Joseph Yablonsky, the controversial and outspoken former head of the FBI’s Las Vegas field office, died Tuesday morning in Florida, his daughter said. He was 90.
The self-proclaimed “King of Sting” and so-called father of undercover operations at the FBI, Yablonsky wasn’t a well-known name until he reached Las Vegas.
After spending less than a year as the head of Cincinnati’s field office, Yablonsky was sent to Las Vegas in 1980. The city and its culture were new to him, but he was intimately familiar with the world of white-collar crime.
“It’s a tremendous challenge, let’s say, in the twilight of my career to get this kind of assignment,” he told the Review-Journal shortly after his arrival. “Having dealt with the more sophisticated crime types, I feel that I have a greater understanding about what some of the solutions might be.”
He began making headlines immediately. Yablonsky believed the mob was still at work skimming from casinos, and announced a month after his arrival that his office would take on organized crime.
Yablonsky frequently and publicly butted heads with figures such as future Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, Hank Greenspun of the Las Vegas Sun and then-Gaming Control Board Chairman Richard Bunker.
He was well-spoken and outspoken, frequently insisting that the local media fostered anti-law enforcement and anti-government sentiments in Nevada, hindering his office’s investigations. In 1982, he refused to speak in front of a Rotary Club audience until a Las Vegas Sun reporter was forced to leave.
“This town doesn’t want to get straightened out. It has a certain attitude, which is don’t mess up our thing here,” Yablonsky told the Review-Journal in 1982.
He took down five political leaders in 1983 in one of the biggest public corruption cases in Nevada history: Operation Yobo, which was named after a nickname locals had given him. State Sens. Floyd Lamb and Gene Echols, Clark County Commissioners Woodrow Wilson and Jack Petitti and Reno City Councilman Joe McClelland were caught up in one of Yablonsky’s sting operations.
All five were convicted of bribery charges, though McClelland’s guilty verdict was overturned.
Yablonsky became notorious when he set his sights on U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne. It started in December 1980, when Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte, on the lam outside the country after he was convicted of tax evasion, made a deal with prosecutors in exchange for information on officials he said he had bribed. Claiborne was one of them.
Conforte told the FBI he gave Claiborne, who was his defense attorney before he became a judge, bribes to pass on to federal appeals court judges in an attempt to reverse his tax conviction.
Yablonsky convinced Conforte to return to the states and testify against Claiborne before a federal grand jury. He offered Conforte millions of dollars in tax breaks in exchange for his testimony, thinking the director of the IRS would help him. But that fell through when the IRS couldn’t verify the allegations against the judge.
Regardless, his claims led to the first impeachment of a federal judge in 50 years, with Claiborne convicted of two counts of filing false tax returns. Claiborne served his two-year sentence and paid the $10,000 fine, but he denied the allegations.
An investigation by the Sun in 1982 uncovered government misconduct in the FBI investigation, but Yablonsky defended his methods. The scandal continued after Yablonsky turned 55, the FBI’s mandatory retirement age, and left the bureau in 1983 after more than 30 years.
“Everything was totally legitimate,” Yablonsky told the Review-Journal. “The investigation was totally under the color of law. What more can I say?”
He left town shortly after.
Yablonsky was born Dec. 29, 1928, in Newark, New Jersey. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army and received a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University before his FBI career began.
His first assignment as a special agent was in Springfield, Illinois, in 1952. Over the next 21 years, he worked in Albuquerque, New York City and Miami, becoming a pioneer in undercover operations under J. Edgar Hoover’s nose.
“J. Edgar Hoover didn’t sanction that kind of operation. He could not see one of us playing a dirty role and violating the clean-cut image he liked,” Yablonsky told the Review-Journal in 1980.
Yablonsky knew he was no “stereotype of the all-American,” as he put it. But his cigar-chewing, rough-around-the-edges persona worked in his favor while working undercover with career criminals. He once joked to a Review-Journal reporter, “you wouldn’t buy a used car from me.”
Yablonsky slipped into the roles of a crooked attorney, an art buyer and a jewel expert, among others, and was never discovered during his operations.
In the years following his retirement, he was suspected of bank fraud and became the subject of several investigations, but he was never charged.
Yablonsky may have left town, but his memory remains. He’s been mentioned in several books about the Las Vegas mob, and locals in the know will always remember Yobo Joe.