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John L Smith

Smith: As casino cheat, Vaccaro set bar high

24 November 2015

John Vaccaro was sure he had something big working.

But in the world of the professional casino cheat, good help can be hard to find. It's not all "Ocean's 11" reruns, baby. Putting together a competent crew isn't easy.

Vaccaro picked up a phone at a Las Vegas sports bar and complained to an associate down South, "They want to argue with people that's been doin' it all their lives. See?"

He later summarized his opinion of Nevada's gaming industry, "Well (expletive deleted) the casinos."

That was John Vaccaro.

Eventually, Vaccaro's criminal associates in the takeoff of the President Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1993 focused on their work long enough to relieve the gambling hall's blackjack tables of $500,000 before the scheme unraveled and resulted in a federal criminal indictment. Some took a plea, others took flight. Nothing if not dedicated to his trade, Vaccaro took another fall.

John Joseph Vaccaro Jr., a military veteran, roofing contractor and longtime member of Nevada's casino "Black Book," died Nov. 16 after a brief illness. He was 75.

It would be easy to vilify Vaccaro for all the trouble he caused casinos, and the challenging times he put his family through, but I have to give him credit for one thing: No one can accuse him of failing to dream big.

Born in New Orleans, Vaccaro was on friendly terms with members and associates of the Marcello crime family much of his life, and law enforcement authorities linked him as a member of the Southern California La Cosa Nostra family headed by Peter Milano.

That membership and $5 will buy you breakfast at Denny's.

But unlike most in Milano's motley circle, Vaccaro was a genuine schemer not content with picking up nickels and dimes from careworn street rackets.

In a prior life, he was a U.S. Air Force veteran who worked for many years in the casino industry. Then, you might say he started to take shortcuts.

Although his criminal record stretched back to 1971, he landed high on the government's radar in 1983 as the leader of what was then the biggest slot machine-rigging caper in Nevada history. In all, eight people manipulated more than 100 slot jackpots at casinos throughout Nevada and racked up more than $8 million before being caught. One jackpot at Harrah's Tahoe alone paid $1.7 million. The first MGM Grand in Reno lost more than $1 million. The crew also scored at the Castaways, Barbary Coast, Bingo Palace (now Palace Station) and Holiday Casino in Las Vegas.

A conviction in that case sent Vaccaro to prison and also ensnared his devoted wife, Sandra, in the mess. The Vaccaros were placed on Nevada's "List of Excluded Persons" in June 1986.

But talk about being true to your school. The Vaccaros somehow survived all that trouble and tumult and remained married 48 years.

"He was probably one of the wittiest and most charming guys I've ever met in my life," Vaccaro's former defense attorney Dominic Gentile says. "The guy was a laugh a minute, but he could be as serious as a heart attack. He had both sides to him. But he never lost his sense of humor. And he did a lot of time. He did a lot of time."

By the time of the Biloxi casino caper, a marked-card scheme, Vaccaro was well known in law enforcement circles. Where it once might have been relatively simple for Vaccaro and his associates to move from one casino to the next, improved surveillance, security and information sharing made pulling off a lengthy score virtually impossible. Those "Ocean's 11" days were always more movie fantasy, anyway.

But even an appeals court appeared to appreciate the colorful lineup of defendants it was entertaining.

"The jury was presented with a large cast, including characters with varying levels of responsibility in the casino and others with ties to organized crime," members of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals observed in 1997.

Vaccaro paid for his crimes with stays in the penitentiary of varying lengths. He paid for his associations, too.

But he wasn't lying that day on the phone at the sports bar.

When it came to cheating a casino, he knew what he was doing and had been doing it all his life.