Vegas Mob Stories From the Lawyer (and Former Mayor) Who Defended Them

Oscar's Steakhouse
Oscar's Steakhouse
Oscar's Steakhouse

Oscar Goodman has no problem with the tag "mob lawyer" when running down his resume. "I wear it with a badge of honor" he says. "These fellows I represented could afford any lawyer in the country -- and they chose me. So I'm certainly not apologetic."

Goodman would eventually go from the courtroom to City Hall, serving as mayor of Las Vegas for three terms from 1999 to 2011. He currently represents the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority as the host committee chairman and lends his name to Oscar's Steakhouse at the Plaza hotel and casino. Goodman takes part in a regular dinner series at the restaurant, where guests hear stories about the mob days while enjoying a three-course meal with wine pairings. The next one is January 26 at 6:30pm and this time around, Goodman will be discussing how it was once possible to cheat slot machines in Vegas. Contact the steakhouse to make your reservation. In the meantime, let's catch up with the man himself as he goes over tales told at previous dinners and a few of the colorful criminals at the center of them.

Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and his exploding car

"You wouldn't call him Lefty to his face," says Goodman of Frank Rosenthal -- a casino executive who secretly ran the Stardust and other properties on behalf of the Chicago mafia. "He was a genius and the first to develop the race and sports books in Nevada as we know them today." Goodman represented Rosenthal for years. "He was a jack of all trades and a master of some. If he was walking in the casino and saw a cigarette butt on the floor, he'd pick it up himself and put it in the ashtray -- and then fire the person whose job it was to pick it up in the first place."

Goodman calls Rosenthal his primary client in fighting the so called "Black Book" of people excluded from entering casinos. "The state would place people in this book. There was no due process whatsoever. It was the Mark of Cain, because once you got in that book, you didn't get out until you died." Anyone on the list was prohibited from stepping foot anywhere on casino property. "I thought it was a very un-American way of doing business and I challenged it. Sometimes I won. Sometimes I lost."

Rosenthal's story inspired the movie Casino. Goodman (who has a cameo in it) insists Robert De Niro portrayed the crime figure "to a T" but says, "It wasn't until I saw the movie that I found out who I was really representing." The film contains a famous scene based on a car bomb explosion in 1982 that nearly killed Rosenthal outside the old Tony Roma's on Sahara. "Apparently, the Cadillacs at that time had some weakness in the floor near the accelerator so they put an extra plate in there," Goodman says of how Rosenthal was able to escape with only minor burns. "The bomb actually traveled over a hundred yards. A lot of people could've been hurt. A lot of people could've been killed."

That wasn't the only time the casino exec escaped death. Goodman was once asked by a Kansas City mobster if Rosenthal was a rat -- or an informant. "I didn't realize the power they placed in me," he remembers. "I said, 'Nah, he's no rat' and I was told later while cross-examining FBI agents on the stand if I had said he was a rat, I would've been signing his death warrant."

Stepping on an ant

Tony "The Ant" Spilotro also served as inspiration for Casino -- in a role played by Joe Pesci. He was accused of murdering 26 people by Las Vegas law enforcement. "And yet -- they never convicted him of anything," says Goodman. "The most Tony was ever found guilty of was (an issue with) an application for a mortgage loan and the judge apologetically fined him a dollar."

Goodman recalls one instance where Spilotro was arrested for murder, but nobody could name the victim who was supposedly killed. "I got the judge and prosecutor to come down to the courthouse on a Sunday and Tony was released on his own recognizance without even putting up one cent, because they knew he was going to show up to court. The only time Tony Spilotro didn't show up was when (the mob) killed him back in the Midwest. Other than that, he made every court appearance."

Death outside a love triangle

A Caesars Palace cocktail waitress named Rosalie looked so good in a dress, she caught the attention and affection of both Marvin Krause -- a supervisor at the casino -- and Frank LaPena -- a bellman at the Hacienda resort. When Krause's wife Hilda showed up dead, LaPena was accused of organizing the hit, but always swore he was innocent.  

"I think he's done 17 years in maximum prison," says Goodman. "He's gotten out on several occasions, winning appeals." At one point, LaPena was in Mexico and learned the Nevada Supreme Court overturned his appeal. "He could have kept on going south or stayed in Mexico. They would've never gotten him back here." But LaPena kept insisting he was innocent and returned to Las Vegas. "He went to the police station and knocked on the door at 10 o'clock at night and said 'I hear you're looking for me.' They said, 'Who are you?' He said 'Frank LaPena. I hear the Supreme Court reversed my case and I have to go back to the maximum.' They said. 'We don't have anything. Come back tomorrow morning.' So Frank went home, got a good night's sleep, came back the next day, and went to max."

LaPena is currently out of prison but the legal battle continues. The latest appeal is being looked at again this month.

Oscar's Steakhouse
Oscar's Steakhouse

Hoagies, a Rolls-Royce, and dancing nude in a fountain

Goodman also represented the head of the Philadelphia mob, "Little Nicky" Scarfo ("You weren't allowed to call him Little Nicky") and his nephew, "Crazy" Phil Leonetti ("You weren't allowed to call him Crazy Phil") in a murder trial, in which the they tried to kill the victim 13 times. "He finally ended up dead, hogtied on the back of a trunk," says Goodman, who called the case the kind "you're not supposed to win." So the attorney promised to swim nude in a fountain in front of the Four Seasons hotel if he won. Guess what? "We won the case. So I came down in a bathrobe and the cops said 'You are not going to do what you say you're going to do.'"

They decided to throw a huge party instead -- with Louis XIII, Dom Perignon, and Philadelphia hoagies. The family asked Goodman to cover the $17,000 tab and offered to give him a Rolls-Royce in return. It was worth about $40,000 even though it contained a few bullet holes and wires from leftover bugs that had been placed inside it. However, the car turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. "The FBI seized it, saying it had been used in a drug transaction," recalls Goodman. "I litigated that. It cost me over $100,000 to get it back."

The Dragon Lady and the Constitution

Among the women represented by Goodman over the years was one known as "The Dragon Lady" -- subpoenaed during a US Senate investigation of violence related to crime and the culinary union. "She apparently was a favorite of many of the characters who were a subject of the investigation." That included Jasper Speciale, who co-owned the Tower of Pizza -- a restaurant that served as a mobster hangout and bookmaking operation.

"Although he was married, Jasper took a liking to this young lady. She was gorgeous," remembers Goodman, who was asked by Speciale to represent the woman in Washington. "I think she set a record for taking the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. She took it 257 times."

Was Vegas better when it was run by the mob?

"I think that's subject for debate... It was a different town."

However, Goodman says he misses the colorful characters of the mob era. "I see these people different than law enforcement did," he recalls. "With me, they came to my office and said hello, which a lot of the law enforcement people didn't do. They'd say thank you. They'd say please. They were very kind to my staff. They were very sensitive to women. Maybe it's better in the old days than it is today -- they treated women with respect. They wouldn't use foul language around women. They paid me very well and were grateful when I worked hard for them. They were great clients"

Goodman points out that back in the ’70s, there was no corporate ownership of the casinos like there is today. "They were basically run by mob families around the country who had front people here." When they got caught hiding revenue from the IRS, it was the beginning of the end.

So is Vegas a little too corporate now? "Oh I think it is," says Goodman. "When we start charging for parking, that's not the Vegas I remember."

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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than three years. He is a former television news producer and served as Managing Editor for Vegas2LA Magazine. His recent work has also appeared in Vegas Magazine, Vegas Seven and David Magazine. He likes watching movies that suggest Vegas was better in the mob days. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.