Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Interview with Author Dennis Griffin
Joining us today is Dennis Griffin, a retired New York State Director of Investigations, turned author. Concentrating on mysteries and non-fiction titles, Dennis uses his former career to create books reviewers have called, “riveting”, “engrossing”, and “well-written”. We’ll be talking about Dennis’s latest release, CULLOTTA: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness.”
Welcome, Dennis. It’s great to have you with us!
Before we talk about CULLOTTA, can you tell us about yourself? How long have you been writing? Is it because of your employment history that you are drawn to writing mysteries and non-fiction books about law enforcement and organized crime?
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 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 an 110,000- word document and was 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.
From there I wrote five more mystery/thriller fictions, all of which were self or POD published. With my background, this was the genre that was the easiest and most fun for me to write.
When your novel The Morgue was released in 1996, readers didn’t believe anything like that could happen, but it was actually based upon one of your investigations. Do you still receive this type of feedback from readers? Are they amazed at the kinds of things portrayed in your novels?
The Morgue generated the most disbelief among my readers. But Red Gold and Blood Money, which were also based on actual events, drew comments such as, “You certainly have a vivid imagination.”
I think the reason for that type of reaction was because most people aren’t familiar with the workings of morgues and clinical laboratories. When I turned to writing about more traditional crimes such as robbery, rape and murder — subjects that can be read about in the newspapers or heard discussed on TV newscasts every day — readers were more easily able to relate to the events I was describing.
Your three non-fiction titles have ties to Las Vegas, which is where you now live. How is New York similar to Las Vegas from a law enforcement perspective? How are they different?
Las Vegas is unique. Its reliance on the gaming industry and related tourism for much of its economy makes it different than about any other place in the country. But from a law enforcement perspective, I think it’s much the same as other large cities. They all have to deal with organized crime, gang violence, illegal drugs, burglars, robbers and murderers. Lawmen have to contend with the same types of people — the good, the bad and the ugly, if you will — no matter where they ply their trade.
Let’s move on to CULLOTTA. Frank Cullotta--the subject of this book--provided a great deal of information to you and also shares the title of author on the cover. What was it like to work with him? If you didn’t have his cooperation, what would you have done differently to provide a true account for your readers?
What it was like working with Frank is a subject that interests many writers and readers. I think I can best answer that question by sharing an article I wrote after the book was released in July.
Writing CULLOTTA – The Author and the Hit Man
In the spring of 2006, if anyone had told me I would become involved in a business relationship with a former hit man, I’d have said they were crazy. After all, a guy like me with 20 years working as a law officer and investigator, one who has always been a staunch supporter of law enforcement, would never allow himself to be associated with someone from the dark side. However, in a little over a year I not only co-authored a book with such a man, I’ve come to consider him a friend.
This strange turn of events began for me when I was researching for my book The Battle for Las Vegas – The Law vs. the Mob (Huntington Press, July 2006). In it I told the real story of Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro’s Las Vegas reign. As I was writing the book I was fortunate to develop a number of now-retired FBI agents and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department detectives as sources. These were men who had actually been involved in the investigations of Spilotro and his gang.
I was very pleased with the information I obtained, but felt I was lacking one thing: a perspective from the bad guys. Spilotro’s crew was either dead, in prison, or their whereabouts were unknown, except one: Frank Cullotta. Tony’s one-time right hand man had turned against his friend and become a government witness. After a stint in the Witness Protection Program, Cullotta was around somewhere with a new identity. I thought if I could talk with him, I might be able to nail down additional details and maybe even come up with some previously undisclosed information. But how was I going to get in contact with Cullotta, and would he talk with me if I did?
I knew that one of my sources, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy, had been Cullotta’s handler after the crook rolled. I figured he’d be a good place to start in my quest to locate the former mobster. It turned out that Dennis and Frank had remained in contact over the years and they spoke on a regular basis. Dennis said he couldn’t promise any results, but that he’d mention me to Frank and see what happened.
Several weeks later Dennis called and said Cullotta had agreed to speak with me by phone. The interview was brief; only a couple of questions. Although it was by no means the in-depth conversation I’d hoped for, it was better than nothing. I added Cullotta’s input to my manuscript and submitted it to the publisher. I then forgot about Frank Cullotta, at least for a while.
When chatting with Dennis Arnoldy a few months later an idea popped into my head. I asked him if Cullotta had ever thought about writing his life story. I opined that it would probably be a great read if he would be willing to be totally candid. Dennis said he’d ask Frank and let me know. Not too long after I got my answer: Frank had been thinking about doing his bio for several years. He’d already recorded cassette tapes of his memories and had them transcribed. Now he was looking for a writer and wanted to meet with me.
After my initial excitement over the news faded, doubts began to surface. Cullotta had been a thug, thief, arsonist and murderer. All things I’d been against my entire adult life. If we reached an agreement about doing a book, would I be able to bring myself to work closely with him? I pushed those thoughts from my mind as I awaited my chance to meet the confessed killer in the flesh.
I learned almost immediately that when working with Frank, security was first and foremost. For our initial meeting, Dennis Arnoldy told me the day Frank would be in Vegas, but not the time or place we’d get together. I got those details one hour before we met in a hotel room of a major casino. Dennis also informed me that I wouldn’t be able to learn Frank’s new identity, business, location or phone number. Any communication between Frank and me would have to go through Dennis.
