|By Adam Lynn, The News Tribune, Tacoma,
Wash.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 25, 2007 - Four years ago, security personnel and state gambling agents watched as two dealers at the old Emerald Queen Casino on Tacoma's Tideflats allegedly cheated to help a pair of out-of-town gamblers win big at the mini-baccarat tables.
When the night ended, the agents swooped in to arrest the two dealers, who later were charged with a state crime called "cheating in the first degree" for helping the gamblers take the casino for as much as $450,000 over five months.
On Thursday, federal authorities in two states revealed that the "cheat team" uncovered at the Emerald Queen back in October 2003 was part of a major criminal enterprise that allegedly cheated casinos across the nation out of millions of dollars.
The scheme targeted the casinos themselves, also known as "the house," not individual bettors at the same tables.
According to three federal indictments unsealed in Seattle and San Diego, the enterprise:
--Targeted 18 casinos from Washington to Connecticut, 10 of them owned by Indian tribes. The Emerald Queen Casino owned and operated by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and the Nooksack River Casino in Whatcom County were among them.
--Used bribes to recruit dealers and pit bosses, including the son of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, into the scheme, then trained them how to cheat.
--Concocted a system of card-counting, signaling and strategic betting to illegally make off with millions, including more than $1 million from the Emerald Queen alone. The group employed electronic transmitters and sophisticated computer software in the scheme.
Two dozen people in two states and Canada have been indicted so far.
The Western Washington residents indicted in the conspiracy are Tacoma residents Thongsok Sovan and Pheap Norng, who worked as dealers at the Emerald Queen, and Bellingham residents Levi Seth Mayfield, Kasey James McKillip and Jacob Dyson Nickels, all of whom worked at the Nooksack casino.
Charges against them include conspiracy, theft of funds from gaming establishments on Indian lands and interstate transportation of stolen property. They are expected to appear in federal court June 1 and June 7 for arraignment.
"We're happy with the indictments," said John Weymer, spokesman for the Puyallup tribe.
"Our casino was able to detect the cheating was going on, and we worked successfully with the feds."
Investigation by state, local and federal agencies in the United States and Canada found that the conspiracy was hatched in Southern California in 2002 by a criminal outfit called the Tran Organization, according to the indictments.
Members of the organization devised a plan to cheat at mini-baccarat and blackjack by enlisting dealers to participate in the scheme, which allowed their gamblers to know which cards would be coming up in a deck and to bet accordingly, the indictments state.
The practice was highly lucrative, netting the gamblers more that $850,000 on one occasion, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, and netting the group as much as $3.3 million overall.
The Tran Organization brought the practice to Tacoma in 2003, according to state and federal court records.
Organization member Van Thu Tran approached an Emerald Queen dealer and offered to pay the person $3,000 to fly to San Diego and learn how to perform a "false shuffle" in the game of mini-baccarat, the federal indictments state.
A week later, Tran traveled to Tacoma aboard an Alaska Airlines flight to execute the scheme at the Emerald Queen, federal authorities said.
More members of the Tran Organization traveled to Tacoma to recruit more dealers over the next few months, and at one point rented a house on South Cushman Street to use as a base of operations, according to the indictments.
On one night in September 2003, one member of the organization cashed out more than $100,000 in chips at the casino, federal court records state.
The dealers, the gamblers and the card counters would get a cut of the action, the rest of which was turned over to Tran Organization leaders, authorities said.
The organization kept meticulous records of its income and the payouts necessary to keep dealers in the fold, the indictments state. They tracked other expenses, including a July 14, 2003, entry noting the rent and security deposit for the house on Cushman.
How mini-baccarat is played at the Emerald Queen casino
The dealer shuffles eight decks of cards and places them into the "shoe" from which the cards are dealt.
Two players receive cards, known as the "player's hand" and the "banker's hand."
Up to seven other players can bet on the hands but don't receive cards.
Each hand consists of two cards, which count as face value except for 10s and the face cards -- the jack, the queen and the king -- which count as zero. The suits of the card don't matter.
The value of the two cards are added together. If the count is 10 or higher, the left digit is disregarded. (For example, a 7 and an 8 would have a count of 5, not 15.)
Before the hands are dealt, players bet -- on the player's hand, on the banker's hand or that both hands will be a tie.
The winning hand is the one that comes closest to a count of
1. One conspirator writes down the point count and order of the cards from each hand.
2. Dealer in on the conspiracy shuffles most of the cards but keeps one group of them in same order.
3. In next round of play, dealer distributes the unshuffled cards in predetermined order.
4. First conspirator monitors the play and alerts others in conspiracy on how to bet.
5. They place winning bets.
Copyright (c) 2007, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.
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