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A DEATH IN SIN CITY
Las Vegas, Nevada: October 28, 1988
Las Vegas is like no other place in the world. The city has a worldwide reputation for nonstop partying, gambling, and the availability of any kind of sex you can think of, and some that can’t be conjured up even on the mind-bending drugs that were as plentiful as popcorn in a movie theater.
And when you owned the hottest club in town, every night was a party. My name is Gianni Russo and I owned that club, cleverly called Gianni Russo’s State Street. My name and reputation brought the beautiful people into my club; celebrities mingled with gangsters, politicians, megarich titans of industry from around the world, and the occasional U.S. president.
I was reaping the benefits of my acting career, connections to the mob, international political and religious affiliations, and just plain brass balls. In the world in which I traveled, you needed all that, plus glibness and a take-no-bullshit personality, coupled with a willingness to take chances. And I took chances, many of which I think back on today and wonder how I have survived to tell my story.
I played Carlo Rizzi in the movie The Godfather, Don Corleone’s Judas son-in-law, whose betrayal cost the heir apparent to the crime family and oldest boy, Sonny, his life. While that role launched my show-business career, I didn’t get to where I was at the tender age of thirty-nine without having been associated with some of the most powerful people in the world, many legitimate, but most not so much.
But on this cool autumn night, I was thinking in the moment, my mind racing, greeting every one of my three hundred–plus patrons, and trying to focus on everything around me. This was a ten-thousand-square foot high-end club with prices to match, and with a very cohesive and jovial crowd, but you never knew what could happen in the blink of an eye with booze flowing like water spilling over the Hoover Dam, and people flying on enough coke and other drugs to keep Charlie Sheen happy for a month.
I’d opened the club in 1981 in a vacant building off a strip mall, located between the Sahara Hotel and the Hilton International Hotel. My intention was to attract my celebrity friends, who would, in turn, draw high-rolling tourists and politicians looking for photo ops.
The club was a success from the jump. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Paul Anka, Engelbert Humperdinck, Louis Prima, Wayne Newton, the two Dons (King and Rickles), and numerous other A-listers made the club their second home. Stephen Shirripa, who would later become an actor and star on The Sopranos, was one of my doormen. But you don’t attract and keep big names as customers, friends of mine or not, unless you provided great food, flash, and class. I also went all out on the décor, both inside and outside.
The club was located at the end of the dimly lit State Street. I had freshly painted Dumpsters on the street, which overflowed with what appeared to be mountains of garbage (in reality, bags stuffed with newspapers), to give the impression of a depressed, tough neighborhood, so that people would get the feeling they were slumming. At the end of the street, where a patron had to turn a corner to get to the club, that all changed; what assaulted the senses was opulence on steroids.
A fifty-foot red carpet ended at the club’s red-and-white awning entrance. The door was flanked by two mirror-polished brass plaques with my name in flaring cursive writing, announcing their arrival at Gianni Russo’s State Street. Patrons were greeted by doormen in formal wear when they were admitted after knocking on the door, and perused by a blinking eye through a peephole. Customers loved the decadence of it all.
Once inside, a small army of the best-looking men and women in Vegas greeted them. I hired only beautiful people, all required to wear tuxedos, although the women accessorized with black stockings under tight-fitting shorts, and revealing crisp white shirts, topped off with bow ties. Eighty-six women worked in shifts, serving food and drinks, while the men tended bar and did any required heavy lifting. Every woman who entered my club got a long-stemmed rose from me personally, which set the mood for what was to come: an evening of fine dining, great live music, and enough people-watching to cause a bad case of whiplash.
Nothing much impressed me anymore, having been around the block more than once, but every day I marveled at the sheer energy of the club—the electricity in the air, the customers trying to outdress one another, as if to say, Look at me; I’m sharp, rich, young, and ready to party!
I’d come a long way from being a crippled, tough New York kid with little formal education and no prospects for the future. I was successful and loving every minute of it.
* * *
I heard the commotion before I knew what was causing it. Gales of laughter, shouts across the room in greeting, boisterous applause for my piano player, these were the norm, but this was the sound of a collective sucking in of air, coupled with gasps and a high-pitched scream.
