THIEF! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist

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THIEF! character, Vince Eli

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mob Writer Interview on New Criminologist

Yours truly was interviewed a few days ago on the website: New Criminologist:

An Interview with Cherie Rohn, True Crime Author
Up Against The Book Shelf
An Interview with Cherie Rohn, True Crime Author
By Ron Chepesiuk

Cherie Rohn has always lived by the credo that “nothing is dull."

Consequently, in her search for the next great experience she has constantly re-invented herself. During the past three decades, she has worked at a dizzying array of jobs that have included; blackjack dealer, radio DJ, nightclub singer, scuba instructor, mapmaker and most recently, true crime writer.

In 2006, Rohn authored the book Thief: The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist. Rohn described her book as the zany tale of “an interesting screw up, adrenaline junkie and con artist who goes through life like a speeding freight train about to derail at any minute.”

One reviewer wrote that Rohn’s work is a “colorful book about a thief you just gotta love.”

Rohn is also the author of the popular blog Mob Speak, which provides a wide variety of mob-related stuff she updates regularly. Rohn is currently collaborating with Rick Porrello, whose book, The Irishman, is due out as a movie this year. It stars Christopher Walken and Val Kilmer.

From her base in Fort Myers, Florida, Rohn discussed her true crime writing career and her views on the genre.
NC: How did you get into writing and come to write your first book, Thief?

CR: The truth is I hadn’t written at all until I met William “Slick” Hanner, my blackjack teacher, at a casino dealer’s school in Albuquerque, NM. The independent TV station where I worked as Santa Fe TV station manager was sold to the local Fox affiliate. The new owners gave me and all the other employees the axe, which meant I needed to find a decent-paying job.

Around this time, Indian casinos were springing up like tumbleweeds around New Mexico. Three of them were in the Albuquerque area where I lived. About twenty blackjack dealers confided to me that they made excellent tips. I decided to take the plunge. Well, I knew more about the mating habits of Beluga whales than I did about dealing cards, so I enrolled in a local blackjack school to learn the ropes.

At ACES Casino Dealer’s School, I met Slick who schlepped around 20 hand-scrawled pages of his life story hoping to snag some sucker to write and get it published. It's still somewhat of a mystery as to what grabbed me about Slick's story. I guess it seemed like a fascinating time capsule from another era, just oozing with atmosphere about the mob, prostitution and gambling.

NC: What was working with Slick like?

CR: In terms of morals, Slick’s life was the diametric opposite of my own, but I tried to write the book without making any value judgments. I don't know, maybe my anthropological background helped. I’d rather let the reader form their own opinions about this guy, I thought. I actually "channeled" Slick during the writing. I got to know him better than his own mother did.

Since he only gave me basics, I had to supplement his "bare bones" accounts with plenty of research. I also fleshed out details via interviews with Slick and his cronies who were still around. (Most of Slick’s friends died from unnatural causes.) The story evolved bit by painstaking bit. It was like applying layers to a lacquer bowl, each layer adding another dimension to the story. Nine agonizing years later, I finished and THIEF! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist, hit the market.

NC: So what's the attraction of writing for the true crime genre?

CR: I can’t say it’s so much of an attraction as a niche that I’ve stumbled upon and carved out for myself. Once you become known as a true crime writer, it seems like every ex-mob guy has a story to tell. One paranoid guy, convinced I was working as a Federal agent on account of my knowledge, believed I was getting ready to bust him. It took a lot to convince him it was all in his head.

NC: How do you tell if the story is worth writing about?

CR: I’ve had some fairly well-known individuals inquire whether I’d write their bio. All but a few didn’t make the cut. I measure each prospect against the following criteria. Do they have a really dynamite story? Do they have the ability to tell their story with help? Are they trustworthy? Do they have the money to pay for my writing services as I write, not after it’s published?
Plenty of guys have the first 3 items, but not number 4. After I wrote Slick’s book while holding down fulltime jobs, I vowed from then on I’d only write for cash, except for rare circumstances.

NC: Are there any true crime writers that have an influence on you or that you admire?

CR: Yeah…I’ve probably read Nick Pileggi’s book Casino (upon which the movie by the same name was based) 5 or 6 complete times. I continually find myself reaching for it as a writing resource. Your own well-researched books continue to supply me with crucial material for my writing. All American Mafioso: The Johnny Roselli Story which was co-authored by my literary agent, Ed Becker, opened my eyes to the depth of Mafia/CIA involvement in plotting Castro’s death.

