Sunday, February 22, 2009

Article Submitted by Dennis N. Griffin

Feb. 15, 2009
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

JOHN L. SMITH: Mobster's biographer scoops clueless Illinois detectives, fingers 1981 killer

Dennis Griffin admits he's no Shakespeare, just a retired New York health care fraud investigator who had a story to tell and caught the writing bug when he retired in 1994.

Since then he's churned out 10 books, none of which will make you forget Hemingway or compare him to Steinbeck. But Griffin has done something none of those other mopes ever accomplished: He wrote a book, "Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness," that's helping to solve a real-life murder mystery.

Published in 2007 by Huntington Press, the work serves as the biography of Frank Cullotta, the childhood friend of Chicago Outfit enforcer Anthony Spilotro. Cullotta was an undistinguished street criminal who in the early 1980s joined Spilotro's violent Las Vegas street crew. He committed crimes ranging from robbery to murder, then became a key government witness in its investigation of the mob's influence in Las Vegas.

Fast-forward to 2008. An Illinois woman named Holly Hager picked up a copy of "Cullotta," and nearly screamed when she reached page 130, which gave details of the June 1981 murders of bar owner Ronald Scharff and waitress Patricia Freeman at the P.M. Pub in Lakemoor, Ill. Scharff was the best friend of Hager's father, Jim Hager. The murders had gone unsolved, and McHenry County detectives claimed to be stumped about the killer's identity.

In the book, Cullotta named Spilotro intimidator Larry Neumann as the murderer of Scharff and Freeman. And Cullotta would know. After serving time in prison with Neumann, Cullotta introduced him to Spilotro's gang. As Cullotta recalled during his law enforcement debriefing, Neumann admitted committing the murders because Scharff had thrown his ex-wife out of the tavern.

David Groover, then a Metro detective investigating Spilotro's crew, wrote five succinct paragraphs about the murders during Cullotta's debriefing. The alleged killer, a possible accomplice, and a motivation for the crime were given. Scharff had been killed for the perceived slight. Freeman was murdered because she was a witness.

Cullotta's Metro and FBI handlers didn't sit on the information. They quickly informed McHenry County authorities, who could not have been surprised to hear Neumann's name. After all, he already had been identified as a possible suspect by Scharff's best friend, Jim Hager.

Not only did the McHenry County detectives fail to act, they appeared to go out of their way to attempt to damage Cullotta's credibility.

These days Scharff's son, Paul Scharff, is aggressively seeking to have McHenry County officials finally name Neumann as the killer.

It's not for justice, but for a sense of closure.

Neumann died in prison in January 2007 after a lengthy criminal career that included at least six murders, including a 1956 triple homicide from which he managed to gain release. The sheriff and detectives from McHenry County who criticized Cullotta back in the early 1980s are gone, too.

But Paul Scharff, who was just a boy at the time of his father's murder, has lived with the dark memory every day since then.

In an review of "Cullotta," he wrote, "I have never written a review for a book before, but I never had a book IMPACT my life like this one. From the book 'Cullotta,' I discovered who killed my father and his barmaid 27 years ago."

That beats a New York Times review any day.

"It's actually very uplifting, particularly so since I've actually gotten to know Paul Scharff," Griffin says. "He's just a real super guy. That makes me feel all the better that perhaps the book will help him and his family."

It would be an ending most authors would reject as too implausible to be believed. For Griffin, it's just another twist in a very real story.

"Paul Scharff is convinced they (McHenry County detectives) are actually seriously looking into the events surrounding the killings," Griffin says. "We think it's more than just paying lip service. We think they're actually fully engaged with it."

By phone from an undisclosed location, Cullotta says it's about damned time.
"It's taken them so long it's ridiculous," the 70-year-old reformed hoodlum says in his biting Chicago accent. "The kid wants closure, and can you blame him?"

For author Dennis Griffin, it would be an ending the literary greats would envy.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at


Denny Griffin began his first career as a private investigator in upstate New York and ended it in the position of Director of Investigations with the New York State Department of Health laboratory division. He began his second career as an author in 1994 and it's been downhill, though sometimes bumpy, since then. Denny has published 10 novels, most either true crime or about the Mob. To visit Denny's web site, either click the logo above or click any one of the logos appearing at the end of his interview.
Who is the one person who most encouraged or influenced you to be a writer—and why?

My wife. She said I had a story that needed to be told. And she wouldn’t let me quit, no matter how many times I wanted to.

How long have you been writing? Why do you write True Crime and about the Mob?

I started writing in 1994. I’m a true crime buff and really enjoy doing the research. The Las Vegas reign of Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro is fascinating to me.

Who is your favorite author and why do you like his/her work?

Dean Koontz. I’m engrossed by his stories.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Facing the reality that there’s more to the business of writing than just completing a manuscript. Getting published and learning how to market my books were things I hadn’t adequately researched before starting my first manuscript.

What is the title of your most recently published book? Briefly tell us what it’s about and let us know where we can buy it.

“Vegas Vixen” was released last November. It’s my third novel in a trilogy featuring the same male/female Las Vegas Metro homicide detective team. In order to solve the murder of a 67-year-old woman, the detectives have to go back in time to when the deceased ran the best brothel in Sin City; a time when there was often little difference between the criminals and the badge-carriers charged with enforcing the law.

“Vegas Vixen” is available online through Amazon or the publisher - Oak Tree Press - at,

What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?

I’m currently mulling over two book projects. I hope to make a decision shortly and have something out late this year, or early 2010.

Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important “tip” you can give to a new writer?

Research the business of writing early on. Have an idea of what your publishing options are prior to or while writing your manuscript; and develop a marketing plan.

What writers organizations claim you as a member?

The Henderson Writers’ Group, Wizards of Words, Public Safety Writers Association, and Sisters in Crime.

Do you have any upcoming book signings or appearances? If so, give us all the details.

Speaking Events/Signings:

March 2 and 23, Borders Express, McCarran Airport, Las Vegas, Nevada at 8:30 am

April 2 – West Hills College, Lemoore, California at 7 pm

April 4 – Sisters in Crime, Fresno, California at 10:30 am.

Tell us about your Internet Blog Talk Radio show.

I host a Meet The Author show where authors – usually new ones – talk about their book(s) and publishing and marketing experiences. I also run special programs dealing with crime-related issues. On March 4th at 8 pm EST I’ll be talking about the murder of six-year-old Texas girl Hanna Mack. She was raped and killed in September 2007. On February 13th a 19-year-old confessed to the killing. He also implicated Hanna’s mother’s boyfriend, who is currently in jail on charges of child pornography. My guests will be Heather Steele, President and CEO of the innocent Justice Foundation, and Robin Sax, LA County sex crimes prosecutor.

What are the addresses of your web site(s) and blog(s)?

Blog Talk Radio:


Beginning soon, I'll be interviewing published authors on this blog and posting their articles and announcements about new releases and appearances. We're off to a great start with a terrific lineup of authors who write romance, romantic suspense, true crime, mystery, and western historical.

I'm in the process of scheduling, so check back to see who's up at bat and when!