Eric Newton spent the early 1980s on his belly, scooting along the narrow catwalks above the floor of Harrah's Casino in Reno, Nev. Before the advent of micro-cameras, Newton was the proverbial eye-in-the-sky. Using tinted bubbles in the ceiling, he would spy on players and casino employees. If a mope police slang for the criminally minded was switching out chips or toying with a slot machine, if a dealer was way too weak, Newton would slide down his row to pick up a video camera and return to catch the action on tape.
Today, the young guys have it easy, says Newton, the director of security at Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss. Tiny cameras pick up images and sound from nearly every square inch of the casino and face-recognition technology can actually match up a cheater with Vegas' fabled black book, an evolving database of known offenders that is now digitally updated by casinos around the world.
In this environment, gamblers on the grift have a harder time plying their trade. Scams of old that once lasted for years or decades are a thing of the past, Newton says. Most operations are now shut down in weeks or even on the spot. "Nowadays, technology is making it tougher and tougher," he says. "Surveillance is more sophisticated, training is eliminating loopholes, and there are protections in the game."
And the eye-in-the-sky still rules all. Newton explains this in great detail as his gaze dances across more than a dozen monitors in Beau Rivage's security room. One panel shows a portly conventioneer walking through the lobby. The camera is delicate enough to zoom in on his nametag. Another panel displays a couple holding hands in the parking garage. Every frame is captured on a color-coded VHS cassette or downloaded to a hard drive. Three officers work the monitors 24 hours a day. A separate room covers the casino floor.
It takes major guts and serious bravado to take on a system like that. Still, people love to try. Just recently at Beau Rivage, a man grabbed $100,000 worth of chips and made a run for it, sprinkling $5,000 tokens everywhere he went through the casino. The whole act was caught on tape, a bike squad was awaiting him outside, and several guards watched him blast by with some amusement.
Even if dozens of eyes -- human and otherwise -- hadn't caught the desperate grab, the perp still made a huge mistake. He brought nothing with him to carry the chips. "Every turn the guy made, everywhere he went, he was dropping chips like a trail of breadcrumbs," Newton says. "We followed the chips to a pick-up truck, and he was lying underneath it."
The Gulf Coast has played host to many such con artists, but none have garnered as much notoriety as Richard Marcus. A former professional cheat who is now retired, Marcus is acknowledged as one of the best past-posters in the industry. Past-posting is a scam in which the player switches out or places chips on the table after the winning results are known, preferably while the dealer and pit boss aren't looking. For instance, if a $100 chip is placed on the five slot and the roulette wheel produces that digit, a past-poster might add another $300 to his original bet with a sleight of hand. Roulette tables often offer players close proximity to their bets, less than an arm's length away. Instead of paying off on the smaller bet, the house must now match odds on the larger wager. Marcus claims his team grossed $9 million over 25 years with such moves. Although he's never been busted, Vegas officials admit he's one of the reasons micro-cameras now dominate casinos.
The History Channel dedicated an entire episode of its highly rated Breaking Vegas series to Marcus' exploits, and he has also penned a memoir, American Roulette, detailing his run-and-gun lifestyle stretching from Las Vegas to London to Monte Carlo. While he says his rise to fame has been exciting, Marcus adds that nothing beats the actual grift. "It's the biggest high in the world," he says. "When I had the chips jingling in my hand, after I would do a move, it sounded like music. It's better than an orgasm."
Anytime there's a large amount of money under one roof, there will be people like Marcus trying to swipe it and folks like Newton trying to protect it. Oftentimes, the only difference between failure and success is a bit of luck. Here's a look at a few scams that turned sour despite the best criminal intentions -- the top five casino heists of recent years from the Gulf Coast:
5) The Dirty Dozen
The craps pit is a frenzied place to be on the casino floor. Several people can crowd around the table at one time to cheer on the player tossing dice, and bets are placed at a rapid pace. There are several ways to play the game, but for those with a thirst for long shots, the only way to go is "hop-betting," a legitimate wager that pays out up to 30-1 odds extremely large for casinos.
If a cheater could have his or her druthers, this would be the bet to work on a craps table. But the dealer would have to be in on the con. Such was the ruse for 12 people involved in a 1997 Casino Rouge craps scam. The dice stayed hot for this team for about four months, even when they were cold. No matter what the team rolled -- literally -- it paid off big.
Here's how a regular, legal hop-bet works: A gambler places a wager on any number available on the craps table. If the dice rolled reveal that digit in any combination, the bet pays off. For instance, if the 12 is bet and the dice yield two sixes, or a five and a seven, the better wins. If the numbers don't hit, the better gets zilch. After the play, the hop-bet is removed and the game starts over. If you can just begin to calculate all the different possibilities two die can roll, then you know it's a hard nut to crack. Really, it's nothing more than a guessing game.
