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Shrine to the Wise Guy: Las Vegas Builds Mob Museum With FBI Support

Las Vegas is building a museum about some of its founding fathers and most influential figures — guys with names like Bugsy, Lefty and Lansky.

The mob museum will stand as frank acknowledgment of the major role mobsters played in developing Las Vegas into the gambling capital of America and giving the city its rakish glamour during the 1940s and '50s.

"Let's be brutally honest, warts and all. This is more than legend. It's fact," said Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former defense attorney whose clients once included mobsters Meyer Lansky and Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro. "This is something that differentiates us from other cities."

The project has gained the support of the FBI and is guided by a retired FBI agent. They say they are involved because you can't tell the stories of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, his banker, Lansky, casino boss Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and others without telling the story of the lawmen who pursued them.

"This is a way to connect with the public and show the results of our work," said Dan McCarron, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington.

Ellen Knowlton, who retired in 2006 as FBI agent in charge in Las Vegas and now heads the not-for-profit museum organization, said FBI officials have offered to share photographs, transcripts of wiretaps and histories of efforts to kneecap organized crime in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

"Despite the sort of edgy theme, this museum will be historically accurate and it will tell the true story of organized crime," Knowlton said. "The plan is to give people a kind of gritty taste of what it would have been like to be not only a person involved or affiliated with organized crime, but also what it would have been like to be in law enforcement."

Officials expect to open the museum by 2010 in a brick federal building that was the centerpiece of this dusty town of 5,100 residents when it opened in 1933. In 1950, the three-story building hosted a hearing by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver's special investigating committee on the rackets.

Goodman, who showed his own willingness to play up Las Vegas' mob past by making a cameo in the 1995 Robert De Niro-Joe Pesci movie "Casino," has pushed the idea of a mob museum from the time he was elected mayor in 1999.

He brokered a deal for the city to buy the building in 2000 for $1, with the understanding it would be turned into cultural center. Officials expect the final cost, including renovations, to reach almost $50 million.

About $15 million has been raised through grants, city funds, contributions and the sale of commemorative license plates that marked Las Vegas' centennial in 2005.

It was Siegel who pioneered the transformation of this one-time desert stopover into a glittering tourist mecca, opening the $6 million Flamingo hotel on the fledgling Las Vegas Strip in 1946 with financial backing from Lansky.

The movie-star handsome Siegel was rubbed out six months later in Beverly Hills, Calif., perhaps because he angered the mob with cost overruns on the hotel.

Spilotro and Rosenthal were associates in the 1970s, when Rosenthal ran several casinos, including the Stardust. Spilotro was killed in 1986 and buried in an Indiana cornfield.

Organized crime eventually was driven out of Las Vegas in the 1970s and '80s by the FBI, local police and prosecutors, state crackdowns and casino purchases by corporate interests.

Many of these stories have been dramatized by Hollywood in such movies as "Bugsy," "The Godfather" and "Casino." But documenting mob history isn't going to be easy.

"If anybody out there finds a memo saying: `To the boys, from Meyer. Re: Bugsy. Kill him,' We'd love to have it," said Michael Green, a College of Southern Nevada history professor who is researching exhibits for the museum. "But we doubt it's there."

"Because of that, you have to do a lot of reconstructing, inferring and implying," he said. "There's a lot of winking we're going to have to do."

Green pointed to stories about Moe Dalitz, a Cleveland businessman who rescued the Desert Inn and Stardust casinos in the 1950s and '60s and built a hospital, golf courses and shopping centers.

"Was he tied to the mob or involved with the mob? Yes," Green said. "A mobster? Harder to explain."

Dennis Barrie, who directed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the popular International Spy Museum in Washington, said he will design the as-yet-unnamed Las Vegas museum to show how organized crime and the fight against it shaped modern life.

"Whether it's running the casinos in Las Vegas, or controlling cigarette sales or numbers or trash collection in any city, organized crime is part of the American culture," Barrie said. "Everybody has a mob story or a brush with the mob world. Or they at least say they do."

Organizers say paying visitors might be asked to decide as they arrive which side of the law they want to be on, and then be given a story line tracing the life of a famous lawman or mobster or a street cop or numbers runner.

"Were you a hit man? Were you a prosecutor? What choices do you have to make?" Green said. "We're telling a story of things that are multisided."

Organizers also hope to have an oral-history area where visitors "can sit down in front of a camera and say, `I knew Bugsy,' or `I saw Meyer,' or whatever," he said.