"I want you to know that it was never my intention to rob the casino when I started working there."
That sentence was the introduction to one of the more engrossing interviews I've encountered in my twelve years as an insurance investigator. Three weeks ago I had looked upon this assignment as little more than a milk run to Spain. Alliance Risk Management, my employer, wanted me to close out an old case there.
I was sent to get a first hand statement from Mr. Thomas Wills, a thief that had stolen two million dollars from one of our customers. Alliance had investigated the case for two years without determining how the crime was executed, and it didn't seem likely that we would find out now. Mr. Wills' attorney had negotiated surcease of charges against him in exchange for the remaining three quarters of a million dollars, and I was the messenger boy sent to retrieve the funds.
It was a great deal all around; Mr. Wills was dying and wanted to return home, Alliance got back some of the money that it had long ago written off, and the State of California saved prosecution expenses. Everybody was happy…except me. I'd invested an enormous amount of time in the investigation but still didn't know how Mr. Wills had stolen the money. I was determined to find out. After my initial conversation with Mr. Wills, it became clear to me that he was not only willing to tell me how he did it, but was in fact eager to do so.
Casino robberies are not unusual, but they are usually for relatively small sums. A desperate player might 'take a shot' at a dealer's chip rack, or a blackjack team might elaborately set up a rig for a hundred grand or so. Wills' case was a rather dramatic exception, in that he'd taken two millions dollars, worked alone, and of course, had gotten away with it.
Now, as I sat next to the dying man inside the long term recovery unit, I waited impatiently for his story to unravel.
"Wait just a second Mr. Wills. I have your permission to record this conversation, right?"
"Sure, but you better get on with it while I still have the strength to talk to you."
"This is John Miranda, representing Alliance Insurers of Nevada. Present is Thomas Wills, formerly of San Diego, California, and myself. This interview is taking place in Zaragoza, Spain, at a private care facility, 'Centro Asistencial'. Mr. Wills' statement is in accordance with an agreement negotiated by his attorney on his behalf, which stipulates in part that in return for the remainder of the stolen funds, estimated to be seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Alliance will drop charges against him. Do you agree that this is an accurate description of our agreement, Mr. Wills?"
"Mr. Wills, as you probably realize, my employer has a vested interest in learning how your theft was accomplished. Do you testify that you are willing to share these details, for no additional consideration beyond what is in the existing agreement?"
"You claim that you had no intention of committing the robbery when you began your employment. When did you decide to become a thief?"
"I never 'decided' to become a thief, it just sort of happened. I do know when I first realized that I needed the money. It was soon after I was promoted to banker."
"You started working as a cashier and were promoted to banker, right?"
"Yes. When I was a cashier I rarely had any overages or shortages. I always double-checked everything I did, a habit I formed when I worked as an engineer. However, I saw how risky being a banker was one day when I got a job warning because of a thousand dollar overage I had at the end of my shift. I came very close to being fired because of it."
"They were going to fire you because you had an extra thousand dollars?"
"It almost seems funny now, but bankers are rated on the accuracy of their work. The casino didn't have a clue where the extra cash came from, so the blame was put on me. I assured them that I hadn't taken it out of my pocket and put it in the bank, but that didn't change anything. It never did show up, but I eventually figured out what had happened. A new cashier had recorded a customer's withdrawal of front money incorrectly. But that incident convinced me that I could lose my job at any time, because of events that I had no control over. My future would always be in doubt, no matter how well I did my job."
"So you stole the money because of lack of job security?"
"I was sixty-seven years old, and not too many jobs were available to me. I lived with a persistent fear, which was the knowledge of just how much depended on keeping my job. I already had the high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney problems that brought me to this hospital, and if I'd lost my medical coverage at the casino I might as well have been dead."
"Do you blame your employer for your eventual crime?"
"No, of course not, that's just when the idea first occurred to me. At that point it was just a fleeting thought; I had no intention of actually following through with it. Then somehow it became an intellectual challenge. I found myself spending my idle time wondering how one person, acting alone under constant surveillance, could get away with some cash. There were at least 17 cameras always watching everything I did, and a dozen security guards, so it seemed like an impossible problem, and that just made it more intriguing."
"How long did it take you to come up with your plan and execute it?"
"Well, I was suddenly two million dollars richer about two years after that job warning. While I was still in the fantasy stage I worked out the basic requirements, and all the contingencies for each path the process could take. From my engineering experience I knew that no matter how well you planned something, no matter how many redundant systems you had, there was still always a course of events that could lead to failure."
