PHILADELPHIA - A Philadelphia man claims he was stalked in an area casino by men who followed him home and robbed him at gunpoint.
Are casinos doing enough to protect gamblers? FOX 29 Investigates' Jeff Cole has this report.
It's early on a Saturday morning, and this blackjack player is leaving Philadelphia's SugarHouse Casino a big winner.
Surveillance video from last May shows him getting a stack of cash, heading outside and hailing a cab.
Cole: "Hey, you had a good night, right? You think you won around thirteen, fourteen thousand bucks? Winning is supposed to be a great thing."
Cole: "How did it turn out for you?"
Patron: "It was probably – it is, without a doubt, the worst experience of my life."
Why? He had company.
A man – who cameras showed several times standing nearby as the patron played cards for more than five hours, even leaning on his chair – left moments before.
Now, he's driving an SUV just two vehicles behind the departing taxi.
"When I get out of the cab, within a second someone was right up against me," the patron said. "And, for a split second, I thought it was the cab driver. I thought maybe, you know, I over-tipped him, maybe I dropped money … until I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw a gun pointed at the side of my head."
The patron, who asked us to hide his face and change his voice, feared the worst.
"I did not even think for a second that I was getting away from that without being shot," he told us.
"What did the person say?" Cole asked.
"They just said, 'Put your hands up and, if you don't, I'll kill ya.' So I put my hands up," he told us.
His big winnings taken and the gunman and SUV gone, he rushed inside to dial 9-1-1.
An app for tracking his stolen iPhone helped police locate suspects back near SugarHouse.
Video shows one of them walking right back into the casino, tailed by cops, zig-zagging through the gaming floor, entering a bathroom and, ultimately landing in cuffs.
Carlos Rodriguez and one alleged accomplice, Justin Knecht, face robbery, conspiracy and other charges.
Here's what the gambler says went wrong:
- When he told a pit boss he felt crowded at the table by others who weren't playing, they were only asked to step back;
- When he cashed out he wasn't offered and didn't think to ask for a check or have money wired to an account;
- He says the cashier was cavalier with the cash;
- And he wonders why these guys weren't picked off when security was watching closely enough to notice he was paid on a losing hand and made him kick money back to the house.
Bill LaTorre is a retired Marine and state police sergeant who now does security consulting.
"I look at whether or not the casino took the actions and had the equipment and had the manpower and had the processes and policies in place to reduce that risk to that particular patron," LaTorre said.
He says any casino can run into trouble if there are obvious security gaps.
Plus, security and police aren't mind-readers. There's a lot for them to watch: gamblers; workers; the games; booze; and more.
But he says casinos do have a duty of care.
"So they do have to take actions to minimize their patrons being subject to criminal activity," he said.
Casinos deal in cash, and cash draws thieves, as it did in April when Philly cops say a man, caught on tape waiting outside the Turf Club on Packer Avenue, snatched from a 64-year-old man a bag with $5,000 inside and credit cards.
And police say Gary Taylor couldn't keep his eyes off a 59-year-old woman who cashed-out with nearly $7,000 from Harrah's in Chester on a Saturday night in May.
The parole-violator jumped her as she entered her Upper Darby home. Police say they later nabbed him with the cash stuffed down his pants.
Upper Darby's colorful Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood is worried for patrons.
"The woman got her money back," Chitwood said. "But the moral to the story is why do people take cash, and why does the casino not give them a check? Or a wire transfer, or something? Because every one of these places, no matter how well they're run, have these predators in them that are looking to rob and pillage people who won."
Parx and Harrah's declined to comment on these incidents or overall security.
As for the SugarHouse case, attorney Joseph Marano has filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of the man robbed outside his home
"This is an individual who won a great deal of money who had a bull's eye on his back because of that," Marano said. "And they did nothing to protect him."
SugarHouse declined to speak with us about the civil lawsuit stemming from this case, or safety measures in general. But the casino turned over video from some of its hundreds of cameras to the plaintiff's attorney. He claims footage shows his client being "stalked" while playing at a high rollers' table not separated from the rest of the casino.
"They were concerned about their end and not about the people in there who were just there to have fun," the patron said.
Again, we reached out repeatedly. SugarHouse wouldn't talk because of the ongoing lawsuit.
But in court papers, its lawyers argue the robbery happened on a public sidewalk "over 5 miles from the casino premises."
Finding blame with the casino, they suggest, would create a "slippery slope," requiring their business and others to provide "armed guards to escort patrons to the inside of their homes or take other drastic security measures not required by law."
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board regulates casinos. From a video on its web page, it appears confident about security: "Casinos might be one of the safest places to visit," a woman tells viewers.
Board spokesman Richard McGarvey says there's no rule that says casinos must, at some specific dollar amount, offer a check payout. But he says they will, if asked.
Same goes for security escorts. Just ask, he says.
And while the board offers written material on problem gambling, there's nothing printed on safety tips.
McGarvey says common sense should apply.
State police have gaming enforcement units at each Pennsylvania casino. Their crime data show 34 robberies on casino grounds, including four at Parx in Bensalem, 11 at Harrah's in Chester, and 15 at SugarHouse.
Off-site, FOX 29 Investigates found police news releases or media reports detailing another 16 times since 2010 when patrons or employees were targeted by robbers after leaving SugarHouse.
Eight were part of what police called a pattern back in 2012 – patrons, most of them Asian, followed home and robbed. At the time, SugarHouse offered a $10,000 reward, adding in a statement, "Nothing is more important than the safety of our guests."
It's a casino where people walk out into an urban neighborhood, rather than an upstairs hotel room.
We spoke with Captain George Kappe of Philly's 26th District about challenges police face there.
"So, I can only say, my experience with the casino, that they've been, gone over and above what anything that they could do to help us," the police captain said.
A study showed the casino's effect on local crime to be "negligible," Kappe says. A contingent of officers initially assigned there was reduced to patrols, one of them always carrying a casino radio.
Kappe says gamers have a role to play in safety.
"They're the ones that can take the necessary precautions, either not to walk out of the establishment with a large sum of money, where they could potentially be robbed," he said. "But, of course, the establishment has some responsibility, as well, to take actions."
The gambler who was robbed on his doorstep hopes his lawsuit prompts change.
"You know, you would hope that there would be steps taken to make sure the people that go to this place don't have to deal with this in the future," he said.
Carlos Rodriguez, the robbery suspect cuffed in the SugarHouse bathroom, has been banned from all Pennsylvania casinos.
And remember what the state told us: If you feel nervous about leaving a casino with a pile of cash, ask for a check or an escort, Cole reported.