Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Skimming the Las Vegas Casinos - Part II



By Dennis Griffin

This is the second of a three-part series explaining how organized crime families skimmed money from several Las Vegas casinos in the 1970s and '80s, and how the law eventually brought them down. Read PART I HERE

The Tropicana

This case also involves the Teamster pension fund. But unlike Argent, it was a loan not granted that paved the way for Kansas City to take control of the casino and launch another skimming operation. It began in 1975 when Joe Agosto, an affiliate of Nick Civella’s Kansas City family, made a move to gain influence at the Tropicana.

Agosto was born Vincenzo Pianetti in 1927. Information on his early years is vague. There are even conflicting reports as to exactly where he was born, whether in Italy or Cleveland. Whichever the case, Agosto ended up in Seattle and eventually Las Vegas. He got his foot in the door at the Trop by assuming the title of manager of the Folies Berg─Śre show. The hotel didn’t employ him, however; he was an employee of the production company.

That April, the U.S. Immigration Service arrested Agosto as an illegal alien. He quickly obtained the services of Oscar Goodman and beat the immigration charge. Clear of that, he began conspiring with Nick Civella on how he could best infiltrate the financially troubled casino and protect himself from outside interference. Agosto, with Civella’s backing and support, proceeded with his plans to gain influence over the Doumani brothers, owners of the Tropicana. In conjunction with that goal, a loan application by the Tropicana pending before the Teamster Central States Pension Fund was denied, easily delivered by Civella’s friend Roy Williams. With their financial lifeline off the table, the Doumanis were susceptible to Agosto’s overtures, and he soon had a voice in the Trop’s management and operations.

Agosto maintained regular contact with Carl DeLuna in order to provide reports on his progress and receive guidance. Kansas City, meanwhile, had a man they felt was able to set up and operate the skim. Carl Thomas was already licensed through his operation of the Bingo Palace and Slots-A-Fun casino, and was trusted by the Civella family. Following instructions, Agosto brought Thomas on board.

But late that year before the skim got off the ground, a snag developed that stalled the gangster’s plans for over two years. The cash-strapped hotel came under the control of a new majority owner when chemical heiress Mitzi Stauffer Briggs purchased 51% of the Trop’s stock. And right off the bat, Mitzi didn’t trust Agosto and curtailed his role in running the casino. That prompted an all-out effort by Agosto to gain her confidence. By 1977, he had succeeded and was effectively running the hotel and casino. Carl Thomas did his duty and designed the skim. At his suggestion, Agosto hired Donald Shepard as casino manager and Billy Caldwell as assistant manager.

In March 1978, Agosto and Thomas spoke with Nick Civella in Los Angeles. They announced that with their plans and personnel in place, they were ready to go. Civella gave his approval. The first $1,500 dollars was skimmed in April by Shepard and transported to Kansas City by Carl DeLuna. In May, Shepard hired Jay Gould as cashier to steal money directly from the cashier’s cage and falsify fill slips to account for the missing money. From June through October, Shepard, Caldwell, and Gould stole $40,000 per month and gave it to Agosto. The money was then passed on to a courier named Carl Caruso for transport to Kansas City. Caruso turned the loot over to Civella’s man, Charles Moretina.

Caruso made at least 18 trips between Las Vegas and Kansas City and was paid $1,000 after each delivery. Anthony Chiavola, Sr., Civella’s nephew and a Chicago police officer, assisted in the operation by getting Chicago’s share of the skim to Joe Aiuppa and underboss John Cerone.

The operation seemed to be perking right along, but in late September another potential problem arose. Agosto and the Civellas became suspicious that Shepard or his subordinates might be doing some unauthorized skimming. At Agosto’s suggestion, Nick Civella ordered the skimming suspended in November and December so that Carl Thomas could find out if someone was skimming the skim. Unfortunately for Agosto, Civella authorized a temporary halt in the stealing, but not in the payments to Kansas City. Since the problems had arisen on his watch, Agosto had to send the family $50,000 and $60,000 of his own money during the two months of downtime. But it wasn’t a total loss for Joe. He was later reimbursed $30,000, which Shepard pilfered from the Tropicana.

On November 26, Agosto and Thomas flew to Kansas City to meet with the Civellas and DeLuna. They explained that Thomas’ survey had been inconclusive, but they did have some ideas on improving the efficiency of the operation. Civella agreed that the skimming would resume in January.

The conspirators were unaware at the time that their homes and businesses were the subject of electronic and visual surveillance by the government. On February 14, 1979 — the same day Carl DeLuna’s home was raided — the FBI nabbed Caruso with $80,000 in skim money. The skimming of the Tropicana was over. Although the actual skim only occurred over a period of 11 months, during two of which the operation was suspended, the overall conspiracy to steal from the casino covered four years, from 1975 to 1979.

Nick Civella had an even more serious problem than the Tropicana investigation. The Kansas City boss had been convicted in 1975 on gambling charges unrelated to Las Vegas. After exhausting his appeals, he went to prison in 1977. He was given an early release 20 months later due to health problems: He had cancer. Shortly after getting out, he was indicted again for attempting to bribe a prison official in an effort to get favorable treatment for his nephew, who was incarcerated. Convicted in July 1980, he was sentenced to a four-year stretch. So Nick was already behind bars in November 1981 when he and ten others were indicted in the Tropicana case. His lawyer in that matter — Oscar Goodman — successfully got the charges against Nick severed from the other defendants on the basis of his client’s poor health. On March 1, 1983, with his physical condition rapidly deteriorating, Civella was released to his family so he could spend his final days at home. He died on March 12, having never faced justice in either the Tropicana or Argent cases.

The 10 remaining defendants stood trial in 1983. Three of them, Donald Shepard, Billy Caldwell, and Joe Agosto, entered guilty pleas prior to trial. As a part of his plea arrangement, Agosto became the government’s key witness. Carl Caruso pled guilty during the trial. And Peter Tamburello was acquitted. Carl Civella, Carl DeLuna  (represented by Oscar Goodman), Charles Moretina, Anthony Chiavola, Sr., and Carl Thomas were all convicted.

In a memorandum to the judge regarding the case, prosecutors wrote, “These defendants have dealt a severe blow to the state and the industry and have made a mockery of the Nevada regulatory procedures.” At sentencing the judge dealt a severe blow to the defendants.

DeLuna was sentenced to 30 years, Civella got 35 years, Moretina was ordered to serve 20 years of incarceration followed by five years of probation, and Chiavola drew 15 years. Carl Thomas was initially sentenced to 15 years. That term was later reduced to two years when he agreed to be a cooperative government witness at the Argent trial.

Joe Agosto died shortly afterward of natural causes. As far as is known, neither the Doumani brothers nor Mitzi Briggs were aware of the skimming operation. Mitzi Briggs later went bankrupt.

The ensuing appeals filed by those convicted in both the Tropicana and Argent cases were unsuccessful.
               
Next: The Investigations in Las Vegas



Dennis Griffin is a True Crime Author, Co-Host of Crime Wire and MOB Talk on VegasKool.com.  He has written several books concentrating on the mob presence in Las Vegas. www.dennisngriffin.com


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