"Would you say that you were able to accomplish this because you had been an engineer?"
"No. The engineering experience just taught me to think methodically. When you go to design something, you set parameters and break it down into logical steps. You work backwards from the parameters to determine the design requirements. My little project at the casino had three basic parameters: nobody was to get hurt, no one else was to be involved, and I had to have a way of calling it off at any time up to the moment of execution. I stayed focused on my design requirements, and never let greed get the best of me or let myself become impatient. I kept my objectives tight and fairly modest." "Modest in this case turned out to be two million dollars."
"True, but I got lucky. People occasionally do get lucky in casinos you know. It could just as easily have been two hundred thousand."
"Would you describe the responsibilities of your job that required handling those large sums of money?"
"Yes, the job was pretty straight-forward. Whether working in the main or auxiliary bank, my job was to keep the cashier's drawers stocked with money for the guests who would give the cashiers checks, chips and so forth in exchange for cash. At the end of the day I had to balance the bank. Occasionally, when I was working in the auxiliary bank, I was called upon to take the casino's deposits out to the armored truck."
"Please describe that process for the record."
"When a large deposit was being made, usually after a long weekend or on a Monday, I would be called in the auxiliary bank to bring the deep cart that was stored there over to the main bank. It was required to carry all of the bags out to the armored truck. I would bring them the cart, load the deposit in it, and proceed to the truck. I was escorted by casino security and the armed guard. After that I returned to the auxiliary bank with the empty cart."
"And it was during this procedure that you procured the two million dollars?"
"Yes, it was quite a challenge. Two million dollars takes up a lot of space, even in hundred dollar bills. Twenty bricks of hundreds. Beautiful, randomly serialized, well used hundreds. Like I said, though, I got lucky. It might have been twenties or tens. I probably wouldn't have gone through with it for fives; too much risk for just one-hundred thousand dollars."
"So you had the ability to call off your plan at any time if things weren't right?"
"Yes, patience was the essence of my plan. A whole series of events had to fall into place before I could attempt it, which is why it took me two years to succeed. It was sort of like all of the planets aligning, or an eclipse of the sun. It happens, but not very often."
"But you must have realized that even if you got away with the money, you would be immediately pursued."
"Sure, I knew it was only a matter of time until the money was missed, and I was the most likely suspect at that point. I didn't know how long I'd have, but it figured to be less than 24 hours."
"They discovered it in four hours, when the armored truck got to the depository bank."
"So, my preparations paid off, anything less than an hour and I would have still been on shift and in the casino. Once my shift was over, I could be on my way to the border while they were still trying to track me down. That was actually the biggest risk to the whole plan, my decision to work the remaining time after I already had the money. It was a risk I wasn't quite ready to take, but the California lottery convinced me that it was worth it."
"Would you explain that?"
"The California Lotto. They were running huge billboards all over the city talking about 'Upside' and 'Downside'. The upside was that you could win millions of dollars, the downside was that you might lose a buck. I got to thinking about my upside and downside. My upside was some excitement and a plush retirement for my final few years, my downside was a few years in a prison hospital before I succumbed to kidney failure. Framing it that way made the decision pretty easy."
"That quite a rationalization, Mr. Wills, but it appears that you assessed the risk correctly."
"I'm sure you've investigated the theft from beginning to end, have you figured out how I stole the money yet?"
"The video tapes I saw clearly show you taking the money from the armored car guard after he checked it against his manifest. The first package is hundred dollar bills, the two million you took. You put the bundle into the cart, and then walked back to the counter for the next bundle. As you did this the cart's lid fell down, which we figured was supposed to be a distraction. I re-ran that clip several times, but didn't see you do anything during that period. You loaded the rest of the money into the cart, locked it and took it out to the truck with the security officer and guard on either side of you. You removed the bundles from the cart and gave them all to the guard. The cameras show that the cart was empty. You wheeled it back inside as the guard locked the truck and left. I saw no opportunity for you to take it at that time. I've seen the tapes dozens of times, and you were covered by the cameras every step of the way. On top of that, we checked the video footage of you leaving the casino and there was no way you could have smuggled out a package that size. The driver and guard were our only suspects, however unlikely, since they showed up at the bank. Still, we wasted several hours questioning them and then concluded it had to be you since you were the only other person to come in contact with the money."
