Intercepting reservation-bound slot machines is difficult, but it’s even harder to bust someone.
The rising demand for slot machines is creating what authorities call a “gray market” for used gambling equipment.
Slot-machine manufacturers can’t legally send their devices to states where they are outlawed, but a network of companies does just that.
Consider the state’s July 12 seizure of 96 slot machines bound for the Mill Bay Casino run by the Colville tribe.
The machines, worth about $400,000, were found in two trucks as they crossed the Idaho border into Spokane County.
Paperwork revealed that a British Columbia company, Thunderbird International Gaming, bought the machines from a Minnesota company that refurbishes and resells used slots.
Thunderbird then paid to have the machines trucked to the casino near Lake Chelan, according to state records that also indicate the paperwork claimed the machines were video games.
John McCoy, assistant state attorney general, says the case is complicated by the fact he has to convince either Spokane County or the federal government to prosecute a foreign company.
Repeated efforts to contact Thunderbird officials for comment were unsuccessful.
State documents show that slot machines on the two Eastern Washington reservations have come from almost everywhere, including Louisiana riverboat casinos.
In 1994, the state seized a load of 55 slot machines bound for the Spokanes’ casino near Chewelah.
The web of companies involved with the transaction included a Billings, Mont., firm called SMK, which sold the machines to a Colorado company then named Till Partners. The Colorado firm paid to have the machines transported to the Spokanes’ Chewelah casino.
The slots were seized when the truck driver got lost and pulled over to see where he was, McCoy says.
The deliverymen, he says, are often oblivious to their crimes.
“Some poor schmuck driving the truck is the one who gets caught,” McCoy says.
Nobody has been charged for either illegal shipment of slot machines, although McCoy says neither investigation is closed.
Meanwhile, the state pays to store the seized slots in undisclosed storage lockers and the tribes continue to maintain the state should not meddle with tribal equipment.
But tribal leaders are cagey when it comes to discussing the details about how they get their slot machines.
Colville chairman Joe Pakootas would only say the state’s recent seizure of 98 slots bound for the Mill Bay Casino was “surprising.”
He says he understands the state’s position, but also notes, “We consider ourselves our own country.”
Is it difficult to truck the slots into Eastern Washington?
“It’s a problem,” Spokane tribal councilman John Kieffer says, “but every day’s a problem. Right?”