The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

by Shaun Assael
The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

by Shaun Assael


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A daring investigation into the mysterious death of Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, set against the dawn of the 1970s, when the mob was fighting to keep control of the Las Vegas Strip, Richard Nixon was launching America's first war on heroin, and boxing was in its glory days.

On January 5, 1971, Sonny Liston was found dead in his home—of an apparent heroin overdose. But no one close to Liston believed that his death was acci­dental. Digging deep into a life that Liston tried hard to hide, investigative journalist Shaun Assael treats the boxer’s death as a cold case. The result is a page-turning who­dunit that evokes a glorious and grimy era of Las Vegas.
Elvis Presley was playing two shows a night at the International. Howard Hughes was running his empire from the penthouse suite of the Desert Inn. And middle America was flocking to the Strip, transforming it from an exclusive playground for the mob to a mecca for corporate dollars. But the city was also rotting from within. Heroin was pouring over the border from Mexico, and the segregated Westside was on the cusp of a race war. The cops, brutally violent, were barely holding it together.
Driving through town with the top of his pink Cadillac down, Sonny Liston was the one celebrity who was unafraid to bridge the two sides of Las Vegas. Cashing in on his fading notoriety in the casinos, he was dealing drugs, working for a crime syndicate, and trying to break into Hollywood—all with a boxer’s faith that he could duck any threat, slip any punch. Heroin addiction was the only knockout blow he didn’t see coming.
The Murder of Sonny Liston takes a fresh look at the legendary boxer, the town he called home, and one of America’s most enduring mysteries.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399169755
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 712,821
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Shaun Assael, who has been with ESPN The Magazine since its launch in 1996, is a member of ESPN's investigations unit and a regular contributor to the prime-time show E:60.  He is also the author of three books: Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour (Ballantine: 1998); Sex Lies and Headlocks (Crown: 2002, with Mike Mooneyham), a New York Times best seller; and Steroid Nation (ESPN Books: 2007), a definitive account of the steroid era.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2016 Shaun Assael


On January 9, 1971, Geraldine Liston watched an over- flow crowd at the Palm Mortuary pass by her husband’s steel casket. The crowd comprised the business end of Las Vegas: showgirls, card dealers, casino execs, mob associates. Geraldine, her brown eyes hooded but sharp, studied their faces.

Some were there for the show. Stan Armstrong, a documentary filmmaker, would recall walking a mile from his house at the age of fourteen because he knew the funeral of Sonny Liston would be a piece of history. Others were there simply to be seen. Ed Sullivan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Doris Day sat in the front row and sang mournfully as the Ink Spots did a special rendition of the 1966 hit “Sunny.”

The last time Geraldine saw her husband alive, she was rushing to the airport to take their adopted son, Daniel, on a family visit to St. Louis. Even closing on fifty, Sonny still looked like he was meant for only one thing. He was built like a mushroom cloud with coal eyes that had dead reckoning in them and monstrous hands that punched with the force of a government crash test.

When she returned home from her trip, Geraldine expected to find her husband planning his next fight or maybe playing craps with his best friend, Joe Louis. Instead, she followed the smell of rotting flesh to her bedroom, where she found his corpse slumped backward over their bed. So much methane was escaping up his legs that his penis was fully engorged and his testicles were the size of pool balls.

There was an era when Sonny terrified God-fearing whites by carrying the mantle of the angriest black man in America. But that time was long gone. Since the Beatles put him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper and the Monkees put him in a movie, he’d receded into a kind of genteel notoriety. Around Vegas, the restaurants comped him, the hookers waved as he passed by, and cops offered him rides home when he was drunk. He returned the favor by handing out preprinted business cards with his sig- nature to tourists.

During his time in the spotlight, Sonny made it perfectly clear that he was willing to cheat on Geraldine whenever he had the chance. When a waitress presented them with a child that Sonny had fathered a few years before, Geraldine adopted the boy as her own, hoping he might finally give her the family she always wanted. Sonny never became an ideal father, but his frag- ile fidelity always did lead him back home to her. And for that Geraldine remained his biggest defender. “He acts like he loves me, whether he does or not,” she said. “He takes care of his home and that’s all you can ask of a man.”

