George Knapp

Channel 8’s award-winning investigative reporter talks about the mob, UFOs and other big stories from America’s most corrupt city

George Knapp moved to Las Vegas in 1979 armed with a master’s degree in communications from the University of Pacific but no job. He found work as a cab driver, and also came to know many of the men who would become part of Vegas lore for their mob-related activities. Knapp was hired by KLAS Channel 8 as a reporter in 1981, and has been the chief reporter on the station’s “I-Team” investigative unit since 1995. He won a Peabody Award in 2009 for his work on the special, Crossfire: Water, Power and Politics, and has won numerous other awards for his excellence in journalism.

Do you miss anything about the mob days?

I miss covering the mob stuff. It was a lot of fun, and it was almost every day. Almost every day there was somebody going to court, all those interesting characters. And the stakes were high; I mean we’re talking about the future of Las Vegas. It was right at the transition between the mob guys out of the casinos and the corporations coming in. The zenith of the mob had already passed by then, and it was sort of like an exorcism. I don’t think there’s ever been a time quite like that in Las Vegas history. It was kind of like watching sausage being made: It was gruesome in a sense, but you couldn’t take your eyes away from it. I do miss that.

Is it true that Las Vegas was a better place when the mob ran things?

There is, but not for the reason that the mob ran it. If you tell that to a lawman, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard. They hate that statement. The mob ran the Strip, they ran the casinos, and they would do anything to keep things quiet and keep that money flowing in, so violence stayed away. And as long as you left them alone, they were fine. Well it had to change because the casinos couldn’t raise money, and the Las Vegas we have now couldn’t have existed. But what they had was really special. Before the corporate bean counters came in, they were so much freer. You could getaway with stuff, like Sinatra jumping on a table and start dealing some cards, or giving away meals and giving away shows, and things were cheap. Not every sector of the casino had to make a profit; it wasn’t these quarterly statements. It was just a lot freer and more fun. And that’s something I certainly miss.

Did you ever receive any serious threats while you were covering the mob?

I know for a fact that a guy hired two people to take me out because I’ve heard him on tape. It was in the last four or five years—it’s not the Italian mob; this is somebody else—and he wanted them to wait until a certain story I was working on had gone away. So I was pretty shook up about it, not so much for me but for my gal. So I sent her to a hotel for a while and I sat up for several days and nights with a shotgun waiting for this asshole to show up, but he never did.

Is there still a mob presence in Las Vegas today?

I was say very definitely, and on a couple of levels. All of those people who were placed in positions of authority back then, a lot of them have stayed in. And those who haven’t retired have risen within the various organizations, and even though it’s corporate and it’s sanitized, they’re still there. They don’t have to steal from the casinos, and in many cases they are the casinos. And I’m not going to name a particular name I have in mind, but people can figure it out. In addition, there are other mobs that have moved in. Once [the old-timers] were gone, somebody had to fill that vacuum. Eastern European mobs—the Russians, Bulgarians and Hungarians—have their own little niche. The Israeli mob has moved in; they run the ecstasy trade. The [Japanese] Yakuza was here for a while, the Chinese Triads were here for a while, the Mexican Mafia was here, so there are a lot of different mobs. There’s no single cohesive single unit like there was before, but there’s no question there’s organized crime here—at many different levels.

With the scheduled opening this year of the Mob Experience at the Tropicana and the Mob Museum downtown, does it concern you that the mob hasbecome over-glamorized?

Sure, I guess it’s easy to gloss over what really was. There was a time when it was very glamorous and fairly benign when they kept the street crime out of it. But that changed, and it was bloody and awful. There were aspects of it that no one would want to see a return to those days. However, that concern was raised with the Mob Museum downtown. Before they could get the support of the law-enforcement community, they had to assure them that it was not only a mob museum but also a museum that honored those who went after the mob. Whether people will pay as much attention to the FBI section as they do to the mobster section, I think I know how that’s going to go. There is a danger of it, but that’s the part you make movies about. That’s the part that people want to see.

What are some of the things former Channel 8 reporter Ned Day taught you as a friend and a mentor that have stuck with you throughout your career?

The one main thing is the journalist’s ethical imperative: Get the story, get it right and tell it no matter who it helps or who it hurts. That’s what Ned was good at. He would do a story even if it burned a friend of his or somebody that he liked. … Plus, he was absolutely fearless. He would torture [the mob] guys and invite trouble, just “come and get me,” because he knew it would be a better story if they did come and get him, and it was. [When the mob blew up his car], within days they had bumper stickers and hats saying “This is not Ned Day’s car,” and he just loved it.

What has kept you here all these years?

