From Rural Fields to Battlefields Part 3: Las Vegas

This blog is part four in a five-part series about Clark Hall by 2019 National History Academy student Dominique Castanheira. 

Part 3: Las Vegas

In 1971, Clark Hall’s 17 year-long career with the FBI began in the unassuming city of Minneapolis. He expected to be doing hard, important work. Instead, the rookie agent was working interstate theft investigations.

“I was ambitious, in a good way,” Mr. Hall said. “I wanted to have a career. I wanted to work complex cases, ones that mattered. Because there were consequences for those serious crimes. A supervisor told me, ‘In any office, take 10 agents. One of them will be a case agent. It’s a phrase you’ll never see in a handbook, but the role is cherished. The case agent is the person who decides what will happen in the case. The other nine in the office work for him.’ And I wanted to be that one case agent. Not because I wanted to lord over everybody, but because I wanted to have an impact.”

Mr. Hall’s desire to create an impact would soon be realized. The skills he had gained in Mississippi and polished in Vietnam served him well in the Bureau.

“I carried into the FBI the experience of my upbringing. I was very self-reliant on the farm and throughout the Marine Corps. And so in the FBI, that self-reliance continued. Very quickly in my career, I was selected to be a case agent. The FBI did the same thing for me that the Marine Corps had done. They rewarded me for what I did well. I’m organized and precise. I approach everything with fairness, equity, and a generosity of spirit,” Mr. Hall said.

A year into working with the FBI, Mr. Hall transferred to the Milwaukee Division. By day, he was a relentless intelligence agent. At night, he returned to his family. As the years passed, his job taught him to expect the unexpected. But nothing could have prepared him to find his wife and children’s bags packed and the house empty.

“I was working hard because I wanted to get on the Organized Crime Squad, trying to make my bones,” Mr. Hall said. “So I was spending a lot of time away from home. And in 1974, my wife decided, unbeknownst to me, that she was unhappy. She had an affair with our next-door neighbor and took my two kids back to Kansas. So then I’m not with my kids any longer, and I’ve lost my wife.”

He would see his son and daughter again; his first wife would send them to live with him when they reached eighth grade. And although he was powerless to stop her from leaving, he did gain power, and meaningful work, on Milwaukee’s Organized Crime Squad. Against the backdrop of Lake Michigan, Mr. Hall investigated illegal gambling, police corruption, and mob killings.

“In the Bureau, your career is best made, your impact best realized, when you specialize,” Mr. Hall said. “So I specialized in Sicilian organized crime. That was a good time to be working Sicilian organized crime because it was an extraordinarily powerful organization in the 70s when I was working it and in the early 80s.”

Indeed, by the 1970s, Sicilian organized crime had planted its roots throughout the country. Its corruption of labor unions allowed La Cosa Nostra, also known as the American Mafia, to control almost every aspect of certain casino operations in Las Vegas. Faced with this serious organized crime problem, the FBI’s Las Vegas Division underwent re-configuring. Clark Hall, distinguished by his great success in Milwaukee, was flown out to Sin City in 1977.

Clark Hall, left, arresting a member of the mob during his FBI days (Courtesy Clark Hall)

“For the next several years, I witnessed first-hand the power of the Mob. The FBI is the government, we are upholding the law. If you are a mob guy and you turn your nose at the law and kill people and steal from them, guess what? We’re coming after you. We do not yield.” Mr. Hall said.

The whole situation was chock-full of cinematic elements. Police and political corruption overwhelming the city. Mid-western organized crime families owning Las Vegas casinos. The FBI, equipped with surveillance and undercover resources, fighting it all. Martin Scorsese, an American-Italian director, saw the story to be told. In 1995, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone starred in Casino, Scorsese’s movie following La Cosa Nostra’s illegal actions in Las Vegas. Far from the invincible FBI agents in the 1995 movie, however, Clark Hall faced the real criminals – and the real dangers – in Vegas in the 1970s.

“In Las Vegas, I was a SWAT team leader in addition to working organized crime,” Mr. Hall said. “We would have to arrest dangerous people. And anytime you’re arresting dangerous people that are armed, the chances of getting shot are pretty great. So I was in those kinds of situations all the time; gunfire and gunplay. It wasn’t like Vietnam, where conflict was a constancy. But on a monthly basis, we would have a gunfight with somebody.”

Las Vegas was the hub of mob activity on the West Coast. Cleaning up this lynchpin ripped the Mafia out of big cities nationwide. Through its work in Vegas, the FBI effectively wiped La Cosa Nostra out. The Mississippi native turned intelligence agent had worked a complex case that mattered. He had made an impact.