Winner Takes All

Herminia Rodriguez looks out the passenger window of her attorney's car and sees Harrah's Ak-Chin in the distance.

"Oh, my God," she says. "I just have this feeling they're going to say no again. God have mercy."

Chico Rodriguez tries to put his wife of 36 years at ease.
"Hey, Herminia, did you bring some cash with you so we can play some machines?" he says, chuckling.

"I don't have a dollar in my pocket," she replies soberly.
"You will real soon," says her lawyer, a down-to-earth barrister named Charlie Buri.

The time at hand is momentous for the Rodriguezes. The casino--owned by the Ak-Chin Indians and managed by Harrah's--had decided to avert a mushrooming public-relations nightmare spawned by a January 8 story in New Times.

Called "Lost Harrah's," the story told the remarkable tale of Mrs. Rodriguez's travails at the popular casino, about 40 minutes southeast of downtown Phoenix:

Last October, the 64-year-old grandmother and ex-migrant worker thought she had hit the Quartermania jackpot for $330,152.13. At first, so did the casino, which celebrated the mammoth win with balloons and photographs. Then the powers-that-be decided that the winning slot machine had malfunctioned, and Mrs. Rodriguez wouldn't be getting her money after all.

The fallout after the story hit the streets was immediate and devastating to the casino. Herminia was interviewed by reporters as far away as London, repeating to all that she believed in God and that justice somehow would be done.

It took less than a week for the folks at Harrah's home office in Memphis, Tennessee, to come to their collective senses: The company called a press conference to announce that they would pay Herminia Rodriguez the full amount, and, they hoped, put the disaster behind them.

Also along is granddaughter Teresa Jaimes--whose serious health and insurance problems have been the Rodriguezes' main concern. Her grandparents will protect her anonymity at the media blitz that follows.

At the casino, hundreds of gamblers pause momentarily to stare as the Rodriguezes walk into a room of waiting cameras, reporters and nervous casino managers.

After the casino's general manager makes her prepared statement (Translation: We are happy to get this woman and this story out of our hair, and get back to the business of making lots of money), Herminia steps to the microphones.

She thanks God, New Times, the media in general, and even the casino, before she escapes from the podium. With television cameras trailing her, Herminia and her entourage stop at the fateful "winning" slot machine to have their photos taken.

The players around them stop and applaud, much as they did in October when she thought she'd won.

"I want to get out of here now," she whispers.
In the car on the return trip, Chico Rodriguez uses Buri's car phone to call their children. Chico speaks to their daughter-in-law, who's already heard the news on the radio.

"I can't get her off the machine!" he says, kidding. "She's playing it right now!"

In the back seat, Herminia can't stop shaking her head.
"This whole thing makes you feel like you're honestly dreaming," she says. "But if I am dreaming, I'll tell you this: When I wake up, I'm not going to Ak-Chin to play ever again, no matter what they did today. I just don't feel the same about that place no more."

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

 
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