Scammers and cheaters have always targeted the casinos. Some use more calculated methods than others. Ronald Dale Harris is one of them.
Kathleen Budz had only been seated at the machines for a couple of hours when the jackpot alarm went off. This grandmother from Chicago had choosen one of four Wheel of Fortune machines, a game typical of Vegas casinos.
Three spinning wheels are placed at the center of the machine and players are able to wager as little as a quarter. Minor jackpots, a dollar or 10 hits frequently enough to keep the action going. But it’s the major jackpot that’s at the center of attention and it’s gravitational pull is made stronger with the help of an electronic counter right above eye level, very much resembeling the wheel in the show sharing the same name.
As her losses amounts to about 200 dollars, Kathleen keeps feeding the machine 5 dollar bills, rhytmically clicking the spin button. For Kathleen, a few hundred dollars during a visit to Las Vegas is just “entertainment”.
But then it suddenly happens: the symbols on the three wheels matches and the digital display starts spinning, indicating a win. At the top of the machine a jackpot sum of 4 million American dollars is flashing. Kathleen however, couldn’t make out the numbers since she’d forgotten her glasses. But her husband standing behind her could. “Seven numbers”, he yelled out. “Seven numbers!”
This is at the beginning of the millenium and up until then jackpots of this size had not been possible. No single machine could pay out 4 million dollars, neither physically, nor practially. Even at constant use it would have been impossible for one machine to collect enough for a jackpot like this.
What made Kathleen enormously rich and what made the casinos even more rich during the years to come, was the introduction of digital networks enabeling the connection of machines across the country. Wheel of Fortune was an example of that. The game is part of a Mega Jackpot system, a network of some 8000 machines. Every coin and bill fed to the machine is monitored by a centralized computer, usually many hundred miles away.
Back in 1974, long before all of this, there were around 24,500 machines in Las Vegas. By the beginning of year 2000 the number had grown to 158,000 machines which together generated 4.8 billion dollars per year.
With all this money pouring into Vegas, the city was attracting a new kind of criminality – from armed robbers to hackers. “I used to think I was chasing the real criminals”, says Steve Franks, a veteran of the LVPD who spent the early days of his career pursuing drug dealers and now runs the town’s financial crimes unit. But “these guys,” he says of the casino crooks, “are calculating. They plot everything out. They’re efficient.”
As part of his job, Ronald would travel to various casinos across Las Vegas to test their slot machines, again checking for any flaws. This was a very tedious job, but it was of the utmost importance for preventing cheating from occurring. Since Ronald knew everything there was to know about how these machines operated, it was easy for him to see how they could be manipulated into winning consistently. Only Ronald and a few other people had access to the highly confidential code that he would later use to reprogram the slot machine’s random number generator.
He was able to do this by using erasable programmable read only memory (EPROM) to control the amount of money each machine would payout and when. Basically, Ronald was able to erase the memory of the micro-chips used in the slot machines and replace them with his own microchips that were programmed to pay out a specific amount of money when coins were inserted in a certain sequence that he determined.
A common sequence he used was 3 coins the first time, 2 coins the second time, 2 coins the third time, 1 coin the fourth time, 3 coins the fifth time, and finally 5 coins the sixth time. When he inserted the coins in the machine precisely this way, he was guaranteed a generous payout and the cameras wouldn’t be able to pick up on any form of cheating.
Knowing he had this power and realizing that his $48,000 a year salary was nothing compared to the potential profit he could make, pushed him over the edge to cheat the casinos of Las Vegas out of thousands of dollars. There was only one evident flaw in his plan; since he was known in the casinos as a Nevada Gaming Control Board employee, he wouldn’t be able to win the money on his own.
Ronald and Reid form a Partnership
Ronald decided that it would be in his best interest to recruit an old friend of his: Reid McNeal. Ronald and Reid went to high school together and they formed a trusting friendship there that followed them into their adult life. Ronald knew that Reid had just lost his job and was in desperate need of a large sum of money.
It was Reid’s responsibility to insert the coins into the keno machine in the exact order Ronald told him to; all the money they won be would be split evenly between the two of them. When Ronald and Reid first started out, they would make sure they only won a couple thousand dollars at a time to avoid drawing too much attention to themselves. Although, this method was effective, it didn’t bring them in as much money as they were hoping.
They eventually moved on to Atlantic City casinos to avoid getting caught and to see if they could pull off taking larger amounts of money. As we will soon see, their greediness is ultimately what lead to their destruction. On January 14th, 1995 Reid and Ronald entered Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City to perform their biggest scandal yet. They were going to rig one of the keno machines to payout exactly $100,000 to them with only a $100 investment.
The chances of this happening on its own were 230,000 to 1 and it would be the highest amount ever won on a keno game in that hotel. When Reid won, the casino managers were instantly suspicious and carefully examined the machine from the inside out. They were also suspicious of Reid’s behavior, as he showed no emotion after he won. Reid acted as if he was expecting to win, which was very alarming.
Several police officers escorted Reid to his hotel room where Ronald was also staying. Since Reid had no way of warning Ronald of their arrival, all of the equipment they had used to rig the machines was visible in the room and it didn’t take the casino official long to realize that they had been scammed.
Getting Convicted of Their Crimes
John Hagerty, one of New Jersey State Police’s spokesperson said this concerning what they found in Reid and Ronald’s hotel room, “When their room was searched, we found computer equipment, computer chips, notes and books describing changes in Bally’s machine and describing how to possibly scam or beat the machine.”
Reid McNeal was arrested in Atlantic City but Ronald Harris managed to sneak away from the casino before enough evidence was found to prove he was guilty. Luckily, the police were able to arrest him at the airport in Las Vegas, just moments after he landed. Reid and Ronald were both charged by New Jersey police with computer fraud and attempted cheating. However, all charges against Reid McNeal were eventually dropped since he agreed to testify against Ronald before a judge.
Ronald Harris pleaded guilty to abusing his position at the Las Vegas Gaming Control Board and using confidential information for his own personal use. He was also charged for illegally winning the $5,000 jackpot at the Crystal Bay Club in North Lake Tahoe and the $9,000 jackpot at Fitzgerald’s in Reno. He later plead guilty on over twenty separate accounts where he rigged the jackpot in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City Casinos. By the end of his trial, he was sentenced to seven years in prison but only had to serve two due to being released early on good behavior.
The Result of Their Actions
Ronald Harris was permanently put on Nevada’s Black List, meaning that he will never be able to set foot in a casino in the state of Nevada again. He also was strongly encouraged to never visit Atlantic City casinos again too. Although he isn’t officially forbidden to enter them, his face has been made known to all major casinos as someone to keep a watchful eye on.
Due to Ronald and Reid’s actions, Nevada’s Gaming Control Board have increased the security measures they take in the hiring process and all staff are required to check each other’s work over to avoid fraudulence. In addition to that, New Jersey has now changed their policy concerning their slot machines. All electronic keno machines used in Atlantic City use a different code than the same machines used in other states.