Lost Harrah's

Gamblers and staffers at the Ak-Chin casino all celebrated when Herminia Rodriguez hit a $330,000 slot-machine jackpot. Then the tribe decided the machine had malfunctioned.

At precisely 6:42 p.m. on October 11, Herminia Rodriguez struck it rich. Or so she thought.

The 64-year-old Phoenix grandmother was playing the "Quartermania" slot machine at Harrah's Ak-Chin, a popular casino about 40 minutes southeast of Phoenix. With her husband, Chico, seated next to her, Rodriguez punched the spin button and hoped for the best.

A security camera captured the moment from above: When the three reels stopped seven seconds later, each read "Quartermania Wild"--the big jackpot.

The prize was $330,152.13--the second-largest Quartermania win in Arizona history.

For Rodriguez, an ex-migrant worker who never has had much money, the feeling was beyond electric.

"It's like you died and were born again," she says, tears welling. "Inside, you say, 'Thank you, God.' I felt warm from head to toe. I started thinking about Teresa, my granddaughter, and how I could help her now."

Teresa Jaimes, 22, suffers from lupus and renal failure, and, her grandmother says, is likely to need a kidney transplant. Beyond that, Teresa's health insurance for various reasons has been in danger of lapsing.

Casino officials announced the winning amount over the public-address system, causing a buzz among the Saturday-night throng. Dozens of players rushed over, just to be close to the lucky lady and her lucky slot machine.

A worker hung balloons on the winning slot machine; another photographed the couple in front of it.

But the Rodriguezes' euphoria would be short-lived. Just before midnight--about five hours after Herminia hit the jackpot--she got dreadful news.

"It was determined that a malfunction did in fact occur," casino shift manager Michael Thompson wrote that night. "All machines state clearly that a machine malfunction will invalidate the jackpot. We are unable to pay Mrs. Rodriguez the $330,152.13 because of this malfunction . . ."

Rodriguez had the presence of mind to hustle her husband of 36 years out of the casino. "I had to before he got us into trouble; he was so mad," she says.

The security videotape chronicles the events of the evening: Clearly, the machine wasn't running properly at times during the hour that Herminia Rodriguez fed quarters into it.

About a half-hour before Rodriguez hit the jackpot, for instance, the reels wouldn't stop spinning until a casino employee reset the machine.

But the tape shows the employee gave Rodriguez the go-ahead to resume play on the machine. This, say gaming-industry experts contacted by New Times, should have cinched the payoff.

"Putting the machine back into play would seem to expressly say that the casino thought everything was okay," says Arizona Gaming Department director Gary Husk.

But three months have passed since the tumultuous evening, and the Rodriguezes haven't seen a penny.

On November 10, tribal gaming agency chairman Leo Thomas wrote to Herminia Rodriguez that he'd "reviewed the disputed jackpot allegedly won by you," and backed the casino's decision not to pay.

The couple contacted Phoenix attorney Charles Buri, a former director of the Arizona Lottery.

"The casino could have just shut the machine down," says Buri. "Instead, they told her to keep feeding the slot. You'd think they'd want to do the right thing, to pay Herminia. But they're not giving any indication that they will."

Robert Mulryne, executive director of the Ak-Chin tribal gaming agency, spoke only generally about slot-machine malfunctions. "If you look at any gaming machine in any casino," he says, "you'll see where it says a malfunction voids a win."

Mulryne is asked what happens when a casino repairs a slot machine to its satisfaction, then puts it back into service.

"And then put it back into service?" he replied. "You'll have to address that question to the casino operator [Harrah's]."

Ralph Berry, a spokesman for Harrah's based in the corporation's headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, said he hadn't heard about the incident.

"We'd just as soon pay everything off in a situation like the one you've described," Berry said. "But we look at things on a case-by-case basis."

Tom Paolella, deputy chief of the Nevada Gaming Commission, arbitrates situations such as these in his state.

"The casino can decide to pay at any time, and they do sometimes even if they disagree with us," Paolella said. "We have a rule here that the casino is to shut down a machine any time there's a question if it's working right or not. The gaming industry can get a black eye in something like this."

Rick Sorenson of International Game Technology--the Reno, Nevada-based firm that makes Quartermania machines--says malfunctions occur "very, very, very rarely. In 10 years of operation all over the country, I think we've had four incidents of this kind. It's unfortunate to have to void a win, but that does happen."

By written agreement, the Ak-Chin casino is supposed to notify the Arizona Gaming Department immediately when someone hits a jackpot of that size. But records show the state wasn't told of the Rodriguez case for more than two days, after the machine was back in service and an independent examination was impossible.

Husk, the nominal overseer of the state's Indian-gaming industry, says this is the largest disputed jackpot in memory. But the situation doesn't surprise him.

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