Nevada’s ‘Black Book’ Still Packs a Punch


Ex-Chicago cop Fred Pascente couldn’t believe his rotten luck: Here was a crony calling with news that his days as a Vegas gambler were gone for good.

Like a snake-eyes roll of the dice, the former detective had just landed on a not-so-elite index of desert undesirables: Nevada’s 40-year-old casino “Black Book.”

Citing his mail fraud conviction and penchant to “actively associate with members of organized crime,” regulators added Pascente to the roster of those banned for life from owning, managing or even entering casinos in the state.


“I says to my buddy ‘You’re kiddin’ me, right?’ ” recalled Pascente, one of the book’s most recent entries. “But he’s like, ‘No, Freddy, it’s right here in the papers. You’re in. You made the list.’ ”

With a colorful cast that has included such reputed mobsters as William “Icepick Willie” Alderman, Murray “the Camel” Humphreys and Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana, the Black Book hearkens back to a more lawless era in Las Vegas history, when wise guys called the shots and skimmed profits from such casinos as the Stardust and Tropicana.

But these days the Black Book’s mix is slowly changing to reflect a new wave of high-tech and white collar criminal.

As technology transforms Nevada casinos into decidedly digital realms--with computers running the state’s nearly 200,000 slot machines--regulators say those savvy, sometimes lone-wolf operators employ a sophisticated bag of tricks to steal millions annually.

“The universe of casino threats is changing--and so is the makeup of the book,” said James Taylor, a special agent for the State Gaming Control Board. “We’ve recently seen a wider range of cheats. But the old standbys--the would-be wise guys--are still around.”

Often working undercover, Taylor looks to catch gambling insiders such as Ronald Dale Harris, a former state gaming board computer analyst who regulators say used insider knowledge to run a slot machine scam.


Taylor cruises casinos for slot cheats whose arsenals range from such low-tech devices as lead coin slugs and the yo-yo--a quarter tied to a string--to a gadget called a kickstand, which is used to lift the slot’s internal coin security bar so that the machine overpays.

Then there are such gizmos as the “light wand,” a battery powered flashlight that confuses a slot machine. Taylor said the newest slot cheater’s wrinkle is a hand-held computer called the Nikrasch device, named after a gambler caught using it.

Newcomers on the list also come from organized bands that use age-old ruses to distract dealers and cheat the house. Some scoot dice--instead of rolling them--so they know which numbers will show. Others place bets on roulette tables after the wheel has stopped.

Of the 13 people added to the Black Book since 1997, five were suspected slot and card cheats. Investigators say the rest were connected to organized crime.

Weathered Court Challenge

But no matter which scofflaws make up its pages, the Black Book remains controversial.

After weathering court challenges, Nevada’s banning of unwanted casino patrons has been imitated by officials in gaming states such as New Jersey, Michigan and Mississippi. Tribal casinos in California are considering having their own Black Book.

Regulators say the Black Book shows gamblers that it’s possible to get an honest game in Nevada.


But some academics and defense lawyers dismiss the book as a public relations ploy designed to give the false impression that regulators are keeping Nevada free of corruption and crime. They say the list discriminates against the Italian Americans who dominate its ranks, fostering a selective prosecution of an ethnic group whose notoriety fits Mafia stereotypes.

And they question why only 35 people are notorious enough to merit mention among the numerous felons they claim are working and placing wagers inside the state’s casinos.

“It’s downright laughable the way they keep track of the list like it’s some infamous hall of fame for losers and ne’er-do-wells,” said Las Vegas attorney Richard Wright. “For every name in that book, there are scores or even hundreds who deserve the indignity as well.”

The luckless few who are banned are marked by what Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman once called a public “scarlet letter.” As a defense attorney Goodman represented several mob figures listed in the Black Book, but in his new civic role, Goodman declined to discuss it.

Many inductees have lost jobs in casinos and elsewhere and complain that gaming operators who were once friends no longer talk to them for fear of being blacklisted.

Regulators say the book’s ranks remain small because only the worst offenders are nominated, much like the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. “What good is a ‘200 Most Wanted’ list?” said State Gaming Control Board member Bobby Siller. “It’d be too unwieldy.”


Launched in 1960 with the names of 11 reputed gangland figures, the book has become a must-read for casino operators and those fascinated by Mafia lore.

Actually, the Black Book isn’t a book and it’s not even black.

Originally bound by a black leather cover, the modern version is contained in a shiny gray binder. Officially called the “List of Excluded Persons,” it features mug shots, brief dossiers and aliases of 34 men and one woman.

One of its most infamous alumni was Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, a former mobster whose battered body was found in an Indiana cornfield. Also known as “Tough Tony,” his exploits were shown in the film “Casino,” which starred Joe Pesci as the character based on Spilotro and Robert DeNiro.

