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April 18, 2014

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After Bellagio heist, how slack security can cost Las Vegas casinos

Bellagio/Suncoast robberies

Surveillance video image of an armed man who robbed the Suncoast casino on Dec. 9. Police said he's also suspected in the robbery of the Bellagio on Dec. 14. Launch slideshow »

Robber Flees the Bellagio

Metro News Conference

In the 2001 movie “Ocean’s Eleven,” a gang of criminal masterminds uses con games, physical might and explosives in an elaborate plan to steal millions from the Bellagio vault.

The real-life version of the crime that played out on the casino’s security cameras last month was as daring as anything dreamed up by Hollywood. But it would have made for a poor movie, as it was neither sexy nor sophisticated. And it presented little physical risk to the thief inside the Bellagio — one of many major casinos that tell unarmed security staff to stand down during armed robberies to avoid violence in a crowd.

To casino security experts, it also shows how casinos are vulnerable to theft at a time when other gambling crimes are rising in the poor economy.

Layoffs have affected many departments of the big casinos, including security and surveillance. Less security, experts say, may have motivated the Dec. 14 incident when an armed thief grabbed about $1.5 million in chips off a craps game in the predawn hours and got away on a motorcycle parked just outside. Moreover, Nevada law doesn’t require a guard by each entrance as they are in many other states or countries with casinos that refuse entrance to children and, in some cases, check IDs.

That’s why casino security consultant Willy Allison says the major Strip casinos, for all their high-tech bells and whistles to track crime, “have the worst casino security in the world.”

“You’ve got a better chance of walking into a hooker at the entrance of some of these casinos than a security officer,” said Allison, who organizes the annual World Game Protection Conference in Las Vegas.

A Bellagio representative disagrees that cutbacks have compromised security. Theft is a constant threat, regardless of the economy, said Alan Feldman, a spokesman for parent company MGM Resorts International.

“When there weren’t bars on the casino cage, there were robberies. When they were on the casino cage, there were robberies,” Feldman said. “When times were good there were thefts. When times are bad there are thefts. You’re not going to stop this kind of activity.” Feldman declined to comment on the Bellagio’s strategy for robberies, or whether anything will change because of the heist.

Feldman said security staffing fluctuates with the ebb and flow of casino traffic, but he would not elaborate.

Security consultants say the major Las Vegas properties don’t generally have security guards at entrances but they roam larger areas, including lobbies. On the Strip, many wear uniforms that look more like those of wait staff rather than law enforcement. At Bellagio, security guards wear bright red jackets, for example.

Having a security guard wearing a police-looking uniform near the door might not have prevented the crime, Feldman said. For the purpose of preventing rare events such as this one, a too-conspicuous security presence could also ruin the ambience the resort is trying to establish with customers, he added.

The resort’s security “is intended to be noticeable,” he said. “We’re also not trying to say we have a police force.”

In fact, big Las Vegas casinos tell their unarmed security staff to stand aside and simply collect information for police, such as surveillance video. The so-called “observe and report” policy prevents potential gunfights in casinos, said Bill Zender, a former Nevada regulator and casino executive who now serves as a security consultant in Las Vegas.

While following one procedure, Bellagio probably broke another by not approaching the thief and having him remove the motorcycle helmet obscuring his face, Zender said.

Casinos generally don’t allow people into gambling areas wearing masks or other coverings that could thwart surveillance cameras and sophisticated facial recognition software that some casinos have. In 2009, a robber who held up a casino cage at MGM Grand wearing a hat and glasses made off with the money on a motorcycle and is still at large. By contrast, a robbery gone wrong at the Bellagio in 2000 resulted in arrests after one thief was identified by surveillance. Police believe the Bellagio thief also robbed a poker room cashier at Suncoast a few days earlier, taking less than $20,000 in chips.

The Bellagio heist was the 10th armed casino robbery last year in the Las Vegas Valley, one more than in 2009, Metro Police say.

Extensive surveillance cameras deter theft, Metro Lt. Clinton Nichols said.

“To only have 10 (armed) robberies a year in casinos is phenomenal” in a region with thousands of such incidents a year outside casinos, he said.

Feldman would not say where security guards were standing when the thief entered the casino at nearly 4 a.m. The bandit entered a less-used north entrance of Bellagio, walked down a retail promenade of closed shops and through a nearly empty casino, then held up a craps game. He exited the building the same way he arrived. The whole escapade lasted but a few minutes — faster than police could arrive.

