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Mobster’s biographer scoops clueless Illinois detectives, fingers 1981 killer

Dennis Griffin admits he’s no Shakespeare, just a retired New York health care fraud investigator who had a story to tell and caught the writing bug when he retired in 1994.

Since then he’s churned out 10 books, none of which will make you forget Hemingway or compare him to Steinbeck. But Griffin has done something none of those other mopes ever accomplished: He wrote a book, “Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness,” that’s helping to solve a real-life murder mystery.

Published in 2007 by Huntington Press, the work serves as the biography of Frank Cullotta, the childhood friend of Chicago Outfit enforcer Anthony Spilotro. Cullotta was an undistinguished street criminal who in the early 1980s joined Spilotro’s violent Las Vegas street crew. He committed crimes ranging from robbery to murder, then became a key government witness in its investigation of the mob’s influence in Las Vegas.

Fast-forward to 2008. An Illinois woman named Holly Hager picked up a copy of “Cullotta,” and nearly screamed when she reached page 130, which gave details of the June 1981 murders of bar owner Ronald Scharff and waitress Patricia Freeman at the P.M. Pub in Lakemoor, Ill. Scharff was the best friend of Hager’s father, Jim Hager. The murders had gone unsolved, and McHenry County detectives claimed to be stumped about the killer’s identity.

In the book, Cullotta named Spilotro intimidator Larry Neumann as the murderer of Scharff and Freeman. And Cullotta would know. After serving time in prison with Neumann, Cullotta introduced him to Spilotro’s gang. As Cullotta recalled during his law enforcement debriefing, Neumann admitted committing the murders because Scharff had thrown his ex-wife out of the tavern.

David Groover, then a Metro detective investigating Spilotro’s crew, wrote five succinct paragraphs about the murders during Cullotta’s debriefing. The alleged killer, a possible accomplice, and a motivation for the crime were given. Scharff had been killed for the perceived slight. Freeman was murdered because she was a witness.

Cullotta’s Metro and FBI handlers didn’t sit on the information. They quickly informed McHenry County authorities, who could not have been surprised to hear Neumann’s name. After all, he already had been identified as a possible suspect by Scharff’s best friend, Jim Hager.

Not only did the McHenry County detectives fail to act, they appeared to go out of their way to attempt to damage Cullotta’s credibility.

These days Scharff’s son, Paul Scharff, is aggressively seeking to have McHenry County officials finally name Neumann as the killer.

It’s not for justice, but for a sense of closure.

Neumann died in prison in January 2007 after a lengthy criminal career that included at least six murders, including a 1956 triple homicide from which he managed to gain release. The sheriff and detectives from McHenry County who criticized Cullotta back in the early 1980s are gone, too.

But Paul Scharff, who was just a boy at the time of his father’s murder, has lived with the dark memory every day since then.

In an Amazon.com review of “Cullotta,” he wrote, “I have never written a review for a book before, but I never had a book IMPACT my life like this one. From the book ‘Cullotta,’ I discovered who killed my father and his barmaid 27 years ago.”

That beats a New York Times review any day.

“It’s actually very uplifting, particularly so since I’ve actually gotten to know Paul Scharff,” Griffin says. “He’s just a real super guy. That makes me feel all the better that perhaps the book will help him and his family.”

It would be an ending most authors would reject as too implausible to be believed. For Griffin, it’s just another twist in a very real story.

“Paul Scharff is convinced they (McHenry County detectives) are actually seriously looking into the events surrounding the killings,” Griffin says. “We think it’s more than just paying lip service. We think they’re actually fully engaged with it.”

By phone from an undisclosed location, Cullotta says it’s about damned time.

“It’s taken them so long it’s ridiculous,” the 70-year-old reformed hoodlum says in his biting Chicago accent. “The kid wants closure, and can you blame him?”

For author Dennis Griffin, it would be an ending the literary greats would envy.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

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