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4 wounded as gunman opens fire in casino on Vegas Strip

Hotel security, off-duty law enforcement, Guardsmen and others help subdue the suspect.

July 07, 2007|Kimi Yoshino and Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — Christopher Koenig was pumping nickels into a slot machine at the New York-New York casino just after midnight Friday, "losing big," when he first heard gunfire.

The former public safety officer from Missouri said he ran toward the source of the shots, bounded up the escalator to a second-floor walkway and helped others subdue the alleged gunman.

Steven Zegrean, 51, reportedly an out-of-work painter who is estranged from his family, opened fire in the casino, wounding four people, authorities said. He was reloading his 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun when he was tackled by off-duty law enforcement officers, two military men and casino security officers, said Koenig, a former public safety officer from Ballwin, Mo.

Las Vegas police spokesman Bill Cassell said Zegrean was taken down with the assistance of National Guardsman Justin Lampert of Crosby, N.D.; Navy reservist David James of Jacksonville, Fla.; and brothers Robert and Paul Ura, special agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, among others.

Police described Zegrean, a resident of suburban Henderson, as "distraught," but could not say what triggered the shooting.

"We believe he had been walking up and down the Strip for several days," said Capt. James Dillon, who heads the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's robbery homicide division. "We believe it was a random act with no relationship to the New York-New York and no relationship to the victims."

Two of the wounded were treated at the scene and released, Cassell said, while the other two were taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.

"We thought it was fireworks," said Troy Sanchez, 13, of Van Nuys, who was wounded in the ankle. "I didn't even see the guy at all." He told the Associated Press he was with his mother and older brother, who works at the casino.

About 16 shots were fired from the balcony, sending gamblers running for the doors, leaping over chairs and diving under tables. However, Koenig said, pit bosses stayed on hand to guard the casino chips.

Most of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino did not shut down during the incident, according to a spokeswoman. The casino was back in full operation about 4 a.m.

Zegrean was booked on suspicion of attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, burglary, conspiracy and discharging a firearm in an occupied structure, Dillon said.

Police said Zegrean had hid the gun inside his jacket and walked to a balcony that overlooks the casino floor. Melody Zegrean, 43, of Las Vegas, who identified herself as Steven Zegrean's cousin, told the Associated Press that he had been divorced for several years. "His temper and not being able to relate has really gotten worse recently," she said. "He's been threatening the family for some time now. He's been pushing everyone away."

Koenig said he arrived at the walkway and plopped on top of a struggling Zegrean, jamming a hand over the man's mouth. Koenig, who somehow broke a finger, said Zegrean bit his hand. "The guy was screaming, 'All I want to do is see my son!' " Koenig said.

Ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Las Vegas has been bracing for an incident that might scare off tourists. But the Friday shooting was having a limited effect on the city.

"It happens everywhere," said Lynda Mitchell of Downey, who was visiting the hotel with her husband, Mark.

A casino is a poor choice for a random shooting, experts say, given the large number of security officers on patrol and intensive around-the-clock remote surveillance. Major hotels employ dozens of security officers on every shift.

"Whenever you are within three or four blocks of a casino, you should assume you are being watched," said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a former casino security expert.

"I cannot recall another incident of this type," said Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for MGM Mirage, parent company of New York-New York.

Yoshino reported from Las Vegas and Vartabedian from Los Angeles.

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