"You were right, of course. The package was about 1 by 2 by 3 feet. I had someone else carry it out for me."
"Didn't you say you worked alone on this theft?"
"Oh, my 'partner' didn't know he was carrying it out for me. I don't even know who actually took it out, but it did make its way to me eventually."
"I would like you to describe how you obtained the money before we talk about how you got it out."
"The solution to that problem occurred to me one day after taking a deposit out to the armored truck. I was taking the empty cart back to the auxiliary bank when I realized how to do it. The auxiliary bank was the key."
"Tell me about it."
"Before the last expansion of the casino and the conversion to coin-less slot machines, we needed two banks and cashier stations to service our customers. After that the auxiliary bank was only used occasionally on busy days and weekends. It was divided into two sections, the bank and the cashier's stations, with a wall separating them. The cashiers couldn't see into the bank. It was designed that way. That bank was so seldom used that it became a storage area for unused equipment and other stuff. The other bankers found it boring working there so no one objected when I volunteered to work there whenever it was used."
"We reviewed that area carefully. It was covered by surveillance cameras, just like the main bank."
"You probably noticed the old coin room then?"
"Yes. It was hard to see into it with the cameras, both lights were burned out, but it had little more than carts, bank equipment, and some trash cans."
"The burnt out lights were important"
"I waited months for both of those light bulbs to burn out. I guess you overlooked one other item in the coin room. It also contained a roll of thin aluminum. If you'd opened up the roll, you would have noticed it was the exact size of the inside of the money cart. Among the stuff stored in the bank were brochures and catalogs of most of the equipment the casino used. Ones of the catalogs had the exact dimensions of the cart. With that information I was able to cut a piece of aluminum at home to the exact size that I needed. I scrubbed both sides of it thoroughly with a wire brush, and put a few dings in it with a nail, until it looked like the inside of the cart. Then I attached some Velcro tabs to it. It was ready, but I still had to get it into the bank without anyone knowing about it. The next time I was scheduled to work in the auxiliary bank I wrapped the aluminum sheet around my leg and covered it with my pants. I walked into the casino a little stiffly that day, but nobody seemed to notice. Once inside the coin room I unrolled the aluminum and stowed it behind the shelves, then I pushed some carts against it to straighten it out. I then went out into the bank. I didn't want to stay out of camera sight for more than twenty or thirty seconds at a time because someone might get suspicious."
"Yes, I recall seeing you come out."
"The next time I worked in the auxiliary bank, I attached small bits of Velcro to the inside of the hinged lid of the cart, in the same positions as those on the aluminum sheet. At home I'd figured out exactly how much Velcro would hold the sheet to the lid but still release it when I needed it to. I had painted the Velcro gray to match the cart lid and blend in. I ran just one test of my system inside the room. I'd run through it enough times at home to be confident of my setup, but I had to make sure it worked in the cart. I fitted the sheet against the lid and left the lid open; it looked natural to me. Then I knocked the lid down and reopened the cart. My false bottom had fallen to the bottom of the cart and was indistinguishable from the real cart bottom. I pulled it out and stowed it away again, ready to use whenever an opportunity presented itself."
I hoped my chagrin wasn't evident to Mr. Wills. I'd spent months of effort investigating his "elaborate" crime, which seems to have been accomplished with only a roll of sheet metal.
"That's far simpler than I would have imagined"
"That's a left over from my engineering training, the most basic of which was the Kiss principal. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Leave the elaborate gizmos and convoluted schemes to Hollywood, they only create more points of failure."
"So at that point you were ready to execute you plan?"
"The only thing I still had to do was smuggle some small, black trash bags in, which I just stuck in my pockets. Once everything was in place, I began to wait. I left the fake cover in place on the cart with the lid open, facing the wall. There was no way the cameras could distinguish it from above. The first time I was called to the main bank with the false bottom in place my heart was racing like crazy. An empty cart always had to be moved through the casino with the cover open, so I just let the false bottum hang on the inside of the cart lid. That left the thin sheet of aluminum, about a thirty-second of an inch thick, visible. But it was almost impossible to see from above. Once in the main bank I placed the cart next to a wall with the cover open and leaning against the wall. The guard had a bag of 'ones' in his hand, so I knew that this was not an opportunity for me. I loaded the money into the cart and was careful to close the lid softly enough so that the Velcro would not release. This was the first of many dry runs. The first few times I did this I was nervous, but when I got away with it repeatedly, it became routine."
