Plan to open Las Vegas ‘mob museum’ gains FBI support

Associated Press Writer
Glenwood Springs, Colorado

LAS VEGAS (AP) ” The town that has always had a wink and a nod relationship with founding fathers like Bugsy, Lefty and Meyer plans to open a mob museum to capitalize on its early ties with organized crime.

“Let’s be brutally honest, warts and all. This is more than legend. It’s fact,” said Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former defense attorney whose clients once included mobsters Meyer Lansky and Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro. “This is something that differentiates us from other cities.”

The project has gained the support of the FBI and is guided by a retired FBI special agent. They say they are involved because you can’t tell the stories of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, his ally, Lansky, casino boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and others without telling the story of the lawmen who pursued them.

“This is a way to connect with the public and show the results of our work,” said Dan McCarron, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington.

Ellen Knowlton, who retired in 2006 as FBI agent in charge in Las Vegas and now chairs the not-for-profit museum organization, said FBI officials have offered to share photographs, transcripts of wiretaps and histories of efforts to contain and eradicate organized crime in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

“Despite the sort of edgy theme, this museum will be historically accurate and it will tell the true story of organized crime,” Knowlton said. “The plan is to give people a kind of gritty taste of what it would have been like to be not only a person involved or affiliated with organized crime, but also what it would have been like to be in law enforcement.”

Organizers know visitors will arrive with experiences of their own and Hollywood images from movies like “Bugsy,” “The Godfather” and “Casino.” They also realize documenting the mob’s history sometimes requires a leap of faith.

“If anybody out there finds a memo saying: ‘To the boys, from Meyer. Re: Bugsy. Kill him,’ We’d love to have it,” said Michael Green, a College of Southern Nevada history professor who is researching exhibits for the museum. “But we doubt it’s there.”

“Because of that, you have to do a lot of reconstructing, inferring and implying,” he said. “There’s a lot of winking we’re going to have to do.”

Lansky, who Green characterized as “the banker for organized crime” in the post-bootlegging years of the 1930s and 40s, was said to have partnered with Siegel in the El Cortez hotel before investing in Siegel’s grand plan to build the Flamingo hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Lansky and Siegel got organized crime interests to invest in Las Vegas,” Green said. Siegel spent $6 million before opening the vastly over-budget Flamingo in December 1946. His legend grew following his unsolved slaying in June 1947 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Spilotro and Rosenthal were associates in the 1970s, when Rosenthal ran several casinos including the Stardust. Spilotro was banned from casinos by Nevada gambling regulators in 1979, and faced several indictments stemming from FBI investigations before he was killed in 1986 and buried in an Indiana cornfield.

“What really cracked the mob was they got to the point they thought they were untouchable,” Green said, adding that organized crime was shoved out by FBI prosecutions, state crackdowns and casino purchases by corporate interests.

“The old timers were behind-the scenes guys. They wanted to fit into the town,” Green said, pointing to stories about Moe Dalitz, a Cleveland businessman who rescued the Desert Inn and Stardust casinos in the 1950s and 60s and built a hospital, golf courses and shopping centers.

“Was he tied to the mob or involved with the mob? Yes,” Green said. “A mobster? Harder to explain.”

Dennis Barrie, who directed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the popular International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., said he will design the as yet unnamed Las Vegas museum to show how organized crime and the fight against it shaped modern life.

“Whether it’s running the casinos in Las Vegas, or controlling cigarette sales or numbers or trash collection in any city, organized crime is part of the American culture,” Barrie said. “Everybody has a mob story or a brush with the mob world. Or they at least say they do.”

Officials expect to open the museum by 2010 in a postcard brick federal building that was the centerpiece of a dusty town of 5,100 residents when it opened in 1933.

Seventeen years later, in November 1950, the three-story combination courthouse-post office hosted a one-day hearing by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s traveling Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce.

The committee came to the city where gambling was legal to question Flamingo casino executive Moe Sedway about his ties to Siegel and Lansky, Green said, and state officials Bill Moore and Cliff Jones about whether they should also own casinos.

“The courtroom is one of the central focuses of the museum,” Barrie said, outlining plans to recall “the sensation that it created with a national audience when television brought organized crime into people’s living rooms.”

Organizers say paying visitors might be asked to decide as they arrive which side of the law they want to be on, and then be given a story line tracing the life of a famous lawman or mobster or a street cop or numbers runner.

“Were you a hit man? Were you a prosecutor? What choices do you have to make?” Green said. “We’re telling a story of things that are multisided.”

Organizers hope to have an area where visitors “can sit down in front of a camera and say, ‘I knew Bugsy,’ or ‘I saw Meyer,’ or whatever,” he said.

Goodman has pushed the idea of a mob museum since was elected in 1999. He brokered a deal for the city to buy the building in 2000 for $1, with the understanding it would be restored and renovated as a cultural center. Officials expect the final cost including renovations and retrofitting to reach almost $50 million.

About $15 million has been raised through grants, city funds, contributions and the sale of commemorative license plates that marked Las Vegas’ centennial in 2005.

Barrie said he thought about half the 40,000 square feet of floor space could be devoted to exhibits ” about the same size as the Spy Museum, which opened in 2002 and draws about 750,000 people a year.

Knowlton compared the Las Vegas museum with the Black Museum of Scotland Yard in London and the New York City Police Museum.

“There are crime museums and various kinds of collections that departments have,” Knowlton said, “but I have not seen or heard of anything of this nature.”

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