A Head Found in the Desert
The San Bernadino Sheriff’s SUV made the hardscrabble embankment shoot up dust and fling gravel as the deputy angrily put her into park. The late call from a payphone in the Needles gas station had ruined the possibility of getting home to see his daughter’s high school softball tournament game. The hikers who called in the County Dispatcher were waiting for him when he arrived.
“Why was it always sickly-looking hikers who call in this kind of shit?” he thought to himself.
“It’s never three nympho co-eds in tight shorts and halter tops!”
Those are scenes from movies, awful movies in fact. This was no movie. Before he left the cool of his county squad car he noticed the temperature gage read 112 degrees.
“What did you find folks? They said on the radio you have a head here!”
This is where it got dead serious…
What the sickly-looking hikers had found was a human head. They couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman, but it was just the skull. The head was full decapitated. The head still had hair … a ‘headful of hair’ if you will.
San Bernadino looked through their own records to see if a body was missing a head … didn’t have one. They then checked for missing persons that might fit this general description … still nothing in San Bernadino, California.
They reached out to nearby jurisdictions and low and behold Clark County, in Nevada, had a possible match. In Las Vegas the sheriff’s office confirmed that a man went missing one month earlier. No trace, no clues.
On the night of May 18, 1981, a man told his wife he was heading out for a meeting with a business associate. He said that he should be back in an hour. He left his house on Bel Air Drive, on the grounds of the Las Vegas Country Club at 6:30 p.m.
But the man, Tony Albanese, never returned home.
Several days after his disappearance Metro police detectives discovered Albanese’s car in the parking lot at McCarran Airport. There were no indications that he had taken a flight out of the city. Tony’s wife reported that it wasn’t like him to stay out all night without checking in with her.
The skull they found in the California desert showed no signs of trauma. Detectives were unable to conclusively determine the cause of death. Metro Homicide Detective John Conner told reporters he believed Tony Albanese’s head had been left that place so that it would be discovered. Reporters asked Conner whether Albanese’s murder was intended as a message, he replied, “You can read it any way you want. It’s not normal.”
Tony Albanese was a Californian who had owned a chain of what were called “girlie bars” in the mid 1960’s. The clubs had started as bars with waitresses in bikinis. The joints were called “‘Lil Abners.” Tony took the bikini tops of the girls and ‘Lil Abners became one of the first topless bar chains in Southern California.
Albanese faced constant legal challenges including being cited for selling alcohol to minors and permitting “lewd acts” between patrons and the waitresses. To escape the legal headaches in California Tony moved to Las Vegas in the early 70’s for a fresh start.
The move to Las Vegas proved very profitable for Albanese. He bought a strip mall located at Flamingo and Paradise. The property included a topless bar called The Crazy Horse Saloon. Soon he started an employment agency to supply Crazy Horse and others clubs with dancers. The cleverly named ‘TATAs or Tony Albanese Talent Association (T.A.T.A) was just another sign that the new adult industry visionary had a plan to compete with the old guard in town. Albanese was a hustler in a town that was awash in cash.
A bar called “Billy Jo’s the Power Company” was operating on Industrial Road, just two blocks off of the Strip. Tony ‘convinced’ the existing owners to sell him half an interest in the club.
Albanese changed the name to “Billy Jo’s Crazy Horse Too.” Billy Jo’s the Power Co. featured go-go dancers before Albanese took his controlling interest in the club. Tony converted “Billy Jo’s Crazy Horse Too.” to a topless dancers like the Crazy Horse Saloon on Flamingo and Paradise.
The Las Vegas City Council balked on granting permission to change the name of Billy Jo’s and denied Albanese a license to take an interest in the bar. The city cited his legal troubles in California. In the early days the sign on the building read “Billy Jo’s Crazy Horse Too,” while legally the bar was still Billy Jo’s the Power Co.
Connections to organized crime figures plagued the topless club owner during his days managing the Crazy Horse Too. The battles with the city reached a peak in 1980 when he was forbidden from entering the premises of the Crazy Horse Saloon by the Clark County Commission.
Albanese was a tireless promoter and entrepreneur. He pursued ventures like TATAs, the Crazy Horse clubs and partnerships with anyone with cash and connections. Albanese was undaunted by the barriers that the city and county erected against him. His energy was boundless. Along the way he created rivals and enemies.
Albanese’s sudden disappearance was solved when his head was found in the desert outside of Needles, California. Investigators believed Albanese was a casualty in a larger war between rival Mafia families for control over adult businesses in Southern California and Las Vegas, including topless bars, adult theaters and stores, and pornography production.
Specifically, the war involved the New York Genovese and Bonanno crime families and the Chicago Outfit. Vito de Filippo, a capo with the Bonnano Family, was the alleged secret owner of the Crazy Horse Saloon, located in the shopping center owned by Albanese. Albanese was close friends with Joseph Balzano, an associate with the Bonanno crime family.
Investigators questioned the business associate Albanese was supposed to meet on the night he disappeared. He was alleged to be brokering a deal for Albanese to borrow $200,000 from a group of investors in California to open a “coed spa” in his shopping center on Flamingo Road. But the unnamed business associate claimed that he had no meeting with Albanese scheduled the night of May 18th.
This theory was supported with the June 1, 1981 murder of Carlos Fandino in Los Angeles. Fandino was financially linked to several adult establishments in California as a shadow investor. Importantly, he was also a co-owner of a wedding chapel and spa at the Circus Circus in Las Vegas.
In July of 1981, Fandino’s brother-in-law John Gordon and an associate were parked in front of Gordon’s home. Gordon and Fandino were co-owners of the Circus Circus spa and wedding chapel. As Gordon and his associate were sitting in Gordon’s car a dark-haired man pulled alongside them in a gray station wagon. The man fired three shots into John Gordon’s face and neck. Gordon survived the attack.
Carlos Fandino, John Gordon and Tony Albanese were silent owners in several topless bars and massage parlors in Southern California. They were looking to expand, and their interests seemed to have collied with the plans of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro as he sought to grow his operations into California. Spilotro was the Chicago Outfit’s enforcer in Las Vegas and guardian of their interests in Southern California.
Tony Spilotro is the mobster that the character “Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesce, is closely modeled after in the film Casino.
Most investigators believe Spilotro and his crew assassinated Albanese and left his head in the desert near Needles to control the future of the adult industry in the West. Others believed that an organized crime figure named Jack Gordon (no relation to John Gordon) was responsible for the murder of Fandino, and possibly the murder of Albanese. Jack Gordon was the owner of several adult entertainment establishments across Southern California.
To this day the murder of Tony Albanese remains unsolved.
If you have any information to share on this crime please contact the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Homicide/Cold Case Unit
NEXT: The Mob Continues to Run Crazy Horse II
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Great article! I love the True Crime Series you’re releasing