Trio tripped up in Meadows scam
He's been jobless and living on Social Security disability income for 15 years, yet Andre Michael Nestor told District Judge Jay Weller yesterday he had access to $400,000 cash to bail himself and a friend out of jail.
That amount represents slightly less than what Mr. Nestor and two friends are accused of stealing from The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, in what officials have characterized as one of the biggest casino heists ever.
It is certainly the largest in Pennsylvania, Washington County District Attorney Steven Toprani said yesterday during a news conference to announce county grand jury indictments of Mr. Nestor, 38, and his roommate Kerry Laverde, 49, of Swissvale, and Patrick Loushil, 42, of Brookline.
The trio were arraigned late yesterday in front of Judge Weller in North Strabane, Washington County, where he set bail at $100,000 for Mr. Loushil, and $200,000 apiece for Mr. Nestor and Mr. Laverde, a former Swissvale police officer who said he is employed as a police officer for the Forbes Regional Hospital.
Mr. Nestor and Mr. Laverde face 367 felony counts of theft, receiving stolen property, criminal conspiracy, computer trespassing and other charges in what Mr. Toprani called a "sophisticated scheme" to exploit a software glitch in one of the slot machines that allowed them to make the machine generate false, double jackpots. The machine was one reserved for high rollers, a reference to customers who gamble large stakes.
Mr. Loushil faces the same charges with three additional counts of lying to police. Police have indicated that he is cooperating with their investigation.
According to Mr. Toprani, state police and Meadows officials who were on hand yesterday, the suspects had knowledge of the software glitch that could be activated by enabling a "double-up" feature of the slot machine.
Such a feature -- which gives customers the option to double their winnings or lose everything -- isn't normally available on the slot machines, but it's one of the "soft" options that Meadows technicians can enable for special customers, such as high rollers, Mr. Toprani said. Other such options would be controlling volume and brightness of the screen.
In this case, Mr. Toprani said the men convinced an employee -- who is not charged with wrongdoing -- to enable the feature.
Mr. Toprani said the men carried large amounts of cash into the Meadows during a two-month period beginning on June 22, with Mr. Nestor masterminding the scheme and posing as a high roller. Mr. Nestor, he said, played machines in the Meadows "high-limit" area, where prices range from $1 to $25 per credit.
Mr. Laverde, he said, acted as a bodyguard for Mr. Nestor and flashed his police badge to casino employees and other gamblers. Mr. Loushil, he said, distracted employees and helped collect some of the winnings.
They used the "double-up" glitch to inflate winnings totaling $429,985 during 14 visits to the casino, said Mr. Toprani, who said the machine became a "money tree" to them.
The scheme began unraveling five weeks ago, when a state gaming control board agent noticed the high payoffs and began an investigation with state police.
They turned the information over to Mr. Toprani, asking him to empanel a grand jury to investigate further.
Mr. Toprani said many witnesses testified secretly before the grand jury, which he established earlier this year. . The men were indicted Friday, and the presentment was unsealed yesterday.
For that reason, he is expected to challenge the necessity of preliminary hearings, scheduled for Oct. 15.
Casino Vice President and General Manager Sean Sullivan said the questionable machine has been removed and steps have been taken to ensure that no other machine is vulnerable.
He thanked police for their work and said only the Meadows, not the state, lost money.
"The message is clear," Mr. Sullivan said. "Commit a crime in Pennsylvania casinos and you will be held accountable and caught."
Mr. Toprani said the men had tried to exploit the glitch at other casinos with no luck. In July, he said, police arrested a Las Vegas man for a similar scheme.
Mr. Nestor and Mr. Laverde moved back to Pennsylvania two years ago after living in Las Vegas for seven years.
Mr. Toprani said he plans to explore options to seize money and bank accounts owned by the men.
He said gambling-related crimes are new to the area, but said police are adjusting to the challenges.
"While gaming may be relatively new in Pennsylvania, designing criminals will continue to cheat the system," he said. "This investigation and arrest show that law enforcement is well prepared for the challenge and will use tools available to eliminate the criminal threat."
First Published October 7, 2009 12:00 am