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Originally published May 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 25, 2007 at 4:39 PM

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Casinos here among 18 scammed for millions

Among those named in the indictments unsealed Thursday were casino card dealers and pit bosses, including Jacob Nickels, 25, the son of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels...

Seattle Times staff reporters

George Lee and Tien Duc Vu were riding a major winning streak.

During four visits to the Nooksack River Casino in October 2005, the two men walked away from the mini-baccarat table with more than $90,000 in winnings. Their luck, playing a game of chance that relies solely on the draw of the cards, was remarkably good.

According to federal prosecutors, it was too good.

The men are among two dozen people who have been indicted by federal grand juries in Seattle and San Diego for allegedly being part of a sophisticated racketeering ring that used bribes, transmitters and card counters to cheat casinos in Washington, California, Nevada, Connecticut, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana and Canada of more than $3 million.

Among those named in the indictments unsealed Thursday were casino card dealers and pit bosses, including Jacob Nickels, 25, the son of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who prosecutors say were bribed to participate in the plot.

Along with the $90,000 from the Nooksack River Casino in Deming, Whatcom County, the ring stole more than $1 million from the Emerald Queen Casino near Fife in 2003, prosecutors allege.

Statement from Mayor Greg Nickels

"Sharon and I have just learned of the charges involving our son, Jacob. We will be encouraging him to cooperate fully with the investigation. Until we know more we will have no comment on the substance of these allegations. We love our son deeply and will be supporting him fully throughout this difficult time."

Tribal casinos, which rake in billions of dollars each year, rely on four levels of security to combat would-be cheaters: security personnel and cameras, table-game supervisors or pit bosses, dealers and customers.

But according to the three indictments, the ring managed to compromise everything but the security system by bribing dealers and pit bosses to help members of the ring cheat the house using a "false shuffle." By not thoroughly shuffling cards, the dealers rigged the games so that players involved knew which cards would be dealt, allowing them to walk away with huge winnings in mini-baccarat and blackjack, prosecutors allege.

Federal prosecutors would not discuss how the investigation began, but Nooksack Tribal Administrator Pat Check said it started with George Lee and Tien Duc Vu's winning streak in October 2005.

According to Check, the casino's security cameras picked up "suspicious activity" among the players at a mini-baccarat table during their winning streak. Court documents say several of the co-defendants were asked to leave and then banned from the Nooksack River Casino.

The tribe's gaming agency started an internal investigation and contacted the Washington State Gambling Commission, the National Indian Gaming Commission and the FBI. Officials at the California Department of Justice were eventually contacted when it was learned there was already an ongoing investigation into alleged casino corruption in California.

"We believe all the agencies did a very good job in catching this early at our casino. It could have been a lot worse," Check said.

Jacob Nickels is charged with one count of conspiracy and four counts of theft of funds from a gaming establishment on Indian lands in connection with the Nooksack theft.

Also indicted in U.S. District Court in Seattle in connection with that case were Lee, Vu and former Nooksack dealers Levi Seth Mayfield, 23, and Kasey Kames McKillip, 22.

Lee was named again in the indictment related to the thefts from Emerald Queen Casino, as were Phuong Quoc Truong, Van Tran, Martin L. Aronson, Son Hong Johnson, Ha Giang, Thongsok Sovan and Pheap Norng.

The remaining members of the alleged ring were indicted in San Diego.

On Thursday, Mayor Nickels issued a statement that said he and his wife, Sharon, had only "just learned of the charges involving our son Jacob."

"We will be encouraging him to cooperate fully with the investigation. Until we know more we will have no comment on the substance of these allegations."

The mayor is on bereavement leave this week because of the death of his father, Robert Nickels, on May 13.

Federal prosecutors allege Jacob Nickels was paid $5,000 for introducing Lee to Nooksack River Casino dealers and co-defendants Mayfield and McKillip. According to court documents, the involvement of Nickels and the two dealers allowed Lee and Vu to win more than $90,000 at a mini-baccarat table in October 2005.

Nickels and the four other Washington state residents named in the indictments were served with summonses on Thursday but not taken into custody, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Tate London.

"Some of them were cooperating with us," said London about the decision not to arrest the defendants.

Nickels and the other Western Washington defendants in the Nooksack and Emerald Queen cases have been summoned to appear in U.S. District Court for arraignments in Tacoma on June 1 and in Seattle on June 7, he said.

Federal prosecutors allege that a core team of card-cheaters, principally from California, had been perfecting a way to steal winnings from casinos since at least 2002, when the government alleges co-defendants Phuong Quoc Truong and Van Thu Tran performed "false shuffles" while they were dealers at the Sycuan Casino in El Cajon, Calif.

The group, which came to be known to prosecutors as the Tran Organization, perfected the sleight-of-hand technique that allowed dealers to pretend to shuffle cards that had been already been played on the table and recorded by another co-conspirator, prosecutors allege. When the unshuffled clump of cards made it back onto the mini-baccarat or blackjack table, the defendants would make winning bets.

Prosecutors allege the co-conspirators used special software, wireless transmitters and cellphones to predict the games' outcomes and to direct bets.

Twice, the cheat team scored more than $800,000 in a single night at casinos in Ontario, Canada and East Chicago, Ind., documents allege.

The scheme allowed multiple players to cheat the same table at the same time, often allowing the defendants to rack up $50,000 in a few minutes of play, according to one indictment.

Dealers were typically paid between $500 to $1,000 for every false shuffle they made, although some were offered as much as $10,000, documents allege.

London said investigators had to scrutinize surveillance video taken at the casinos frame by frame to see the deception.

"They were very, very good with the false shuffle," he said.

Of the 18 casinos that are named in the indictments as targets of the ring, 10 are owned by tribes.

Employees were tight-lipped on Thursday at the Nooksack River Casino, but general manager Gary Kentner said they were stunned by the news.

"You can imagine what most people in there are going through. Some of them knew him," he said of Nickels.

Another casino employee, who wouldn't give his name, said: "For us, this is basically like someone walking into a bank and holding a gun to our heads."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporters Sharon Pian Chan and Roxana Popescu and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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