Casinos in once-poor Mississippi region face crime wave

Monday, December 8, 2003

TUNICA, Miss. -- A woman wearing a wig set the gift-wrapped package on the counter and told the casino cashier to hand over money or she would detonate the bomb hidden inside.

By the time police arrived at the Grand Casino and determined the package was nothing more than an empty honey bun box, the bandit was long gone, along with more than $60,000 in cash.

In another part of this area where gambling hotels bump up against cotton fields, casino operators noticed a robbery in progress and activated a silent alarm that went straight to the sheriff's department. But that call never made it any farther than the dispatcher, who was later charged with being in on the $27,000 heist.

A stretch of Mississippi Delta about a half-hour's drive from Memphis has quickly become the nation's third-largest gambling destination. But that newfound wealth has also brought trouble.

In a little more than a year, the 11 casinos along the Mississippi River have been hit with 25 robberies and attempted robberies, more than any other gambling spot in the country.

Las Vegas, with 150 casinos, has had 14 robberies this year. Atlantic City, with 12 casinos, has had three. No heists have been reported in the past year at casinos on Mississippi's Gulf Coast or in neighboring Louisiana.

So far, the Delta crime wave has cost casinos about $1.4 million, and investigators are looking into the possibility most of the robberies were orchestrated by local gangs with help from workers inside the casino.

In Tunica County, home to nine of the Delta casinos and a population of 9,400, arrests have been made in seven of the cases. Authorities say several heists were committed by young residents from a particular area of the county, suggesting some organization.

And in neighboring Coahoma County, the suspects in all four of the robberies at the Isle of Capri casino there were from Tunica.

"A lot of the people are Tunica residents," said Tunica County public information officer Jeff Piselli. "It's going to be up to the court to decide whether there was a conspiracy."

At least one robbery has allegedly involved a Tunica County sheriff's employee, the dispatcher Tonya Davis.

And some gaming executives say former sheriff Jerry Ellington was slow to respond to the robberies, which peaked during his administration. Ellington was stripped of his duties in August following his indictment on federal and state charges that he took kickbacks from drug money and extorted bail bondsmen.

County officials and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oxford, Miss., declined to comment on whether additional sheriff's employees are being investigated in connection with the robberies. But 29-year-old Sheriff-elect K.C. Hamp, who takes office in January, said he will review each employee and prosecute if needed.

"Corruption is an individual thing," Hamp said. "I don't think a whole organization should be fingered to be corrupt, but an individual chooses to be corrupt."

There have been no robberies at the Delta casinos since November, when the new Horizon casino in Vicksburg was hit for about $60,000.

County officials and casino executives attribute that to the changes in the sheriff's department, additional policing by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and probes by the FBI and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

Delta casino officials say getting the robberies under control is vital to keeping the region's 12 million yearly visitors coming back.

"Does it add some concerns to visitors? Yeah, I'm sure it does," said Jon Lucas, president of the Park Place Entertainment's Tunica Casino Group, which owns the Grand, Bally's and Sheraton casinos. "The fact that there's not been any incidents of injuries or harm has helped the situation. I think if it persisted, it would be a problem."

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said additional steps had to be taken in the casinos because more than half the robberies were believed to have involved some cooperation from the inside.

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