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Former Chicago mobster-turned-government witness Frank Cullotta dies in Nevada hospital

Frank Cullotta served as a mob associate from the mid 1950s until 1982 and had admitted to committing more than 300 burglaries, 200 thefts, 25 arson and two murders.

Frank Cullotta capitalized on his criminal past by giving mob tours in Las Vegas.
Sun-Times archive

Frank Cullotta, a notorious Chicago mobster-turned-government witness who later capitalized off his criminal past by giving tours in Las Vegas, died early Thursday morning of COVID-19 complications in a Nevada hospital, the Mob Museum said in a blog post last week. He was 81.

Cullotta, a mob associate from the mid 1950s until 1982, has admitted to committing more than 300 burglaries, 200 thefts, 25 arson and two murders, the Sun-Times previously reported.

He later became a government witness and helped in the prosecution of mobsters in Chicago and Las Vegas. More specifically, he identified the top bosses of the Chicago mob, the Sun-Times reported at the time.

It’s hard to say what exactly drew Cullotta to his life of crime, though some environmental factors might have influenced him.

Born in 1938, Cullotta grew up in “The Patch” on Chicago’s Near West Side, which was full of mobsters. His father, Joe Cullotta, was a criminal, who died in a police chase in the 1940s, the Sun-Times previously reported.

Cullotta wasn’t particularly enamored with school and he wasn’t really skilled in sports, said Geoff Schumacher, who got to know the former mobster in his later life as the vice president of exhibits and programs for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

But stealing came natural to Cullotta.

“Frank usually described himself as a thief or he liked to steal, and a lot of times when you talk about mobsters you don’t think of them just as one kind of criminal, they’re involved in all kinds of stuff,” Schumacher told the Sun-Times on Sunday. “But Frank’s specialty became stealing.”

Cullotta joined his boyhood friend and Las Vegas mob boss Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro in Las Vegas in 1979. There, he became the leader of the infamous burglary ring known as the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” which entered homes and businesses by drilling giant holes in walls and roofs.

But after a botched robbery in 1982, the FBI told Cullotta that Spilotro had ordered a hit on him, the Sun-Times previously reported. Cullotta entered witness protection and became a government witness.

His former FBI handler Dennis Arnoldy recently told the Las Vegas Review Journal that Cullotta was “the single most important witness in the breakup of Spilotro’s criminal organization.”

“He had the inside information and how it all was happening,” Arnoldy added.

In a 2007 Sun-Times article, Cullotta said he was a changed man.

“I probably couldn’t kill a fly now, really,” said Cullotta, a then-68-year-old grandfather.

Schumacher said Cullotta “expressed regret” for his criminal past.

“He did not see himself as a sociopath or someone who enjoyed killing people, that’s for sure,” Schumacher said. “He felt like in the two cases at least that he was involved in that he was following orders. He looks at it like being a soldier in war and his bosses ordered this to be done and so you do what the boss tells you to do. I don’t think he took any pleasure in it.”

In his later life, Cullotta, who always maintained his distinctly thick Chicago accent, Schumacher said, lived in an undisclosed location, with a different identity. He had a cameo role as a hitman in the 1995 mob film “Casino.” He also made a living telling mob stories, while pointing out places where key events in Las Vegas occurred.

“It was always important to remember when assessing Frank Cullotta that in fact... he was a very notorious criminal and committed murders, which are unforgivable,” Schumacher said. “But in his later life, he became a very effective public speaker and storyteller. He had great memory recall of the details of events he was involved in, and so he was very authentic... and people loved it.”