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Thursday, July 18, 2013

How an infamous Chicago hitman rebuilt his identity

How difficult would it be to assume a different name, create a new Social Security number and rebuild a new identity from scratch? How would banks, landlords, utilities, neighbors and others react to a man or woman without a past?

Frank Cullotta knows. A former mob hit man in Las Vegas, he was portrayed in the 1995 film Casino as the link between the Chicago bosses and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro, the men who inspired the movie’s Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci characters. In 1982 he had a falling out with his friend Spilotro and agreed to provide evidence against his former associates. The federal government entered him into the witness protection program.

Although he still lives under an assumed name, he agreed to talk to me last week about how he built a new identity. He created a basic backstory to explain his sudden arrival in a new town that would also deflect too many questions. “They asked me why I came there and I would say I was married and my wife got killed in an automobile accident, and I didn’t want to stay where I was at anymore because of the memories and all that bulls—,” Cullotta said.

The U.S. Marshals Service running the program set down some basic rules that run very much counter to our current era of constant sharing on social media.

“First of all, they don’t want you to take any pictures and send them to anybody because it will show, even if you got a town over or two town over from where you are at, it will show that you are in that vicinity,” he said. “And in the pictures they say there is always something that will show in the picture. Like a phonebook will be in the background.”

Cullotta received a new Social Security number and birth certificate. He then went to the department of motor vehicles to take the test and receive a driver’s license. The next step in rebuilding a life is buying a used car and finding a place to live (the feds provide the money for both). “Once you have located an apartment, it is very difficult to get an apartment because you have no past. You have no banking account. You don’t exist,” he said.

“You are going to lie on the form, and you are going to say that you are from out of state and nine times out of 10, even if they check, you are going to give a bad phone number, it’s not going to come back right. They ain’t going to get no history on you.”

Next comes banking. “Very difficult to do because you have no credit history, and with no credit history, banks are a little hesitant,” Cullotta said. “They think you are illegal, actually.”

How did a middle-aged man explain that he had no previous banking relationships? “I said I deal with strictly cash. If I paid my bill, everything was by cash. I would go to the power company, I would go to the water company, you know, whatever it was, or the landlord, I always paid by cash,” he said. “I don’t believe in banks but now that I am getting older, I think this is the way I should do it, you know. After a little while, you bulls— with them, they want your money. They give you a little static at first but they’ll take your money.”

The feds advise people taking on new identities to end all communications with family, although many do not follow the advice. “I found a way to do it. I just used to call a certain party in my family at a certain date and month or a certain day of the week and he’d be at a payphone,” he said. “I didn’t call the house in case the Outfit had lines bugged, which they can.”

In the years since he moved from Las Vegas, Cullotta took on new identities in Texas; in Estes Park, Colorado; Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi; and Mobile, Alabama. As the mob was believed to have ordered a hit on his life, he moved from time to time for his safety. One time he ran into a friend of his sister at a Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile. He moved to Mississippi the next day as a precaution.

He took different jobs. For a short while, he drove a truck. Eventually he bought a used car lot, funded by money he had squirreled away outside the government’s view. For all the new names, identity cards and backstory, Cullotta could not alter his basic demeanor.

“You hear my voice? Can you imagine me living in Biloxi, Mississippi? Do you think I would fit there or Texas? Of course, people would look at me and they would say, ‘you’re a Yankee, you’re a gangster, you sound like a gangster,’” he said in a strong Chicago accent. “So I tried to dress down. I wore ball caps, jeans, tennis shoes, s— I never wore in my life to try to fit in, but I still had that accent.”

“And the demeanor, how I walk and carry myself which is almost impossible to change. It is impossible for me to change.”

Cullotta still uses a different name and did not want to say where he resides today. But he says his former adversaries are all dead or serving life prison sentences, so he lives more openly than before. He had a cameo role as a killer in Casino, wrote a 2007 memoir, and is now working on a second book about untold stories about his Hole in the Wall Gang, a now notorious Las Vegas gang.

Very few people go through the process of creating a new identity with government help. According to the U.S. Marshall’s Service, 8,500 witnesses have taken on new identities since the witness protection program begin in 1971. For the rest of us, the program shows how difficult it would be to undo the personal data from our commercial dossiers collected by data brokers and private companies about almost all Americans and make a fresh start. The personal data collected about us lives forever.



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