But for a crew that was one Matt Damon short of Ocean's 11, that was just semantics. The team's insider changed the rules. If the hop-bet didn't hit, the dealer would allow it to remain on the table until it did. Sometimes the dealer would place bets out of his own stack or pay off on wagers that were losers or not even on the table. And when the team got paranoid -- there are up to 60 people working the dice pits at any given time -- members would lose on purpose or wait a few weeks before working it again.
With the help of supervisors who ignored or covered up the large bets, the Dirty Dozen used the inherent fast pace of the game to disguise its cheating, says Capt. Joe Lentini, head of the Louisiana State Police's casino gaming division. It involved dealers, pit bosses, supervisors and a few outsiders who actually placed the bets. It was a first for the Baton Rouge riverboat.
"They really enjoyed doing this because the payoff is big on these table bets," Lentini says. "But this stuff was being watched by surveillance and division agents, and it was eventually caught. And it's not that uncommon to have teams like that come through the casinos. We see it a lot in mini-baccarat. Several people are around the table winning and it ends up they're in cahoots with the dealers and they hit that table pretty hard."
Initial reports estimate the team made off with roughly $5,000, but Lentini says that sum could be bigger, depending on untraceable expenditures.
Marcus laughs when he is told the team's total take, as well the size of its operation: "Did you say 12 people? That's ridiculous. The scam is amateurish. Anytime you have a scam with pit bosses and dealers and floor men and outsiders, it's too much. Now you have 12 families involved. They're probably talking their wives or kids or friends. And the scam is identifiable. Surveillance must have been kind of weak."
Marcus says the "brains of the operation" was likely hoping the casino was still green -- riverboats were introduced to Baton Rouge three years earlier, in 1994. "It probably involved somebody from Vegas who knew the eye-in-the-sky wasn't that strong," he says. "When new casinos open up, the employees don't usually know anything. That's why my team went down there in the mid-90s. It was virgin territory. But sometimes it works against you because people are so clumsy and stupid that they can cause you problems."
But the last time Marcus played in south Louisiana, he was the one being messy. He says he made $8,000 one night at Grand Casino Coushatta by switching out chips and increasing bets when the dealers weren't looking. When he moved over to another casino, he continued the same move, but used the wrong chips. "Now we're playing somewhere else, and I make a move with two $500 chips, but they're from the Grand," he says. "I figured they were going to freak out when they saw it, but the dealer was so green he didn't even notice, so we got out of there."
As for his final thoughts on Casino Rouge's Dirty Dozen, Marcus says small minds go after small numbers: "I hope the $5,000 or whatever they got was worth the time they had to do."
4) The Honey Buns Bandit
A topless dancer with a box of pastries might sound like a dream come true for some folks, but for a casino in Tunica County, Miss., it proved to be a devastating combination.
On Sept. 30, 2003, Lynn Stevenson walked into the Grand Casino wearing an oversized wig and carrying a gift-wrapped package. She found a cashier and demanded money, placing the box between them. In exchange for the loot, Stevenson promised not to detonate the explosives within. The take: $60,000.
A bomb squad from Memphis was dispatched, and the casino was shut down for more than seven hours while the box was analyzed and stripped down. But when officers finally made it through the wrapping paper, they found only an empty honey buns box.
With apparently nothing more than that, Stevenson pulled off her infamous heist when she was only 22, a Michigan transplant with a history of drug abuse who moonlighted as a stripper. With her partner-in-crime she fled to New Orleans before leading police on a multi-state chase. "Their flight from authorities is believed to have taken them from Mississippi to Florida to Louisiana and Arizona," says Allan Thompson, a special agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations.
According to a press release issued by the bureau, four people have been arrested in the ongoing case, and all face up to life in prison. The other three perps were former employees of the Grand Casino who provided Stevenson with inside knowledge and a getaway vehicle. The most recent collar was last year.
Although the weapon was technically a box of honey buns, the charge is still armed robbery. Marcus gave a heavy sigh when he was told about the stick-up, as it's not the highbrow kind of scam he's used to. "That's about as intelligent, or less, as robbing a bank," he says. "You might as well go ahead and rob a bank with a machine gun."
Like other major casino heists, officials weren't surprised to discover there was some kind of insider help. It seems most crimes of this nature can be linked to an employee who often is underpaid and has access to large sums of money in the casino. The employee can likewise be harboring grudges against the house. A recent study by the American Society of Industrial Security found that vengeful employees are a serious security threat to 90 percent of all U.S. companies.
