What made the saga of the grandma and the slot machine so unusual was the fact that it's nearly impossible to beat Native American leaders at the PR game.
That certainly was the case when tribes in Arizona began installing video slots in their casinos a few years back, prompting federal prosecutors to complain the devices were illegal and then threaten to seize them. One group, the Yavapai, simply sat down and blockaded the road to their casino, daring the feds to roll over them and dredge up images of a massacre.
Virtually overnight, public sympathy rallied behind the Indians, and state officials scrambled to negotiate agreements to let the Yavapai and other tribes use the video slots, modern gambling's unrivaled money machines.
Now fast forward to 1998 and witness a massacre of the public relations variety: all those reports a couple of months ago about how the Ak-Chin tribe was refusing to pay a poor grandmother a $330,000 jackpot she seemed to have won when three cherries lined up on a "quartermania" machine at its casino here.
Herminia Rodriguez, 64, wasn't your average grandma, either. She was a former migrant farm worker, a slew of media accounts pointed out. Now on disability, she had gambled with $140 that she had raised at a garage sale in Phoenix.
And how did she want to use her jackpot? To provide one grandkid--she had 10--with kidney dialysis.
The tribe, meanwhile, was refusing to pay or make any detailed public comment, other than to mutter about a malfunction with the machine. An investigation would be required. A hearing.
So Rodriguez got a lawyer--one who gave the media photos of those jackpot symbols and of casino workers celebrating with her.
The head of the Arizona Gaming Department said the episode spotlighted a need to crack down on tribal casinos. "Player beware," he said, "their rights are left at the boundary when they enter the reservation." A leader of the state Senate threatened the tribe to pay up, or else--he'd introduce legislation. Then came the suicide. An outside manager of the casino, a fellow from New Jersey, killed himself in the middle of the ruckus.
So it was that in January, Rodriguez got her money. Not from the tribe, which remained insistent on that hearing, but from Harrah's, the company contracted to run the casino. The last thing it needed was bad PR, gamblers thinking its billboards are lying when they advertise along area freeways: "Winners find us very appealing."
But that wasn't the end of it. For as Rodriguez was getting her jackpot, word of the dispute reached the National Indian Gaming Commission in Washington, D.C., which oversees tribal gambling. Its officials felt they had an obligation to answer once and for all: Had the Ak-Chin really tried to cheat a disabled migrant grandma out of $330,152.13 she wanted for her grandson's kidney dialysis?
Enter Carl Olson.
If you were a big time bookie around Los Angeles over the last few decades, you knew him well. During 27 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, he became its most formidable gambling expert, the sort of detective who made the LAPD--at least before the Rodney G. King beating--the envy of police forces elsewhere.
Olson was a burly fellow who looked like he could hold down a spot on an offensive line into his 50s. He also was smart, sharp enough to understand the fine print of state laws and thus caution lottery officials a few years ago that a new game, a form of Keno, was illegal and might allow tribes around California to justify their own questionable gambling--namely, that the slots were growing just as popular there as here.
When time came for Olson to collect his LAPD pension, he was a logical catch for the new National Indian Gaming Commission. It recruited him to be its chief investigator for the Southwest.
It was in that role that the veteran detective recently found himself going frame-by-frame over a security videotape showing Rodriguez at the quartermania machine at Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino. He also found himself shaking his head and exclaiming, "Look at that!"
Gamblers should know one fact before they make claims about events at a casino--everything is watched. Cameras in the ceiling capture every hand reaching for a lever on every slot, every chip slid across a blackjack table and every tub of coins redeemed at a cashier's window.
And what Olson saw on the tapes from last Oct. 11, the fateful day Rodriguez claimed her jackpot, was a slot machine gone bonkers.
He later would detail in a report how Rodriguez's husband accidentally touched a control button that activated a change light; how an employee who replenished coins came over, thinking she had been summoned; how she pushed the button again, and so did the husband; and how the progressive meter atop the machine then stopped--the meter that's supposed to advertise an ever-increasing jackpot, thus signaling that the device is properly linked to others in the Ak-Chin casino and to counterparts in other Indian gambling halls by computer to a central location in . . . South Dakota.
The tape showed Rodriguez rapping rolls of quarters against the side of the machine four times. But when she hit the spin button, "nothing happens," Olson noted. She tried the button to play two credits, 50 cents. Again nothing. Even when she hit the spin button three times, "the reel remains stopped."
But something else happened: Coins dropped into the tray.
Watching the tape, Olson noted it happen time and again: Rodriguez pushing the button with her right hand; coins dropping; and her left hand scooping them into a bucket on her lap.
It was like pulling the change lever on a pay phone on a lark. And the coins kept spilling out.
Then, after three minutes of this--still with no coins inserted--"the reels began to move." They did not stop until the three jackpot symbols lined up.
A casino employee later told investigators that as the celebration was underway, Rodriguez knew "something was amiss." She asked, the employee said, "If the machine is broken, will they still pay me?" The machine, in fact, had a sign: "Malfunction voids all plays and pays."
To Olson, it wasn't a close call. It was a clear case of injustice--against the tribe.
He took the videotape to the Arizona gaming department to confront officials who had tried to use the incident to gain more power over Indian gambling. Then he paid a "visit" to Rodriguez's attorney, who had used the media to portray her as the victim.
"When I asked him questions about what his client was doing during portions of the tape, he became extremely angry," Olson related. "The patron's attorney then asked [me] to leave."
Olson recommended that the U.S. attorney consider the case for prosecution--and he wasn't talking about prosecuting the tribe.
The casino here has a wall of winners, a display of photos showing smiling faces and their $10,000, $20,000, $25,000 jackpots.
As the dispute with Rodriguez unfolded, the tribe never put her picture up, not even after Harrah's decided to pay and forget about it. Prolonging the squabble would hardly help bring in a parade of retirees and tourists to enjoy the $2.99 seniors' lunch buffet, hear a lounge band bang out "Twist and Shout" and, of course, work away on the poker machines and other video slots that fill the main floor of the casino.
"It has hurt business. I won't tell you it hasn't," acknowledged Luis Gonzales, the cowboy-boot-clad acting director of the tribe's gaming agency.
"To us, it's been a matter of principle. We kept quiet because we were trying to protect the due process of the client. And we got screwed for it. But we expect to be exonerated."
Because the U.S. attorney declined Olson's invitation to step in--prosecutors wanted no part of this mess--the tribe had to accept the investigator's report, now finally released, as its vindication.
The Ak-Chin controversy is winding down just as Indian gambling is primed to move back onto the front pages in California, where video slot machines produced threats of raids, lawsuits and big profits for tribal casinos while the convoluted legal cases made their way through the courts.
Then, this month, after years of stalemate, Gov. Pete Wilson's administration reached its first "compact" with a tribe--the tiny Pala band of San Diego County. That angered other tribes, which believe the agreement did not allow enough slots, and the wrong type.
So there may be new threats of raids. A showdown looms.
Gonzales shares the lesson learned by the Indians here: "The tribe," he said, "has hired a PR agency."