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April 21, 2014

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The booth was big enough for both of ’em

Jack Sheehan on a meeting between two of Las Vegas’ most notorious criminals

In Las Vegas terms, it was like Godzilla meeting King Kong. Or maybe Al Capone bumping into John Dillinger.

It may have been the most infamous meeting Vegas has ever known. It occurred in the middle 1970s, before the town had been cleansed of the last vestiges of mob influence, during a time when marijuana was still the preferred smoke of many retro-Hippies and Hollywood jet-setters, and cocaine was just starting to come on the scene in a big way.

The place was Paul Anka’s Jubilation restaurant and discotheque, on East Harmon between the Strip and the university.

The meeting was between two notorious figures who carried themselves like kings in Las Vegas during that time: tough guy Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, an alleged enforcer for the Chicago mob, and marijuana importer-extraordinaire Jimmy Chagra, a smoothie from El Paso and the highest rolling gambler of his day.

From the Horseshoe to Caesars Palace to the Sands and beyond, casino pit bosses genuflected when Chagra and his brother, Lee, a famed Texas criminal defense attorney noted for his smartly cut black suits and walking stick, came striding up to the tables. The Chagra brothers could win or lose up to seven figures in a single evening, and if they got on a hot roll the dealers and cocktail waitresses could make their next three mortgage payments in tips.

Showgirls, hookers, even some celebrity headliners of the day, were known to party heavily when Chagra’s entourage rolled into town. Broadway Joe Namath was a pal, as were Liza Minelli and the crew from the Redford-Fonda flick The Electric Horseman, in which Chagra was typecast as a high-roller and given a speaking part. (Jimmy was cut from the final version after he was busted by the Feds.)

All the fast-laners knew there was action of every sort in the Chagras’ suite at Caesars. On other weeks, that same suite was occupied by Mr. Sinatra himself. The Chagra brothers were comped everywhere, and private jets were always on call when the boys from El Paso got the urge to make a wager or three.

Most gamblers rely on credit. Not the Chagras. They would drop off foot lockers containing millions of dollars at the Caesars cage and tell the cashiers, “Count it down, we’re going to gamble!”

Spilotro and his henchmen, who later became known as the Hole in the Wall Gang for several successful — and occasionally bungled — jewelry store heists, were feared up and down the Strip.

With Tony’s frequent perp walks becoming a staple of the evening news, and journalist Ned Day documenting his gang’s treachery in his thrice-weekly column, Spilotro kept anyone who encountered him on edge.

But on the night these two Vegas overlords, Tony Spilotro and Jimmy Chagra, met face to face, neither knew for certain who the other one was.

Here’s Chagra’s version of the meeting, recounted to me recently: “I was just out for a fun evening of dancing and cocktails with some of my pilots and a few lady friends, when this little guy comes up and says, “Get the (expletive) out of my booth.”

Chagra, who says he was a megalomaniac back in the day and had fear of no man, countered with, “I don’t see the name ‘Midget’ printed anywhere on this table. Get your own (expletive) booth.”

After several more pleasantries, Spilotro, seeing that he was outmanned, huffed out of the place with the line, “You don’t know who you’re talking to!”

Chagra was to find out several hours later when his phone rang about eight o’clock in the morning. On the line was his defense attorney, Oscar Goodman, insisting that Jimmy come to his office pronto.

“When I walked into Oscar’s office, there was that midget again,” Jimmy says. “Oscar introduced me to Anthony Spilotro, he insisted we shake hands, and he then told us that because we were both his clients and his friends, that we should make up and get along. He said that there was room in Las Vegas for both of us.”

•••

Both Chagra and Spilotro acknowledged that peaceful coexistence made more sense than all-out war, and they agreed to meet at a later date. That meeting also took place at Jubilation, in the same booth they’d argued over.

Spilotro, as was his modus operandi, wanted in on Chagra’s marijuana importing business. Jimmy was doing just fine without partners, and knew that the only thing Tony would bring to his operation was intense heat from law enforcement. Talk of the proposed partnership was going nowhere when a cocktail waitress accidentally spilled a drink on Spilotro. Chagra says that Tony went ballistic and called her every name in the book, even after she made a fearful and timid apology.

Three days later her picture appeared in a local newspaper as a missing person. She was never found.

It’s only speculation what happened to that pretty young woman. Maybe she got word later that evening that the man she spilled a drink on was alleged to have conducted more than a dozen hits for the Chicago syndicate. Maybe that caused her to find religion and take the next Greyhound out of Las Vegas.

Or maybe, as happened more often than we’d like to think in those earlier, rough and tumble times before Wall Street took over Las Vegas Boulevard, she took that long ride into the desert and sleeps among the cactuses and mesquite bushes.

Ten years after that evening, Tony got his comeuppance when he was savagely beaten and buried in an Indiana cornfield.

Jimmy Chagra, after 23 years in an assortment of federal penitentiaries, at last breathes fresh air on the outside of those dank prison walls, and looks back at that time with wonder and regret.

“I knew if I’d gotten involved with Spilotro he’d eventually pop me,” Jimmy says. “Las Vegas was crazy back then. But man, was it fun. When you had a trunk full of cash, there was no better place on earth to be. They treated us like gods.”

Jack Sheehan’s column appears every other week.

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