Saturday, June 28, 2014

Convenient Accident or Cold-Blooded Murder?

"You wanna pull off a brilliant murder, you gotta act like it's an accident. If you do it right, you ain't even gotta be there when it goes down." Jamie Foxx as Dean Jones in Horrible Bosses (2011)

EDITOR'S NOTE: It may be helpful for readers to review a few of our prior reports herehere, and here in order to better understand the history leading up to the events described in this article. 

By: Rich Bergeron

      More than 20 years ago, on the afternoon of November 4th, 1993, Carl Wesley Thomas died after his 1992 Suburban crashed on a gravel-lined stretch of Plush road in Frenchglen, Oregon. According to the official police report (for the full document click on these links to pages 1, 2, and 3), the investigation of the scene indicated the vehicle swerved to the left first, with the two left-side tires leaving the road briefly. 

     Upon swerving back onto the road, Thomas apparently paid dearly for not wearing his seat belt. He was ejected from the vehicle as it rolled over, crushing him underneath it. The report goes on to state that the vehicle rolled again and wound up in a ditch at the side of the road. Thomas was discovered face-down on the road, some 36 feet from where the Suburban ultimately came to rest. 

     The Harney County Sherriff's Office dispatched Officer F.H. Hickey, Jr. to the scene. His report of the accident explained, "The victim received multiple fractures of the right leg, a flailed chest, and head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene at 6:15 PM." 

     Whatever Hickey observed that did not end up in the report may forever remain a mystery, because the officer died of a heart attack in 1995. 

      The Sheriff at the time was Dave Glerup, who still holds the position today. I spoke to Glerup last October, just a few weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of the fateful crash. He explained that the scene of the rollover was a rural, remote road which experienced "lots of accidents of this type." He added that the conditions were "kind of treacherous," especially for anyone who was driving while intoxicated. 

     Officer Hickey's report also indicated that a half-ounce of cocaine was found on Thomas along with an empty baggie and a short straw, discovered in his pocket only after the body went to a local funeral home. The records Sheriff Glerup sent me included a Blood Alcohol Report on Thomas from the State Medical Examiner, which came back negative for alcohol. To the sheriff's knowledge, there was never any testing done to determine whether Thomas had any other drugs in his system at the time of the crash.  

    Despite inferences of foul play suggested to him over the years, Sheriff Glerup remains convinced that the cause of death should be classified as accidental. "It's hard to believe this could be anything but an accident," he explained. "I can't picture a homicide where the vehicle actually rolls over him like that." 

   Throughout the decades since the incident, rampant speculation still points to the case as a possible homicide. Adding to the suspicious circumstances involved in the crash is the fact that, just prior to his death, Thomas agreed to provide testimony at a very important meeting with Missouri Gaming officials regarding their inquiry into whether or not they should grant a gaming license to Station Casinos. Just before his death Thomas also reportedly met with Station Casinos officials to discuss his summons to Missouri, and that meeting most likely included Frank Fertitta, Jr. offering counsel to his longtime friend and associate. The crash happened on his trip back to Oregon from the Vegas sitdown, and it guaranteed Thomas would never testify in Missouri. The Fertittas were able to get their Station Casinos license after all with the dead man telling no tales. 

     There was only one condition put on the final approval: Frank Junior could not be part of the Missouri operations of the company. Frank's eldest son Frank Fertitta III, AKA "Frankie Three Sticks," ended up having to hold the reins there in Missouri until the state implicated the company in multiple scandalous incidents detailed further here. Missouri revoked their license and forced Station Casinos to sell their Missouri properties and go back to Vegas where Frank III also eventually had to take over due to his father's questionable past.  

    It's a long story, but it's safe to say Station Casinos would benefit tremendously from the death of Carl Thomas. Though that doesn't make it a sure thing that the crash was somehow orchestrated or caused by an unknown suspect connected to the Fertittas, the family collected a unique type of figurative "insurance" after the "accident."  

     To put things in perspective, Thomas earned a permanent ban from all Nevada casinos in 1990 after being implicated in the massive skimming operation popularized in the 1995 movie Casino, starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. Frank Junior himself was on the fringe of that scandal, and the prevailing Las Vegas legend has Frank taking over Thomas' co-ownership of what later became the first Station Casino property for a lump sum of one single dollar. The forfeiture of his ownership interest reportedly came just before Thomas went to prison for what was supposed to be a 15-year stretch. Thomas served only two of those years according to a report of his death published in the Orlando Sentinel, thanks only to his willingness to cooperate with authorities.

