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Employee is suspected in casino heist

Four Soboba workers are hogtied and gagged before thief leaves with a large amount of cash. The suspect worked in video surveillance.

August 03, 2007|Jonathan Abrams and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

Less than a year after filing for bankruptcy, a low-level security technician at Soboba Casino in Riverside County forced his way into the casino's vaults at gunpoint, hogtied four employees and disappeared with perhaps more than $1 million in cash Thursday, authorities said.

Riverside County sheriff's officials identified the suspect as Rolando L. Ramos, 25, of Hemet, who worked at the San Jacinto-area casino for two years maintaining the casino's video surveillance cameras.

"No shots were fired and no casino guests were injured," said Assistant Sheriff Pat McManus. "I don't think [the guests] were even aware of what was going on until the doors were locked down."

At least $2 million was in the vault at the time of the heist, McManus said, though the amount stolen wasn't disclosed.

Rosemary Morillo, vice chairwoman of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, said that although a substantial amount of money was stolen, "what matters is nobody was hurt."

"The suspect was cleared to work here by many security measures, but sometimes decent people do bad things," Morillo said.

Sheriff's deputies searched Ramos' Hemet apartment and found theatrical makeup, suggesting that he was trying to hide his identity.

McManus said Ramos was wearing his casino uniform and identification badge when he allegedly pulled off the heist, and several of the people he bound and gagged -- and locked in the vaults -- recognized him, authorities said.

Ramos had a security guard escort him into the vault area at about 5 a.m. after telling him he was going to work on surveillance equipment, McManus said.

"We do know that he tried to destroy some of the surveillance equipment in some of the surveillance rooms," but he was unsuccessful, McManus said.

The Sheriff's Department received the first emergency call about the robbery at 5:24 a.m., and deputies arrived at the casino at 2333 Soboba Road minutes later. Ramos' car was found several blocks away.

Ramos apparently hid a handgun, pepper spray and duct tape in a tool belt before entering the secure vault room, McManus said. At gunpoint, he bound and gagged at least four employees, pepper-spraying one. Three employees were found in one vault, and one was found in another vault, authorities said.

Investigators said it was unclear whether Ramos had an accomplice. Witnesses said they saw him driving out of the casino parking lot alone.

"We consider him armed and dangerous," McManus said.

Ramos was born in the Philippines and has family there and in Mexico. Investigators believe it's possible he will flee to one of those countries.

Ramos had prior arrests for drunk driving and domestic violence against a former girlfriend, McManus said.

Ramos had been married but divorced in October 2004 in Hemet. In a subsequent court report, he said he had a 4-year-old son.

Ramos was having money troubles and had filed for bankruptcy in September 2006, reporting that he had $21,450 in assets and $46,812 in liabilities.

One of the creditors was a car dealer still owed money on a 2006 Nissan Titan pickup, according to court documents. Ramos also owed about $17,000 in personal loans and charge accounts and reported only $100 in a Bank of America account.

He said he worked three years as a surveillance tech for the Soboba Band, earning $2,080 a month. He reported $27,000 in annual income for 2005.

The casino was opened in 1995 by the Soboba Band, which has about 900 members. Many live in San Jacinto, Hemet and the neighboring communities. The band is one of 58 federally recognized tribes in California that operate casinos.

The casino, in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, is a 74,000-square-foot facility and has a unique tent-like structure surrounded by palms.

After Thursday's robbery, the casino closed but reopened at 12:30 p.m.

One customer, Jun Soon-Kim, said that when he arrived at the casino door about 6:30 a.m., it was locked.

He returned to gamble in the afternoon. "I've been coming here for years," he said. "I think I'm pretty safe here. They seem to be on top of things."

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

david.reyes@latimes.com

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