Thursday, 5 June 2008

Murder, First Class

By Larry Mouro
Startling Detective
January 1980 (Volume 70, No. 1)

A guest at the swank Sheraton Universal Hotel in North Hollywood, California, came up to the desk on Sunday evening, June 17, 1979, and told the clerk, "That Rolls Royce in the parking garage is a good looking car, but it sure stinks."

"What do you mean?" the clerk asked.

"Just what I said. It smells - bad - like something's died in it."

The clerk called a bellman. He instructed him to check on a maroon and white Rolls Royce on the second level of the parking structure adjoining the hotel.

The bellman located the car. He found that the guest hadn't understated the odor coming from it. He was able to look through the windows of the vehicle but could see nothing that might cause it. There was a parking ticket on the dash indicating it had been there since six o'clock on Wednesday. The putrid smell seemed to come from the car's trunk.

When he returned to the hotel with his report, the clerk said, "I've been thinking. I wonder if it could be Vic Weiss' car. I saw a television news broadcast a couple of days ago showing the police looking for him and his car. They were using a helicopter, thinking he might have run off the canyon road going in to San Fernando."

The name Vic Weiss in the Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada, areas did not need any additional description to identify him. Anyone interested in sports would recognize the wealthy auto dealer and sports promoter. A free spender and high-roller, Vic Weiss was the confidante of big names in sporting events, movie and television stars, the society of the wealthy and a few of the names associated with organized crime.

A likeable, generous man who took flocks of under-privileged kids to baseball, football and basketball games, he was equally at home in a sweaty gym with pugs punching bags as he was around the swimming pool at luxurious homes in Beverly Hills. He was noted for grabbing the check, whether it was a lunch for two or a dinner party for 50. He enjoyed his role as "Mr. Nice Guy" and basked in the limelight of publicity which, incidentally, didn't harm his various business ventures.

They said Vic Weiss had a million friends, ranging from bums who touched him for a quick five-spot to multimillionaires, and never made an enemy. They were wrong. Vic made one enemy who put two slugs in the back of Vic's head.

Vic's wife called the Los Angeles police on Wednesday evening after he failed to meet her at 6:30 at Monty's restaurant in San Fernando and didn't show up at his home Encino later. It wasn't like Vic not to call, even if he was going to be only 15 minutes late.

The police took his disappearance seriously. It was known that Vic often carried as much as $30,000 in cash around with him, and seldom less than several thousand. A friend said he had seen $37,000 in cash on Vic's desk the day before he disappeared. There wasn't any record for a bank deposit of that amount of money.

At first it was thought that possibly Vic had been in an accident. He was driving a rental Rolls Royce while his own Rolls Royce was being repaired. Weiss was a part owner of the Riviera Rolls Royce dealership in San Fernando Valley. Helicopters covered every possible route he could have taken after leaving a business meeting at the Beverly Comstock Hotel in Beverly Hills.

When the police arrived at the parking structure and pried open the trunk lid of the Rolls, they found a corpse neatly wrapped in a yellow blanket. There were two bullet ho,es in the back of the head but the body was so badly decomposed from being in the hot trunk of the car that without identification, it would take fingerprints for positive proof that it was Vic Weiss.

However, the investigators had no doubt about the identify as soon as they saw a diamond ring on one finger big enough to be a headlight on a model train and a $6,000 wristwatch, a gift from movie star Connie Stevens.

The immediate question was how Weiss happened to be in North Hollywood in the trunk of his car, since if he left Beverly Hills it would have been in the wrong direction to the freeways that would have take him either to meet his wife in San Fernando or his home in Encino. There hadn't been a yellow blanket in the Rolls when Vic took it out of the shop. The investigators had already established that the had left the business meeting in Beverly Hills at five o'clock. It left only an hour before the car was parked in North Hollywood.

The business meeting in Beverly Hills had been with Jack Kent Cooked and Jerry Buss. Cooke had just completed a deal in which he had sold his Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, the Kings hockey club, the Los Angeles Forum and a 13,000-acre Bakersfield ranch to Buss for the sun of $67 million.

Buss was looking for a coach to replace Jerry West for the Lakers. Weiss represented Jerry Tarkanian, a long time personal friend.

