ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - It was a high stakes game of fraud and forgery, a casino heist the likes of which New Mexico had never been seen before. The victim: Sandia Casino. The take: More than $1.2 million.
It was an inside job cooked up by two employees, slot machine attendant Lynn Gallo and slot supervisor Steve Roybal.
"Where $1.2 million went we have no idea," Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said.
Despite security guards and surveillance cameras nobody at Sandia noticed Gallo and Roybal secretly looting the casino of thousands of dollars practically every day for more than a year in 2005 and 2006.
"This particular case really shocked me from the amount of money and for how long it went on," said Jeff Voyles, an expert in casino management who also is a gaming professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
And how could these two individuals get away with so much over so long without being detected?
"Nobody's looking," casino security expert Anthony Lucas, another member of the UNLV gaming faculty, said.
The answer to what went wrong at Sandia Casino just north of Albuquerque can't be found in New Mexico. Instead it's found in Glitter Gulch, the gambling capital of Las Vegas, Nev. In Sin City you can take a chance on lady luck or learn how to run a gambling hall.
"These two people were just banking on the fact that nobody was looking," Lucas said. "And there aren't any internal controls in place, and if so they're not being adhered to. This thing doesn't work any other way."
It doesn't take the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney to mastermind a big-time casino heist as in the movie "Ocean's 11." That's Hollywood. Gallo and Roybal were the real deal.
"Obviously they found a vulnerability in their procedures, and they were able to exploit it pretty effectively to the tune of $1.2 million," Dave Schwartz, director of the UNLV Center for Gaming Management, said.
Gallo and Roybal found that vulnerability among the slot machines. Win a couple thousand dollars on the slots, and a casino employee will hand you your winnings in cash on the spot.
So Gallo and Roybal scammed Sandia simply by creating phony jackpots on paper and pocketing the cash.
Here's how it worked: Gallo would hand the casino's cashier a document indicating a customer had won a big slot machine jackpot. The cashier would then give Gallo the winning cash to take to the customer. The transaction needed the approval of a supervisor, and that would be Roybal.
Instead of giving the money to the customer, Gallo put it in her pocket. The whole thing was a con game. There was no jackpot and no customer.
And because Sandia's auditors weren't watching, Gallo and Roybal were able to steal as much as $20,000 in a single day. Over the course of 15 months the pair repeated the con more than 550 times until they embezzled $1,242,581.75.
"Doesn't matter if it's the MGM Grand in Las Vegas or Sandia in New Mexico. It doesn't matter." Voyles said. "Any internal theft, false jackpots of any magnitude, is always a big deal."
Sandia's internal controls should have detected the scheme well before Gallo and Roybal cashed in on their illegal game, he added.
"Where they did go wrong? I believe their auditing was not up to par," Voyles continued. "That auditing created a huge gap, and that gap created a crime.
"So what they did was they give an opportunity for two low-level employees to take advantage of that."
Every one of those bogus payouts would have been a red flag for the casino if somebody was watching.
"Either the compliance and-or accounting department should have caught this," Voyles said.
Every slot machine in Sandia is electronically monitored. If there's a jackpot, the casino would know it. However, no one bothered to verify the phony jackpots.
"At a minimum accounting should have been suspicious of so many, such a great number of manual jackpot slips by the same two people," Voyles said. "So this is a major sort of intuitive red flag that would pop up from an accounting perspective."
Eventually, greed figured in the game. On Oct. 5, 2006, the pair pocketed eight bogus jackpots totaling more than $20,000. It was one too many.
A co-worker reported the suspicious transactions to security. Sandia launched an investigation, and Gallo and Roybal were fired.
"When they get complacent and greedy, that's when we catch them," Voyles said.
Shortly before the district attorney's office convened a grand jury, Gallo died of natural causes. The grand jury indicted Roybal alone on 699 counts of fraud, forgery and embezzlement. He later pleaded guilty.
At sentencing the judge hit him hard: 50 years in the state pen.
"Never have I seen it before," Brandenburg said. "It's an extremely unusual sentence. This is an individual who, as far as I know, didn't have a criminal record."
Roybal serves his time at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs. Once a casino supervisor, today he packs boxes in a prison warehouse.
In a jailhouse interview, Roybal talked about the biggest casino heist
in state history and whose idea it was.
"I would have to say it was both of ours because I would say the flaws in the system," Roybal said.
Stealing the money was easy, he added.
"Yeah, to a point, yeah," Roybal continued. "I mean they made it that easy because nobody checked, nobody looked back to see what's going on."
Roybal is paying the price for his high stakes crime spree. But is Roybal a master criminal?
"No, he's not," Roybal said. "He's actually a good person, a real good person. People just need to see that."
And where is all that missing cash? There's not hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuck in some buried coffee can someplace, according to Roybal.
"No, no there's not," he said. "I would have given it right away, first day; I would have given it right away."
Sandia's insurance company reimbursed the pueblo casino $1 million under a "dishonest employee" policy. Whether Sandia changed its procedures after the big heist is not known. Tribal leaders did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Roybal won't be eligible for parole until 2034 and even then won't be off the hook. The Internal Revenue Service wants $350,000, the state tax department wants $30,000, and Sandia Casino wants $180,000.
As for the insurance company, it wants its million back. Until then Roybal has the time to ponder whether crime pays.
"It was a mistake that I regret everyday, he said. "There's not a moment that goes by that I don't regret it."
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