     Frank Junior had connections to multiple casinos in Las Vegas during the heydey of Mafia skimming there. Between his departure from Texas in 1960 and his purchase of "The Casino" with Carl Thomas in 1976, Fertitta went from bellboy to dealer to pit boss to Baccarat manager to general manager at properties including: The Stardust, The Tropicana, The Sahara, Circus Circus, and ultimately The Fremont. "The Casino" later became "The Bingo Palace" which would morph further into Palace Station in 1983, launching what would become a vast "locals casino" empire rivaled only by the Boyd Corporation founded by Sam Boyd. To this day, Station Casinos and Boyd compete as the leaders of this market catering to local Las Vegas residents and casino workers.  

     The jury is still out on how Frank Junior avoided prosecution in the skimming investigations, especially since FBI wiretaps caught him on tape talking about "excess cash" and other veiled references to the skimming repeatedly. A security agent named Harry McBride, who worked under Thomas at the time, also told authorities that there was a "Frank" involved in perpetrating the skimming operation at the Fremont Hotel and Casino. McBride also cooperated with investigators who ultimately turned Thomas as well. McBride testified in a U.S. District Court Case against five members of the skimming ring in 1985. 

      There are no official records I know of regarding any testimony or cooperation on the case offered by Fertitta himself, but I did find one court document in which a name of a witness was redacted, and the person described sounded like Fertitta. My personal theory is that Frank was a secret witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Rather than testify in open court, he could have provided background information that helped further the investigation. After all, that might explain why David Helfrey, the chief prosecutor in the 1985 trial cited above, later went to work for Station Casinos in Missouri. If Frank Junior being a snitch sounds too far fetched, consider the fact that Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal (played by Robert DeNiro in Casino) died before the fact that he was a government informant leaked out. 

      Another possibility is that Carl Thomas himself could have requested Fertitta be left alone in exchange for his cooperation. Thomas switched sides during the same 1985 trial in which McBride testified. He obviously had some very incriminating and useful evidence for federal prosecutors about all the players, but he certainly could have left Fertitta out of any information he volunteered. The only other alternative explanation for Fertitta avoiding jail time is that he was an extremely lucky man. 

     For more on the investigations into Mob-influenced Vegas skimming at the time, check out this Dennis Griffin blog, which is the first of three chapters on the whole operation. Like most organized crime schemes, the whole enterprise turned out to be very sophisticated. The movie based on the true events is a bit loose with the facts, and it's really only half the story. 

    Harry McBride would later resurface during a 4-year probe of Frank Junior by the Nevada State Gaming Control Board in the lat 80s. If McBride agreed to testify before the Control Board, it could prove that Fertitta lied about his role in the Argent skimming operation when he applied for his gaming license. Thanks in part to McBride's outright animosity toward a commission member, the vast political connections cultivated by Frank Junior, and also possibly the lack of any criminal penalty for not taking the stand, McBride declined to cooperate with the board. He reportedly also did not think any good would come of him testifying. 

     The final decision on the matter came down to a 2-1 vote to take no action against Frank Junior. Just a few years later, in 1993 (the same year Carl Thomas died), Frank Junior passed the empire to his sons Frank III and Lorenzo. Despite Frank Junior giving up official control of Station Casinos, he spent a great deal of time at the very same property he named "The Casino" when he bought it with Carl Thomas in 1976. Though he was no longer officially in charge, workers at Palace Station would often run into Frank Junior making his rounds or eating lunch there right up until his tragic death on the operating table during a heart procedure in late August of 2009.

      Carl Thomas died a tragic, yet convenient death for a Las Vegas family that later saw their power and influence grow exponentially. Even a pre-planned bankruptcy of the whole Station Casinos chain didn't stop the Fertittas from reigning supreme in the locals market and taking a once little known fight league from barbaric side-show to mainstream attraction. Through it all, Lorenzo and Frank III heeded the example of their dearly departed father. Like Frank Junior--who was a prolific political donor in his day--they always grease the wheels whenever and wherever possible. Both Democrats and Republicans benefit from that family tradition, and if paying off the politicos isn't enough to keep their corrupt actions from being shut down, they also continue to keep up their father's habit of buying a ton of advertising in the local papers to keep mainstream reporters from writing too much about their worst transgressions.       

     Beyond Las Vegas, the Fertittas also have contracts with various Indian-run casinos to manage casino complexes across the country. The Fertittas also do consulting work for casinos and stand at the forefront of the online gaming movement. This quiet expansion is nothing new, which is likely why the Harney County Sheriff's Office received requests for the records of the Carl Thomas crash from the Missouri Gaming Commission and the Indiana State Police Gaming Enforcement Section in 1994. Oddly enough, Nevada gaming officials have never requested accident report copies according to Sheriff Glerup.  

