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VIDEO VAULT | Profile of a mobster and his ties to Las Vegas

Costello Photo Full.jpg

One of the most prominent leaders of organized crime in the 20th century is profiled in the new book "Top Hoodlum" by journalist Anthony DeStefano.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author spoke to News-3 recently while in town for a presentation at the Mob Museum. His subject had ties to Las Vegas, but the conversation started with a thumbnail sketch of Frank Costello.

"He was a nominal boss of the Genovese crime family under Lucky Luciano. And when Luciano went to prison and was subsequently deported, it was Costello who took over command," described DeStefano. "Vied for power with Vito Genovese and then ultimately lost that in an attempted assassination."

The 1957 struggle that resulted in the shooting was the turning point in a life largely on the wrong side of the law.

Costello began on the East Coast in the early part of the last century with petty street crime, working up to bootlegging during prohibition. But he found his calling in gambling rackets, which eventually included looking to the West.

"Costello's interest in Las Vegas centered mostly around the Flamingo Hotel with [Benjamin] 'Bugsy' Siegel," explains DeStefano. "Bugsy was an old compatriot of his from back in the days in New York City."

The Flamingo was the continuation of a dream by Los Angeles entrepreneur Billy Wilkerson, who gambled away the money for his project very early. Siegel moved in and eventually forced Wilkerson out, proceeding ahead with some help from his friends.

"Costello put together, syndicated some of the secret funding that went into Bugsy's operation And subsequently, of course, when that funding was squandered and Bugsy wasn't very cost-conscious with making the hotel. That created problems because people wanted their money back."

With the money not forthcoming, Siegel was eliminated with a round of gunshots through the window of his mistress's Beverly Hills home in June of 1947. The murder has never been officially solved.

Costello's name does not first appear in Las Vegas newspapers until several years later. But if he preferred to stay in the background, that abruptly ended with the 1950 United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, led by Tennessee Senator C. Estes Kefauver.

"The star witness was Frank Costello, boss of the most powerful crime family in America," intones the narration on a newsreel clip which plays on a loop in the Mob Museum.

Costello had initially agreed to testify voluntarily for the committee.

"When he did that, he became sort of the face of organized crime," explains DeStefano. "Because at that point, the Kefauver hearings were taking place when television was in its early stages. And these hearings were broadcast around the country and certainly New York."

As a condition of his cooperation, television cameras were not allowed to show Costello's face during the live broadcast. Instead, they tilted down.

"And his hands were sort of tipoffs that something was not right here. He was not the innocent man he was trying to make himself out to be."

Eventually, Costello had had enough.

"I don't care to answer any more questions, Mr. Senator," he can be heard saying on the 1950 newsreel.

Because he asserted his 5th Amendment privileges, Costello has was cited for contempt and spent time behind bars. Soon thereafter though, he was again investing in Las Vegas.

"In the old Tropicana," says DeStefano. "Because his old friend from the gambling days -- Phil Kastel -- had an interest in running the place."

The Tropicana Hotel opened on April 4, 1957, one month before the assassination attempt that changed Costello's life.

The gangster was not seriously injured when the gunshot grazed his head. When he was in the hospital however, police found notes in Costello's pockets with names and dollar amounts.

"They looked at the sums that were on the papers and they looked at the notations," says DeStefano. "And they went back and they traced -- with the authorities -- went back and traced what was going on at the Tropicana."

Although no charges came from the Tropicana tie-in, it was time for some changes in lifestyle.

"And then Costello sort of went into somewhat retirement," observes DeStefano. "He had legitimate oil and lease businesses. He had legitimate businesses of sorts. He was a gambling commissioner as they call it. And he went into semi-retirement."

While many of his underworld contemporaries passed away, either through violence or behind bars, Costello met neither fate.

"And he died in the end in a hospital bed from the effects of a heart attack. But he died a free man."

Though he died free, Costello did not necessarily die at peace with his life.

"He also was a man who strived for respectability. And strive as he might have, he never really got it," concludes DeStefano. "Because he could never really shake that background."

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