Friday, October 31, 2008

Special Las Vegas and the Mob show

On November 5 at 7 pm Central time, I’ll be doing a special edition of my Las Vegas and the Mob show on Blog Talk Radio. The topic will be a double murder that occurred in Lakemoor, Illinois, in 1981. My guests will be Paul Scharff, son of one of the victims, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy, and former Chicago Outfit mobster Frank Cullotta. You can listen to the program live, or play it back later as a podcast, at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/dennisngriffin.

Below is some background on the case.

Murder in Lakemoor

On the morning of June 2, 1981, two people were found shot to death in the living room of an apartment at the rear of the P.M. Pub, located at 238 West Rand Road in Lakemoor, Illinois. The victims were the tavern’s owner, 37-year-old Ronald Scharff , and barmaid Patricia Freeman, who had worked her first shift at the bar the previous evening. Lakemoor is situated about 45 miles northwest of Chicago and was a community of around 800 at the time. These were the first reported homicides there since its incorporation in 1952.

Shortly after the killings, McHenry County Sheriff’s investigators had a couple of suspects in the slayings. Jim Hager — a friend of Ron Scharff — advised them that if they wanted to solve the murders they should look at either Freeman’s boyfriend or a guy named Larry Neumann The latter was a McHenry County native then living in Las Vegas. Neumann, a burglar, robber, arsonist and all around tough guy, was working for Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro in Sin City. Neumann had previously been convicted of a 1956 triple murder in Illinois. And although he received a sentence of 125 years, he had miraculously been paroled after serving only about 16 years. Hager had thrown Neumann’s name into the mix because he had witnessed an altercation between Scharff and Neumann’s ex-wife in which Scharff threw the woman out of his bar. Hager felt that to a guy like Neumann, that incident could be construed to be a personal insult demanding redress.

It is unclear exactly what the police did with that information. But they reportedly put most of their focus on Freeman’s boyfriend, who had allegedly been seen across the street from the lounge on the night of the killings. The man was questioned and submitted to several lie detector tests, the results of which were inconclusive.

At any rate, no charges were filed and the case was still open the following year when what seemed like a major breakthrough with a Las Vegas connection took place. In May 1982, Tony Spilotro’s childhood friend and lieutenant flipped and became a government witness. Frank Cullotta — who had been running Spilotro’s crew of thieves and killers known as the Hole in the Wall Gang prior to defecting — told the FBI agents and Las Vegas police who were debriefing him, that Neumann had killed two people in a McHenry County tavern the previous June. McHenry County authorities were notified and interviewed Cullotta at the federal lockup in San Diego.

Cullotta confirmed Hager’s suspicion of the motive for the murders. He stated that Neumann had received a call from his ex-wife regarding her altercation with Scharff. The killer had become enraged. He considered the incident to have been a sign of disrespect to him; and felt he had no choice but to return to Illinois and get revenge. Not long afterward Neumann said he was heading for Chicago. Another Cullotta associate named Tommy Amato went with him. Amato went along to share the driving and get out of Vegas for a while. He had no knowledge of Neumann’s plans for retribution. When Neumann returned to Vegas he admitted the murders to Cullotta.

In addition to Cullotta’s statement, a Las Vegas police detective provided details of an interview he did with Tommy Amato regarding the Scharff and Freeman murders. David Groover said Amato told him that he had driven Neumann from Chicago to Lakemoor in Neumann’s Thunderbird. Neumann told Amato to park near the pub and wait in the car for him. A few minutes later Amato heard two gunshots, followed seconds later by two more. Neumann returned to the car, and after driving around for a while threw the murder weapon into a lake. Although Amato later retracted his story, Groover memorialized Amato’s statement in a sworn affidavit.

Further information that seemingly corroborated the accounts of Cullotta and Amato was contained in McHenry County police records. The night after the killings, Tommy Amato was in a car operated by Neumann’s brother-in-law when it was stopped by a police patrol. Amato was detained briefly and then released.

In spite of all this information, Neumann was not charged and the murders remained unsolved.

In 2008, 27 years after his father’s murder, Paul Scharff received a phone call from Jim Hager. He was told that Holly Hager — Jim’s daughter and Paul’s one-time babysitter — had read a book that she believed included a segment on Ron Scharff’s killing. Although the names of the victims and the specific location of the crimes weren’t included, she felt everything else matched. Jim agreed and reached out to Paul.

The book Holly read was CULLOTTA — The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness. On page 130 of that book she found Cullotta’s account of what turned out to be the Ron Scharff murder. For Paul, who was a young boy in 1981, this was the first time he’d heard the story about Larry Neumann being his father’s killer. After talking with Jim Hager and reading the book himself, Paul is convinced Neumann was the man who took the lives of his father and Pat freeman. That acceptance has brought him a certain amount of closure.

But now he’d like the police to name Neumann —who died in prison in January 2007 — as the perpetrator and close out the cold case. He’d also like an explanation as to why the police seemingly never seriously went after Neumann all those years ago. Frank Cullotta and his former FBI handler Dennis Arnoldy have agreed to assist Paul in his efforts if needed.

For the sake of Paul and his family, I hope he’s successful.

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