But the honey buns case was put together in an odd fashion, some say, with employees seeking help from an outsider. It usually works the other way around, such as a crook in search of a dealer, says Dan Rajnic, head of security for the Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi.
With more than 27 years of industry experience, Rajnic claims to have seen and heard it all. He says inside jobs are delicate in nature and usually involve one mastermind who stakes out a mark months ahead of time. "They go out looking for dealers that are weak," he says, not speaking specifically to the honey buns case. "And some of these people really do their homework. They'll find an employee that has financial problems or some vice and attack. They can be real pros."
They can also be a working stripper with a sweet tooth.
3.) The Washer
The International Monetary Fund, a coalition of 184 countries that focuses on financial exchange and stability, estimates that money laundering accounts for up to 5 percent of the world's gross domestic product. The U.S. Department of Treasury suggests the total is somewhere between $600 billion and $1 trillion.
While half of this illegal money is moved through banks, the rise of legalized gambling in the United States has made casinos a growing target. Due to the high volumes of cash they deal with every day, casinos are vulnerable to both organized crime syndicates and terrorists, officials say.
Drug dealers, for instance, generate substantial sums of illegal cash. But to make the money work for them, they must make it appear legitimate. One way to accomplish this is by "laundering," or channeling the money through an honest business. Casinos can be used in such a fashion: Chips are purchased, possibly played, then cashed back out as winnings and reported to the Internal Revenue Service.
Lake Charles drug kingpin Troy Marks, the ringleader of the "Aces Split" trafficking ring, was among the best, officials say -- until he got busted. Prosecutors described him in 1999 as a violent drug dealer with plenty of street smarts, a man who was not afraid to confront those who crossed him, according to trial coverage by the Lake Charles American Press.
Jeff Goins, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service, provided testimony showing how Marks bought $1.6 million in casino chips with drug money over a two-year period at eight different casinos in Louisiana and Las Vegas. The house being the house, Marks lost more than $400,000, but was still able to report about $1.3 million to the IRS.
A cash transaction report, required anytime a gambler cashes in more than $10,000 in chips, is the legal form that ensnared Marks. The newspaper account quotes a source with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who says that Marks listed his various occupations as carpenter, student and professional gambler. During the same period, the FBI also uncovered only three legitimate paychecks totaling $3,600.
Marcus says laundering money through casinos is still an effective tactic if used wisely -- "as long as you don't get caught." He says Marks should have tried to hop around to more casinos in an attempt to stay under or near the $10,000 threshold. Additionally, Marks shouldn't have tried to launder so much in Louisiana. "That kind of money is much more noticeable in Louisiana," Marcus says. "You don't have enough detergent there. You have enough detergent in Vegas, though."
Since 2003, casinos have had to file SARs, or Suspicious Activity Reports, when they suspect a transaction involving $5,000 or more is intended to conceal funds derived from illegal activity. The industry originally expressed great concern over what constituted "suspicious activity" and complained the $5,000 minimum was too small to demand attention, but was overruled by the feds.
As for Marks, he made off better than expected. The courts reversed his conviction in 2001, but he waived his right to another trial by pleading guilty. Rather than getting a life sentence, Marks was handed a 20-year term with five years of supervised release. In exchange, he admitted to distributing 121 pounds of powdered cocaine and more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana, according to the newspaper coverage. He also offered up some of his drug trafficking buddies.
2.) The Slot Skimmers
There are several ways to scam the slots.
Back when he was working in Reno during the late 1970s, Newton, the security director at Biloxi's Beau Rivage, remembers a mope who would jam up a slot machine just to watch a technician work on it. "This guy would eyeball the key, then go back to his van and make a duplicate," he says, adding there were fewer intricate notches in the keys back then.
Rajnic, head of security at the neighboring Treasure Bay, recalls the days when pulling the arm on a slot machine actually turned a set of gears. Today, it does nothing more than start an electronic process. When it was more mechanical, Rajnic says, cons would "walk the reels," meaning they would manually manipulate the gears to stop on markers they wanted, and the machines would pay out.
Then there's the "monkey paw," which is a flashlight on the tip of a long wire that's shoved through the opening of a slot machine where money is dispensed. A small light inside older machines once told them when to spit out coins. If the light stayed on, in theory, the loot would keep coming. Some people have even perfected the art of counterfeiting slot tokens -- one such man is now working for the U.S. Secret Service.
But there's also the direct approach of reaching into the machines and taking the money out personally. That's what 11 people conspired to do at the Isle of Capri Casino in Lake Charles for three months in 2001. While original estimates pegged the take at about $1 million, only $700,000 in cash and assets was seized, says Lentini, the head of Louisiana's casino gaming division. In on the con were slot technicians, surveillance officers, other casino employees and a few outsiders. "It was very involved," Lentini says. "You had slot people in cahoots and someone stealing keys and people getting paid off to move surveillance cameras around."