Weiss had done all right by Tarkanian. After producing some championship basketball teams at Long Beach State University, Weiss obtained a contract for Tarkanian at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The terms were that Tarkanian would receive a salary of $22,000 a year, $10,000 from television shows, $15,000 for public relations work at Caesars Palace, two new cars, a $100,000 home, $3,000 clothing expense and free medical and dental service for himself and family.

It really wasn't too bad a deal for a university basketball coach. Jerry responded by taking the Las Vegas team to the National collegiate Athletic Association playoffs. But he got into a bit of trouble with the NCAA for some alleged recruiting violation and he and the team were put on probation. Tarkanian immediately filed a suit over the charges but things were a little strained between himself and the university oficials, so Weiss thought it would be the right time to go into professional ball and lined up the deal for him to be a coach for the Lakers.

How much Weiss was able to get for Tarkanian's services was unknown, but Cooke and Buss said that he had a tentative contract for Tarkanian to sign when he left the meeting.

"I saw him shove it in his pants pocket when he got into his car in the parking lot at the Beverly Comstock," Cooke said. It wasn't on his person or in the car when the corpse was found.

Lieutenants Dan Cooke and Ross Lewis with Detective Mike Thiess headed the investigation into the slaying of Weiss. It immediately brought to their minds another murder that had taken place two years earlier, only three miles from where Weiss' body had been found.

It was known that Weiss had long been interested in managing fighters and promoting boxing matches. He purchased the contract of welterwight contender Armando Muniz and was manager of the undefeated lightweight Gonzalo Montellano. Vic spent a lot of time around a fighters' gym in a building that he and a partner owned. He was a close personal friend of Sugar Ray Robinson.

The earlier murder had been that of boxing promoter Howie Steindler. His battered and strangled corpse had been found in his car. No arrest had been made in the case but there had been considerable speculation that Steindler may have made a wrong decision in opposing some organized crime interests in the fight game.

As the detectives probed into the murder of Weiss, they came up with some facets of the colorful man's life that weren't generally known. One was that he had been married four times, twice to the same woman, and had fathered eight children.

Vic Weiss was born in Pennsylvania. He had not finished high school in Beaver Falls when he joined the Marines. After completing his tour of duty, Vic decided to locate in California. He attended Pasadena City College and played some football. He worked as a car salesman.

Vic's fortunes turned when he went to work for Gerald "Jerry" Cutter as manager of his Ford agency in Redondo Beach. Like Vic, Cutter was an Eastern import to California. A shrewd businessman, Cutter parlayed his Redondo agency into a string of a car dealerships, car leasing agencies and real estate in the Los Angeles area, Hawaii and Las Vegas. Weiss was his partner in some of the business ventures.

But while Cutter confined most of his activities to business, Weiss liked to become involved in sports and associate with celebrities. He valued among his friends Lee Walls, the coach of the Oakland baseball team. Walls told reporters that he cried for two days when he heard Vic had been killed.

Among the movie stars who purchased all of their cars from him but regarded him as a friend rather than a salesman, were Gene Barry, Mike Connors and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

The investigators uncovered other types among the friends of Weiss. One of them was Rosario "Ross" Lantieri, a frequent visitor to the Weiss home. A report from the California Assembly Subcomittee on Rackets listed Lantieri as an associate of Joe and Fred Sica, Nick Lacata and Sam Cuda, all named as recognized syndicate crime figures.

Joe Sica was indicted for extortion after he attempted to muscle in on contracts of professional boxers. He eventually was handed a 20-year sentence on the charge.

The detectives heard talk that Weiss and Lantieri were operating a large layoff bet operation. A "layoff" requires a lot of money and a lot of connections.

A successful bookie makes his money by taking the percentages quoted in the odds for any event. The ideal situation is to have an equal amount of bets for and against with the insured profit from the margin in the quoted odds. There are times when a sentimental favorite will create lopsided betting. If a bookie is caught with a big handle on a sentimental favorite and it should come in a winner, he could be wiped out or in deep trouble.

The "layoff' book takes the lopside wagering from the bookie so his bets are balanced. The layoff operation then makes contacts in other parts of the country to even up the wagering where there might not be the local action for a sentimental favorite. For this assistance, the layoff operators get their profits from the odds percentage plus a percentage of the bookies' profit for the service.

