Over the long term, the house always wins. This holds especially true when it comes to the small number of would-be thieves over the years who have had the gall to attempt a casino robbery.
Casinos are tempting targets, of course, with untold sums of chips or cash on every gaming table and behind every cashier cage in the building. But anyone who’s ever been inside one can tell you that those places are airlock tight when it comes to security and procedure. It seems almost unthinkable to even try something so brazen, but it does happen.
Just last month authorities in Michigan filed charges against John Christopher Colletti for his alleged role in a string of casino thefts in and around Detroit. His scheme involved assuming the identities of VIP casino patrons and fraudulently withdrawing money from their bank accounts using casino kiosks, authorities said.
The 55-year-old Detroit man amassed nearly $100,000 in stolen money from the MGM Grand Detroit alone, according to court documents, using an array of disguises, including prosthetic face masks and a walker.
People go to incredible lengths attempting to thwart a casino’s many security procedures, but trying to rob one in the first place is a terrible gamble.
Here’s a look at five of the craziest and most ambitious casino heists of all time.
Tony Carleo stormed into the Bellagio in December 2010 with sights set on a brazen heist plan. After parking his motorcycle near the front valet area, Carleo made his way to the high-stakes craps table, brandishing a gun.
The man who would become known as the “Bellagio Bandit” forced his way up to the table, scooped more than $1.5 million in chips into a backpack, and fled. The motorcycle helmet still in place on Carleo’s head provided the perfect disguise.
Carleo successfully escaped the Bellagio on his bike. To complete the heist, however, Carleo had to figure out a way to convert those chips into real, usable cash.
That second part of the scheme proved to be the undoing of the Bellagio Bandit. Forced to return to the scene of the crime, Carleo went back to the Bellagio the next day, this time without the helmet disguise.
Carleo began the money laundering phase of his operation by playing high-stakes poker games, and covertly adding $5,000 chips into his stack. He eventually started gambling away his ill-gotten fortune elsewhere in the casino, however, including at the very same high-stakes craps table where the crime took place.
Carelo’s Cranberry Conundrum
Bellagio officials had no idea of Carleo’s identity, treating him like a high roller and comping high-priced suites as Carleo gambled big. Carleo’s biggest problem, however, lied with his seven-figure stash of $25,000 chips.
The Bellagio tracked its cranberry-colored $25k chips with detailed accounts of all players who had ever legally acquired them. This posed a big problem for Carleo, who couldn’t just cash those out without raising red flags.
Carleo eventually messaged a TwoPlusTwo internet poker forum user about selling the cranberry chips at a discount. To prove he held the goods, Carleo emailed the forum user a photo of two $25k chips and a note signed “Biker Bandit”.
The TwoPlusTwo user forwarded the email to the Bellagio and the Las Vegas Police. The IP address associated with the email traced back to a Las Vegas court judge, who also happened to be Carleo’s father.
The caper was over for Carleo after he sold more discounted $25k chips to an undercover police officer. Carleo got nine years in prison for the attempted heist.
Bill Brennan Takes The Stardust For A Half-Million
Perhaps the biggest sportsbook heist in Las Vegas history came at the hands of a casino employee. In August 1992, Stardust sportsbook employee Bill Brennan walked off the property with more than $500,000, pulling off one of the Strip’s most infamous inside jobs.
Brennan worked at the now-defunct Stardust for four years prior to the heist. Brennan worked his way up to a position as a cashier, and on the night of the robbery, he simply walked out with the sportsbook’s half-million dollars in cash on hand.
Brennan, who allegedly lived alone with his beloved cat and owned several books about changing one’s identity, was never seen again. Neither Brennan or the cat was anywhere to be found when police visited Brennan’s apartment after the heist.
The caper put Brennan on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, but neither Brennan nor any trace of the cash and chips stolen from the Stardust has even been found.
