Car bombings once popular mob tactic in Las Vegas

Lethal car bombings are part of Las Vegas lore, though most incidents occurred decades ago.

Car bombing was a popular mob tactic here in the 1970s and 1980s for two reasons, according to Dennis Arnoldy, a retired FBI agent.

“It’s a pretty efficient way to do something. And it’s certainly a way to grab attention,” said Arnoldy, who worked on FBI investigations of Las Vegas street crimes by members of the Chicago branch of the Mafia.

The device that triggered the Monday explosion at the Luxor was not a conventional car bomb because it sat atop the vehicle. Typically a car bomb is placed in a car and then wired to detonate by a trigger, which can be the car’s ignition or a remote control.

Review-Journal files show the following:

• In July 1972, a prominent local attorney, William Coulthard, died in a car bombing in downtown Las Vegas. The afternoon explosion happened when the former FBI agent — Las Vegas’ first resident agent — was starting his car, which had been parked in the garage of a downtown bank. The device involved dynamite.

The case went unsolved. At the time of his death, the lawyer was part owner, through marriage, of the land on which Binion’s Horseshoe stood. The landowners were locked in bitter negotiations with the Binions. News accounts have said Coulthard was estranged from the other land owners, who were his wife’s siblings.

• In January 1977, unexploded car bombs were found on two cars on the same night. One car was parked outside the Village Pub, a restaurant on Koval Lane, and the other outside the Starboard Tack, a restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. Both restaurants were embroiled in labor disputes with the Culinary union.

The car bombs were linked to a murder a few weeks later, that of local Culinary union boss Al Bramlet. Tom Hanley, a notorious Las Vegas tough and labor racketeer, and his son Gramby Hanley pleaded guilty to the murder and were sentenced to life without parole. Testimony indicated the Hanleys went after Bramlet because he had ordered them to commit the car bombings, but refused to pay when the devices failed to detonate.

• In July 1981, the family of Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, had a brush with a failed car bomb. Landra Reid, the senator’s wife, discovered the device when, one evening, she checked under the hood of the Reids’ car. The engine had been running rough for several days.

Metropolitan police removed the device, which apparently was intended to cause the gas tank to explode when the vehicle started.

That April, Harry Reid had left the Nevada Gaming Commission after four years as its chairman. Two months before the Reid bomb incident, another former Nevada gaming commissioner, George Swarts, had been targeted with a car bomb, which also failed.

The era was marked by confrontations between Nevada gaming officials and casino owners and managers over hidden ownerships and skimming operations at the Tropicana, Stardust and other hotels. No suspects was arrested in the Reid or Swarts case.

• In October 1982, the Cadillac of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal burned to a crisp after an explosive caused the gas tank to blow up. Rosenthal, a reputed mobster, was injured, but survived by rapidly bailing out from the driver’s seat. The explosion occurred in the parking lot outside a Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Sahara Avenue, after Rosenthal had eaten dinner with friends.

“FBI: Chicago mob put ‘hit’ on Rosenthal,” was the Review-Journal headline two days later. “It was either a muffed job or a warning,” a police officer told the newspaper.

Rosenthal was a former Stardust executive at the time of the attack. FBI affidavits had identified him as a Las Vegas overseer for Chicago organized crime. No suspect was ever identified.

• In July 1986, Review-Journal columnist Ned Day suffered the torching, not bombing, of his Volvo while it was parked overnight near his apartment. Police determined a flammable liquid had been poured around the car, and then ignited.

Day, who had written extensively about organized crime in Las Vegas, believed that associates of Tony Spilotro might have burned his car to show displeasure with his reporting. He also believed that mob associates were responsible for an earlier incident, which resulted in dents to the Volvo. A year after the car arson, Day died of a heart attack while vacationing in Hawaii.

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