I pushed through the crowd to a booth at the back end of the main dining room. A group of customers was standing there frozen, staring at a small woman, well dressed, who sat in a booth with her hands to her face, crying hysterically as she tried to staunch a current of blood flowing through her fingers, a male figure hovering over her.
I grabbed the guy by the shoulder and spun him around. He appeared to be Hispanic, about thirty, maybe five foot six, and was thin and well dressed in a suit and tie. I recognized him and the woman as a couple who had arrived at the club less than a half hour ago. The red rose I had presented to the lady now lay on the table and was drenched with a different shade of crimson.
She had been slashed on the face and had suffered severe, deep wounds around her left eye. There was no uniformity to the cuts as would have been evident if made with a knife. She appeared to have gotten jabbed a few times with cut glass.
“Hey, motherfucker, get your fucking hands off me!” the man hollered, his eyes wild with fury as I shoved him away from the woman.
“What happened to you?” I asked as I gently pried her hand away from her face and replaced it with a linen napkin. I got wailing sobs in response.
The crowd began to retreat backward as the sound of sirens emerged in the distance. Someone had called the cops, and, I assumed, an ambulance.
I grabbed the woman’s date by a lapel. “Get the fuck out of here. Now!” I gave him a shove and he banged into the table. I could handle the police; I knew every cop on the force, but a bloody brawl in a licensed premise was a quick way to lose that license.
The guy bounced off the table and went for the woman. “She’s coming with me, man.”
“She’s not going any-fucking-where, shithead. She needs medical attention,” I told him.
I had one eye on him and the other on his date. I didn’t see a weapon, which turned out to be a broken champagne bottle that this dickhead still had in his hand, held down alongside his leg and hidden from my view.
He yelled something unintelligible, and in a nanosecond, he brought the jagged bottle up and slashed at my face. I was quick enough to tilt my head backward, but he caught me on the chin in a sweeping motion that would later take eighty-four stitches to close. Customers began to take off for the exits.
I felt no immediate pain but realized I was cut when an ocean of blood erupted from the wound. Edged-weapon wounds on thin skin over bone bleed profusely, and he had gotten me square on a bone. Blood was everywhere.
My custom-made Nat Weiss Sea Island cotton shirt was covered in blood, with enough left over to splatter my new Brioni suit. I was enraged; I’d waited six months for that shirt. I’d been hurt badly in the past by professionals, and I could handle that, but fuck with my wardrobe and you’ve got a problem.
I swerved back to get fighting room as Bottleman made another lunge at me, yelling, “Fuck you!”
I was armed with two gold-plated, five-shot custom-made .25-caliber revolvers in the pockets of my vest, and I was duly licensed by the state of Nevada to carry them.
He slashed at me and missed. I drew one of the guns and fired a shot into his forehead. He stood there in amazement as he brushed at his face as if swatting a mosquito. This guy was shot between the eyes and he wasn’t reacting. In fact, it pissed him off; I figured he had to be coked up and not feeling any pain. I made a quick mental note to get a bigger-caliber gun. He came for me again, and I parried to the right to avoid the bottle while putting another round in his head and three more in his chest. He went down like a dumped load of wet laundry and lay still, very dead.
My heart was pumping like an air hammer as a platoon of cops came charging into the club. I was covered with blood and had a dead guy at my feet. This was not the way I had planned my evening.
* * *
The cops were great, professional and accommodating. I’d had a great working relationship with the LVPD over the years and took good care of them. They ate and drank well in my club and never got a check, which was probably the reason I was being interviewed in my office instead of cuffed to a bed in some emergency room while they sorted out the particulars of the shooting.
I was being questioned by a captain named Koontz while the morgue attendants dealt with the dead guy and detectives interviewed witnesses. Koontz and I went back many years.
“So, Gianni, I’m assuming you shot this asshole after he cut you, right?” Koontz was a big guy with over twenty years on the job and knew what questions to ask so I wouldn’t incriminate myself.
I was holding a towel to my wound to stop the bleeding. I didn’t want to go to the hospital until I got the preliminaries out of the way. “Shooting? What shooting?” I deadpanned.
Koontz mumbled something about my being a wiseass and read me my rights, which was standard operating procedure just to cover his ass should I turn out to be the aggressor rather than a victim.
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “Fucking jerkoff cut up his girlfriend like she was a watermelon. How’s she doing, by the way?”
