How Emerald Queen got hit, then hit back

One dealer flew to San Diego to learn how to cheat at cards. Another rented a Tacoma house that became a crash pad for out-of-state schemers in town to bilk the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino.

The woman who rented the house and another casino card dealer also were sent on a scouting mission to Mississippi to see if the scheme that was used to cheat the Puyallups out of more than USD 1 million would work at an Indian casino there.

Those three casino employees are among a group of more than two dozen people allegedly involved in a multistate casino-cheating scheme and racketeering ring that netted more than USD 3 million. At least two of the three local card dealers are cooperating with federal investigators and won’t face charges, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tate London.

Federal prosecutors laid out the elaborate card-cheating scheme in indictments unsealed earlier this week in Seattle and San Diego, detailing how the alleged conspirators cheated 18 casinos, including two in Washington — the Emerald Queen Casino near Fife and the Nooksack River Casino in Deming, Whatcom County.

Informants and undercover agents helped bust the suspected crime ring that prosecutors have dubbed the „Tran Organization,“ named after an alleged lead conspirator, Van Thu Tran.

Members of the organization are accused of a number of crimes including bribery, wire fraud, money laundering, witness tampering and illegally transferring stolen money across state lines and the U.S.-Canada border. In one instance, prosecutors allege that organization members were able to steal USD 868,000 in 1 ½ hours of play at a casino in Indiana.

The scheme began around March 2002. According to federal prosecutors, members of the Tran Organization bribed pit bosses and recruited card dealers, paying them up to USD 1,000 a day to „false wash and shuffle“ cards so that groups of cards would remain in the same order. In the game, eight card decks are typically used and dealt from a rack called a „shoe.“ The „false shuffle“ allowed players involved in the scam to know when to place big bets so they could win several consecutive hands as the group of unshuffled cards was dealt back into play.

Jacob Nickels, the 25-year-old son of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and former pit boss at the Nooksack River Casino, is among those named in the indictments for allegedly accepting a USD 5,000 bribe to participate in a plot that cheated that casino out of USD 90,000.

Security officials at the Emerald Queen Casino were among the first to uncover the scam, said John Weymer, a spokesman for the Puyallup Tribe. After noticing suspicious play at a couple of the casino’s baccarat tables in April 2003, the tribe contacted state and federal officials, he said.

„We were on to it … [but] we continued to observe them for some time … to gain more evidence,“ Weymer said Friday.

„We can’t say a lot“ because of the ongoing criminal proceedings, he said, but „people were busted, people lost their jobs.“

Two of them were Emerald Queen card dealers Thongsok Sovan and Pheap Norng. The women each were charged in Pierce County Superior Court with first-degree cheating and theft in October 2003, court records show. But the charges were dismissed four months later after investigators realized the scam was part of a larger federal investigation that eventually included casinos in Washington, California, Nevada, Connecticut, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana and Ontario, Canada. Ten of the 18 casinos are owned by Indian tribes.

London, the assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, said it does not appear that any tribal members were involved in the cheating scheme that focused on mini-baccarat and blackjack games.

In court documents detailing the Emerald Queen investigation, a woman identified by her initials, R.J., was paid USD 3,000 to go to San Diego where Tran and „John“ Phuong Quoc Truong allegedly taught her how to false-shuffle. Another woman, C.N., was apparently bribed to participate in the scheme, earning roughly USD 1,000 each day for performing two false shuffles.

C.N. rented a house on South Cushman Avenue in Tacoma „as a base of operations“ for Truong and other members of the Tran Organization on trips to execute the card-cheating scheme, court documents say. In handwritten records seized by investigators, the Tran Organization allegedly paid C.N., Sovan and Norng a combined USD 36,000 between June and August 2003. The organization won nearly USD 187,000 playing mini-baccarat at the Emerald Queen during that same period.

According to court documents, C.N. and another card dealer, P.P., also flew to San Diego to meet with Truong and Tran, and later flew to Mississippi to see if an Indian casino there „was vulnerable to the card-cheating scheme.“ It is unclear whether the casino they visited was later targeted by the Tran Organization.

Weymer, the spokesman for the Puyallup Tribe, said surveillance footage and a system for tracking players were used to uncover the scheme. Security measures have since been updated and the tribe continually educates casino staff how to spot „these kinds of scams,“ he said.

Despite the theft of more than USD 1 million, Weymer said the loss hasn’t had a big economic impact on the tribe.

„Of course it’s a lot of money,“ he said, „but we’re one of the three largest casinos in the state of Washington, so it hasn’t affected day-to-day operations of the casino.“

Though he declined to divulge information about the casino’s annual revenues, Weymer said money from the Emerald Queen Casino pays for a variety of services for tribal members — everything from education to housing — and is also being used to build roads, bridges and other community facilities in the greater Tacoma area.