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California and the West

Nevada's 'Black Book' Still Packs a Punch

Gambling: The people listed in it are banned from owning or even entering a casino. But critics say the book lists just a fraction of the mobsters and cheats who deserve inclusion.

March 13, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Ex-Chicago cop Fred Pascente couldn't believe his rotten luck: Here was a crony calling with news that his days as a Vegas gambler were gone for good.

Like a snake-eyes roll of the dice, the former detective had just landed on a not-so-elite index of desert undesirables: Nevada's 40-year-old casino "Black Book."

Citing his mail fraud conviction and penchant to "actively associate with members of organized crime," regulators added Pascente to the roster of those banned for life from owning, managing or even entering casinos in the state.

"I says to my buddy 'You're kiddin' me, right?' " recalled Pascente, one of the book's most recent entries. "But he's like, 'No, Freddy, it's right here in the papers. You're in. You made the list.' "

With a colorful cast that has included such reputed mobsters as William "Icepick Willie" Alderman, Murray "the Camel" Humphreys and Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana, the Black Book hearkens back to a more lawless era in Las Vegas history, when wise guys called the shots and skimmed profits from such casinos as the Stardust and Tropicana.

But these days the Black Book's mix is slowly changing to reflect a new wave of high-tech and white collar criminal.

As technology transforms Nevada casinos into decidedly digital realms--with computers running the state's nearly 200,000 slot machines--regulators say those savvy, sometimes lone-wolf operators employ a sophisticated bag of tricks to steal millions annually.

"The universe of casino threats is changing--and so is the makeup of the book," said James Taylor, a special agent for the State Gaming Control Board. "We've recently seen a wider range of cheats. But the old standbys--the would-be wise guys--are still around."

Often working undercover, Taylor looks to catch gambling insiders such as Ronald Dale Harris, a former state gaming board computer analyst who regulators say used insider knowledge to run a slot machine scam.

Taylor cruises casinos for slot cheats whose arsenals range from such low-tech devices as lead coin slugs and the yo-yo--a quarter tied to a string--to a gadget called a kickstand, which is used to lift the slot's internal coin security bar so that the machine overpays.

Then there are such gizmos as the "light wand," a battery powered flashlight that confuses a slot machine. Taylor said the newest slot cheater's wrinkle is a hand-held computer called the Nikrasch device, named after a gambler caught using it.

Newcomers on the list also come from organized bands that use age-old ruses to distract dealers and cheat the house. Some scoot dice--instead of rolling them--so they know which numbers will show. Others place bets on roulette tables after the wheel has stopped.

Of the 13 people added to the Black Book since 1997, five were suspected slot and card cheats. Investigators say the rest were connected to organized crime.

Weathered Court Challenge

But no matter which scofflaws make up its pages, the Black Book remains controversial.

After weathering court challenges, Nevada's banning of unwanted casino patrons has been imitated by officials in gaming states such as New Jersey, Michigan and Mississippi. Tribal casinos in California are considering having their own Black Book.

Regulators say the Black Book shows gamblers that it's possible to get an honest game in Nevada.

But some academics and defense lawyers dismiss the book as a public relations ploy designed to give the false impression that regulators are keeping Nevada free of corruption and crime. They say the list discriminates against the Italian Americans who dominate its ranks, fostering a selective prosecution of an ethnic group whose notoriety fits Mafia stereotypes.

And they question why only 35 people are notorious enough to merit mention among the numerous felons they claim are working and placing wagers inside the state's casinos.

"It's downright laughable the way they keep track of the list like it's some infamous hall of fame for losers and ne'er-do-wells," said Las Vegas attorney Richard Wright. "For every name in that book, there are scores or even hundreds who deserve the indignity as well."

The luckless few who are banned are marked by what Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman once called a public "scarlet letter." As a defense attorney Goodman represented several mob figures listed in the Black Book, but in his new civic role, Goodman declined to discuss it.

Many inductees have lost jobs in casinos and elsewhere and complain that gaming operators who were once friends no longer talk to them for fear of being blacklisted.

Regulators say the book's ranks remain small because only the worst offenders are nominated, much like the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. "What good is a '200 Most Wanted' list?" said State Gaming Control Board member Bobby Siller. "It'd be too unwieldy."

Launched in 1960 with the names of 11 reputed gangland figures, the book has become a must-read for casino operators and those fascinated by Mafia lore.

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