[Interview] Dennis Griffin and the Last Vegas Mob
Crime writer Dennis N. Griffin has written and published six novels and three non-fiction books about Las Vegas police and organized crime history.
Four of his six novels, The Morgue (1996); Red Gold (2000); Killer In Pair-A-Dice (2001) and Blood Money (2002) were published by AuthorHouse while the remaining two, One-Armed Bandit (2002) and Pension (2004) where released through Publish America.
His three non-fiction books, Policing Las Vegas (April 2005); The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob (2006) and Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness (2007) were all published by Huntington Press.
In a recent interview, Dennis Griffin spoke about the work he is doing.
When did you start writing?
I began writing my first manuscript in 1994, following my retirement from a 20-year career in law enforcement and investigations in New York State . My motivation at that time wasn’t money or fame. It was solely to tell the story of a medical examiner’s office run amok. It was based on the last investigation I did prior to retiring and was a story I felt needed to be told.
I plunged ahead with my project without doing any research on the writing business. I didn’t know traditional publishing from self-publishing. I had no idea what a [print on demand] POD book was. I only knew I had a story to tell and wanted to get it out there.
The Morgue was completed in early 1996 and that’s when all the things I had failed to do came home to roost.
There I was with a 110,000-word document and clueless about what to do next.
Belatedly springing into action, I researched publishing options and commenced sending our queries, followed by sample chapters, followed by the entire manuscript in some cases. Each attempt ended with a rejection. As the copying and postage expenses mounted, along with the frustration, I was about ready to pack it in. Suddenly, out of the blue I was thrown a life line. A company called 1stBooks (now AuthorHouse) contacted me to announce they were expanding their services to include printed and bound books as well as e-books. Was I interested in being one of the first authors to have their manuscript published in POD format for only a $75 setup fee? I still didn’t understand what POD was all about, but without any attractive alternatives I couldn’t sign fast enough.
I had the book in my hands in a fairly short time — a couple of months as I remember. After the euphoria wore off, I was confronted with yet more realities. I was responsible for marketing and promoting my book. The publisher didn’t do it — they didn’t even offer a promo package at the time. And book stores, especially the chains, weren’t anxious to schedule events for self-published and/or POD authors, or stock their books.
It was crunch time for me. I had to decide if I wanted to write any more. And if I did, in order to have any chance for personal or financial success, I’d have to develop a readership beyond family and friends. So, did I want to establish myself as an author and was I prepared to put forth the effort to develop my writing and marketing skills?
I decided to go for it.
How would you describe your writing?
I am currently writing non-fiction Las Vegas police and organized crime history, specifically Chicago Outfit enforcer, Tony Spilotro’s reign. This is the era dramatized in the hit 1995 movie Casino, in which actor Joe Pesci plays a character based on Spilotro.
My target audience is the millions of people who are fascinated by the workings of organized crime, have organized or true crime books at the top of their reading list, watched The Godfather series, Casino and Goodfellas multiple times and felt a great sense of loss when the last episode of The Sopranos aired.
Author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi has been a great influence in my non-fiction efforts. I admired his work in the book and movie Casino, and the book Wiseguy, which was the basis for the movie Goodfellas.
I decided to turn to non-fiction in 2001, when my career seemed to be stalled. I felt I either had to try something new or get out of the writing business. By coincidence, it was at that time I attended a writers’ conference in Florida , where I met a lady who had written the story of the Indiana State Police. I purchased a copy of her book and read it cover-to-cover. I was still searching for a subject for my first non-fiction effort and doing a police history book appealed to me. I had been living in Las Vegas since 1994 and thought doing a book about my new home town’s police force would be fun to write and might sell fairly well in Sin City.
My first step was to secure the cooperation of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (Metro). I prepared a proposal and submitted it to the department’s Undersheriff. In less than an hour my plan was accepted.
I next sought a publisher. I had already determined that because my book was going to be about Vegas, my best bet to land a publisher would be to look locally. With Metro having signed on to the project, I prepared a proposal and presented it to Las Vegas publisher Huntington Press (HP). Huntington is a small press owned by well-known gaming expert Anthony Curtis. They publish a handful of books per year and don’t handle fiction. Their titles all have Las Vegas or Nevada connections. After a few weeks, HP informed me they’d publish my book if the manuscript lived up to my proffer. Policing Las Vegas was released in April 2005.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
In writing non-fiction, my biggest concern is accuracy.
In order get the best information possible, I make every effort to find credible sources whose stories can be corroborated through other witnesses and/or documentary evidence.I believe my background in law enforcement and investigations makes writing organized crime appealing to me. I actually enjoy doing the research and look forward to conducting interviews with the people who lived the events I’m writing about.
My biggest challenge, particularly when I first began writing non-fiction, has been gaining the confidence of potential sources. Approaching someone I’ve never met before and asking him or her to share intimate details of their professional or personal lives with me, has to be handled with great tact.
If I’ve been referred to them by an acquaintance, I mention the name. I never ask for information during the initial contact. I explain what I’m working on and why I’m requesting an interview and answer any questions they may have. After that I back off to allow the potential source a chance to check me out.