On the night she found him, Geraldine let the police who were called to investigate do their work without helping too much. They walked past the stuffed bear in the living room that had Sonny’s title belt wrapped around it and into the den where he kept his prized photos: the framed portrait with his arm around Lyndon Johnson; the one of him laughing it up with Sammy Davis Jr.; the sepia-toned keepsake of him mugging with Louis when he first took the crown from Floyd Patterson in 1962. They rubbernecked, taking photos of themselves in front of the photos.

For all of its sophistication, Las Vegas was an unforgiving place in the early 1960s and it took a mean and unapologetic police force to hold it together. At the Greyhound station, plain- clothes officers kept their eyes on the two-bit con men who rode in from wherever their last bit of luck had run out. As one dep- uty would say, “We had a blue binder book that had pictures of all the known career criminals. The sheriff used to tell us, ‘If you kick their ass enough or throw them in jail enough, they’ll leave town.’ So whenever we saw somebody in that book, we found a way to kick their ass.”

The town was deeply segregated, too. “If you were black and walking down the Strip just looking at the buildings and taking pictures, the sheriff ’s department would take you to jail,” recalls Wilbur Jackson, one of the first African-American cops in the city when he was hired in 1958. “On the booking sheet, they’d write NOS.” It stood for Nigger on the Strip.

In response, the residents of the Westside built their own shadow Strip along Jackson Street and filled it with rollicking jazz and bebop joints. But by 1970, Jackson Street had become a tapped-out vein running through the redlined heart of a ghetto. Riots and civic neglect transformed the area into a badland where few without business dared to go. Sonny, of course, feared no one, and consequently made the Westside’s best-known lounge, the Town Tavern, his home away from home.

On Christmas Day 1970, Sonny walked into the tavern with a white showgirl on each arm and ran into Clyde “Rabbit” Watkins, a former pool hustler who worked as a bellman at Caesars Palace. Watkins had met Sonny when he moved to town in 1966 and quickly became part of his entourage, jumping into Sonny’s pink Cadillac when he wanted company and keeping an eye out when strangers started to get on the big man’s nerves.
Watkins tipped the brim of his hat and wished his friend a Merry Christmas.

“What you doing later?” he asked.

“Coming to your house to eat,” Sonny answered, laying his huge hands on Watkins’s back.

To Watkins and all who saw Sonny that day, the champ was still a force of nature. Eight Christmases before, he had posed for the cover of Esquire in a red Santa Claus cap, looking every bit like an overgrown prison elf ready to shiv a reindeer. And as far as Watkins was concerned, little had changed. He remained a menacing slab of manhood. Immutable. Impervious. Impossible. As a writer for Sports Illustrated once observed, “If [a] ship were going down, I would look at Sonny Liston to tell me what to do.” So Watkins was shocked when he was working the night shift at Caesars and heard that the police were reporting that Sonny was dead. He grabbed Joe Louis and Sonny’s former manager, Ash Resnick, both of whom were on the casino floor, and ran red lights until they reached 2058 Ottawa Drive.

Geraldine was not happy to see Watkins. She wasn’t blind to what her husband did, but she was old-fashioned enough to think that whatever it was should stay on the other side of town. Nor was she thrilled to see Resnick. He’d guided Sonny through his first fight against Muhammad Ali and it turned out to be the costliest loss of his career. Resnick was a player, and as far as Geraldine was concerned, Resnick had played them out of their retirement.

But what could she say about Louis? Joe had always been generous to Sonny and was probably his best friend in Las Vegas. The problem was he’d also just been treated in a psychiatric hospital for a heroin addiction that made him delusional. They were a triangle without a steady side.

They also entered just in time to watch two medical examiners struggling to load Sonny into a body bag. He was just six- foot-one but he was thick, and the rigor mortis made him hard to lift. The coroners got him as far as the stairs when one of them slipped and sent the corpse sliding. It landed on the living room floor with a thud.

The Three Amigos stood over the body, slightly stunned. And as the house filled with cops, the last thing they needed to do was answer questions, especially after a sheriff’s sergeant found a balloon of heroin on the kitchen table, below a wall phone. So they left.

The discovery of heroin led to a flurry of queries for Geraldine. What did she know about the drugs? Why had she waited three hours after walking through the door to report his death? What exactly did she find when she first got home? Was there any evidence of a struggle?

