- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

TUNICA, Miss. - A woman wearing a wig set the gift-wrapped package on the counter and told the casino cashier to hand over money or she would detonate the bomb hidden inside.

By the time police arrived at the Grand Casino and determined that the package was nothing more than an empty honey bun box, the bandit was long gone, along with more than $60,000 in cash.

In another part of this area where gambling hotels bump up against cotton fields, casino operators noticed a robbery in progress and activated a silent alarm that went straight to the sheriff’s department.

That call never made it any farther than the dispatcher, who later was charged with being in on the $27,000 heist.

A stretch of Mississippi Delta about a half-hour’s drive from Memphis, Tenn., has become the nation’s third-largest gambling destination, bringing riches to a long-impoverished region once described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “America’s Ethiopia.” But that newfound wealth also has brought trouble.

In a little more than a year, the 11 casinos along the Mississippi River have been hit with 25 robberies and attempted robberies, more than any other gambling spot in the country.

Las Vegas, with 150 casinos, has had 14 robberies this year. Atlantic City, with 12 casinos, has had three. No heists have been reported in the past year at casinos on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast or in neighboring Louisiana.

So far, the Delta crime wave has cost casinos about $1.4 million. Investigators suspect that most of the robberies were orchestrated by local gangs with help from workers inside the casino.

In Tunica County, home to nine of the Delta casinos and a population of 9,400, arrests have been made in seven of the cases.

Authorities say several heists were committed by young residents from a particular area of the county, suggesting some organization.

In neighboring Coahoma County, the suspects in all four of the robberies at the Isle of Capri casino there were from Tunica.

“A lot of the people are Tunica residents,” said Tunica County public information officer Jeff Piselli. “It’s going to be up to the court to decide whether there was a conspiracy.”

At least one Tunica County sheriff’s employee, dispatcher Tonya Davis, is accused of involvement in a robbery.

Some gambling executives say former Sheriff Jerry Ellington was slow to respond to the robberies, which peaked during his administration. Sheriff Ellington was stripped of his duties in August after his indictment on federal and state charges that he took kickbacks from drug money and extorted bail bondsmen.

County officials and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford declined to comment on whether additional sheriff’s employees were being investigated in connection with the robberies. But Sheriff-elect K.C. Hamp, 29, who takes office in January, said he will review each employee and prosecute if needed.

“Corruption is an individual thing,” Mr. Hamp said. “I don’t think a whole organization should be fingered to be corrupt, but an individual chooses to be corrupt.”

No robberies have occurred at the Delta casinos since November, when the new Horizon casino in Vicksburg was hit for about $60,000.

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