I don’t lie to my sources. If they tell me something that is off the record, it remains off the record. And I always review the text with them prior to adding it to the manuscript. I believe that gives both of us a chance to detect any misunderstandings or points that require additional clarification.
Do you write everyday?
I try to do at least three hours of writing-related functions every day. They can include writing, editing, research, or marketing and promo. Each day I prioritize what needs to be done and then work on those items. I quit when I’ve met my goals or if I reach a point where I’m tired or frustrated and my efforts are becoming unproductive.
How did Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness come about?
Cullotta is the biography of Frank Cullotta, a former master thief, arsonist, mob tough guy and killer. The book explains in graphic detail his life as a criminal on the streets of Chicago, his days running a crew of thieves and murderers in Las Vegas and life in the federal Witness Protection Program.
I was fortunate in that I had already done a tremendous amount of research regarding the so-called Spilotro days when writing The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob. Even with that advantage, it took about eight months to complete the manuscript and gather related documents.
My first two non-fictions were with Huntington Press. Through those books I had established a good working relationship with them, both as a writer and marketer. Per my contract with them they had the right of first refusal. But I’d have gone to them first even without the contract provision.
Shortly after my first meeting with Frank Cullotta, I approached Huntington with a proposal outlining what Frank’s story would contain and the amount of detail he would provide. As an illustration, the proposal included Frank’s description of the facts behind the so-called M&M murders. They were the basis for one of the most memorable scenes in Casino, the one in which Pesci’s character places a man’s head in a vise and squeezes until the guy’s eyeball pops out. Huntington saw the book’s potential and agreed to publish it.
After my initial experiences with self and/or POD publishing where I had to do almost everything myself, working with Huntington was a refreshing experience. A professional editor worked closely with me as I prepared my manuscripts. Help was always only a phone call or e-mail away. HP’s attorneys rendered opinions on any legal issues that needed to be addressed. A marketing person gathered the information necessary to pitch local book stores and other venues. And when my books were released, the publicity director arranged radio and TV interviews for me.
Which aspects of the project did you find most difficult?
The start of the project was the most difficult for a number of reasons:
Frank and I didn’t know each other and had to go through a feeling out process. After spending 20 years in investigations and law enforcement, I had to overcome my inhibitions about entering into a business relationship with a man who — at least for many years — represented everything I had been against.
Our lack of familiarity with each other caused me to have to grope my way along during our conversations to avoid getting Frank upset and possibly alienating him. Would I ask a wrong question? Would I react to an answer in a way that would offend him? Would he sense through my body language, tone or expression that I found some of his previous conduct repulsive? I guess I could say that at the start I sometimes felt like I was sitting on a powder keg and hoping not to accidentally ignite it.
Communications were a problem. For security purposes I wasn’t allowed to know Frank’s new identity, location or business. All contact had to go through a middle man, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy. This was cumbersome to say the least and proved to be unworkable.
In addition to dealing with Frank, my wife was not at all happy with me for getting involved with writing his story. While I was working on Battle a couple of things happened — annoying/threatening phone calls, suspicious persons loitering near our home — that had made her nervous about my writing true crime. Battle wasn’t even back from the printer and here I was tangled up with a hit man.
Fortunately, these early problems evaporated rather quickly. As Frank and I developed mutual respect and trust things went much smoother. I was given a way to contact him directly — along with a stern warning by Dennis Arnoldy that I was responsible for maintaining the security of that information. I learned that Frank has a code of ethics and there is only one way to deal with him: directly and honestly. If you treat him that way you’ll gain his respect and he’ll respond in kind. He also has a great sense of humor. As time went on Frank went from being a business associate to being a friend.
Even my wife has experienced a transformation. The first time Frank came to our place for a meeting, as he came in one door she and our dog went out the other. But now they’re buddies. She looks forward to his calls and visits.
What sets the book apart from the other things you’ve written?
While Battle and Cullotta are similar in regard to reporting on things that happened in Las Vegas, having Frank’s input adds a whole new perspective. And Cullotta also addresses events that took place in Chicago, Frank’s prison and Witness Protection Program experiences as well as his involvement with the movie Casino.
I think Cullotta is the highlight of my writing career to date. Everything fell into place for me to write this book. It started with my decision to try non-fiction. The contacts and information I developed while writing Policing Las Vegas resulted in The Battle for Las Vegas, which in turn led me to Cullotta.
The road has had a few bumps in it. But all-in-all it’s been a great ride.
What will your next book be about?
I’m currently finishing Vegas Vixen, the third book in my Vegas trilogy. This time my detectives have to delve into the Las Vegas of the 1960s and ‘70s to solve a 2002 murder.
Killer In Pair-A-Dice, an AuthorHouse publication that was released in 2001, is the first of in the trilogy. Featuring homicide detectives Steve Garneau and Theresa “Terry” Bolton, it is the tale of a serial rapist and murderer stalking the streets and neighborhoods of Sin City.
One-Armed Bandit is the second and was published by Publish America in 2002. This time, Garneau and Bolton have to solve the murders of four people in what initially appears to be a convenience store robbery.