There are many others whose works I admire, but I’d have to say that Rick Porrello has had the greatest influence on my writing. After I read his The Rise & Fall of the Cleveland Mafia and To Kill the Irishman (due out on the big screen in 2010), I knew I wanted Rick to write the intro to THIEF!

NC: What were some of the challenges you faced in writing the book (e.g. working with a collaborator?)

CR: The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to stop myself from killing Slick or him from killing me. Everything else was a piece of cake. Seriously…working on Slick’s true story was like extracting somebody’s wisdom tooth. It was, without doubt, the toughest thing I’d ever done. Here was a street-wise guy who hadn’t sat still for 9 minutes, let alone 9 years. We had constant fights about whether it was time to send out the manuscript. Being a brand new writer with no credits under my belt left me little bargaining room. I simply went by my gut feelings. I figured when I couldn’t make it any better, then it was done. I have to hand it to Slick, though. Within his means, he was very generous. And ultimately he came to trust my judgment. Of course he didn’t have much of a chance to do otherwise. Once I got going, I was like a bloodhound on a mission. Unstoppable.

To illustrate what it was like to collaborate with Slick…I was around 5 years into the writing when Slick insisted I send out the manuscript to potential literary agents. Well, I sent off a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, to about 20 agents. One actually asked to see the manuscript which I promptly sent out. Slick was convinced we’d be millionaires within the year. As it turned out, about 5 months later the agent sent back the manuscript with the following handwritten note scribbled on the bottom of page one: “Nice idea, but writing not up to industry standards.” So I put the “cake” back in the oven to cook longer.

I realized from all my research that the story had to be so compelling, an agent or publisher couldn’t pass it up. (The competition is unbelievably stiff with approximately 450 titles released every day.) The first agent who read the manuscript sent it to a publisher, Lyle Stuart of Barricade Books, who called me to offer us a contract. He said, “This is some of the best writing I’ve seen in years.” When I regained consciousness, I finally realized my instincts had paid off.

NC: Would you collaborate on another true crime book if the opportunity arose?

CR: Yes. In fact, I’m collaborating right now with Rick Porrello, multi-published true crime author, film producer, Cleveland police chief, and owner of one of the most popular and useful true crime websites in existence

Years ago Rick got ahold of a journal kept by a serial rapist. Now we’re in the process of writing a book based on this twisted Jekyll/Hyde character. Rick happens to be a collaborator’s dream because of his sense of fairness and lack of ego. I count myself incredibly lucky that he chose to work with me on this project.

But there are others with less admirable traits. I won’t mention any names. However, several years ago I was writing a book with a guy about his cousin who’s on death row. To this day I regret that we weren’t able to continue that project. Even though the guy on death row led the life of a habitual con man as an Irish Traveler, I firmly believe he’s innocent of the murder for which he’s serving time and will ultimately receive the death penalty. It’s the most captivating story I’ve ever come across. His story haunts my dreams.

The economy threw a wrench into another book collaboration. Through a writers-for-hire website, a blackjack card counter located me and I began writing about his unique approach to the art of counting BJ cards. No doubt about it…this guy had a clever angle on the controversial activity of BJ card counting which, by the way, is totally legal. As he states, “Card counting is nothing more than using the very same information that is available to all of the players at a table, but processing it more intelligently. Why should card counters be persecuted for using their brains?”

He was making considerable money using his BJ counting skills until some of his investor resources dried up. Unfortunately, we had to shelve the project for now. Fact is that few people, outside of authors, understand the real problems inherent in collaborating on a book such as who will do what, contents, rights and that deal killer: money. Every contract has loopholes, no matter how well-written. Ultimately, the whole thing boils down to personality and trust.

That said, I’m always looking for a new collaboration…something that blows me away with its potential.

NC: You write a popular blog about true crime. How did that come about?

CR: In 2006, prior to THIEF’s release, I launched a website for the book ( I decided a blog highlighting book events would complement the website. But I didn’t want to make the blog’s contents too narrow, so I included topics of potential interest to THIEF readers such as the mob, prostitution and gambling. Las Vegas stories figure prominently on the site. I called the blog “Mob Speak” which is the way mob guys talk (

NC: What kind of topics do you cover in your blog?

