Where does money go?
The gamblers who couldn't stop winning
Some people win over and over at Seminole casinos. But odd things happen when they pick up their winnings.
By BRAD GOLDSTEIN and JEFF TESTERMAN
Times Staff Writers
Dominick Sgarlata walked into the Seminole casino in Hollywood, Fla., one night in April 1995 and won $200,021.
The next day, he won again -- $2,500 in the morning; $4,300 several hours later.
In fact, Dominick Sgarlata beat the video slot machines in the Hollywood casino 22 times in 1995. His total take: $532,727.
The St. Petersburg Times has tried to find Sgarlata, whose remarkable streak was detailed in records obtained by the newspaper. But no such luck.
More is known about another fortunate gambler, Mary Kaminski. She was a former employee at the Hollywood casino and her daughter was dating one of the hall's managers.
On March 15, 1995, Kaminski landed a $74,000 jackpot. She won several large jackpots on other days. But when officers of the Seminole Department of Law Enforcement looked at video surveillance tapes of Kaminiski's winning moments and compared them to what the casino's managers later reported to the tribe, they noticed something peculiar. The managers had reported paying Kaminski a total of $149,292 more than the surveillance cameras showed she had won.
The more the police watched, the greater the discrepancies they found. In a three-month period in 1995, for example, the casino's managers, Seminole Management Associates (SMA), told the tribe it paid out $1.4-million in jackpots to Sgarlata, Kaminski and eight other extraordinarily lucky patrons. Surveillance cameras showed winnings of only $649,000. The Times was unable to reach any of the winners for comment.
Where did the money go? Were hundreds of thousands of dollars disappearing in the casino?
Tribal leaders say they have no evidence of that, but all that cash can be hard to track.
The tribe has relied largely on its non-Seminole casino managers to count how much money comes in and how much is paid out in jackpots. Because it's largely a cash business, gambling is susceptible to skimming -- the illegal diversion of profits.
In 1990, the U.S. Inspector General's Office reported that the tribe's monitoring system at the Hollywood and Tampa casinos was largely a matter of trust between itself and the management companies. "A confidential informant had disclosed that the two management firms responsible for managing the bingo games at Hollywood and Tampa, Florida, were skimming profits from both operations," wrote agent Daniel F. Lane.
Seminole Chairman James Billie said he was unconcerned by the report. No one gave him solid proof that managers skimmed profits, he said. (The principals of casino management company SMA did not respond to repeated requests from the Times for comment on this story.)
Three years ago, dramatic indications of money mismanagement surfaced when Billie's own police force, the Seminole Department of Law Enforcement, took over security duties at the tribe's casinos, including Hollywood.
For years, SMA had controlled security at the casino. That changed in 1994 when the Seminoles decided to save money by using their own police officers.
The records obtained by the Times document some of what the police officers found. On March 17, 1995, for example, a 51-year-old Plantation woman named Gail Keiser hit a jackpot worth $21,000. Seven days later, she hit another, for $16,800. And on April 5 she triumphed again, this time for an undisclosed amount.
But again there was a discrepancy. All told, police found the casino had reported paying Keiser $173,770 more than surveillance cameras showed she had won.
On June 15, 1995, cameras recorded a patron winning a $54,000 jackpot.
"I observed (video pull tab) floor manager K.C. Brown sitting down and having a cup of coffee," Police Officer Walter Berger wrote in a report. "Ms. Brown then stated to me, 'This guy is lucky, he hit two V.P.T. jackpots back to back for a total of $106,000.'
"I later checked with all security officers and surveillance to verify if there was two (2) jackpots that had gone off, they all advised me that there was "no record' of any other jackpots, except the one (1) on bank #6, machine #108 for $54,000."
Not all multiple winners had discrepancies and not all of them were in Hollywood. For instance, when Nancy Motlow, a member of the tribal council at the time, won seven jackpots worth $124,276 in Immokalee, that's what she was paid out.
The Seminole police are certified by the state and have authority to investigate crimes and make arrests. But when they attempted to make an arrest one day at the casino, management balked. Police documents are unclear as to the nature of the attempted arrest.
Casino manager James P. "Skip" Weisman "entered the security squad room and shouted at me, that we . . . are 'only here as security and NOT police,' " wrote Sgt. John Honeywell in a police report. "We should not take action unless management says so. Forget the laws, the customers are here to have a good time."
The police found little internal control to combat theft. There were no cameras in the money-counting room or behind the cashier cages.
The Seminole police gave the National Indian Gaming Commission and the FBI the evidence they compiled over 13 months in 1994 and 1995. Days after police turned the information over to the NIGC, James Billie fired police Chief Devon Land and seven officers. Security guards hired by SMA took their place.
In an interview with the Times, Billie would not comment on the firings because he said the tribe is negotiating a settlement with some of the officers, none of whom are Indians. He did say, however, that the police did not tell him what they found. "Why didn't they tell me?" Billie said, adding he had lost trust in some of his officers.
Ted Boyd, the tribe's comptroller, suggested the police were out of line. "The officers were trying to do what accountants are paid to do," he said.
Billie said surveillance cameras are throughout the Hollywood hall, but acknowledged resisting them. Such security equipment costs money, he said, and cuts into profits.
He pointed out that the tribe is taking over management of the casino: "So now that we own it ourself, who am I supposed to see that's not cheating? Because they were set up just to make sure that the management company wasn't stealing from us. But now we're the managers, so who do we put the monitor on?"
* * *
Video slot machines are controlled by computer chips that determine jackpots. Who has access to the chips is a key decision at a casino.
At the Tampa casino, the facility's managers -- Pan American & Associates -- controlled access to those chips, said Roy Knox, who was a security guard there for 14 years. (Knox, 69, was fired in 1995 for drinking a beer at lunch.)
"If a machine is hitting too much, they put new chips in," Knox said. "They'd even put an out-of-order sign on the machines. That's why I won't go in and play 'em."
On one occasion in the Hollywood hall while the police were watching in 1995, a casino technician was seen opening two machines being played by known jackpot chasers. (Jackpot chasers are teams of gamblers who monopolize several machines until they win.) Minutes later, they won a $26,000 jackpot.
It is unusual for a casino's manager to control the security and access to the computer chips, said Frederic Gushin, former assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Gaming Enforcement Division and now a member of the gaming commission for the Oneida Indians in New York state.
"Most casinos, including Indian nations, who have slot machines will have the gaming commission seal them and then conduct routine inspections," Gushin said. "If the sealing tape is missing that would indicate prima facie evidence of tampering."
* * *
Dominick Sgarlata, the man who beat the slots 22 times at the Hollywood casino in 1995, was not the most frequent winner that year at a Seminole casino.
That title appears to belong to a 66-year-old woman named Constance J. Siegel. According to the records obtained by the Times, she won 57 jackpots playing the video slots at the Immokalee hall over six months of 1995. Her take: $475,400.
Sgarlata can take solace in that he did win more money -- $532,727. And that doesn't include two wins in Immokalee the same year, for an extra $27,354.
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