Las Vegas Sun

February 27, 2024

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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