When questioned about this, Lantieri flatly denied that wither he or Weiss had a "layoff" operation. He said he visited Weiss often because Vic was an expert in all sports, particularly boxing and basketball. He said he sought his advice concerning the betting odds.

This facet of Weiss' life particularly interested the investigators when they learned from Cooke and Buss that Weiss had stepped out of the room in the Beverly Comstock, during their discussion of the Tarkanian contract, to place a call to Las Vegas. He hadn't mentioned who he was calling but they assumed it pertained to Tarkanian.

A check on the call revealed it had been to a real estate agent. The agent said Weiss had been negotiating to buy a home in the exclusive Mount Charleston area. Cutter had purchased a home in the wealthy residential section earlier.

Cutter had moved to Las Vegas after a personal tragedy. The body of his wife had been found in her car, fully dressed but in a housecoat, at the bottom of a cliff below their Beverly Hills home. Unexplained was how the new car had rolled out of the driveway and plunged over the steep embankment. The death was listed as an accident.

Cutter and Weiss established the Prestige Motors automobile agency in Las Vegas. The Los Angeles detectives contacted the Las Vegas police with a request to check into any possible connection with Weiss' murder and his interests in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas file revealed that Jerry Tarkanian, in addition to his pay as a coach and the many fringe benefits, had been under contract at $45,000 a year to an organization whose president was a central figure in a federal extortion and bribery case.

Tarkanian explained that he had taken the job with Royal Reservations Inc., a lucrative business selling reservations to the top casino-hotel attractions, because they wanted his name. He said he had quit after three years and had accepted $15,000 for the remaining two years of his contract, when he was told that the operation might not be completely legitimate.

The Las Vegas file held the information that David Bliss, president of the organization, had come under scrutiny for allegedly being involved in bribing public officials to obtain licenses for businesses that would have been denied to anyone with a criminal record. Bliss was given immunity for his testimony against Eathel "Tex" Gates, who was convicted on 62 counts of extortion, perjury and obstruction of justice. He received an eight-year sentence and $30,000 in fines.

The file concerned things even more interesting concerning Bliss.

It came out of FBI affidavits filed in federal court in Kansas City, in which a 1,088-page document contained conversations from 26 tapped telephnes of alleged organized crime figures, with some of the calls placed to Las Vegas.

The conversations, plus undercover work, alleged that Anthony Spilotro, headquartering in Las Vegas, had taken over as head man of the West Coast mob following the murder of Frank Bompensiero in San Diego in February of 1977.

Spilotro, arrested 20 times on various charges from petty larceny to murder but never convicted, came to Las Vegas in 1972 from Chicago where he was purportedly a key figure in the Chicago organized crime structure.

Federal agents have promoted Spilotro on their list from "the most powerful man in Las Vegas" to "the most powerful crime figure on the West Coast".

Information developed from the Kansas City wire taps indicated that five Chicago-area jewel thieves were executed when they declined to sell their loot in the regular syndicate channals.

A close associate of Spilotro is Joseph Hansen, considered one of the country's most accomplished jewel thieves. A Hansen associate is Frank Velotta, convicted sage burglar and a specialist in burglar alarms. There are recorded meetings between Spilotro and Hansen at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Spilotro opened a shop, just off the Las Vegas Strip on West Sahara Avenue, specializing in expensive jewelry which he named Gold Rush Ltd.

About a month after the swank jewelry store was opened, the FBI obtained a court-approved wire tap. Evidence collected allegedly revealed loansharking activities, illegal gambling and slot machine skimming.

A key witness before the grand jury was FBI Agent Rick Baken, who posed as a buyer of stolen jewelry. He testified that jewelry shown to him, primarily cut and uncut diamonds offered at substantially below wholesale prices, were said by Spilotro to be "hot out of Chicago".

In one of the tapped telephone conversations of a Spilotro associate, the caller said that Spilotro was worried about the testimony of Bliss in the license fixing case and instructed someone to
"take care of him."

