Few murders have seared the soul of Las Vegas like one that didn’t even happen in the city—the June 20, 1947, murder of mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home.
Just about everyone in Las Vegas thinks they know who Bugsy Siegel was—the guy who founded the Flamingo and created modern Las Vegas. Actually, the credit for the former goes to Hollywood Reporter publisher/Los Angeles nightlife impresario/compulsive gambler Billy Wilkerson, and the latter … it’s safe to say can be credited to a few dozen people.
In any event, Siegel came to prominence as one of the most vicious in a gang of hoodlums that spawned Murder Inc., and got involved with rum running and, after the end of Prohibition in 1933, gambling. Siegel came out to Los Angeles to watch over gambling interests for his friends. He lived the life of a “sportsman,” hobnobbing with movie royalty. He also dodged a murder charge.
Before long, he found his way to Las Vegas, where he owned a share of El Cortez. When Wilkerson’s Flamingo project ran out of funds, money from “East Coast investors”—ultimately from underworld financier Meyer Lanksy—came to the rescue. Siegel was sent to look after that investment and, after pushing Wilkerson out, took charge of the project himself. Together with his mistress, Virginia Hill, he presided over the final stages of construction.
The casino, which Siegel opened without a hotel on Dec. 26, 1946, performed poorly and quickly closed. It reopened in March 1947 with a completed hotel and was a success. Three months later, Siegel was dead, and over the next few decades he would be transformed from man to myth.
All of this seems like ancient history, but there are still a few people in town who knew Siegel the man, not Bugsy the mob archetype. One of them is Bernie Sindler.
Sindler, now 87, is tall and slender, with hands that haven’t lost their card mechanic’s deftness. His father was an inveterate gambler who encouraged him to learn “magic” tricks that could also win his friends a few blackjack and poker hands.
Today, Sindler’s a little reminiscent of Lee Strasberg playing Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. But he doesn’t need movies to get his fix of mob nostalgia. Lansky, whom Roth was based on, took the teenage Sindler under his wing after a chance meeting on a Baltimore-to-Miami train.
Afflicted with asthma, Sindler had been told to move to Florida. With $100 in his pocket and a one-way ticket, he was practicing his card tricks when Lansky noticed him. After a short demonstration, he offered to find Sindler a place to stay.
“It changed my life,” Sindler says, still with a trace of a Baltimore accent more than six decades after he left the city. Lansky adopted him, bringing him along to breakfast at Wolfie’s each morning, where he’d work his magic for Lanksy’s acquaintances. Eventually, Lansky sent him to the Flamingo after its opening, keeping an eye open for cheaters.
According to the accepted lore, Siegel either a) was too extravagant in his demands for luxury at the Flamingo or b) got caught skimming construction funds. At a Mob Council meeting in Havana presided over by Lucky Luciano, the emperors of the underworld agreed that he was a liability. A few weeks later, a spray of bullets from a .30 caliber M1 carbine (a weapon that was standard issue in the U.S. military at the time) put an end to Siegel as he read the Los Angeles Times in Hill’s living room. At the time, she was safely in Paris.
Apocrypha has it that a few moments later the Flamingo’s new managers walked into the casino and told the staff they were in charge. No one questioned them.
The police never solved Siegel’s murder. There is no shortage of suspects or theories; Siegel was a violent man in a brutal world with more than his share of enemies. Estes Kefauver, chairman of the U.S. Senate’s early-1950s mob-busting committee, thought that a squabble over the race wire doomed Siegel. Or it might have been his role in a Mexican heroin-trafficking operation gone bad.
Sindler has his own theory: Siegel, always a volatile man, got abusive with Hill one time too many; she fled to Europe, but not before one of her six brothers, a marine with an expert rifleman’s badge stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., vowed his revenge. Sindler tried to talk him out of it, but the brother, as he says, “just glared at me. I stopped talking.”
Sindler says everyone in Lansky’s circle was just as baffled by the murder as the police. “Meyer was devastated,” he says. “Plus, the Flamingo was roaring with business—people couldn’t get near it. Why would they want Siegel dead? To prove a point? They don’t work that way.”
That’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but Sindler’s sure that it wasn’t a mob hit man who whacked Siegel. “The brother’s the only one who makes sense,” he insists.
Case closed? Maybe not just yet, but it’s certainly plausible, and as near to closure as we’re likely to get on a murder that, 65 years later, continues to haunt Las Vegas.