“Missed her eye by a millimeter. Lucky. What started the fight?”
“Who the fuck knows. I wasn’t invited until later.”
“Well, you killed a guy and we gotta go through the motions. No one’s disputing it was a good shooting, but the law’s the law.”
We went back and forth while he took notes, and in an hour I was in Sunrise Hospital, being stitched up by Dr. Elias Ghanem, who was also known as “Dr. Feelgood,” the late Elvis Presley’s personal physician and the man to see for anything that ailed you.
The next day, several friends suggested that I get good legal representation, should some zealot DA decide to make an example of me and charge me with a crime. Attorney Robert Shapiro’s name came up several times, and I decided to see him, just to have him handy should I require his services.
I made an appointment for the following morning, and after closing the club at 6:00 A.M., I flew to Los Angeles to meet the lawyer who would one day represent O. J. Simpson in his infamous double-murder case.
I was beyond exhausted when I arrived at Shapiro’s law firm. Shapiro was on the phone when I was ushered into his office. He motioned me to have a seat and raised a finger, which I assumed to mean he would be with me in a minute, not the half hour I spent listening to him gab with someone who apparently meant more to him than I did.
Finally, I couldn’t take this asshole’s rudeness anymore. I got up, leaned across his desk, grabbed the phone from his hand, and hung it up for him. He looked like the jury had just told him O.J. was not guilty—eyes wide, mouth agape, registering an expression of utter disbelief.
“Listen, jerkoff,” I said, “no one treats me like you just did. I had an appointment, and I’m watching you talk on the phone. Go fuck yourself. Have a nice day.”
I left L.A. determined to take care of my own problems.
* * *
I took it easy at home for the next few days, feeling absolutely no remorse about the shooting. This hadn’t been my first shooting incident and it wouldn’t be my last. It was a righteous homicide, in that I had been defending not only myself but anyone else in the club who might have become the victim of further slashings.
Captain Koontz called me and said that while I had nothing to worry about legally, I still might have a problem.
“What kind of problem?”
“The guy you iced, Lorenzo Morales, was in town to conduct business.”
I didn’t like where this was going. “What kind of business?”
“Cocaine business. Flew in from Colombia last week to set up a supply chain for his good friend Pablo Escobar.”
* * *
“My advice to you, Gianni, is to get this shit straightened out before you get a visit,” said Rex Bell, the district attorney of Las Vegas. He was my neighbor and a good friend. We were sitting in my living room, sipping drinks, a week after the shooting. “My office will go through the motions with the grand jury, but you’ve got to address your own safety.”
Pablo Escobar, for those of you who live in a cloistered convent, was the mass-murdering cocaine overlord of Colombia’s Medellín cartel, the biggest importer of cocaine to the United States in the world. I had just killed a highly placed emissary of his business, and common sense would dictate that he might be pissed off.
When Colombian drug dealers seek revenge, they do it in a big way to make a point. Before they kill the intended target, they kill the target’s family, his friends, his neighbors, and his friggin’ pets. Then, when it’s the target’s turn, he goes out in the most violent manner, usually tortured and left to be discovered in a public place.
“Straightened out how?”
Rex shrugged. “You know any Colombians in the trade?”
I thought about it. While I didn’t know anyone personally in the cartels, I knew people who knew connected people in Colombia, but I didn’t think I had a problem that I couldn’t handle. I had very close friends in organized crime, Italians, not Colombians, and I figured I was safe. After all, I was defending myself when I shot the asshole. The mob I knew had a sense of honor, and had I shot one of their own, I’d have gotten a pass because I wasn’t the aggressor and the dead guy was in the wrong; he had cut up a defenseless woman. I figured that all gangsters had a secret handshake and the incident would die on the vine.
I shared this notion with Rex.
“Hey, I bow to your superior knowledge in this area,” he said. After draining his glass, he got up to leave. “If they send you some kind of message, let me know.”
I got a message all right, and it wasn’t very subtle.
* * *
I lived in a very beautiful home on La Paloma Avenue, in an upscale section of Vegas. Cops and private security patrols cruised the area nonstop. So it was to my great surprise when I arrived home a few days later and found a “message” in the middle of the living room floor.
