Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ted Binion

Las Vegas

Las Vegas, Nevada has not always been comprised of gambling joints, glamour, and glitz.  Its beginnings were, in fact, quite meager.  With its boundaries situated on the eastern perimeter of the Mojave Desert, the southern edge of the Great Basin Desert and its northern perimeter the Sonoran Desert, Las Vegas is, without question, one of the hottest and driest cities in the United States.  It was discovered by Mexican explorers and traders in 1830 who were in search of a shortcut between Santa Fe and Los Angeles.  Surrounded by miles of scorching sand and omnipresent arid heat, they had veered off the Old Spanish Trail and were many miles from the nearest watering hole when, in the middle of nowhere, they stumbled upon a series of artesian springs bubbling up out of the sand and caliche.  As they pressed onward they soon discovered an oasis comprised of cottonwood and mesquite trees, tall grass and a number of small creeks that flowed outward from the springs.  They aptly named this oasis Las Vegas, which means The Meadows.

In 1843 explorer and cartographer John C. Fremont surveyed the area.  His surveys, in part, kicked off the momentum that brought the railroads to town.  By 1905, Las Vegas had become a true railroad town, a stop along the route from Salt Lake City to the West Coast.

By 1930, the U.S. government decided to dam up the Colorado River and create one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.  Their project was Hoover Dam, and their creation became known as Lake Mead.  While the rest of the country was mired in the Great Depression, Las Vegas, for the most part, prospered.  And grew.

Although Glitter Gulch and The Strip had not yet materialized, politicians in Carson City, the State of Nevadas capital, were working fervently enacting laws that would legalize gambling and make getting a divorce in the Silver State an easy, not to mention a quick, matter.  As a result of the newly enacted laws, casinos began to pop up in the downtown area and by the 1940s New York and Chicago crime families decided they wanted their share of the prosperity that Las Vegas was enjoying.  Meyer Lansky soon sent Benjamin Bugsy Siegel to Las Vegas, where Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel and The Strip, for all intents and purposes, was born.  There are no signs on the highways leading into town proclaiming that Las Vegas was built by criminals, though if such signs did exist truer words couldnt be written.

Welcome to Las Vegas sign
Welcome to Las Vegas sign (Gary C. King)

As the Flamingo prospered, several rival entrepreneurs, many of them underworld bosses, decided that they, too, wanted a piece of the action.  Over a ten-year period the Tropicana, the Stardust, the Sands, the Riviera, the Desert Inn, and Caesars Palace all opened on The Strip.  Las Vegas sudden prosperity had a price, a negative element that would long be remembered.  Most of the new ventures had been financed by mob money and brought with it a somewhat violent era.  Bugsy Siegel had by this time been rubbed out by the mob for skimming profits from the Flamingo and for sending his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, on shopping sprees to Europe where she deposited much of the money into Swiss bank accounts for him.  Similarly, Gus Greenbaum displeased his bosses at the Riviera, and his body was found along with his wifes in their Las Vegas home, their throats cut.  Frank Lefty Rosenthal, characterized by actor Robert De Niro in the movie Casino, ran things at the Stardust for a while with Anthony The Ant Spilotro and nearly lost his life to a car bomb outside a Tony Romas restaurant on East Sahara.  And more recently Herbert Fat Herbie Blitzstein, a one-time lieutenant of Spilotros, was murdered in his townhouse when the Los Angeles mob decided it wanted to take over the loan sharking business and auto insurance scams that they believed he was running.  But Las Vegas is evolving.  The mobster element is still here, to be sure, though markedly less visible than it was twenty years ago, and nowadays the politicians and the corporations have postured a new image for themselves and for Las Vegas.  As Las Vegas continues to evolve, it has become known, today, as a Disneyland for adults, although it has become more family friendly, too.  It has also become known as the setting for one of the most diabolical, calculated, cold-blooded and intricately plotted murder schemes in the annals of this citys crime history.

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