ROBINSONVILLE — Tunica wants to be known for entertainment, fun and luck — not as the casino robbery capital of America. But thus far the rural nature of the areas around the casinos combined with suspected collusion of some casino employees and a law enforcement dispatcher have frustrated efforts to stop a spate of 16 robberies resulting in the loss of $1.3 million over the past year.
The nine casinos in Tunica have joined with the local sheriff’s department, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the FBI and the Mississippi Gaming Commission (MGC) to put an end to the rash of robberies. The highway patrol has increased the number of patrols in the area, surveillance has been greatly improved and efforts to prosecute offenders have been beefed up.
The biggest robbery to date was at Sam’s Town Casino on July 7 when $760,000 was stolen. John Phillip, vice president and general manager, Sam’s Town Casino, Tunica, said most of the robbers have been apprehended.
“The great majority of these people have been caught and prosecuted,” Phillip said. “So it’s a fallacy that it is easy to get away. These guys are getting caught, and that is good news for us.”
The bad news is that in some cases robbery suspects out on bond have allegedly committed a second casino robbery. And there have been difficulties getting juries in Tunica County to convict suspects, even when there was compelling evidence.
“The perpetrators all seem to be mainly from the Tunica area,” said Leigh Ann Wilkins, MGC director of public affairs. “The district attorney has had trouble prosecuting offenders in Tunica County because these are people from their communities. No matter how much evidence is presented, they are not convicting them. Tunica is a small town. The Grand Jury only convenes every so often. So while suspects are out on bail, some are out committing robberies again.”
Wilkins said officials are now working with the U.S. Attorney’s office to move some of these cases to federal court if, for example, the criminals traveled to Memphis after the robbery. That would reduce the burden on the local district attorney.
“We also need the people of Tunica County to understand these robberies are eventually going to hurt them,” Wilkins said. “The residents of Tunica County enjoy some of the highest tax revenues in the state because of gaming. This is a threat to the economy of the State of Mississippi. The revenues from gaming taxes make up 10% of the state’s budget.”
Thus far it isn’t believed that the robberies, which caused no injuries to casino workers or guests, have harmed visitation to Tunica casinos.
“I don’t think it has impacted the business at all,” Phillip said. “Our number one concern is the safety of guests and our employees. Banks get robbed. Mini markets get robbed. There are bad people in the world. But it has not materially impacted our business. The gaming industry in Mississippi is down a little in 2003, but I wouldn’t attribute that to robbery. That is more a national problem. Business is down all over the place.”
Webster Franklin, president and CEO Tunica Convention and Visitors Center, also said the robberies haven’t scared off visitors.
“It is important to note that no one has been hurt in any of these incidents, by design,” Franklin said. “Casino personnel along with law enforcement officials have done a wonderful job of insuring the safety of our business. Local, state and federal law enforcement officers are committed to making sure these incidences are solved and do not affect the overall experience of our visitors to Tunica.”
Andy Bourland, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Association (MGA), said everyone has been taking the issue seriously.
“The industry in the Tunica market has undertaken a number of internal measures to improve security and surveillance,” Bourland said. “I won’t go into the details of those efforts, but I will tell you the properties have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional security measures and will continue to treat this is a very challenging public safety issue.”
Bourland said while a number of the criminals have been apprehended and are now facing prosecution, a critical challenge faced has been “a less than robust effort” to prosecute the offenders.
“I believe that has changed in the past several weeks, and I think now that any criminal thinking of such activity will find very rigorous prosecution of this kind of activity,” Bourland said. “I think the gaming commission and the Department of Public Safety and now the Tunica County officials have all expressed serious concern and have become extremely engaged in handling this situation and making it go away.”
MGC executive director Larry Gregory has been meeting with casino managers and local law enforcement representatives on a weekly basis to address the problem. A number of MGC recommendations have been implemented such as increasing surveillance inside and out, adding bars and windows to the cash cages where the robberies have taken place and increasing communication between the nine properties in the Tunica area whenever anything happens. More police patrols have been added; the Tunica Sheriff’s Department is hiring 10 new deputies. The county hired an ex-FBI agent to train officers how to be more careful about collecting evidence while investigating a robbery. And some casinos are now arming their security guards.
A sheriff’s dispatcher who was allegedly delaying calls about the robberies was indicted. And in the midst of the robberies the Tunica County sheriff was indicted on federal changes not related to the casino robberies. County Administrator Ken Murphree was appointed temporary sheriff.
“Having him put in there has made a world of difference,” Wilkins said. “He has increased cooperation among everyone.”
Because of the suspected involvement of casino employees, the MGC has decided to reinvestigate every casino employee who works in security, surveillance, as a cashier or on the drop team. In addition to rechecking for a criminal history, the worker’s financial background will be investigated-which hasn’t been done in the past.
“We are using all of our resources and all of our powers granted to us to put an end to this plague of robberies because it could eventually affect the entire state,” Wilkins said. “Right now it is affecting Tunica County, the third-largest gaming destination in U.S. and a major tourist destination in Mississippi. But there is no indication it is scaring away visitors. We want to calm patron’s fears. No one has been harmed. We want to make sure no one ever is.”
The armed robberies have only been a problem at the Tunica casinos. The Coast and river casinos haven’t had any such incidents in years. Wilkins said it is believed the rural, spread out nature of the Tunica casino makes robbers think it is easy to speed out, get away and disappear into the Delta landscape.
“If you speeded out of Beau Rivage, you would hit 12 cars on the way out,” Wilkins said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.