The reels locked on three cherries, bells and whistles sounded and casino workers rushed to congratulate Herminia Rodriquez on having won a $330,000 slot machine jackpot.
But it was easy come, easy go for Rodriquez.
Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, just south of Phoenix, said the slot machine was defective and voided her prize. If she’s lucky, she’ll get back the $100 in quarters she said she pumped into the broken machine on Oct. 11.
Beyond that, she may have little legal recourse, since the casino is on an Indian reservation, which is sovereign territory with its own system for handling complaints from casino customers.
“I want justice to be done,” Rodriquez said Friday. “I won the jackpot and expect them to honor the jackpot. I put my money in there in good faith.”
“Player beware,” said Gary Husk, head of the Arizona Gaming Department. The agency oversees tribal casino operations under compacts negotiated with the state but is powerless to intervene in such a case.
“Patrons who go to an Indian casino in Arizona need to be cognizant of the fact that their rights are left at the boundary when they enter the reservation.”
Husk and some state lawmakers say the dispute highlights the need to rework Arizona’s 16 tribal gaming compacts to give the state more authority over casinos and create an independent system to handle gamblers’ grievances.
“If the tribe doesn’t make good on this, I’m going to introduce legislation to take this kind of decision out their hands,” said Democratic state Sen. Pete Rios, who represents the area.
Rios, however, acknowledged he didn’t know whether legislation could legally force tribes to submit to state authority on customer complaints.
The casino as well as the national and state Indian gambling associations bristle at the suggestion Rodriquez was treated unfairly and the prospect of state officials revising the tribal gaming compacts.
“It would be a real premature action,” said Jacob Coin, the gambling association’s executive director. “The process to resolve this dispute is not over yet. There is a system set up for fairness and equity.”
Timothy Wapato, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, criticized Arizona officials for talking about giving themselves greater oversight even before the dispute is officially settled. He also said there’s no need for further regulations.
“In fact, Arizona has one of toughest compacts,” said Wapato. “They do background checks on all employees. Michigan doesn’t do anything.”
Ak-Chin officials and Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which manages the casino, said Rodriquez will have a chance to argue her case in a Jan. 20 hearing before the casino’s tribal gaming commission, which oversees casino regulations and patron disputes.
Ralph Berry, a spokesman for Memphis-based Harrah’s, said the controversy has been a public relations fiasco for the company, which runs 16 casinos nationwide, including three on Indian reservations.
“It’s ridiculous for someone to come and say they don’t want to pay a jackpot. We like people to win,” Berry said.
Even so, Harrah’s isn’t promising to refund the money Rodriquez put into the machine; it’s only considering doing so. Berry wouldn’t explain why a refund isn’t a certainty.
The machine she was playing, called Quartermania, is part of a pool of slot machines at casinos throughout the Southwest. The pool, known as a progressive system of slot machines, allows jackpots to build as players in each participating casino pour in money.
Security video footage taken at the casino that night shows Rodriquez playing the slots with her husband for at least several minutes before the payoff.
Five hours after she hit the jackpot, casino officials scratched the payoff, saying an inspection by an independent lab confirmed a glitch in the machine’s computer chip.
Rodriquez, 64, a former migrant farmworker, said she hoped to use the money to help her grandchildren, including a granddaughter who has kidney problems and might require dialysis.
“I hope no one else will go through the same pain I went through,” she said.