Black Book Series: One retired gangster’s memory of Johnny VaccaroBy John L. Smith, CDC Gaming ReportsSeptember 4, 2017 at 6:35 pmIn a business in which stabs in the back are real as well as metaphorical, it’s not often you’ll find one mob guy expressing a sincere admiration for another.Sure, there’s a lot of talk about friendship, brotherhood, and undying loyalty. Wiretaps, mob memoirs, and gangster movies are full of the stuff. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the underworld was all just one big college fraternity without the goofy sweaters.Real admiration not motivated by avarice or another angle can be hard to come by.I’m not talking about the old-world kissing up of the mafia underling to his superior, or the barroom bragging about who was the toughest on the street corner. At one time, it wasn’t hard to hear such talk in certain Las Vegas lounges. (That warm, fuzzy talk vanishes about the time the FBI comes knocking.)An expression of true admiration is a rare thing.That’s what made a recent conversation with retired mobster Anthony Fiato so memorable. Fiato ran with tough crowds in Boston and Los Angeles and as a member of the Milano family ran a loansharking operation and burglary ring. He also was a suspect in several hits, a few of which were tied to Los Angeles mobster Mike Rizzitello’s criminal career. When the FBI came calling, Fiato started talking and worked undercover against his former associates, turning the Milano crew upside down.The subject of my 1998 book, “The Animal in Hollywood,” these days Fiato lives quietly as a relocated federal witness. Out of habit, he keeps his eye on the ebb and flow of traditional underworld activity on each coast.We were talking about old gaming cheats and a couple of the junket-related marker scams at the Dunes he’d participated in when he was young and still living in Boston. He noted how much tougher it is for the usual suspects to make a score off the high-tech corporate casinos. Then he mentioned his old friend, Johnny Vaccaro.“I have to tell you,” he began, “I really liked the guy. His attitude, everything. He was a lot of fun to be around. He thought like a real gangster. And I really like that he thought big.”Vaccaro, who died in November 2015 at age 75, was a longtime member of Nevada’s infamous “Black Book” of persons excluded from setting foot in the state’s licensed casinos. Born in New Orleans, he associated with that city’s Marcello crime family before relocating to Las Vegas. He continued to gamble and own a roofing company, but he most enjoyed ripping off casinos. It was in his blood, and eventually would lead to multiple prison sentences and the addition of his wife Sandra to the state’s List of Excluded Persons as his accomplice.As Vaccaro once recounted in a recorded conversation late in his criminal career during the planning of a blackjack scam at the President Casino in Biloxi, Miss., “They want to argue with people that’s been doin’ it all their lives. See?” Later, he added his opinion of the industry, “Well (expletive) the casinos.”Vaccaro returned to prison after the President caper. But it was his propensity for dreaming big that impressed Fiato, who was wearing an FBI wire the last time they spoke.Most of the element Fiato ran with were a simple lot. They were meat-and-potatoes hoodlums, strong-arm thugs and thieves, and many were compulsive gamblers. They’d rip the diamond rings from the fingers of Beverly Hills matrons, collect a piece of the score from Fiato, fill their pockets with a few hundred bucks, and blow it all at the track or betting on ballgames.“But Johnny planned big scores,” he said. “He wasn’t one of those ham-and-eggers with a Member’s Only jacket on. He thought big, and when he had money he lived big. And when he got caught, he could do time standing on his head and not bat an eyelash. He was very ambitious, and very well respected in that world.”Fiato last encountered Vaccaro in the early 1980s while on bond after a casino cheating conviction.Had Vaccaro ever cooperated meaningfully, Fiato said, he would have been able to solve many crimes and even a few murders. Vaccaro was on friendly terms with reputed Chicago Outfit hitman and former Tony Spilotro associate Joey Hansen, who lived in Southern California.Vaccaro also certainly knew who killed John and Frances DuBeck, who were shot-gunned to death in in 1974 in Las Vegas. John DuBeck had helped rig a crap table for an illegal gambling parlor in San Fernando Valley run by Vaccaro and influenced by mob boss Pete Milano and capo Luigi Gelfuso. DuBeck was prepared to testify against the others at the time of his murder. The killings are unsolved, but Vaccaro and others were convicted in the gambling case. Vaccaro and Vaccaro, the government believed, arranged for DuBeck’s murder.Big dreamer Johnny Vaccaro was placed in the Black Book in 1989. Likable or not, he belonged there.That’s the problem with strolling down memory lane with gangsters, even retired ones. Admiration only goes so far.Someone always ends up dead or in prison.John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.