The current lineup includes suspected Hawaiian mobster Alvin “Ali Baba” Kaohu and Richard “The Fixer” Perry, suspected of bribing athletes.

They’re joined by Louis Olejack, a convicted art swindler and alleged slot cheat, and Michael Balsamo, a convicted gambler known for his slot machine schemes. Then there’s Sandra Kay Vaccaro, who got the nod after trying to insert a cooler deck, or deck of prearranged cards, into a casino blackjack shoe, officials say.

Entrants quickly learn this reality: Making the list is a lifetime achievement.

“Once you’re in, you never get removed from the list,” said Keith Copher, chief of the Gaming Control Board’s enforcement division. “Except when you die.”


But regulators say even death doesn’t signal an automatic parole, adding that the board must first vote on the removal. Reputed Los Angeles mobster Joseph “Wild Cowboy” Sica died in 1992 but wasn’t removed from the book until nearly six years later.

Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein, once Spilotro’s top lieutenant and an alleged Chicago crime associate, was killed in a suspected mob hit before he could be listed.

“Herbie was a client of mine--he got whacked in 1997 by some guy who wanted to move into his loan-sharking racket,” said Las Vegas lawyer John Momot. “That’s the only way you beat the book. You drop dead before they get you in.”

Once targeted by state regulators, Black Book nominees are notified of a hearing date by investigators who either place a newspaper ad or visit them in person.

Few are happy with the house call. Officials served alleged mobster Stephen “The Whale” Cino in jail. Responded the 325-pound felon: “You just ruined my lunch.”

Alleged mobster Frank Citro Jr. showed up for his hearing in a tuxedo.

“I’ve never been invited to join anything in my life,” he told regulators. “I just wanted to show the proper respect.”


At his hearing, reputed gangster Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal screamed that he had lunched with many board members, only to be stabbed in the back.

The defense of convicted racketeer Joseph Cusumano, a co-producer of “The Cotton Club,” included the videotaped testimony of director Francis Ford Coppola--who was wrapping up the final edit of “The Godfather III” at the time.

Though the Black Book’s legality has been upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, legal scholars still pan it.

“It’s an abomination of the law,” said Ronald Farrell, dean of social sciences and a sociology professor at City College of New York who is coauthor of a critical history of the practice entitled “The Black Book and the Mob.” “The evidence used is hearsay from snitches and informants. It’s a kangaroo court.”

Lawyer Wright unsuccessfully challenged the Black Book in the 1980s on behalf of Carl Wesley Thomas, a reputed organized crime figure and casino employee accused of teaching the Kansas City mob how to skim casino profits.

‘It’s Like Suing Ford in Detroit’

Wright claimed Thomas had been unfairly singled out. As evidence he presented the records of 150 felons then approved to work in the state gaming industry.


“There were killers, rapists, drug kingpins and child molesters,” the lawyer said. “The only crime I couldn’t find was treason.”

The lawyer said he lost because of Nevada’s need to protect gambling as a vital financial interest, its crown jewel of tax revenues: “It’s like suing Ford in Detroit. You have slim chance of winning.”

For his part, Pascente said his felony conviction didn’t even come in Nevada and contended he’s in the book for one reason: his last name. “It’s got too many vowels. If my name was Kelly or Sullivan, do you think I’d be in there?”

Nevada Deputy Dist. Atty. Keith Kizer said Pascente’s mob ties are well documented.

“We’re concerned people may read a news story and then see Mr. Pascente wheeling and dealing in a casino and say ‘There’s the infamous Fred Pascente laughing and joking.’ They might get the wrong impression the gaming industry was connected to his crime.”

Pascente, 57, can’t afford to go back to Vegas any time soon. He said his November Black Book entry cost him his job as a manager at a Chicago topless bar.

“In 26 years as a cop I dealt with lots of unsavory characters,” he said. “I never thought I’d ever be labeled one myself.”



Members of an Exclusion Club

Nevada’s “Black Book” lists 35 people banned for life from owning, managing or even entering casinos. Among them are:

Marshall Caifano: Alleged former Chicago crime boss. One of only two original 11 black book inductees still alive.


Sandra Vaccaro: The only one woman on the list. An alleged member of a slot machine cheating ring, she was inducted after being accused of trying to insert a cooler deck of prearranged cards, into a casino blackjack card dispenser.


Richard Perry: Known as “the Fixer,” has been convicted of tampering with sporting eventsd , ranging from harness racers to college basketball.

Francis Citro Jr.: An alleged Los Angeles mobster, Citro showed up at his hearing before the Nevada Gaming Commission dressed in a tuxedo. “I’ve never been invited to join anything in my life,” he said. “I just wanted to show the proper respect.”