Failing To Take Over The Recently-Razed Riviera, Detroit Mob Went After Frontier & Aladdin Instead In Mafia’s Vegas Heyday

The Detroit mafia might not have succeeded in getting its’ claws into the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas due to licensing problems, but it did go on to rule the roost on the Strip at the Frontier and then the Aladdin back in Sin City’s Golden Era of the 1960s and 70s. The Riviera was conceived and built by Detroit mobsters William (Lefty Clark) Bischoff and Sam (Sammy Purple) Cohen in the 1950s before issues with the Nevada Gaming Board forced them out of ownership roles in 1953 and 1955, respectively. When the “Riv” finally opened for business in April 1955, an ownership group controlled by the Chicago mafia was in place.

Earlier this month, the Riviera, the first multi-level casino to appear on the Strip, was demolished. It closed its’ doors last year. Lefty Clark was a gambling boss tied into the Detroit mafia’s Licavoli crew, headed by Zerilli-Tocco crime family co-founder Peter (Horseface Pete) Licavoli. “Sammy Purple” Cohen was one of the leaders of the notorious Purple Gang, the Motor City’s all-Jewish mob during Prohibition.

After the attempt to get in on the Vegas mob feeding frenzy at the Riviera failed, the Detroit mob turned its’ attention to the Frontier, then known as the New Frontier and owned and developed by a group of west coast businessmen and real estate investors led by Maurice Friedman, a convicted felon and the casino and hotel’s president – Friedman owned the land the Silver Slipper Hotel and Casino was on right next door. According to federal court records, then-Detroit mafia powers Anthony (Tony Z) Zerilli and Michael (Big Mike) Polizzi were introduced to Friedman by Chicago mobster John (Handsome Johnny) Roselli, the Chicago Outfit’s representative on the west coast and by the early 1960s the Detroiters had gained hidden ownership in the Frontier.

Tony Zerilli, the son of revered Michigan Godfather and National Commission member Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli and Big Mike Polizzi, the son-in-law of Joe Uno’s trusted consigliere, Giovanni (Papa John) Priziola, brought in St. Louis mob don Anthony (Tony G) Giordano for a piece of the action and the trifecta of Mafiosi began fleecing the joint. Zerilli and Polizzi sent a Toledo, Ohio gambling lieutenant of theirs named Irving (Slick) Shapiro out to Vegas to work at the Frontier in order to be their eyes and ears at Ground Zero in the desert.

Tony Zerilli c. 1979

Tony Zerilli c. 1979

In less than three years, with Shapiro and Friedman’s anchoring the ship on the frontlines, they stole six million bucks. Once they were done ripping the place off, they sold the Frontier to eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in 1967 for $15,000,000 – per an IRS document, Zerilli personally negotiated the sale with Hughes at a lunch meeting in a Frontier penthouse suite.

At the time of the sale, current Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn owned a five percent stake of interest in the Frontier and was the casino’s slot machine manager. Wynn got hooked up with Maurice Friedman through his father, an east coast bingo-hall baron.

When Friedman was nailed for fixing card games at the swanky Beverly Hills Friar’s Club, a hangout for Hollywood celebrities, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting gin-rummy and poker players, he became a witness for the government in exchange for his six-year federal prison sentence being trimmed to three, helping the FBI build a skimming and silent ownership case against his mob benefactors and agreeing to testify in court.

Tony Zerilli, Mike Polizzi, Tony Giordano and four others were indicted in federal court out of California in February 1971. With Friedman acting as the government’s star witness against them at their 1972 trial, they were all found guilty. Zerilli and Polizzi both did five years behind bars. Giordano (d. 1980) did two years in prison. The Frontier was torn down in 2007.

Zerilli was the Detroit mafia’s acting boss (1965-1973) and then its underboss (1979-2002). Polizzi was the crime syndicate’s consigliere from 1981 until 1996 when he and Tony Z were collared in another racketeering case together. He died the year after, never facing the charges in court. Zerilli died last year, having done five years in prison from his 2002 conviction at a jury trial.

A former prison buddy from his first stint in the can in the 1970s taped Tony Z boasting of his wheeling and dealing in Vegas in 1980.

“Zerilli enjoyed bragging, he liked playing the role of big shot,” retired FBI agent Mike Carone said. “We got him on a wire telling anyone who would listen how he ran that whole town (Las Vegas), he forgot to mention the part about being kicked out of the city for looting one of the casinos there. But if you asked him, he could part the sea on the Vegas Strip.”