Click to enlarge photo

The Bellagio hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

While the robber has been labeled a fool for stealing hard-to-cash, high-denomination chips commonly tracked by casinos, others believe the thief may have done all right.

“This was a well-planned robbery,” said a Bellagio employee who worked the night of the crime, who declined to be named for fear of losing his job. While the bandit may not be able to cash the $25,000 chips, he still netted more than $50,000 in small-denomination chips, which the casino will cash without question, the employee said.

Feldman wouldn’t comment on the denomination of chips stolen, which were worth from $100 to $25,000.

Whether a career criminal, desperate Joe Sixpack or an insider pulled off the crime isn’t known. And while the public debates the robber’s motives and intelligence, others say there’s no shortage of motivation in desperate financial times.

“Convenience stores have been robbed for $20 or $30,” said Nolan Dalla, a gambler and poker tournament organizer in Las Vegas.

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  1. This sentence explains a lot. ..."For the purpose of preventing rare events such as this one, a too-conspicuous security presence could also ruin the ambience the resort is trying to establish with customers, he added."...
    I have no problem seeing conpicious security. If I am walking out of a casino after winning I like seeing them. It can only deter potential thieves. I would think their presence on the casino floor would also be a deterrent to cheats. Vegas used to have the reputation of tough in-house security, and criminals knew it. They would rather be caught by Metro police. I'm surprised there aren't more robberies with the current poor security. Go back to a more official uniform, instead of the red sportscoats, and maybe crooks will take notice, and think twice.

  2. as soon as you pull out a 25 dollar chip off your pocket the alarm bells at Metro headquarter will ring. It's ridiculous to think that these chips can do much harm to the casino. A player turning them in vill usually play at the table and then chances are the casino will win money from this guy, anyways. So what's all the talking?

  3. First they say the chips a worthless, then they make a big deal about recalling them.

  4. This story was interesting, but it was more of a dissertation about casino robberies and security measures. AGAIN, you have to read the entire story - down to six lines from the bottom of the page - following a Feldman statement, to learn WHAT HAPPENED.

    Writers, an editors, used to follorw something called an "active voice" writing style for their stories. NOW (as in this and most other news stories), "passive voice" is used so much it has become common place.

    It involved talking about at least a paragraph of information that has nothing to do with the story - until you read near the END of the story.

    Maybe because there is NO story of interest being written, unless you include all of the superflous chit-chat.

    LV Sun - any chance at a revision in Publisher requirements for writing a story that will inform the public better - sooner - so we know what we are reading?

  5. Why not embed a GPS Microchip in chips over $100.00. They do this with apple
    I pads. If someone steals my I pad Mobile.me will find it for me. It will even give me a Google street address as to it's location. DUH!

  6. First of all the 1.5 million seems a great figure to turn in a insurance claim for.
    Maybe, they will make some money out of this?

    Does anyone remember the Benny Binion policy of dealing with theft?
    I think it had something to do with baseball bat's. Years ago it showed a picture in local newspaper of the guy. I wonder where he is today?

    Less Suits and more enforcers should be on the floor for my protection in the future.

  7. You get what you pay for.

  8. You know, if Lefty Rosenthal was running the joint no one would be running out of the casino with a bunch of 25K chips, not before their kneecaps were busted 'Chicago' style. Or as Jack Uhern mentioned above - these shenanigans didn't happen in Benny B's establishments either.

    Secondly, THEY HAVE 25K CHIPS!!?? Holy batman!

  9. The true security at these places includes the "plain clothes" security as well as the uniformed officers, cameras, etc. that we see. And in order to keep it as secure as possible, no casino is going to fully disclose to the public everything they're doing, and rightfully so. It's the only way to do business when that kind of money is laying around. I guarantee there is more security than you and I can see.
    I knew a guy who worked security at one of the casinos (which will remain nameless) back in the 1960's. He told a story about a thief (employee) who was handled in-house with a sledge hammer to the hands on a steel table, then "escorted" to the back door. I bet that thief never stole from them again, (or even showed his face in the place).

  10. This article is submitted at 2 AM because there is a 3 hour difference between here & New York & this goes in an hour before the markets open to affect stock prices.This article might convince people who don't live here that this scenario is possible, but for those of us who are long time
    locals? Not a chance.Each word the author of the article added is more nonsense. NV Hotel/Casino's are famous for security guards with names like 'No Neck' that beat up cheaters.Vegas has excellent security.What has changed? The ownership...