February 12, 2012 - 2:00 am
The luckiest man in Las Vegas looks up from the pages of the morning newspaper and smiles. The cafe is busy with breakfast traffic, but he is almost anonymous — just the way Joey Cusumano likes it.
Time was, his name and face would have been splashed across those news pages. By anyone’s measure, Cusumano was notorious. According to the files of the FBI and Metro, he was the trusted confidant of Anthony Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s man in Las Vegas. But the fact is Cusumano was also a smooth operator who moved in many circles: business, labor, Hollywood and the mob.
He went from the streets of New York to the neon-lit sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard. Longtime locals might remember Joey’s New Yorker restaurant. Others with good memories will recall he once had the power of the pen at the Golden Nugget, held influence inside Argent Corp., and could get things done at the then-Chicago-connected Culinary Union. He even had sources inside the police department and local judicial and political machines.
That didn’t make him Mustache Pete, the boss of bosses or a hit man the caliber of his dear friend Spilotro, but it eventually served to make Cusumano a name synonymous with organized crime and its deeply rooted Las Vegas connections.
Whatever he once was, the prevailing truth in 2012 is that Cusumano is a survivor who refuses to betray the trust of his old friends even though most are long gone. If he weren’t a gentleman, he’d spit when informant Frank Cullotta’s name is mentioned. In a world where wanna-be wiseguys and government snitches make a living telling stories — and often tall tales — he keeps a low profile and works on enjoying a good life.
The pair of slugs he carries in his shoulder, souvenirs from a 1990 assassination attempt, don’t keep him from playing a competitive game of tennis every day. He walks his rescue greyhounds at sunrise, lingers over coffee and the Review-Journal, then spends the rest of his morning on the tennis courts.
There was a time those weren’t the courts he was concerned with.
On this morning, the past and present mix. As one of the few remaining survivors of Spilotro’s inner circle, Cusumano brings a unique perspective to the table — especially given the stunning change in the way Las Vegas has decided to treat its mobbed-up past.
The truth the city fathers once denied under oath has morphed into a 21st century marketing concept: the use of the mob and its imagery to promote half-clever attractions such as the Tropicana’s bankrupted “Las Vegas Mob Experience” and the soon-to-open National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement at the historic downtown post office.
The irony is not lost on Cusumano, who has a 1987 racketeering conviction and was placed in the state’s Black Book of persons banned from Nevada casinos in June 1990. Although the Tropicana can promote a mob attraction, he can’t set foot on the property.
“I’m at the point in my life that I really don’t care,” he says. “I’m 76 years old. They say if you’re a felon they have a right to put you in the Black Book. I personally thought, and still think, that the Gaming Commission was after publicity. Guys like me, like Tony, we made headlines. Oscar (Goodman) was defending us. We made the papers, right or wrong. And they used that to their advantage. At this point now, it’s a joke. And the news media in town, they have no idea how things were, who anybody was.”
As the Mob Museum has neared its opening, stories about the Spilotro era — mostly from the victorious law enforcement perspective — have filled the press. No one has to remind Cusumano of the final score of that ballgame. He played every inning.
But it clearly galls him to hear some retired cops, former Metro official Kent Clifford in particular, brag on television about breaking the law to go after the mob in an effort to prevent a rumored hit on Las Vegas police officers. Clifford traveled all the way to Chicago to deliver the message.
“You start analyzing what the guy said,” Cusumano offers with a shrug. “He said he was going to bring 40 Las Vegas cops with guns to make havoc in Chicago. Do you think the Chicago police would have put up with that? No way.”
As history is written by the winning army, the tough part for the serious mob museum might be in presenting all the characters in their complex human context.
“They’re glorifying it,” Cusumano says of the media. “Charlie Parsons from the FBI goes on, and it’s the first time I admired an FBI agent. He told it very nicely, like it was, like a gentleman.”
Maybe that’s the trouble with being one of the Last of the Mohicans in corporate Las Vegas: Your memory is good, but the other guys do most of the interviews.
Cusumano makes no secret of his brotherly loyalty to Spilotro: “I really, truly loved Tony.” He also acknowledges his old friend was no one to mess with. Those eyes could freeze your blood.
But he also remembers the night at Joe Pignatello’s Villa D’Este when the busload of nuns from Belgium came in out of the rain. Forever playing the odds, Spilotro made sure they were fed. Perhaps in an attempt to buy a little spiritual good will, Tony and Joey emptied their deep pockets and gave the sisters a jackpot they hadn’t expected. Led by the famous “Singing Nun,” the sisters would return to the Villa often to eat, and even perform for their gracious hosts.
Even his close friend former Mayor Goodman has marketed the old Vegas persona, opening a mob-themed steakhouse at the Plaza called Oscar’s Beef, Booze, Broads. As a Black Book denizen, Cusumano can’t visit his pal’s downtown hangout.
Goodman recently invited Cusumano to tour the museum, and the retired street guy admits, “I’m curious about it.” He hesitates, then adds, “But I’m not going to go down there and make a fool out of myself or embarrass anyone else.”
The opening of the mob museum and the city’s wiseguy marketing have some locals pining with nostalgia for the good old, bad old days. Not Cusumano. The corporations are as cold-blooded as any mob hitman, but he doesn’t miss the stress of those years.
“I lived what I lived, and it’s over,” he says. “The best thing about the way I’m living now is the peace. I miss Tony, but the truth is that if he was still around we wouldn’t be here. We would have had a lot of problems.”
In the end, that’s what makes Joseph Vincent Cusumano, age 76, the luckiest man in Las Vegas. And he knows it.
He experienced the mob’s Vegas heyday, survived its bloody downfall and, against the odds, came out on the other side. He’s happy, reasonably healthy and he hasn’t been shot at in years.
They say living well is the best revenge, right?
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.