The most likely person to have been given the assignment would be Chris Petti. He had been a Bompensiero protege. After the murder of his boss, he joined the Spilotro organization. Federal investigators claim that Petti was used as a collector of debts owed by Californians to the Chicago-connected casinos and loansharking in Las Vegas.

With his early training in Chicago as a "collector", a government agent observed, "He's one of those guys who likes to go out and break a few legs at the appropriate time. It is a talent the mob appreciates."

However, with the exception of Weiss' association with Tarkanian and Tarkanian's association with Bliss, there was no mention in the extensive files in Las Vegas concerning Weiss. And there was only the rumor and no proof that Weiss and Lantieri might have been operating a "layoff" book.

One investigator said, "Of course we don't have all the information. If Weiss had been operating a layoff book and got into trouble, the two slugs in the back of the head and the body left in a car is the modus operandi of a mob hit."

The homicide investigators in Los Angeles were working with the physical evidence and a timetable for the murder. They were able to establish that Weiss played golf with friends on the morning he was slain. He did not have lunch because he was watching his weight.

Vic met with Cooke and Buss at the Beverly Comstock at four o'clock. They discussed the Tarkanian contract for an hour, with ten minutes out while Weiss made his telephone call to Las Vegas.

When Weiss climbed into his Rolls-Royce in the parking lot at the hotel, he hadn't mentined that he had any other meeting. An hour later the Rolls with Weiss' body was parked in the garage in North Hollywood.

The investigators were positive from their knowledge concerning Weiss that he would not have picked up a stranger. They pointed out that if he planned to meet his wife at the San Fernando Valley restaurant, he would have made a left onto the Ventura Freeway instead of the right onto the Hollywood Freeway and to the Sheraton Universal.

A close friend said, "Hell, Vic was a pretty smart guy. He wouldn't be stupid enough to have gone to a known setup on his own volition. Whoever got him or had him set up had to be a friend."

Puzzling, too, was that the killer had left the expensive diamond ring on his finger and the $6,000 watch on his wrist. Unknown was how much cash he might have been carrying, but the known things taken were the Tarkanian contract and his address book.

Cutter told the detectives, "Who in hell would take Vic's address book unless it was somebody who didn't want his name found out? If I had Vic's book, I could tell you the name of the person who killed him. I knew Vic that well. He was one of the finest and most generous persons I've ever known."

He added, "As far as I know, Vic never had any ties to organized crime, but my saying that doesn't mean anything. Like they say, the husband or wife or partner is the last to know. So, I don't know."

Tarkanian, following the murder of Weiss, announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate for the coaching job for the Lakers. Tarkanian's wife, in an interview, told reporters, " It had to have something to do with boxing. Both Jerry and Vic's partner told Vic to get out of boxing because of the weird people involved in that sport, but Vic just loved boxing so much he wouldn't listen."

After several months of investigation, the detectives assigned to the case said that the wealthy sports figure moved so skillfully and secretively in his role of "man about town" to connections with unsavory charactors that it was impossible to tell what the motive might be for his death.

A friend commenting on his wealth said, "Vic's family doesn't need to worry. He was a very wealthy guy. There are a lot of safety deposit boxes around to be opened."

The Weiss case, investigators say, has so many demensions that his death remains as much a mystery at this time of writing as it did when the corpse was first found in the Rolls Royce.

A detective summed it up by saying, "It was so neat, all it needed was a ribbon. It appears that Vic may have been just a good guy who met some bad guys."

3 comments:

daveglen08 said...

ITS JUNE 2008 NOW, HAS THERE BEEN ANY PROGRESS MADE IN THIS CASE?

jack hawn said...

I am a retired LA Times sportswriter. I'm in the process of writing my memoirs, which include a brief mention of Vic Weiss' murder. I covered boxing, knew Vic quite well and bought a new 1979 Ford Thunderbird from him shortly before he was killed. I would like permission to quote a few paragraphs of this, giving proper credit, of course.

Jack Hawn
623-584-3677
jackncharl@aol.com

Anonymous said...

Jack, Has there ever been any mention of Horace "Big Mac" McKenna in relation to the murder of Weiss? I once heard in 1990 a tv show talking about a tie between that murder and Horace "Big Mac" McKenna, Anthony "The Ant" Spilatro and antoher guy my the name of Laudius or something like that.