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Vegas Plagued By Casino Robberies

21 March 2005

by Stephen Curran

LAS VEGAS -- The armed robbery last week of a cashier at the Bourbon Street casino marked the ninth such crime this year and the second since 2003 for the off-Strip property, Metro Police statistics show.

Police say a man got change from the cashier about 2 a.m. Wednesday, then pulled out a handgun demanded the money. He then ran from the building, stopped at the front desk and pulled the gun on another employee before running outside, Lt. Ted Snodgrass of Metro's robbery section said.

That morning's robbery was the second of its kind in less than a week in Metro's jurisdiction of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County.

At this rate, more than three robberies a month this year, casinos in Metro's jurisdiction are poised to dramatically outpace the 15 robberies recorded by police last year and the 19 the year before.

There's also the high profile that comes with incidents such as the March 11 robbery of a Mandalay Bay change booth while the casino was crowded with patrons.

According to witnesses, the two men approached a casino change booth inside Mandalay Bay about 4 p.m. and held up the cashier working inside the booth. The men then fled in a vehicle parked near an entrance, making off with an untold amount of money. Neither police nor Mandalay Bay spokesman Gordon Absher would specify which entrance they used or which booth was robbed.

No one was injured in the robbery, police said. Early reports stated that one of the robbers fired a gun into the air, forcing people nearby to the floor.

"That's what the witnesses reported," Sgt. Al Cervantes of Metro's robbery section said.

But no bullet damage or shell casings could be found at the scene, so if something was fired it may have been a starter's pistol or a gun loaded with blanks, Cervantes said.

As of Friday afternoon no arrests had been made in either the Mandalay Bay or the Bourbon Street robberies.

Rob Stillwell, a spokesman for Boyd Gaming Co., said security plans at each of the company's 11 Southern Nevada casinos vary but that robberies generally prompt a review of procedures in place.

He would not say whether those reviews entail removing or relocating change booths on the casino floor.

"From a security perspective it's probably at the top," of a list of concerns, Stillwell said. "But it's not something we spend our days worrying about ... They (casino robberies) don't happen very often. It's not a pattern."

A change booth at the Orleans, another Boyd Gaming property, was robbed Dec. 13 after a man approached the booth and demanded several $100 bills from the cashier. Detectives initially believed that robber was the same man who took an untold amount of money from Terrible's casino on Paradise Road the week before.

That hotel has been struck twice this year and once in each of the two previous years, according to Metro.

Snodgrass attributed the rapid pace of this year's casino robberies to the "cyclical" nature of the crimes, which sees different types of crimes spike in different years.

Last year, for example, casinos reported a near-record low number of robberies on their floors as bank robberies dramatically increased, he said.

Snodgrass said he did not remember a particularly high year for casino robberies and was reluctant to predict a dramatic increase this year. Meanwhile the small number of casino robberies makes any increase appear more significant than more common crimes, he said.

Then there is the matter of solving casino robberies.

Of Metro's 43 total casino robberies since 2003, the department solved 15, or about 35 percent, according to the department statistics. That clearance rate pales in comparison to the percentage of bank robberies solved -- about 80 percent.

Still, Snodgrass said, he is "fairly happy with our solveability rate.

"The casino personnel do a pretty good job because they don't want to start a firefight. They're doing something right if we're catching over a third."

Ted Lee, owner of the Eureka Casino in the 500 block of East Sahara Avenue and another property in Mesquite, is not impressed with Metro's record on casino robbery cases. His valley casino has been robbed six times since 2003, more than any other Las Vegas casino, according to Metro.

The most recent instance was March 9, when two men armed with a handgun robbed a casino cage inside the property and made off with several thousand dollars.

"It seems like the people who do it are never caught. When no one is caught, it encourages more people to become criminals," Lee said.

He also said he rarely receives updates from the department about what, if anything, officers are doing to identify and arrest people who robbed his casino.

Lee, who has owned the Eureka at its current location for 12 years, said the casino robbery problem has gotten worse in the last five years, a move that has prompted him and other casino owners to consider security measures once considered unnecessary.