Once inside the hotel room, Dennis introduced me to Frank Cullotta. He wasn’t a particularly imposing figure physically, although he looked like he could still take care of himself in a tussle. As we talked, what impressed me most about him was his demeanor. He talked about crimes he had committed, including murder, with no more emotion than a couple of co-workers standing around the office water cooler discussing the weather. I thought of the line from The Godfather: This is nothing personal. It’s strictly business.
After two hours, Frank and I reached an agreement. He’d provide the details of his career as a criminal and I’d do the writing. The story would begin on the streets of Chicago, and go through his days in Las Vegas, life as a government witness, and his involvement in the production of the movie Casino. All the criminal activity he would admit to would be that for which he had been granted immunity or the statute of limitations had long since run. We were in agreement that candor was key. His account had to provide information previously unknown to the general public and be as accurate as humanly possible. As the meeting wore on I became ever more confident that Frank was being up front with me and would fulfill his end of the bargain. We ironed out the financial arrangements and sealed our deal with a handshake.
The project wasn’t very far along before it became clear that our method of communication wasn’t adequate. I needed to be in touch with Frank frequently, sometimes several times a day. Routing everything through Dennis Arnoldy was simply too cumbersome, resulting in delays and frustration for all of us. I was given a special phone number to contact Frank directly. That simplified the process, but also provided a clue as to Frank’s location. That meant I now had a role in Frank’s security, a fact that Dennis made sure I understood.
My easier access to Frank certainly helped, but on occasion using the phone or mail wasn’t sufficient. There were times when getting together in person was the only way to go. We decided that the best place to have our meetings would be at my place. My wife, nicknamed Bear, wasn’t particularly enthused about me getting involved with Frank in the first place. When I announced his initial visit she was not a happy camper. The day Frank showed up, he came in one door and Bear went out the other. Eventually though, they’ve become buddies and she now looks forward to his calls and trips to town.
In summary, although there have been a few bumps along the way, co-authoring CULLOTTA has been an experience I wouldn’t trade, regardless of how the book sells.
What would I have done if I didn’t have Frank’s cooperation? The short answer is that I wouldn’t have written a second Spilotro era book.
It is my belief that if I write a book claiming it as a true crime story, I owe my readers the most complete and accurate information available. That means doing a lot of research, that includes whenever possible talking to the people who have first-hand knowledge of what transpired. I did that with The Battle for Las Vegas and was very comfortable with the finished product. Without Frank, Battle would have been my only book on the subject.
What was it about Frank Cullotta’s story that made you want to write it?
I found Frank’s overall criminal career to be fascinating. And CULLOTTA provided an opportunity to set the record straight about what really happened during the last few years of Tony Spilotro’s Las Vegas reign.
In addition to the tremendous story Frank had to tell, his candor when we met, and the reputation for being truthful that he had developed with detectives, agents and prosecutors, made taking on this project an easy decision for me.
According to the back cover blurb, this is a no-holds-barred biography. How much graphic detail is included? Do you think readers will be comfortable with what is found between this book’s pages?
I think that the majority of people who read this book will be organized crime buffs. They will have read other mob books, seen the Godfather series, Casino and Good Fellas, and watched The Sopranos on TV. For them, I don’t see anything that would cause discomfort.
However, for anyone being exposed to the mob life for the first time, there could be certain things that might be a bit upsetting to them. I hope those cases are few and far between. I’d like to think CULLOTTA will create fans rather than alienate them.
Frank’s life took an interesting turn when he became a cooperating government witness. Nicholas Pileggi--who worked on the script for the Martin Scorsese film, Casino--says in the Foreword to CULLOTTA, that Frank’s life as a free man was dependent upon his telling the truth. Did this help your working relationship with Frank as you drafted the manuscript?
I actually learned the details of Frank’s plea agreement while researching for Battle. Dennis Arnoldy, the retired FBI agent who had been Frank’s handler, was very confident that after Frank rolled and became a prosecution witness he was very forthright in his statements and testimony. Unlike some witnesses or informants who will say whatever they think the prosecution wants to hear, if Frank didn’t know an answer he said he didn’t know. As mentioned previously, that fact made me much more comfortable working with him.
Where can readers find a copy of CULLOTTA: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness?
The book is available at or through any bookstore and all the major online outlets. I have purchase links for CULLOTTA and all my books on my AuthorsDen site at http://www.authorsden.com/dennisngriffin. Currently, Amazon.com has the best prices for both CULLOTTA and Battle.
What is up next for you? Are there future projects you would like to share with our readers?
I actually have quite a lot going on right now. I’m heavily involved in promoting CULLOTTA. In my spare time I’m finishing a fiction called Vegas Vixen, and doing consulting for The Vegas Mob Tour, which is based on The Battle for Las Vegas, and takes passengers to the actual locations where many of the incidents depicted in Casino took place
I’m also mulling over three appealing true crime projects. I plan to start work on one of them in the near future.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Dennis. It has been a distinct pleasure finding out more about your latest book. I wish you continued success.
This interview first appeared at The Book Connection.