"So you waited for your opportunity?"
"Yes. Months passed, but there was always something that wasn't quite right. One time when I was going to do it, the guard handed me a bag of 'fives' first, not worth the risk. Another time too many people were standing close to the cart to chance it. Then one day everything was perfect. I knew it when I walked into the bank and the guard said that we had to hurry because he was running late and still had other stops to make. I looked at the counter and saw at least fifteen deposit bags, the one with hundreds in the guard's hand as he checked the bag number against the manifest. I placed the cart near a wall, opened the lid, and carefully rested it against the wall. When he handed me the package of hundreds I turned, walked over to the cart and dropped it in. I was now facing the wall, my back to everyone in the bank. I quickly pulled on the side of the lid and it came crashing down. Everyone turned and looked at me. I just shrugged my shoulders. That kind of thing happened all the time. There were a few laughs and we went back to loading the cart."
"You didn't check to see if the false bottom came down, that's why I didn't suspect anything."
"No, I knew that that would be too risky. I had to trust my design. The next package was full of twenties. I took it from the guard and walked over to the cart. I lifted the lid slightly and looked inside. My aluminum sheet was perfectly covering the package of hundreds. I lifted the top all the way and rested it against the wall again, and then I quickly dropped the package of twenties into the cart. Nobody noticed anything. The rest of the loading went quickly, surveillance was called and we went out to the armored truck."
"The surveillance cameras followed you all the way out and recorded everything."
"But they didn't record our conversations. The guard opened the truck door and I handed him two or three of the smaller bags that were on top of the cart. I asked him why he was running late, and he told me he had been delayed at his previous casino stop. I made small talk while handing him the rest of the bags. If he was counting them I wanted to confuse him. Then I gave him two of the medium sized bags at a time, and finally the larger packages. We were finished. That was the critical moment. I started to walk away with the open cart and he glanced into it, then he turned away and closed the truck's door. Nobody said anything. I don't think I breathed all the way back to the auxiliary bank, but I made it without any problems. I placed the cart in the coin room and proceeded to fill the orders that the cashiers had left in the window for me."
"So you didn't remove the money from the cart immediately?"
"No, I had established a certain routine for the day, and I stayed with it. I wanted everything to look as normal as possible. After I gave the cashiers their money my day was almost over. I then balanced out my draw and cleaned up the bank. This consisted of cleaning up the mess that the cashiers made when they counted into their carts and left their money straps all over the place and on the floor. I had been making it a point to collect a lot of trash in the small waste paper baskets and then empty them into the big black trash bags that the maintenance people would take away. Security checked these with a metal detector to make sure no coins accidentally fell in, so I normally made sure that there were no paper clips, staples, or other metal in the trash that would set of the detector. This time I intentionally put some paper clips into two of the bags, which I set aside. I had seven or eight baskets full of straps, paper, and other trash, which was all that I needed. I took one of the big black trash bags into the coin room and opened it. I then took a waste paper container and emptied it into the bag and came out into the bank with the empty basket. I picked up another one and carried it into the coin room. Then I quickly removed the sheet-metal cover and cut open the package of hundreds. I grabbed two bricks and dropped them into one of the small black opaque bags I had brought in, and then covered the bag with trash. It only took about fifteen or twenty seconds. I repeated this until all of the money was in the large trash bag and completely covered with garbage. I pulled the Velcro strips from the lid and aluminum sheet and threw them in the garbage bag. I also dropped in a small, plastic radio transmitter that I had purchased. Then I checked that none of the money showed through. After that I swept the floor and dumped all the dust and grit on top of the bag. The last thing I did was roll up the aluminum sheet and place it into a corner behind some equipment."
"So the money went out with the garbage?"
"Yes. I had made it a point to be friendly with the maintenance people that picked up the trash. They were mostly from Mexican and South American backgrounds, and I often practiced my high school Spanish on them. We would have small conversations as the security officer checked the trash bags with his wand. When he finished I would hand the bag to them and they would place it in the large wheeled barrels that they used to carry the trash out. Sometimes I put the bag directly into their barrels, which pleased them."
"So, you 'buttered them up' in advance."