More security guards are carrying guns, for instance, Lee said.

Although Lee has no immediate plans to increase the number of uniformed guards who patrol the 11,000-square-foot casino floor, the robberies prompted him to install bullet-proof glass at each cage within the casino. He also put up steel fences around the parking lot, he said.

"Convenience stores have similar problems and the Mandalay Bay has the same problem," Lee said. "When you're open 24 hours a day there's more opportunities there. If you get robbed once a year, with all the crime in this town, is that a lot? That's what I wrestle with."

Absher, the Mandalay Bay spokesman, would not say whether that hotel would take any additional measures to protect cashiers, such as moving change booths or reconsidering where they are located, in light of the March 11 robbery.

"The more you talk about security the less secure it becomes," Absher said. "That's the kind of thing people in the robbery line of work would love to know and we're not going to fall into that."

Nor would Absher release the number of such robberies at the casino but said he knew of "a handful" in the past six years. He would not elaborate.

According to Metro statistics, Mandalay Bay was robbed once this year and once in 2004.

The number of casino floor robberies in 2004 in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County is proportionally lower than the 12 robberies North Las Vegas Police reported in that city's seven casinos -- Texas Station, the Fiesta, Jerry's Nugget, the Silver Nugget, the Opera House and Speedway, Officer Sean Walker, a department spokesman, said. That figure was a roughly 38 percent decrease from the 18 robberies reported in 2003.

Like Metro, the five casino robberies reported so far this year in North Las Vegas have that part of the valley on pace to exceed its previous year's total for these types of crimes.

Of the 35 total casino robberies reported in North Las Vegas since 2003, none is currently under investigation. North Las Vegas Police did not provide the Sun with the number of cases solved, but did say that many of the cases were closed because police did not have enough evidence, no leads and no suspects. Of the five casino robberies in North Las Vegas this year, only one was forwarded to the Clark County district attorney's office for prosecution, Walker said.

Of Henderson's three largest casinos -- Green Valley Ranch Station Casino, Sunset Station and Fiesta Henderson -- none reported robberies on the casino floor in 2004 and 2003, Henderson Police spokesman Keith Paul said. The department did not provide information on the city's smaller casinos.

Metro's Snodgrass said the relatively infrequent occurrence -- less than 1 percent of the more than 4,000 total robberies last year -- of casino robberies made it difficult for the department to pinpoint a common profile for would-be robbers. The most common trait is a greater deal of planning than in most robberies to counter the tight security at most casinos.

In some cases, the loot from a casino robbery is relatively small -- a few thousand dollars, but in most cases authorities and the business owners won't even say how much money was stolen.

Sometimes that information comes out in court. Three men were sentenced in late 2003 in connection with a June 2000 robbery at the Bellagio casino that netted about $175,000, for example.

Luis Suarez, 38, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2003 and was ordered to pay $155,523 in restitution. One of his accomplices, Pedro Duarte, was sentenced in September 2003 to 16 to 70 years in prison on multiple felony charges stemming from another robbery at the Desert Inn in 1999.

Jose Vigoa, who police said spearheaded those robberies and another outside a Henderson clothing store that left two armored guards killed, was sentenced to life in prison for multiple felony convictions stemming from those crimes.

The Bellagio robbery and other robberies of casinos have prompted most area casinos, including the Bellagio and other MGM Mirage properties, to place bars or glass partitions around cages, an enclosed counter that differs from the free-floating change booths.

Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for MGM Mirage, said each of the chain's six Strip resorts had since installed bars around its cages. Of the resorts, New York-New York was the only property to be built with bars surrounding the cage, she said.

Spokespeople for MGM Mirage, the Bellagio's parent company and the largest casino chain in Las Vegas, told the Associated Press in 2000 that the open layout was more customer-friendly.

All but "a few" of the company's change booths located at Treasure Island and New York-New York resorts have bars surrounding their change booths, she said.

None of the company's Las Vegas properties has been robbed since 2003, according to Metro."

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