The way Frank Cullotta remembers it, he and fellow hoodlum-to-be Tony Spilotro would have been 13 or 14 years old when they were each sent to Montefiore School in the early 1950s.
Montefiore was a school for “troublemakers — kids who couldn’t get along anywhere else,” according to Cullotta, which is essentially what it still was when Chicago Public Schools got around to shutting it down last year.
Montefiore was just one of many such institutions to which society turned futilely in hopes of putting Cullotta and Spilotro on the right track.
Instead, they became career criminals and killers, Spilotro as the mob’s man in Las Vegas during the 1970s and Cullotta as his trusted “underboss.”
The two friends arrived at Montefiore separately within a week of each other.
Cullotta said he had been kicked out of his previous school after he and some other boys hung the principal out a second-floor window (presumably, by his feet.) Why? The principal had been harassing “us because we wore our pants real low,” Cullotta told me.
Cullotta doesn’t remember what Spilotro did to land there.
“I don’t think [Spilotro] was into criminal stuff then. But like me, he was a kid that most teachers couldn’t control,” Cullotta says in his new book, “The Rise and Fall of a ‘Casino’ Gangster,” his personal account of Spilotro’s exploits.
The two didn’t last long at Montefiore either.
Cullotta said he and Spilotro were in constant fights with the black students who formed a majority of the student body.
After one such fight, Cullotta says Spilotro’s older brother Vic helped them return to the school and abduct at gunpoint the leader of the kids they had been fighting. They pistol-whipped him before dumping him back off at the school, Cullotta said.
That not only got them expelled but also brought up on juvenile charges.
Spilotro was able to avoid punishment by arguing he worked at his father’s restaurant and that it would cause a hardship for the family if he was sent away.
Cullotta said he wasn’t as lucky and was sent to a reformatory for six months.
“It didn’t help. It just made me tougher because I fought more,” Cullotta, now 78, told me by phone last week.
“I met a lot of people in there,” he said. “Most of them later died or were killed. So you never met good people on your way up. It just added to the kind of person you were going to turn out being.”
Soon after his release, Cullotta got in trouble again and drew nine months at what today is called the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, a state-run juvenile prison for boys.
“None of these places help. None of these places help you be a good boy. None of them do. You’re in there with the same type of people you are,” Cullotta said.
“Jail is the same thing,” he added. “None of it helps. You’ve got to want to help yourself. You get smarter when you go to jail.”
Cullotta said he and Spilotro were maybe 18 or 19 when their criminal paths crossed again, teaming up to rob a rural Indiana bank with a low-level gangster on his way up — named Joey Lombardo — later known as “The Clown.”
Over the next few years, they collaborated on a series of other crude robberies and burglaries, which soon gave way to the serious stuff as Spilotro worked his way up through the mob.
Why did I bother to tell you so much about the early years of two criminals from long ago?
Because for all the advancements in education and corrections, we’re still handling troubled youth pretty much like we did when Cullotta and Spilotro were coming up — and getting the same results.
And for some folks, maybe that’s easier to see when the criminals in question are white.