She waved off the questions, making it clear that she had nothing more to add that night. “Due to Mrs. Liston’s apparent shock over the death of her husband,” one officer wrote, “we were unable to interview her for further information.”

She would keep whatever suspicions she had to herself until her death.

As Sonny’s funeral wore on, Geraldine was consumed not only by who showed up but by who didn’t. Her husband kept a large swath of his life a secret, and the people he kept in the shadows weren’t about to show their faces now.

That included a well-known trumpeter who ran a drug gang and had hired Sonny to do collections for him with a .38 strapped to his ankle. The bandleader had a long track record with the cops and knew that they liked him for some part of Sonny’s death, even if they didn’t know what part yet.

And there was the beautician who dealt drugs out of the hair salon he ran across the tracks. He and Sonny did business together before they had a falling-out. Word on the street was that the beautician was looking for a piece of Sonny’s scalp.

Even stranger was a milky alliance between a hero cop and an alcoholic grifter who became enmeshed in the darkest secret of Sonny’s career: the circumstances of his first-round surrender to Muhammad Ali in 1965.

The Nation of Islam, meanwhile, lurked in the shadows, as worrisome an influence as it had been during that fight when rumors surfaced that its founder threatened to assassinate Sonny if he didn’t take a dive. Ali was preparing to fight Joe Frazier for the biggest paycheck in the history of the sport, and Sonny was making noises that Ali owed him a piece of that purse as payment for taking a dive in ’65, although that seemed to be news to Ali. The Nation’s leaders had as much reason as anyone to make sure Sonny kept his mouth shut.

These were powerful people with means and connections, and they had all worried that Sonny was spiraling out of control. In her own way, Geraldine pleaded with him to slow down, enjoy life, and focus on raising their adopted son, who was all of seven. But whether it was because he was facing a midlife crisis or he simply thought no one could hurt him, Sonny couldn’t take his foot off the gas. He’d always had a girl or four on the side, but he was risking more than usual this time around. He’d fallen in love with a buxom cocktail waitress who’d turned him on to heroin.

In what might have been the biggest threat of all, the feds were beginning to look into the source of the drugs he was buying and selling. An undercover agent had already met with him about doing a drug deal and there was every indication that Sonny was going to fall for the trap. There was no telling what he would do if he had to start wearing a wire on his friends. But it was hard to imagine anyone in Las Vegas who had a larger or more varied group of people who already wished him ill.

That’s why those close to Sonny were skeptical when the coroner of Clark County issued a report that attributed his death to natural causes—specifically fluid on the lungs. It wasn’t an un- common way for a man of roughly fifty to die, especially since the underlying cause was ruled to be a lack of blood flow to the heart, a common affliction for people with hardened arteries. But Sonny was no ordinary man. As recently as his last fight in June of 1970, his body looked fifteen years younger than his face, still massive and muscular. Nine of his fifty-four fights ended in the first round and twenty-five others failed to go halfway.

“I knew the mortician who took care of Sonny,” Rabbit Watkins would say in his Las Vegas home, not far from the Town Tavern, when I tracked him down more than forty years later. “He told me, from what he seen, that wasn’t no natural causes.” The death of Sonny Liston remains one of the most enduring mysteries in Las Vegas. There never was a homicide investigation because his death was never classified as a homicide. As a result, leads surfaced that haven’t been followed, suspects died with their secrets, and stories haven’t been told.

At the funeral, Geraldine flung herself at her husband’s casket and yelled, “I can’t even see his face. Oh Jesus.” Then she rose and shouted a question that would hover over the case for the next five decades. “Can you tell me what happened to you, Sonny?”

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The Front Seat of Sonny's Pink Cadillac

1 Hello, '70s 11

2 Paradise 21

3 Lost Vegas 31

4 Shadow Boxing 47

5 Heroin Heights 75

6 The Bleeder 95

Part II Love, American Style

7 Fabulous Las Vegas 113

8 Jonesing 131

9 "Better Wake Vic Damone" 145

10 Atlanta 159

11 Love, American Style 175

12 Stung 195

13 The Gutter 207

Part III Confession

14 June 14, 1982 225

15 Suspect No. 1 249

16 The Wrong Grave 265

Acknowledgments 285

Index 289

What People are Saying About This

Robert Lipsyte

As tough and pounding as its subject, this is the send-off Sonny Liston deserved. Only read it if you're interested in crime, Vegas, and boxing, or the complications of being human. --Robert Lipsyte, author of The Contender and An Accidental Sportswriter

Reading Group Guide

PLEASE NOTE: In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thoughtprovoking questions possible, it is necessary to revel important aspects of the plot of this novel— as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading Little Nothing, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.

