Detroit mobster Jack Tocco’s death of natural causes this past week generated barely a ripple of notice in Southern Nevada.
But there was a time in the early 1980s when the mere mention of the name of the notorious boss of the Motor City mafia was enough to set state and federal law enforcement on the hunt for gangsters in the neon. In Tocco’s case, the search for mob connections in the casino business led from Detroit, through Las Vegas and down to Laughlin on the Colorado River.
For his part, Tocco spent most of his adult life denying his status as a boss with claims of everything from ethnic discrimination to the sins of the father being visited upon the son. Before a racketeering conviction in the 1990s, his only criminal hit had come for attending a cockfight — not exactly the kind of thing a wiseguy wants to brag about around the social club. Murder, sure, robbery, maybe. But watching roosters brawl?
The minor conviction fit in nicely with Tocco’s effort to keep a low profile on the street. He owned a racetrack and was suspected of maintaining shadowy ties, but for the most part he stayed out of the newspapers.
That changed after the FBI and federal prosecutors patched together a historic racketeering case that associated Tocco with Detroit’s lively organized crime history — including its influence at the Frontier on the Strip and the Edgewater in Laughlin. (In a separate case federally prosecuted by Stan Hunterton, now a longtime Las Vegas private practice attorney, the feds rooted out Detroit’s hidden ownership at the Aladdin.)
The Frontier influence dated to the 1960s, but that was ancient history three decades later. The Edgewater connection was far more intriguing, but hardly shocked locals who had learned about big mob casino influence cases just a few years earlier involving the Tropicana and Stardust and other joints.
A key figure in the Edgewater case was a seemingly small-time character named William Pompili, who invested in the deal and appeared to fly under the radar with gaming regulators. He was, the FBI later determined, connected to Tocco and the Detroit mob.
One of my favorite Edgewater stories involves an investor who plunked down from $250,000 to $400,000 in cash. What was the source of those untraceable greenbacks?
A shoebox his father left him.
That must have been some shoe box. And that begs a question: Would he have invested more if his papa had bigger feet?
State gaming agents were intrigued by the Edgewater’s shoebox investor, and they were downright fascinated by Emmett Munley’s presence in the deal. Like Pompili, Munley had worked at the Aladdin under its Detroit influence.
Munley didn’t make the cut, and the mob stench followed him for many years. After busting out in Nevada, he generated headlines in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1994 noted that he’d received $820,000 from a Potawatomi Bingo and Casino management firm even after he’d pulled out of the Indian gaming deal.
By the time the Edgewater was sold to Circus Circus Enterprises in 1983, according to one published report, it was $7 million in debt. One FBI estimate placed the alleged skim from the casino at $10 million, a remarkable figure for a small gambling hall in that era. Pompili, the government claimed, was the inside man throughout the time it was connected to the Detroit mob.
Not surprisingly, the view wasn’t unanimous. Pompili was connected, but he beat the rap the hard way by dying of cancer in 1987.
Retired Gaming Control investigator Fred Balmer told the Detroit Free Press, “There was no doubt in our minds it was the Detroit family. It was pretty clear to us that the money was questionable and many of the initial investors couldn’t document the source of their money.”
But FBI agents didn’t share all they knew with state regulators, according to published reports, and by the time the licensing dust settled the Edgewater was in business with Pompili in a coveted position as food and beverage manager. He also employed relatives on site and appeared to have the run of the place.
Tocco’s name didn’t surface in connection with the Edgewater ownership until years later when he was hit with a soup-to-nuts RICO indictment. He was eventually convicted and received a two-year sentence.
When he returned to civilian life, he continued to live comfortably in a Detroit suburb.
For many years, Tocco and his family enjoyed the Detroit-to-Vegas junket gravy train for the well-connected. Back then, players with casino clout received everything from airline tickets to lobster dinners on the house in exchange for their generous play at the tables. The difference in the case of the Toccos, Zerillis and Giacalones was, no one whispered a word whether they gambled a bucket of nickels or the price of a Grosse Pointe mansion.
They were people who knew people, get it?
Their presence was especially honored at the Aladdin during Jimmy Tamer’s influence and at Caesars Palace when the Teamsters and their friends held insider status.
Now Jack Tocco is gone, and it appears he’s taken the last of Detroit’s notorious ties to Las Vegas with him.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.