Jackpot winner left between Hard Rock, hard place

For about three hours, Freddy Howard was showered with all the glamour and glory he had ever dreamed of.

The struggling actor was told he had just won a USD 260,000 jackpot at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood in the early hours of Aug. 29.

Complete strangers were asking to take pictures with him. Others ran up to hug him, and casino employees shook his hands.

Howard, 53, even took a picture with a giant cardboard check displaying his winnings.

Then, Howard said managers at the hotel told him it was all a mistake.

„They just said, `You know the jackpot that you won? We’re not going to pay it,‘ “ said Howard, who lives in Sunny Isles Beach and goes to the casino five times a week.

„It was like I was in a movie. I couldn’t believe it.“

After parading Howard around as the winner of the jackpot for hours, hotel gaming officials called him into an empty room later in the day to tell him the kiosk that declared him the winner had malfunctioned, Howard said.

“I’m not sure what caused the error, but officials that night did think initially that the person had won,“ confirmed Gary Bitner, a Seminole Tribe spokesman.

In a short press release, Hard Rock officials said they were investigating.

„As with many casino jackpots, a verification process occurred. This verification process confirmed that the prize had not been won. Seminole Tribal Gaming Commission is reviewing and investigating the patron complaint of the alleged winning.“

The Hard Rock, as part of the Seminole Indian reservation, is considered a sovereign nation — so it isn’t governed by state or local law. So Howard may have no place to turn.

„We don’t regulate the Seminole Indians anywhere in Florida,“ said Tom Butler, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. „We are hands-off. It’s how the federal government tells us we have to be. It’s a difficult situation.“

Howard was playing the Swipe and Win Progressive jackpot, a free promotion run at the Hard Rock that’s aimed at regular customers. Players swipe their Players Club cards as they enter the casino. The cards accumulate bonus points every time a patron plays a slot machine or game, according to the Hard Rock website.

Winners can win as little as USD 5, a T-shirt or a free stay at the hotel. Big winners, which Howard thought he was, hit the jackpot, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Howard said the hostess and the casino supervisor confirmed that he was the winner of the USD 259,945.75 jackpot. They verified his Players Club membership card and identification and made him sign a publicity release agreement, which allows the Hard Rock to use his name and picture in any promotional campaign.

Then came the big check that read, „Pay To: The lucky winner.“

Howard, who does voice-overs for Spanish radio commercials, called his father and sister, who drove from their homes to join him for the photo session. It felt like the paparazzi, Howard said.

„Everyone was so happy. I just kept saying, `Oh, my God. i can’t believe I won,‘ “ he said. „The whole time I am thanking everybody and hugging everybody.“

But Howard became concerned when he asked for his winnings and was told he had to wait until later that morning. Almost 15 hours later, straight-faced casino officials told Howard that he had won nothing.

He understood they might not be able to give him all USD 260,000, but he asked for USD 15,000 so he could go play the slots and „tip everybody.“ Instead, the hostess brought him USD 200 in casino money and a USD 50 restaurant coupon.

After he used up the USD 200, Howard checked back again to collect his jackpot but was told to go to his room and that he would be called when it was time to collect. It was about 9 a.m., Howard said.

He called back every hour and was told to wait. Then, he was told a meeting was being set up at 4 p.m., almost 15 hours after the kiosk pronounced Howard the jackpot winner.

In a 10-minute meeting in a quiet room once used for bingo, straight-faced officials told Howard that he had won nothing.

“If there was no jackpot won, why did they bring me the jackpot check?“ Howard said.

People are constantly asking Howard for an update on his situation, but he has no answer. Officials at the Hard Rock won’t return his calls.

He’s hired an attorney, Keith Herbert, but his lawyer isn’t getting any answers.

So far, all Howard has to show for his fleeting jackpot are a few blurry pictures in his sister’s cellphone.

„Nobody appears to be accountable for what goes on over there,“ Herbert said. „If it is a mistake, well, then, bite the bullet and pay up.“