The little-known story of private investigator Bob Griffin
One night, Jan. 1, 1972, changed the shape of downtown, or at least the gaming end of it. The Union Plaza, the first casino to hire almost exclusively women blackjack dealers, opened its doors. Though standing among a crowd of anxious players was one of the last things I wanted to do on a New Year’s Eve, I stood in the chill air and when those doors opened and the waiting crowd mobbed their way into the casino, I rode in with the tide. I elbowed and shouldered my way in because Bob Griffin had assigned me to work outside surveillance. Players of all stripes rushed the gaming tables and the slot aisles, packing themselves in knots until it was impossible to see from one side of the pit to the next. Even experienced casino employees couldn’t be prepared for the full weight of what came their way in a matter of seconds.
Those days the town was smaller, especially downtown, and the world of cheaters and those who chased them was even smaller. One person put his stamp on the art of catching slot thieves and other cross roaders. Few outside of the circle of casino bosses and card and slot cheaters knew of Griffin, who was an understated type, but he was a significant player in the casino protection business. His partner, Bob Reghetti, ran the slot route end of the business and Griffin, the gunslinger without a gun, ran the casino end of the PI firm.
In 1971 I’d resigned my position as a sergeant with the Clark Co. Sheriff’s Office and, at the suggestion of Gene Dessel who was working for Bob, I went to work for Griffin, a former lieutenant at the Sheriff’s Office. After a brief interview and an introduction to Beverly, his wife, Bob took me on a ride along the Strip as he laid out my duties. That day he handed me a black three-ring binder with the mug shots of some 200 known or suspected cheaters and instructed me to start memorizing their faces. Though my duties called for me to assist with the United and Allstate Coin slot routes, heeding calls to confirm jackpots in bars and other establishments, I primarily worked the casinos as an “outside man.” Bob assigned me to the night shift, 10 hours a night, six nights a week, the pay around 25 percent more than I made as sergeant. The only real benefit beyond pay was that the casino food beat the hell out of the menu at Denny’s or Pizza Hut.
The year 1971 marked the first time that Griffin expanded his business into downtown casinos. That year Steve Wynn, a novice to the industry at the time, had bought into the Golden Nugget. Since its inception Griffin’s firm had contracted services to most of the major casinos on the Strip, but hadn’t gotten a foothold downtown. Old-time operators, such as Benny Binion and Sam Boyd who distrusted cops and ex-cops alike, relied for protection on hard-nosed pit bosses who’d learned the trade in backroom joints from Newport, Ky. to Butte, Mont. Nor did the old-timers believe in card counting. Griffin, more in tune with newer scams, had identified numerous counters and crews that worked the casinos. Wynn, an astute businessman who’d earned his wealth from hotels and real estate and who didn’t share the other operators’ distrust of ex-cops, welcomed the protection Bob provided.
Other than being noted for his honesty, Bob had an exceptional ability to remember faces and names, a gift that bordered on genius. Over the next year and a half I’d bear witness to his talent. He once spotted a card counter who was using a wheelchair as a way to catch the dealer’s hole card on a hand deck game. Griffin, who ran three to five miles a day, saw the lean muscle protruding from the guy’s trousers and knew he was no cripple. The man flew out of the wheelchair and the chase was on, from Caesars Palace to Riviera, where Bob had to abandon it. It seemed the card counter was also a marathoner and several years younger than Bob.
I didn’t have quite the knack Bob had, but I was a determined learner and had developed an instinct for finding bad guys. I worked at memorizing the mug shots in the book and at the same time set about learning the very skills that I was charged with detecting when looking for cheaters. Eddie Huffman, who worked the eye in the sky side of Bob’s business, taught me the hand switch moves, showed me how a cold deck was slipped in a shoe and how a deck was worked up from the outside. I visited poker rooms in the casinos we didn’t contract to, especially the Sahara and the Horseshoe, where cross roaders who ranged from slot cheaters to card switchers to card painters and daubers and chips snatchers were welcomed to play so long as they didn’t land on a blackjack game, a crap table or pull the handle of a slot machine. We acted as a conduit for disseminating intelligence on who was cheating and by what method. Within two months I was spotting cheaters on a regular basis.
None of this prepared me or Bob or anyone for New Year’s of 1972.
Inside the Plaza bedlam reigned. Shouts of shuffle filled the casino as did the resounding cranking of slot handles. I looked for Bob, but saw him nowhere. I drifted around looking at faces the best I could under the circumstances and at the same time trying to be inconspicuous. I spotted a hand mucker on the far side of the pit, but by the time I alerted the busy pit boss, the thief had vanished into the crowd. Sometime soon after Bob paged me. I met him at the casino cage. It seemed a man dressed in a business suit had come to the cage with a chip tray, saying it was an emergency and demanding a fill of black chips for a crap game. The freshly minted cashier was so intimidated by the man’s demeanor that she complied without receiving a fill slip. He left with $10,000 in black chips.
Over the next hour bells and whistles from the slots rang out at a continual pace. It was impossible for the slot personnel to stay up with the activity and equally impossible to spot anyone in the crowd. I don’t how many big jackpots were paid out that night or the following week, but the numbers were inordinate and the slot hold far less than what anyone would have predicted. Then the explanation for the high number of jackpots came and that shed light on what had been an enigma.
Slot cheaters are the casino version of safe burglars. If there’s a weakness in a machine anywhere, they will find a way to attack it. Several days after the opening, one of the slot mechanics uncovered the weakness when he was inspecting a machine. Bob paged me to meet him, and a boss showed us what had happened that night. Covered by the crowd, cheaters had used drills with flexible gear drives to drill holes in the Plexiglas panel, then inserted a fine wire to stop the clock (a fan-like timer) so that the reels floated, then one of the crew used the handle to manipulate a jackpot. He then covered the drill hole with a crayon and left as the claimer stepped up to the machine. They returned for a week or more and hit the machines they’d drilled.
Griffin looked at the evidence and heard out the slot boss. Now it rested on us to identify who’d run the game on the casino. Within a week, one of Bob’s informants dropped the dime on the cheaters, all of them known to Bob. How much was stolen by the cheaters can’t be accurately estimated, but certainly somewhere in a high seven figure range. What came from that New Year’s was information that affected not just downtown, but the Strip and gaming as a whole. Gradually slot machine manufacturers made innovations to protect the vulnerable machines and surveillance improved everywhere.
The fact is nothing, other than prison walls, can stop a determined thief. Over the years Bob did manage to slow a few of them down. Anyone planning to hit a machine or a gaming table worried first about Griffin and his people, then casino security and last the Gaming Control Board. I stayed with Bob a year and a half until October 1973 when I took a position with the state as a narcotics agent. Since then, a lot has changed. Mechanical slots gave way to electronic machines and casino surveillance is now digitalized. Even sounds of slots have changed, no more clinking of coins in trays or bells resounding to announce a jackpot. And Bob, a Wyatt Earp of sorts in land of scofflaws, is gone like the old mechanical Bally and Mills slot machines, a legend dead at 89, Oct. 9, 2016. He leaves behind a wife, Judy, an ex-wife Beverly, and a handful of friends who still trade stories about him.
H. Lee Barnes is the author of numerous short stories and nine books, his latest being The Gambler’s Apprentice. His short stories have received the Willamette Fiction Award and the Arizona Authors’ Association Fiction Award. In 2009 he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. He teaches at the College of Southern Nevada.