Some sources who worked at the Stardust at that time contend that Brennan never escaped Las Vegas after the heist, and met an unsavory end by unknown assailants.
Heather Tallchief Disappears With $3 million
Heather Tallchief and two co-workers at Loomis Armored started an October 1993 workday as usual. Tallchief pulled up to side entrance at Circus Circus Casino and dropped off her two workers, who went to work filling all of the casino’s ATM’s with fresh, unmarked cash.
When the 20-minute task was finished, the two Loomis employees exited another side entrance, where Tallchief was expected to pick them up and head to the next casino. Tallchief, however, along with the armored truck and $3 million in cash, were nowhere to be found.
The co-workers at first feared that the 21-year-old Tallchief had been kidnapped, but the ensuing investigation revealed that Tallchief and her boyfriend, Roberto Solis, had stolen the money and disappeared.
The evidence trail left behind by Tallchief and Solis baffled authorities for years. The couple put forth significant effort in leading investigators astray with false clues, disguises, and fake identities in foreign countries.
Tallchief and Solis remained off the radar for 12 years, until Tallchief made a shocking move. In September 2005, Tallchief returned to Las Vegas and turned herself into US Marshals.
Tallchief told authorities she was living in Amsterdam and tired of life on the run. She was sentenced to 63 months in prison, and released in 2010.
Solis, who would now be 75 years old, has never been found. Tallchief told police that she and Solis separated at one point, with Solis in possession of most of the stolen $3 million.
MIT Blackjack Team
Card counting inside a casino technically isn’t illegal, so perhaps the story of the MIT blackjack team doesn’t quite fit into the same category as some of the other heists on this list.
However, the blackjack exploits of the team stand in gambling folklore for all time, inspiring many books, documentaries, and even a full-length feature film. Most of the books, as well as the movie, “21”, take creative license with what actually happened to the MIT team at casinos around the world.
The real-life story of the team starts on the campuses of MIT and Harvard in the late 1970s. Groups of students dedicated themselves to perfecting a team-based system of card counting, to gain a mathematical advantage at blackjack.
When put to the test at high-stakes blackjack tables, the system proved enormously successful. For more than two decades, the MIT Blackjack team, as well as offshoots, earned millions of dollars in casinos around the world.
Any individual player can learn to count cards, but these groups implemented a truly team-based system. Certain players from the MIT team would sit in a game playing low stakes, keeping a count until the remaining cards in the shoe were favorable to the player.
When that happened, the players already in the game would discreetly signal a nearby partner, who would enter the game and start betting the maximum every hand. With the deck full of aces and face cards, playing this way allowed the team to beat the house by only putting big money down when the deck was favorable.
This system got members of the team kicked out of many casinos around the world, but the team lived on in some version until the early 2000s.
$32 Million Crown Casino Caper
The exact details of the high-stakes heist that took place at Crown Casino in February 2013 are still sparse, even more than seven years later.
The Melbourne, Australia-based casino hosted New Zealand whale James Manning to play in the Crown’s high-limit room. In a span of eight hands, Manning won more than $32 million from the casino.
It’s unclear what game Manning was playing, but casino officials learned that Manning had inside accomplices. One of the casinos VIP service managers signaled Manning on how to play the hands, based on information relayed from another accomplice that had illegally accessed the high-limit room’s security cameras.
Further adding to the debacle, Manning was scheduled to take part in a Crown Casino PR stunt the next day. Manning was set to order a cocktail at one of the casino’s bars that would set the Guinness World Record for most expensive cocktail at $12,500.
The drink allegedly contained cognac from 1858 that was stored on the Titanic. Manning never got to sip on the drink, however, as casino security evicted him from his hotel rooms in the dead of night.
Crown Casino kept the $32 million, and the heist proved unsuccessful. It’s amazing to contemplate what game Manning could have been playing, however, and how the other components of this plan led to a $32-million win.
Those details may never be known, however. The Crown never released full details to the public, and didn’t even report the heist to police.