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National Perspective | Gaming

Tribe Loses Big in PR Jackpot

Refusal to pay grandma's alleged winnings costs casino dearly. But investigation vindicates position.

March 31, 1998|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARICOPA, Ariz. — What made the saga of the grandma and the slot machine so unusual was the fact that it's nearly impossible to beat Native American leaders at the PR game.

That certainly was the case when tribes in Arizona began installing video slots in their casinos a few years back, prompting federal prosecutors to complain the devices were illegal and then threaten to seize them. One group, the Yavapai, simply sat down and blockaded the road to their casino, daring the feds to roll over them and dredge up images of a massacre.

Virtually overnight, public sympathy rallied behind the Indians, and state officials scrambled to negotiate agreements to let the Yavapai and other tribes use the video slots, modern gambling's unrivaled money machines.

Now fast forward to 1998 and witness a massacre of the public relations variety: all those reports a couple of months ago about how the Ak-Chin tribe was refusing to pay a poor grandmother a $330,000 jackpot she seemed to have won when three cherries lined up on a "quartermania" machine at its casino here.

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Herminia Rodriguez, 64, wasn't your average grandma, either. She was a former migrant farm worker, a slew of media accounts pointed out. Now on disability, she had gambled with $140 that she had raised at a garage sale in Phoenix.

And how did she want to use her jackpot? To provide one grandkid--she had 10--with kidney dialysis.

The tribe, meanwhile, was refusing to pay or make any detailed public comment, other than to mutter about a malfunction with the machine. An investigation would be required. A hearing.

So Rodriguez got a lawyer--one who gave the media photos of those jackpot symbols and of casino workers celebrating with her.

The reaction?

The head of the Arizona Gaming Department said the episode spotlighted a need to crack down on tribal casinos. "Player beware," he said, "their rights are left at the boundary when they enter the reservation." A leader of the state Senate threatened the tribe to pay up, or else--he'd introduce legislation. Then came the suicide. An outside manager of the casino, a fellow from New Jersey, killed himself in the middle of the ruckus.

So it was that in January, Rodriguez got her money. Not from the tribe, which remained insistent on that hearing, but from Harrah's, the company contracted to run the casino. The last thing it needed was bad PR, gamblers thinking its billboards are lying when they advertise along area freeways: "Winners find us very appealing."

But that wasn't the end of it. For as Rodriguez was getting her jackpot, word of the dispute reached the National Indian Gaming Commission in Washington, D.C., which oversees tribal gambling. Its officials felt they had an obligation to answer once and for all: Had the Ak-Chin really tried to cheat a disabled migrant grandma out of $330,152.13 she wanted for her grandson's kidney dialysis?

Enter Carl Olson.

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If you were a big time bookie around Los Angeles over the last few decades, you knew him well. During 27 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, he became its most formidable gambling expert, the sort of detective who made the LAPD--at least before the Rodney G. King beating--the envy of police forces elsewhere.

Olson was a burly fellow who looked like he could hold down a spot on an offensive line into his 50s. He also was smart, sharp enough to understand the fine print of state laws and thus caution lottery officials a few years ago that a new game, a form of Keno, was illegal and might allow tribes around California to justify their own questionable gambling--namely, that the slots were growing just as popular there as here.

When time came for Olson to collect his LAPD pension, he was a logical catch for the new National Indian Gaming Commission. It recruited him to be its chief investigator for the Southwest.

It was in that role that the veteran detective recently found himself going frame-by-frame over a security videotape showing Rodriguez at the quartermania machine at Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino. He also found himself shaking his head and exclaiming, "Look at that!"

Gamblers should know one fact before they make claims about events at a casino--everything is watched. Cameras in the ceiling capture every hand reaching for a lever on every slot, every chip slid across a blackjack table and every tub of coins redeemed at a cashier's window.

And what Olson saw on the tapes from last Oct. 11, the fateful day Rodriguez claimed her jackpot, was a slot machine gone bonkers.

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