    My own investigation of the records leaves more questions than answers. The first question, and perhaps the most important one is: what caused Thomas to swerve when the crash initiated? Even the most comprehensive forensic examination with all the technology we have even today might run into a dead end trying to answer that one. The fact that the crash happened on a gravel road might mean that any tracks of another vehicle that was possibly involved might not be detected by investigators. Another unanswered question is why was there no testing for drugs when Thomas had cocaine in his pocket at the time of his death? Also, how often are passengers ejected from a vehicle that then rolls over them? Though Sheriff Glerup concludes the ejection and rollover makes it most likely the cause of death was accidental, I really don't understand that reasoning. 

     If the straw and the cocaine were both in his pocket at the time of the crash, it seems obvious to me that Thomas wasn't doing the cocaine at the moment of the initial swerve. So, that can't be the cause. If there was any amount of cocaine in his system, it also seems highly unlikely he fell asleep at the wheel. The only valid explanation in my humble opinion is that he was trying not to hit an animal crossing the road (accident), or another person and/or vehicle was responsible (murder or vehicular manslaughter). Since the area was so remote, there would be no witnesses, and law enforcement would take considerable time to arrive on the scene. 

     Rather than pin this down as an accident, I consider this a cold case that should be classified as unsolved with the official cause of death deemed undetermined. Unfortunately for all who wish to know the full truth, this is one case that will never be re-opened. There's absolutely no possible way of finding out exactly what happened, which makes Jamie Foxx's line at the top of this story so relevant to the situation. If it was murder, it was executed flawlessly. If it was actually an accident, there's still not enough evidence to conclude what really caused the rollover. It's a perfect storm of suspicious, but easily explained away facts that could support either side of the debate. Regardless of how he died, though, without Carl Thomas helping Frank Junior get his start, the Fertitta empire might not exist today. In the same breath, it must be said the death of Thomas also helped guarantee the continuation of that empire that might have been stopped in its tracks if Thomas told the truth in front of those Missouri gaming officials. 

      Those who dismiss the conspiracy theories would point to Thomas not implicating Fertitta when it counted back in 1985. Why would he bother to throw Frank Junior under the bus in front of a gaming commission that didn't have the power to throw him in jail for a long time if he didn't cooperate? Doubters would also point out that Fertitta wouldn't have a formal meeting with Thomas if he knew he was going to have him killed on the trip home. The very fact that at least two gaming authorities wanted to see the crash report proves that even the slightest possible inference of a criminal deed sheds a bad light on any gaming license candidate. Why would Frank Junior risk the suspicion that would surely fall on him? I can only surmise that if it was murder, Frank Junior might not be the one who ordered it. If he was running the Fremont skim for the Kansas City mob as the evidence shows, he could have also expanded to Missouri to appease the next generation of the same Kansas City outfit after the original skim bosses went down. 

      A murder for hire operation of this scope and magnitude, leaving no trace of evidence of a homicide, seems more like the work of a trained and experienced killer used to working in the shadows of the underworld. The hit could have been ordered by someone else deep within the organization who stood to benefit from Station Casinos getting a Missouri license, if indeed it was a sophisticated hit. Then again, who had more to gain than Frank and his family? Therefore, you can't forget the words of another "Lefty" from another movie based on a true story. I'm talking about Al Pacino's character in Donnie Brasco. "When they send for you," Lefty said, "You go in alive, you come out dead, and it's your best friend that does it."

     Regardless of the true circumstances surrounding the Carl Thomas crash, it is a mystery that will follow the Fertitta family for eternity. The ghost of Carl Thomas will haunt the family legacy as long as the facts as we know them are passed down from one generation to the next. The cloud of suspicion will never go away even if speculation of any current mob connections to the Fertittas is unfounded. The fact is, the physical Mafia ties may be long gone, but the organized crime mentality still exists thanks to what Frank Junior passed down to his sons. Everything they do may technically be "legal," but there's a good chunk of activity that could be labeled very close to crossing the line into criminal behavior. Even if you can't call it criminal, you can certainly call it corrupt and underhanded. Go back through their history, and you will find one deftly avoided major scandal after another. From Argent to USA Capital to the orchestrated Station Casinos and Xyience bankruptcies to the dirty dealings of Zuffa over the years, it's all a matter of complicating and obfuscating things just enough to avoid serious lawsuits and/or criminal prosecution. It may not be the textbook definition of "crime," but it's definitely organized. 

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