Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1998 | 5:30 a.m.
Over the past 22 years, Dennis Nikrasch has raked in millions of dollars as Nevada's premier slot cheat. Now he's promising to tell gambling regulators how he and his counterparts rip off the state's casinos for about $40 million a year.
"He had the most sophisticated system we've ever seen," said Keith Copher, chief of the Enforcement Division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "We don't know that he's passed it along, and if he has, he'd better tell us."
Nikrasch was convicted in 1986 of scamming $10 million from Las Vegas casinos by rigging slot machines between 1976 and 1979. He was released on parole in January 1991 and returned to the trade five years later.
Nikrasch, 57, was arrested again in June, along with three others, in a $6 million slot machine scheme. A dozen cohorts, all from the Phoenix area, may also be charged, according to a federal prosecutor.
Nikrasch cut a deal Tuesday to tell his secrets to state and federal authorities. He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, interstate travel in aid of racketeering, money laundering and interstate transportation of stolen property.
In the 1970s, Nikrasch and other cheats dealt with slot machines that featured mechanical reels. Nikrasch adopted more sophisticated methods as the machines entered the computer age. Beginning in 1996, Nikrasch could enter slot machines and use a computer-generated device that allowed him to beat the machines in just minutes, court documents said.
He would select a machine and alter it while another person would act as a "blocker," standing between Nikrasch and surveillance cameras that monitor activities in all Nevada casinos, said J. Gregory Damm, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case.
"He would be in the casino a very short period of time," Damm said. "He would fix the machine, then leave. He wasn't present when the jackpot was hit."
A dozen people - friends of Nikrasch and three co-defendants - were recruited from Phoenix to play or monitor the rigged machines. They would split the jackpots with Nikrasch, who would keep 50 percent to 70 percent of the money, court documents contend. Nikrasch disputed the split Tuesday and told Judge George he has no money.
The crew hit six major Las Vegas casinos a total of 10 times between September 1996 and November 1997, winning cash jackpots or cars which they would then sell.
Nikrasch was trying to hit a $17 million Megabucks slot jackpot and move to France when he was arrested in June, Damm said.
Authorities want to know more about Nikrasch's device.
"Nikrasch has alluded to the fact that there may be others engaging in similar types of activity," Damm said Wednesday. "He's alluded to the fact he may be able to provide us information, if not regarding those actually committing similar crimes, maybe pointing out vulnerabilities that could be exploited."
The industry loses an estimated $40 million a year to slot cheats, Copher said.
"We make close to 600 arrests a year in cheating-related crimes," he said.
Sentencing is set for March 5 before Senior U.S. District Judge Lloyd George. Nikrasch's attorney, Stephen Stein, estimated his client would receive a prison term of 4 1/2 to 7 1/2 years in prison. Nikrasch remains in custody. Stein has declined a reporter's request for an interview with his client.
Facing the same charges as Nikrasch are Eugene Bulgarino, 65, and Joan Bulgarino, 66, both of Las Vegas, and Ronnie McElveen, 59, of Modesto, Calif.