CR: Currently, I’m running a series called “Slick’s Las Vegas, Then & Now,” based on a manuscript of the same name now in press. Slick wrote his recollections of the way Las Vegas used to be in its heyday when the mob ruled Las Vegas. Slick is one of the few guys left from that era. Most of his contemporaries are either dead or they’ve lost their marbles. Co-authors include world-renown surveillance expert, George Joseph, and me.

In another role, Mob Speak plugs interesting new mob books such as Ron Chepesiuk’s Gangsters of Miami. It also features interviews with true crime writers plus a few mob figures who found me through ThiefTrueStory or Mob Speak. A sampling of the blog’s featured guests are: a retired madam from Sheri’s Ranch (a bordello in Nevada); Rick Porrello, with an emphasis on his earlier life as a drummer for Sammy Davis, Jr. and a regular on the Tonight Show; articulate ex-mobster Sonny Girard; Carlos “Big Daddy” Adley and his wife Ava Berman, entrepreneurs who are co-leasing and remodeling Binion’s Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas.

Many visitors ask me how I got into the specialized area of true crime writing. So I’m posting a 3-part series called “Larry Smith: This One is for YOU” about how I became a blackjack and roulette dealer and poker room floor supervisor. Larry ran ACES Casino Dealer’s School which is where I met Slick, one of my teachers. Since I have absolutely no natural aptitude for cards, my candid experiences as a break-in dealer are both hilarious and humbling. I challenge readers to make up anything half as funny. By the way, I’m always scouting for new material to keep Mob Speak’s hungry fans happy.

NC: What kind of response have you gotten from Mob Speak?

CR: I believe that old adage: you get out of something exactly what you put into it. Mob Speak was slow to take off, only snagging about 25-50 daily readers during the first year. I attribute that to my own failure to provide frequent postings. By the second year, I began posting much more regularly and put more of an effort into offering quality. Readers favorable comments and a spike in visitors have proven that regularity and quality pay off.

Mob Speak now attracts around 200+ visitors a day. I think that’s fairly good for such a specialized topic. But I’m looking for ways to expand my visitor base. Only problem…I’m in the Stone Age when it comes to technology, so I just keep it simple.

NC: Has your blog done anything for your writing career?

CR: Prospective clients find me via four ways: through a writer-for-hire website to which I subscribe, word of mouth, our website ThiefTrueStory and Mob Speak. So the blog has directly led to writing jobs.

Indirectly, I believe Mob Speak has added to my credibility in the true crime genre. While researching my blog entries, I’ve gleaned gobs of info that’s expanded my knowledge and which I’ve incorporated into my writing. Like everything else, the field of true crime writing is changing dramatically with the increasing use of the Internet for research. Enter a couple of key words and boom.

Visitors say the damndest things. If writers don’t listen to their visitors, they risk losing them and becoming out of touch. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything. Readers challenge my beliefs and keep me in tune with what’s going on. I think it makes me a better writer.

NC: What about your future as a true crime writer. Where do you see your career heading?

CR: Ambition comes in many forms. My goal has always been to concentrate on quality rather than quantity (maybe because I write at a snail’s pace.) If I complete 3-4 important projects, I’ll be very happy…but who knows? Two are in the works.

Like many other authors, it’s a dream of mine to see one of my books on the big screen. And I always write with an eye toward screenplay adaptation. Reliable sources tell me that even if a book is optioned for a movie, which means they pay you for the privilege of pitching your book to a producer, the odds of its making it to the big screen are at least 10 to 1 against that happening. And if you get lucky and somebody puts together a package that’s finally produced, it ain’t a sure thing till it’s “in the can” with worldwide distribution. If it can happen to my good friend Rick Porrello, perhaps it can happen to me.

Not that it fits the true crime mold (at least not yet), but I started jotting down notes from own colorful life. It will read kind of like Moll Flanders does the South Pacific, Europe and the New World…a real global smorgasbord. The only problem is that I have to wait until a bunch of innocent people die before I can publish it. Otherwise, they’d drop dead from humiliation. No kidding. One title I’m mulling over is Confessions of a Love Junkie. Actually, I know a guy for hire who might help move things along…

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