At Philly-area slots casinos, thieves prey on the elderly

ESTHER CLEMENT was having a nice conversation with the young man sitting at the slot machine next to her at the Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack in Bensalem when she hit big.

"We were chatting and he seemed like such a nice young man," said Clement, 73, of Northeast Philadelphia. "I had won a nice little jackpot. A hundred dollars is a lot to me."

Esther Clement, of Northeast Philadelphia, had just won $150 at Philadelphia Park when a thief walked away with her winnings.

The young man started winning too and thanked Clement for bringing him luck.

Clement was ahead for the first time and decided to leave the casino that way. She headed to the ladies room, forgetting to pull from the slot machine the just-printed voucher needed to collect her $150 in winnings. Clement soon realized her mistake. She rushed back to find her voucher and the young man gone.

Crime reports and statistics compiled by the state police's new gaming-enforcement office show Clement is not alone.

Theft is the most common crime reported at Philadelphia Park and the region's other new casino, Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, in Chester. There have been 34 thefts at Harrah's Chester this year and 29 at Philadelphia Park.

Reports show the victims tend to be elderly and/or inattentive, losing their wallets or their winnings to lurking thieves.

Clement was lucky with more than the slots on May 18, the day her voucher vanished.

A Philadelphia Park employee found her in tears and alerted troopers, who work from a substation inside the casino. Casino computers tracked her voucher, which had been cashed, and troopers used the physical description she provided to find the thief at another slot machine.

"He didn't have the smarts to leave," said Clement, whose money was refunded by the casino the next day.

She decided not to press charges. Clement, who still goes to Philadelphia Park, hopes the thief has learned his lesson.

Officials at Philadelphia Park, which opened its casino in December, did not respond this week to requests for information about their security staff and tactics.

State Police Lt. John Evans, the regional commander for the gaming-enforcement office, has troopers patrolling at Philadelphia Park and Harrah's Chester. His troopers will also patrol the two casinos proposed for Philadelphia and another in Bethlehem.

The state police will not say how many troopers work at each casino now, but project that the gaming-enforcement office will have 116 troopers to cover 14 casinos.

Theft at the casinos is "just a crime of opportunity based on the situation," Evans said.

John Zappas, security manager for Harrah's Chester, agrees with Evans' assessment. Since the casino opened in January, security staffers have taken care to point out to patrons when they might be putting their property or winnings at risk. And the staff is keeping track of potential thieves.

"We keep a file on anyone that we consider suspicious," Zappas said, adding that the files include video and photographs.

Still, any entertainment venue draws some level of crime, he said.

"You take your kids to Sesame Place, you're going to get pick-pocketed sometimes," Zappas said.

Aubrey Kenney, of Plainfield, N.J., knows that now. Kenney, 73, frequents Atlantic City's casinos but recently has been checking out the action at Harrah's Chester and Philadelphia Park.

Kenney was on his third trip to Philadelphia Park on May 17 when a woman sat down to play the slot machine next to him while her friend stood behind him and carried on a conversation.

One of the women bumped into Kenney. Twenty minutes later he noticed his wallet was missing.

Kenney had just recently cashed in a winning voucher for about $560 and suspects that the women targeted him for that.

"That's why they picked me," he said. "They've got people watching when you cash out. That's when they got me."

Kenney's wife hasn't been to Philadelphia Park and wants to go, so he plans to return.

"We're going, but I'm not even going to carry a wallet," he said.

Evans said his statistics show that more crimes are being reported at Philadelphia Park and Harrah's Chester than at the two other casinos now open in the state, the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre and Presque Isle Downs in Erie.

"In general, Philadelphia Park and Chester are busier," he said.

Philadelphia Park and Harrah's Chester took in $239 million and $257 million in wagers from May 1 to Sunday, according to the latest state Gaming Control Board revenue report.

Mohegan Sun, which opened in November, and Presque Isle, which opened in late February, reported wagers of $140 million and $143 million respectively for the same period.

Opponents of the two casinos planned on the Delaware riverfront in Fishtown and in South Philly have used the potential for crime as one of many rallying cries for several months.

Evans says the crime rates for the casinos now open so far show them to be "very safe places to go" as long as patrons take care.

"Pay attention to your surroundings and your belongings, of course your money and your winnings," Evans said. *