siegel murder continues.

Some suspect his death was the result of a feud over control of the race wire in the West. Others believe Chicago or Detroit operatives might have orchestrated the hit.

No one was ever charged in the killing.

Until the end of his life, Siegel’s friend Allen Smiley knew that people would want to know who did the shooting.

In her 2016 memoir Cradle of Crime: A Daughter’s Tribute, Luellen Smiley, Allen Smiley’s daughter, recalls asking her dad about the Siegel killing. This was toward the end of Allen Smiley’s life in the early 1980s while he was at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles with a failing liver.

She asked her dad, “Did you ever find out who …”

“The answer is no,” Allen Smiley said, adding that after he was gone people would ask her that question.

His assessment was accurate. With the June anniversary of the shooting once again approaching, people are still asking not only of Luellen Smiley, but in general, “Who killed Ben Siegel?”

The answer: No one knows for sure.

Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. Henry taught journalism at Haas Hall Academy in Bentonville, Arkansas, and now is the headmaster at the school’s campus in Rogers, Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.