There is no news town in America like it. It is the best. I have not worked in other markets, but I certainly have traveled to other markets. I’ve been to D.C. to cover things and Carson City, Chicago and other places. If you really do love news there is no place like this because there is never a slow day. We get so many journalists from other communities who come here for assignments, and they’re amazed. You look at a typical newscast that we do, it’s a week’s worth of lead stories for anywhere else in the country. It’s so vibrant, so interesting. All paths lead to Las Vegas: so much money, power and corruption, sports figures, celebrities. It’s just afascinating case study of sorts. I do believe it is the most corrupt town in America, more corrupt than Washington, and if you are a news junkie like me that means it’s a target-rich environment. I have had job offers over the years and could have moved on to bigger and better things, and most of the people I’ve worked with have done that—“I want to go to a bigger TV market.” I went to a bigger TV market staying here, because we were No. 120 or something like that when I got here; we’re in the top 40 now. And I’ve been able to grow with it. And because I’ve been here so long, I know everybody. I don’t want to be too cocky about it, but I always figure that I can find out just about anything; I’ll know somebody who has the answer to it. And then there is the realization that my act might not play anywhere else. I get away with a lot of stuff here because people know me so well, and I flavor my stories with my own take on it and people trust me to do that honestly, and I don’t think I can get away with that anywhere else.

As Las Vegas has grown in size and scope, has local media matured along with it?

I look at the R-J, and I don’t want to make this about them, but that paper is pathetic, the amount of staff they put on covering local news. It was always bare bones, and they’ve made cuts since then. They barely cover the minimum. If you look on a Monday morning and open it, Page 2 you’re on AP stories. And I don’t understand with all the money that corporation has made why they wouldn’t have decent staffing. So, no, I don’t believe we do an adequate job in a lot of ways. And part of the reason you can’t necessarily blame on the media themselves, it’s on the audience. They don’t want to see a story about the city council; they’ll change the channel. And, in many respects, we respond to what the audience wants. There is moreinterest in Paris Hilton getting arrested than there is in the city councilvoting on a contract for firefighters. That’s a fact. So we sort of follow the desires of our audience to stay in business. And that’s too bad. I don’t think we, in a general sense, do a very good job of covering city hall or the county commission. It used to be, when I first started, that we would cover every meeting of the Gaming Control Board and the Gaming Commission because that’s where the big decisions were made. They still are, but we don’t cover it. It’s just not sexy enough.

What’s been the biggest scoop of your career?

I think people would probably point to the UFO stuff—Bob Lazar, Area 51—as the one that’s made the biggest splash because here it is 22 years later and everywhere I go, every single day, I get asked about it: “Do you really believe in UFOs? What’s the deal on aliens?” I will be sitting at dinner and somebody will just pull up a chair and move in; I’m in the men’s room using the urinal and people will come up and start talking UFO stuff with me. And in one sense it’s a pain in the ass, and in another sense it’s gratifying and illuminating to know that that subject touches the pulse of the public in a way that I never understood before. I had no particular interest in aliens or flying saucers or any of that stuff until we did those stories on Area 51. Now it’s changed my life and my perspective on things, and it’s been a long, strange trip in investigating this stuff. I’ve met some really, really strange and troubled people, but I have learned that there is a core of information that deserves to be scrutinized and investigated, and I make no bones about that.

Does it bother you to be “the UFO guy?”

Some, because I’ve broken a lot of stories over the years. The stuff on the Medical Mafia was, and is, a pretty big story. G-Sting was my story, and that’s four county commissioners who went to jail; that’s a big story. But yet I’ll always be the UFO guy; it will be on my tombstone. I can live with it. I understand it.

Do UFOs exist?

Well, people ask me, “Do I believe?” That’s the first thing they ask me standing at the urinal. And my answer is, “It’s not a belief system, it’s not my religion; it’s a news story.” I look at it the same way I look at another news story, which is how I’ve always tried to approach it: Who’s telling the truth? Who’s telling me something I can verify? What’s the paper trail? Who’s believable and who isn’t? For others, it is a religion for them. And on one side you have the hopelessly gullible saucer nuts who believe everything in the sky is from Zeta Reticuli, and then you have hardcore debunkers on the other extreme who would not believe it’s an alien craft or from somewhere else if it landed on the White House lawn and came out with ten giant tentacles and said “Take me to your leader.” It would be too upsetting to their worldview. And, of course, I have tried not to reach a conclusion because there aren’t any. I know that it’s a mystery, it’s genuinely intriguing, that something is not explained that is mysterious and maybe wondrous. If I have to believe something, I don’t believe that the E.T. hypothesis is an explanation. It doesn’t really cut the mustard just because of the nature of the phenomenon, but it’s something else—more mysterious, harder to explain, but equally important. I think it is important to find out where we stand in the universe, what our place is, where we rank, what our purpose is. Those are the biggest questions; it doesn’t get any bigger. It’s central to who we are as people, so I don’t regret chasing it. I wish we had some answers in my lifetime, something more solid, but there are guys I know who have been at this for 50 years, and they will die not knowing what the ultimate truth is.

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