The way the job worked, technically, was that two slot technicians were "skimming casino proceeds," according to the charges. In practice, however, they were using a master key swiped by another employee to simply open up the machines and steal the cash inside. To cover their backs, a camera operator was bribed to swing the eye-in-the-sky another way, Lentini says.
Because slot technicians are responsible for recording and fixing machine problems, the two on the frontline had plausible excuses. "They could cover up their own crimes," Lentini says. "They're not supposed to have access to the money, but when it came up missing, they could blame it on some problems with the machines."
Law enforcement finally caught on thanks to a tip from the inside, but inordinate deposits into the bank account of one of the participants also caught the eye of the feds, Lentini says. All 11 people have been indicted in the ongoing case.
Marcus is a fan of the con on some levels: "The design of the scam is good. The only thing is the number of people involved. They also might have gotten away with it if they did it for a shorter time. They probably got greedy."
1.) The Governor
Who else but the Cajun King could take the No. 1 slot? Possibly more than any other person in Louisiana history, former Gov. Edwin Edwards launched one of the most outrageous casino cons ever attempted along the bayou. Of course, as a result, he's now serving out a 10-year sentence.
Edwards, the only man to be elected governor of Louisiana four times, was convicted in 2000 on 17 federal racketeering and fraud counts and acquitted on nine. In short, Edwards was accused of selling off riverboat licenses to the highest bidders.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, testified that Edwards swindled $400,000 from him for a license. Edwards allegedly smuggled the money from California to Louisiana on a commercial airline using a custom-made money vest. Robert Guidry, a former owner of the Treasure Chest casino, testified he made monthly payments to Edwards while EWE was in the governor's mansion -- totaling $1.5 million.
While Edwards went to prison proclaiming his innocence, he is currently working on a biography, and a few chapters will be dedicated to the riverboats. "I acknowledge some mistakes," Edwards says in a press release. "I feel I owe all Louisianans as well as my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren an explanation, not excuses. It won't be easy." No further details have been released.
Leo Honeycutt, president of Honeycutt Communications and a former reporter who covered Edwards, has signed on to pen the book. He says it is due out at the end of next year and will recount Edwards' life. Honeycutt has only had four interviews with the former governor thus far, but he says Edwards behind bars is still as charismatic as ever.
"He looks and acts like the Edwin Edwards of the 1983 campaign," Honeycutt says. "He looks rested and is as happy as anyone I know who has been locked up for three years. He does not go in for the morose or bitterness. He actually told me once he has no regrets and that he lived by the system and still lives by the system."
While Edwards was always known as a notorious gambler, Honeycutt says the subject has yet to come up. "The governor has never mentioned gambling once," he says. "He never mentioned wanting to be at a table. He has talked about his father and how he was opposed to gambling and drinking and women. All the vices. And Edwin doesn't drink, so he once smiled and told me, 'Two out of three ain't bad.'"
Even before Edwards was convicted, Marcus says the governor was already famous among casino insiders. "He's a legendary gambler," Marcus says. "I've seen him working Caesar's Palace before. He always had young girls around him and was very flamboyant. The guy probably blew millions of dollars gambling and partying. But he developed an air that he thought was impregnable, something close to John Gotti. He lived that lifestyle. He's really my kind of guy."
Most mopes who try to cheat casinos today end up in prison with ruined lives. If they're really good, they might get a consulting contract with the gaming industry or even law enforcement. But if you believe lore and legend, it hasn't always been like this. When mobsters ran the casinos, a cheater would likely end up with broken hands, or worse, at the bottom of a deep hole in the desert.
"For a person with evil intent, a crime is a crime," Rajnic says. "But the legal system sometimes protects cheaters. The stories you see on TV or hear about from back in those days when the mobs ran the casinos are all true."
Today, it's more of a cat-and-mouse game, with cheaters trying to stay one step ahead of security and surveillance. It's a cycle no one expects to end anytime soon. But with technology advancing the way it is, cons are getting more difficult to pull. That's why Marcus subscribes to K.I.S.S. -- "Keep it simple, stupid." He says the elaborate schemes with inside help don't work any more and are increasingly dangerous.
"The house always wins" is an adage that still holds true, Marcus adds. "If you gamble and play by their rules, they win. I played by my rules and I won," he says.
Marcus may be retired, and the Gulf Coast Five all were apprehended. But Rajnic, Lentini and Newton and others are still watching and waiting -- as is the eye-in-the-sky.