Friday, Sept. 30, 2005 | 9:51 a.m.
Jeff German's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the Sun. Reach him at [email protected] or (702) 259-4067.
With news of her death this week, 94-year-old Bertha Ragland is being remembered as one of this city's finest entrepreneurs.
For decades her exclusive store, Bertha's Gifts and Home Furnishings, was popular with local residents who enjoyed the art of fine living.
But Bertha's Gifts, on busy Sahara Avenue just west of Maryland Parkway, also played an unwitting role in the notorious folklore of Las Vegas.
The store was the site of a bungled burglary nearly a quarter-century ago that led to the demise of Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, the feared overseer of street rackets in Las Vegas for the Chicago mob.
It all began on the evening of July 4, 1981, when a group of burglars, dubbed the "Hole in the Wall Gang," made their way to the roof of Bertha's.
The gang, which earned its nickname because it punched holes in walls or ceilings to enter the scene of its heists, was run by Frank Cullotta, a loyal Spilotro enforcer.
With the noise of fireworks and traffic in the background, several of the gang members used cutting torches and sledge hammers to smash through the ceiling of Bertha's in anticipation of hoisting up as much as $1 million in loot.
In vehicles below, Cullotta and two other gang members, including ex-cop Joe Blasko, all armed with police scanners, were serving as lookouts.
But what the group didn't know was that its every move was being watched by a a horde of strategically placed FBI agents and Metro Police intelligence officers, who had been tipped off to the break-in by an informant inside the group.
Former FBI Agent Dennis Arnoldy remembers that night well.
"We had a lot of time to prepare for it," says Arnoldy, now a local private investigator. "We knew this was going to be an important operation for us."
While FBI agents observed and videotaped the burglars from a nearby business, Arnoldy and other agents waited in the back of Bertha's to apprehend the suspects.
Once the surveillance team saw someone drop down into the store, Arnoldy and company got the green light to move in.
All three of the burglars were taken into custody without incident -- and without having a chance to steal anything. At the same time, agents on the street arrested Cullotta and the other lookouts.
"We felt a real sense of accomplishment," Arnoldy says. "You often plan things, and they don't work out the way you want them to. But this one worked out perfectly. It was damn good."
More than that, it was the beginning of the end for Spilotro, who at the time was the subject of intense federal and local law enforcement attention.
By April 1982 the pressure of the Bertha's bust had gotten to Cullotta. Fearing that Spilotro wanted him dead, he decided to testify against his longtime boss.
Cullotta gave agents a gold mine of information -- including a blow-by-blow account of how he viciously killed an informant for Spilotro in 1979. His testimony led to racketeering indictments against Spilotro and his top lieutenants in 1983.
"He was the glue that put it all together for us," says retired FBI agent Mark Kaspar, who pursued Spilotro for a decade. "He corroborated all the evidence we needed to move forward with indictments."
Arnoldy, the lead agent in the racketeering case, calls Cullotta "the single-most important witness" in the breakup of Spilotro's organization.
To this day Arnoldy stays in contact with Cullotta, who has a new identity and is said to be running a successful business at an undisclosed location.
The racketeering case ended in a mistrial in April 1986, much to the dismay of FBI agents. But two months later, as the retrial was about to get under way, the bodies of Spilotro and his younger brother Michael turned up in an Indiana cornfield.
This past April federal authorities in Chicago charged top crime figures there in the deaths of the Spilotro brothers.
"In the end Spilotro was taken care of by his own people," Kaspar says.
But his fate, Kaspar adds, was sealed years earlier on that Fourth of July evening at Bertha's.