Following the sale of the Frontier to Hughes, the Detroit and St. Louis mob families zeroed in on their next target on the Strip: the Aladdin. The infiltration of the Aladdin started in the late 1960s, almost immediately after the Frontier deal was closed with Hughes with the purchase of 25 percent ownership stock in the Aladdin by the wife of Detroit mob associate George George. In December 1971, a series of Michigan and Missouri-based investors led by George and fellow Detroit mob associate and bail bondsman Charles (Chuckie G) Goldfarb of the Michigan group and a St. Louis contingent headed by Giordano associate, Sorkis (Sorkie Blue Eyes) Webbe, an attorney, bought the Aladdin for a bargain-basement price of five million dollars.

Although due to their respective underworld connections neither George, nor Goldfarb, nor Webbe could gain licensing from the gaming board, George’s wife Mae Ellen applied and over a number of objections put on the record by board members, was ultimately granted a gaming license to operate the casino on behalf of the owners. George George died of natural causes in 1974.

George’s cousin and surrogate-brother, James (Jimmy Eyes) Tamer, a well-liked and highly-trusted Detroit mobster and convicted bank robber of Lebanese heritage, had been installed as the Aladdin’s Director of Entertainment, however, in reality, ran the casino on a daily basis. Per FBI records and court filings, Tamer reported directly to infamous Detroit mafia capo Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone regarding affairs in Vegas. According to these documents, Giacalone assigned “skim duties” to Detroit wiseguy Freddy (The Saint) Salem’s Capital Avenue Social Club crew. Salem-subordinate, Edward (Baldy) Sarkesian and Salem’s nephew Terry, who he had stationed in Las Vegas, oversaw the transportation of the stolen proceeds from the Aladdin’s count room to the boys in Motown and St. Louis to chop up.

"Jimmy Eyes" Tamer

“Jimmy Eyes” Tamer

Despite not being Italian, the Lebanese Freddy the Saint, a gambling specialist and major earner for the Detroit mob for decades, had authority over his own crew. Salem ran travel junkets to Vegas and the Aladdin in the 1970s. In an effort to get his bank robbery conviction expunged as a means of finally getting licensed by the Vegas gaming board, Tamer wined and dined a Genesee County, Michigan prosecutor on multiple visits to the Aladdin in 1975 and 1976, according to an IRS memo.

“We’d watch Jimmy (Tamer) fly back and forth from Vegas to Detroit, sometimes Freddy would be with him other times he’d pick him up at the airport or one of his guys would, and they meet with Billy Jack at this steakhouse or that seafood place and talk casino business,” retired FBI agent Bill Randall recalled. “You didn’t have to be a rocket science to know what was going on.”

Jimmy Tamer, Chuckie Goldfarb and two other mobbed-up casino executives, were convicted in federal court in August 1979 for maintaining hidden ownership of the Aladdin on behalf of organized crime factions in Detroit and St. Louis – Jimmy Eyes and Chuckie G both did three years in prison. Billy Giacalone (d. 2012) and Freddy Salem (d. 2009) avoided ensnarement the case. Sorkis Webbe was indicted in a separate racketeering case linked to an alleged million-dollar kickback scheme involving the Teamsters union pension fund fraud and the construction of expansions to the casino. Goldberg, 86, is still alive.

The Aladdin was sold to Vegas-entertainment icon Wayne Newton in 1980 for a cool 85 million dollars (not bad for a $5,000,000 investment less than a decade prior). Newton was bought out by his partners two years later.

FBI agents tracked then-Detroit mob don Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco, Joe Zerilli’s nephew and successor, to a meeting in a Florida hotel suite with Webbe and St. Louis mafia boss Mike Trupiano in 1983 to discuss the final divvying up profits from the Aladdin sale. The next year, the Aladdin filed for Chapter 11. Webbe passed away in 1985.

The savvy and bespectacled Tamer returned to Detroit in the early 1980s and teamed with Tocco as his silent partner to buy the posh Hillcrest Golf Course & Country Club, one of the premier private courses and clubs in Michigan. He was placed in the state of Nevada’s Black Book in 1988, barred from stepping foot in any of the state’s casinos for the rest of his life.

As a young hoodlum coming up in the Midwest rackets, Tamer’s name surfaced in NHL game-fixing allegations in 1948. Tamer died in 2003 at 91. Tocco, convicted of being the boss of the Detroit mafia at a 1998 RICO trial where evidence of the crime family’s stranglehold over activities at the Frontier and Aladdin were front and center, died two years ago.

The original Aladdin was shuttered in November 1997 and razed in 1998 to make room for the new Aladdin, opened in 2000. The Aladdin became the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in 2007.

"Freddy the Saint" Salem & "Baldy" Sarkesian c. 1978

“Freddy the Saint” Salem (L)
“Baldy” Sarkesian (R) c. 1978

 

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