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Some wiseguys were killers while others really lived to kill

Jesus, don’t ever unleash that bastard on me, whatever you do.”

— Tony Spilotro to Frank Cullotta about Larry Neumann

In Frank Cullotta’s former line of work, a lot of guys killed people.

Although mob guys don’t fill out job applications, being capable of homicide was something of a prerequisite for employment in Tony Spilotro’s street crew.

Spilotro was suspected of many homicides, but was never convicted before his own murder in 1986. For his part, Cullotta knows plenty about killing, having admitted to the act himself prior to becoming a government witness in 1982.

I posed a loaded question to Cullotta during an interview last week. The subject was a 27-year-old double murder linked to Cullotta’s former criminal running mate, Larry Neumann.

“How much did Neumann like to kill people?” I asked.

Cullotta paused for a moment. You see, there are killers. And then there are people who live to kill.

“He was one of them guys who had that lust, that taste for blood,” Cullotta said. “I think he actually got off on it. Tony, Tony was not like that. But Larry, he liked to kill people.”

And Neumann did so at least six times. He was convicted in 1956 of a triple murder and sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. He won what even by Illinois’ legal standards must have been a mystery appeal. Cullotta later helped finger Neumann in the murder of Chicago jeweler Bob Brown. (Convicted of the Brown murder, Neumann was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and died in prison in 2007.)

Cullotta and Neumann met in the penitentiary. When Cullotta was released, he moved to Las Vegas to join Spilotro’s criminal crew, known in those days as “The Hole in the Wall Gang” for their signature burglary style. When Neumann got out, he followed Cullotta to Las Vegas and went to work as eager muscle for Spilotro.

When Neumann’s ex-wife called him in May 1981 to complain that a bar owner had roughed her up and kicked her out of the P.M. Pub in Lakemoor, Ill., Cullotta saw the blood rise in Neumann’s eyes and warned him not to bring more heat to their crew by killing anyone. He said he understood, but went to Illinois anyway. He returned a week later following the June murders of tavern owner Ronald Scharff and barmaid Patricia Freeman.

Thanks in part to Cullotta’s description of his conversations with Neumann as recalled in the Dennis Griffin biography, “Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness,” law enforcement is finally getting around to identifying the killer as Larry Neumann.

Former Metro detective Lou DeTiberiis dealt with Neumann several times and came away chilled to the bone.

“He was a full-blown psycho,” DeTiberiis said. “He was probably one of the few people in my career who scared me.”

When Neumann threatened the detective during a criminal trial, DeTiberiis took it seriously. He knew Neumann’s capabilities.

So did Metro detective David Groover, who worked Spilotro’s crew and Neumann. While most of the men in the Hole in the Wall Gang appeared anything but menacing, Neumann’s nickname was “Lurch.” If the gang had been a basketball team, Neumann would have played center.

“He was a guy who was working his way up,” Groover said. “They saw him as somebody they could use not only to run the street rackets, but on enforcement. He was a big guy.”

Groover pointed to a photo on the wall of his downtown private detective agency. It was the Hole in the Wall Gang at the Clark County Detention Center following a mass arrest. Neumann is in the background like the tallest kid at thug school. Next to him is a Spilotro crew member, Ernie Davino.

Davino might not have known it at the time, but the arrest probably saved his life. An increasingly nervous Spilotro believed Davino was cooperating with law enforcement and needed to go. Spilotro whispered to Cullotta, who turned to Larry Neumann.

“He wanted to cut Ernie Davino up in little bitty pieces and dispose of him in Lake Mead,” Cullotta said. “Tony made the choice Ernie should get killed. I approached Larry. He was glad to do it.”

The man who lived to kill couldn’t wait to kill again.

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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