A four-foot circle of blood, surrounded by three bowls filled with dead chickens and salamanders with needles through their heads, greeted me. In the center of the circle were two pictures: one of me and another of my daughter, Carmen. These weren’t family snapshots taken off the mantel; they were surveillance pictures taken with a telephoto lens.
Shocked as I was at what I was looking at, my first thought was, Whoever did this had to be Houdini to get past my security system and locks. The house was locked up tighter than a crab’s ass, which is waterproof. To this day, it’s a mystery to me how anyone penetrated my high-tech security setup without leaving a trace. I was upset, not so much for me, but for the safety of my daughter.
I called Captain Koontz, who was at my house within minutes. He stared at the artwork on my floor and scratched his head. “What the fuck is it?”
“You’re supposed to tell me. It’s why you’re here,” I said.
“Let me make a call.”
He summoned an anthropology professor at the University of North Las Vegas, who knew exactly what it was as soon as she arrived.
“What you’ve got here,” she said, “is a Colombian death warning. You have enemies in Colombia?”
“Yeah, you might say that,” I said. Koontz rolled his eyes.
Now my family was involved. I wouldn’t trust my daughter’s safety to a deal between the Italians and Colombians. Even if I could arrange it, it might not work. I needed to handle this problem personally. While I had no contacts in the Medellín cartel, I knew people who probably did.
* * *
John Gotti had assumed command of the Gambino crime family with the demise of the family’s boss, Paul (“Big Paul”) Castellano, whose life came to an abrupt halt after he and his driver, Tommy Bilotti, were gunned down in front of Sparks Steak House in midtown Manhattan on December 16, 1985. Not many in the family liked Big Paul, because he was an elitist, greedy boss. Among his most ardent detractors was John Gotti, a Gambino captain of a Queens crew, who had Big Paul killed despite the murder not being sanctioned by the Commission—the governing body of the Mafia—which had to give the go-ahead when a boss was going to be whacked. John had declared himself the new boss of the Gambinos before Big Paul hit the ground.
Gotti, now three years into his reign, wasn’t that popular among the rank and file, either. I wasn’t a big fan, because he was too full of himself and enjoyed getting dogged by the media whenever he was out and about hitting the nightspots in Manhattan, which was often.
Gotti loved the spotlight and never truly got the message that the Mafia was a secret organization. His big mouth would eventually find him a permanent guest of the feds in the Unites States Penitentiary, in Marion, Illinois. The FBI had a big-time hard-on for the guy and made it its mission to see him behind bars.
He was no great fan of mine, either. While I wasn’t a made guy, I did command the respect of wiseguys, mainly because I was a man of my word, had included them in many of my moneymaking enterprises, and knew when to keep my mouth shut, which was always. I’d always liked my independence and didn’t want to be owned by a “family,” and being “made” was my idea of being a slave in a nice suit.
John was, however, the boss of the largest Mafia family in the country and as such had connections with other criminal entities all over the world. It was with this knowledge that I grudgingly sought him out to help me get the Colombian target off my family’s back. I’d do anything to protect my daughter, even if it meant seeking an audience with John Gotti.
To see a man of Gotti’s stature, you went to him; he didn’t come to you. His seat of power was the Ravenite Social Club, located at 247 Mulberry Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Little Italy. John held court there and enjoyed basking in the admiration—real or imagined—of his minions a few nights a week. I had arranged a sit-down with Gotti over the phone through “Joe (the German) Watts,” a Gambino enforcer and rabid loyalist.
I took a flight to LaGuardia Airport, planning to arrive early at the Ravenite so as to show respect to Gotti, which he demanded. Gotti once famously had a guy murdered because he chose not to comply with a summons from Gotti to meet him at the Ravenite. I figured if I got stuck in traffic, I might as well shoot myself. First and foremost was my daughter’s safety. If it took talking to Gotti with the respect I didn’t think he deserved, I’d do it.
I took a taxi to within two blocks of the Ravenite and hoofed it the rest of the way, seeking to be as low-profile as I could, a difficult task given Gotti’s notoriety. Before I entered the club, I waved to the unseen FBI agents in the tenement across the street, whose job it was to record the comings and goings of everything Gotti. I didn’t give a damn if they saw me; the only thing they could accuse me of was having lousy taste in friends. I knocked, and some goon let me in. The Ravenite Social Club was nothing like Gianni Russo’s State Street, that’s for damn sure.
