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U.S. agents seize Stardancer ships, slots, files

Several federal agencies swoop down on the gaming operator's assets in an inquiry into alleged embezzlement.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2003

MADEIRA BEACH -- Federal agents seized everything from slot machines to payroll records Tuesday morning during raids on the homes, offices and gaming ships of Stardancer Casino owners.

The raids occurred simultaneously at locations in Madeira Beach, Gulfport, Tarpon Springs, Port Richey and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Armed with search warrants secured by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Toledo, Ohio, agents from the FBI, IRS and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. seized six boats in Tampa Bay.

The raids of Stardancer assets occurred as federal investigators connect more missing money to Mark Steven Miller, the former Ohio banker who funneled an estimated $15.5-million into Stardancer over the past several years. Just last month, the amount Miller is accused of embezzling from the Oakwood Deposit Bank Co. jumped from $40-million to $48-million.

Stardancer owner Sam Gray, 62, did not return calls to his cell phone Tuesday. He has maintained he does not know where Miller got the money.

But Gray's denials didn't stop the U.S. Attorney's Office from seeking the search warrants.

According to the warrant signed by a federal district judge in Ohio, in Madeira Beach alone the federal agents were seizing the ship, plus "personal property, equipment, inventory and fixtures located on such vessel . . . all boilers, engines, anchors, navigational equipment, communications equipment, furniture, slot machines, gaming tables and all other gaming equipment."

A moving company hired by the federal government arrived at John's Pass Village Tuesday morning to catalog the slot machines and blackjack tables aboard the Stardancer boat.

The federal government, which hired the Stardancer's captain to pilot the boat out of John's Pass, had not moved the ship from its dock late Tuesday night.

Officials with the agencies working on the search Tuesday provided few details about what specific items they were seizing, and Thomas Karol, the lawyer handling the case for the U.S. Attorney's Office, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, said Tuesday that neither Gray nor any other Stardancer executive has been charged with a crime.

Tuesday morning at the Stardancer dock at John's Pass Village, calypso music blared from speakers while tourists watched federal agents carry money bags and rolls of coins out of the gaming boat. Employees who arrived for the 11 a.m. cruise found satellite trucks and FBI vehicles filling the parking lot.

Stardancer's problems escalated throughout 2002. The company's bank accounts were frozen in February, and a ship in Tarpon Springs was repossessed in September.

The employees knew the Grays were in trouble financially.

Many of them went unpaid for weeks in December. They last saw a paycheck a couple days before Christmas and are now owed for three weeks' pay.

"They're never going to see that money," said Neil Jones, a former casino manager who now works for SunCruz Casinos on the opposite side of John's Pass. He is trying to assemble employees to hire a lawyer and investigate their legal rights.

But Tuesday, employees were more eager to gather for breakfast today before visiting a Clearwater unemployment office en masse.

"I just want to see the whole Gray family in cuffs," said Brian Lonask, 33, a former dealer who is owed back pay. "I want to see the whole family by the road with 'Will work for food' signs."

-- Staff writers Kelly Benham and Cary Davis and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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