1. Las Vegas is a major character in The Murder of Sonny Liston. As Assael writes, Liston lived on a golf course “where gin and tonics flowed freely in the early afternoon” and “kids played on the streets and lawns, blithely unaware that [not everyone lived] with Frank Sinatra winking at them from the fourth fairway.” What about the culture of Las Vegas in 1970 interested you? How did it reflect and how did it differ from the upheaval that America was going through at the time? What was the lasting impact of that era?

2. The heavyweight crown was one of the world’s most prestigious trophies in the twentieth century. How did Sonny Liston fit into the string of American champions that included Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson? What distinguished him as a cultural and political figure?

3. Sonny Liston was reviled equally by white Americans, who saw him as a mob-controlled thug, and black Americans, who feared that his image would set the civil rights struggle back. What do you think Liston’s responsibility was to the civil rights movement? Should he have been criticized for not helping the cause? Compare and contrast him to Muhammad Ali.

4. One of the key revelations in the book comes from a source who heard Liston brag that he was due to get a cut of Ali’s future earnings, since he had taken that first-round fall in their 1965 fight. Watch the video known as the “Phantom Punch” on YouTube and discuss with the group: Do you believe that Liston took a dive? How does the book inform your opinion? Might the fight have had something to do with Liston’s death?

5. The mob has a long and legendary history in Las Vegas. But as the book notes, in 1970, “the cozy days of mob control were fading and a new era of corporate gaming was at hand.” Which era of Las Vegas—the mob era or the corporate—would you prefer to live through?

6. The Murder of Sonny Liston is at heart a police procedural, in which the author becomes a cold-case cop to solve what he argues was a homicide. What did you like about the way he approached his subject? What would you have done differently?

7. In 1970, undercover drug agent John Sutton drove into Las Vegas in a “two-tone blue Buick Electra 225 with mirrored rims and a horn that blared ‘La Cucaracha,’” and tried to lure Liston into selling him cocaine. The agent failed on his first try. But Sutton later told the author that he believed he would have succeeded on his second. And if he had, he said, he would have put a wire on Liston and asked him to rat out his friends. Judging from the book’s portrayal of Liston, do you think he would have cooperated with the government? What do you think would have happened if he had?

8. Assael writes that “for all of its sophistication, Las Vegas was an unforgiving place . . . and it took a mean and unapologetic police force to hold it together.” Taking into account the stories in the book, what do you think about the way the Las Vegas police did their jobs? How did policing then compare with policing today?

9. Sonny Liston had a long and ignominious history with law enforcement. The book cites the recollections of a federal drug agent who was part of a local house party raid in which Liston was the only person released. The agent believed the boxer had a guardian angel on the local police force, and so did the subject of the raid, who allegedly later took a contract out on Liston’s life. Given Liston’s long and checkered history with the police, is it likely he would have been an informant?

10. Geraldine Liston called the police to report her husband’s death on January 5, 1971; the  detectives who came to investigate reported finding a bindle of heroin lying in plain view. Assael argues that the most likely scenario is that the police planted it, and concludes there is little basis to believe that the boxer overdosed on heroin. Consider how the Las Vegas police did their jobs in that era; do you think they may have planted the evidence?

11. Assael details five characters whom he proposes as leading suspects in the murder of Sonny Liston:
(a)   The beautician turned drug dealer Earl Cage.
(b)   The legendary jazz trumpeter turned gang leader Red Rodney.
(c)   The bookie turned high-powered casino executive Ash Resnick.
(d)   The con man turned police informant Irwin Peters.
(e)   The hero cop turned coke-dealing ex-con Larry Gandy.
Assign one or more members of the book club to represent each of these men and—keeping in mind the evidence presented in the book—debate who had the most compelling motive to kill Sonny Liston. Who do you think killed Sonny Liston?

12. If you could reopen the case today, what would you do? How would you have investigated Liston’s death differently?

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