Gotti was in the back room of the club, which looked like it had been decorated by Stevie Wonder. Nothing matched. He was seated in a red plastic chair at a Formica table, a glass of red wine close by. Joe Watts, forever the devotee, was standing behind the boss with his arms crossed over his chest. Watts would eventually serve heavy prison time for not flipping on Gotti when the Gambino boss was being betrayed to the feds by his underboss and others. Look up the word gangster in the dictionary and you should see a picture of Joe Watts. He believed in the Mafia, its history and blood oath. Always elegantly attired, Watts would be the one who would teach Gotti how to dress when he became a media darling. Prior to that, Gotti wore sweatsuits most of the time and didn’t know Brioni from baloney. Since then, Gotti had always dressed elegantly. His suits were top-shelf, as were his shirts and shoes. Always immaculately coiffed, his silver hair neat and in place, he looked like an executive, which I suppose he was, in a manner of speaking.
Gotti gave a condescending smile and we did the usual cheek kisses. Gotti nodded toward a chair. I sat.
“So,” he said with a mirthless smile, “you’re a fucking killer, now, huh?” He might have looked elegant on the outside, but as soon as he opened his mouth you knew whom you were dealing with—basically, a degenerate gambler whose command of the language was no better or worse than the soldiers who worked for him. A running joke was that whatever Gotti bet on, you did the opposite.
I had just walked in the door and he was busting my balls already. Because of my role in The Godfather, the shooting at my club had made the TV show Entertainment Tonight. Getting publicity was not something Gotti liked for anyone other than himself.
Gotti could be a loudmouthed drunk. I recall once when Frank Sinatra was performing at Carnegie Hall, his son, Frank Junior, was appearing at the same time at Tavern on the Green, in Central Park. Junior was no senior, but he had a decent voice and put on a good show.
On the night in question, Frank had given me a pile of tickets to see his son’s act. For a reason I’m still not able to figure out, I invited a few of the Gambinos, and so as not to incur the wrath of Gotti, I invited him, too. If Gotti felt slighted, he would take out his anger the best way he knew how, which was to kill the offender, so rather than deal with that, he became part of our entourage.
In between songs, Frank Junior would recount stories about his dad, which lent a homey, nostalgic slant to his act. Truth be told, most people came to see Junior’s act because of the stories he told about his dad.
Frank Junior would refer to his father as “Frank.” He had always done this in his act, and no one gave a damn—except for John Gotti. The more he drank, the meaner Gotti would get; he was a nasty, loudmouth drunk. On this particular night, Gotti took exception to Frank Junior’s calling his father by his first name, and he let everyone know it.
“Hey,” Gotti yelled from the audience, “he’s your father; have some respect!”
There were at least two hundred people in the audience, and when Gotti bellowed his disapproval, everything stopped, including Junior’s act. Junior laughed it off, dropped the patter, and went into a song. When he was finished, he started in again with “Frank this” and “Frank that.” I don’t know where he thought Gotti had gone, but now the Queens capo was pissed and felt disrespected.
“What’re you, some kinda fuckin’ jerk?” Gotti shouted. “I’m sittin’ right here, you fuckin’ mook. Call your father ‘Dad,’ or I’ll come up there and break your fucking legs.”
This time, Junior got the message. He went right to a song, which he dedicated to “my father.”
All was peaceful for the rest of the set, but this is the type of person Gotti was. He had a big mouth, and when oiled up, he wasn’t shy about using it.
* * *
Now in the Ravenite, I got down to my dilemma, laying it all out while Gotti listened. In the end, he said he’d set up a connection in Colombia but that the rest was up to me. While there had always been tension between us, and maybe one of the reasons he helped me was because I was highly thought of by people he respected, he came through for me. Or perhaps he was setting me up to get murdered and be out of his way for once and for all.
I was going to have a contact in Bogotá. What reception I was going to get was another matter. I can’t say I wasn’t concerned, but I had to face Escobar; there was no other way to go.
We’ll continue with my journey to Colombia to get the cartel off my back a little later in my story. As for the present, it’s better you know who I am and how factors I had no control over led me down a path that was littered with gangsters.
Copyright © 2019 by Gianni Russo