"That day I made sure to hand the guard the bags with the paper clips in them first. When his detector went off he had to stop and open the bags, find the metal and remove it. After that happened twice he was in a foul mood and in a hurry to get out of there. I held the bag with the money in it in front of him and he quickly scanned it and waved me away. I didn't want anyone to notice that the bag was heavier than usual, so I placed it directly into the wheeled barrels myself and received a 'gracias' from the maintenance people. Some smaller garbage bags were then piled on top of it and I knew that I was home free."
"So your 'silent partner' was the sanitation service. You did work alone the whole way through."
"Sure, if I had to rely on somebody else, that would have increased my risk enormously. The trash guys followed a predictable routine, which I had carefully researched, and that day after work I went to their dump site and used a receiver to locate the trash bag. I dressed as an itinerant in case anybody caught me fishing through the garbage. Then I carried the cash out of the dump along with a pile of trash to cover it up. I had a second car stored nearby, since the casino had my primary car's license plate on file. That's the car I drove across the border to Mexico. I took a luxury cruise ship to Acapulco, and from there to Europe. They were used to high rollers on the ship, so I used the ship's casino to gamble and gradually swap the big bills for smaller bills. I spent a year and a half living the good life, staying in the best hotels, and of course, gambling! I took the money from a casino and most of it went back to casinos. It was a lot of fun and a nice way to spend my last active years."
"When did you decide to call it quits?"
"I had myself examined by doctors in each country I visited. When it became clear that my kidneys weren't going to support me much longer, I had a lawyer get in touch with you guys."
"What was your motivation to contact us?"
"When I realized I had less than a year to live, my ego kicked in. 'What should I do', I thought? I had pulled off this great theft and nobody knew about it. I would die alone and unrecognized in some strange country. It was unthinkable."
I shut off the recorder. "Mr. Mills, while I obviously can't condone your actions, I can tell you that what you pulled off is pretty rare in this industry. Alliance is happy to be getting back even the three-quarters of a million. They had written off the entire two million and given up on discovering the method. You're not going to be famous, but a lot of people in the insurance industry will know your name."
"Then that will have to do. The key to my storage locker is sitting on the table. Don't spend it all in one place."
"I see you've kept your sense of humor."
"Goodbye Mr. Miranda. Please ask my doctor to come in on your way out."
"Goodbye, Mr. Wills."
* * * * * * * * * *
"Dee da, dee dee dee dum, dee dee dee da, I did it my way!
"I see you're feeling better Mr. Wills. I liked it better before you tried to sing."
"That stuff you gave me is wearing off doctor. I feel like a fog lifted. In fact, I feel like a million bucks. Miranda is gone, right?"
"I saw him drive off."
"Did he ask to see the X-rays and test results?"
"Yes, he was most insistent."
"He was fine with them?"
"Of course, they were real, they just weren't yours."
"Then I guess I'm off to beautiful San Diego."
"Let me thank you now for your contribution to my new clinic. Did you keep enough to live on?"
"That depends, how long do you think I have?"
"If you continue to watch your health the way you have been, fifteen to twenty years."
"I guess I can stretch out a million that long. I left a suitcase with that amount back in the States hoping I'd be back some day to pick it up."
"Then what have you been living on?"
"Mostly blackjack winnings. If you have deep enough pockets and a good head for numbers, it's not a bad way to get by, as long as you don't mind spending time in a casino."
"You don't think very highly of them, do you?"
"I learned the truth about casinos a long time ago. They're a place that people bring their dreams and leave with their sorrows. I'm lucky to have been able to reverse that equation, but I'm a rare exception."
"Is blackjack the only game you play?"
"Yes. Playing it properly can reduce the house advantage down to a half of one percent, the lowest of any casino game. Baccarat is next with a little over one percent, but they kill you with ties, which are over fourteen percent. Keno is the worst, with a house advantage of twenty five to thirty percent."
"So, there's nothing you can do to put the odds in your favor?"
"No. Do you play bridge doctor?"
"Yes, fairly well I am told. Why?"
"Supposing that you have the points for a grand slam, but you are missing a king. Would you bid it?"
"If the king can be finessed you can make it, otherwise you can't."
"Yes, a fifty-fifty chance."
"I'm not sure what I would do."
"Go for it! Those are the best odds you'll ever get in life."
"So, you are a philosopher as well as a gambler and a thief."
"Yes, the last of the Renaissance men."
"What will you do in San Diego?"
"Visit the casinos, of course. There were more than twenty of them when I left, and Vegas is only a few hours away. I might even go back to the one I worked for. It seems only fair to give them a chance to get some of their money back."