Former B.C. casino supervisor blows whistle on when Macau-style money laundering may have exploded
Muriel Labine liked her job at the Great Canadian Gaming casino in Richmond, B.C.
She was a dealer supervisor, monitoring the integrity of the gambling happening around her. Labine hoped to work for Great Canadian until she retired.
But in May 1997, the NDP government increased bet limits from $25 to $500 per hand, introduced baccarat tables and extended gambling hours.
That’s when, she says, everything changed.
Within days, Labine noticed the VIP gamblers start to come in. But it was strange, she says, that these high rollers were almost always accompanied by young Asian men who gave them cash. Many employees in the Richmond casino started to call these young men “Human Teller Machines.”
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Labine judged they were loan sharks, she says, because they would bring in their own clients and sit with them at the tables, passing the baccarat players bundles of $20 bills and casino chips.
This paper money — wrinkled and wrapped in elastic bands — wasn’t likely coming from banks, she judged. When the gamblers ran out of money, she says the “human tellers” would make calls on their cellphones, setting off flurries of activity.
Someone — typically an older Asian man who was treated with respect, according to Labine’s memory of these scenes — would arrive at the casino with a plastic grocery bag. The “human tellers” would grab bricks of cash from the bag, give their clients new wads of $20s and gambling would start again.
Within months, revenue at the casino had nearly doubled. But there was a cost, Labine said. More cash, more fear.
Labine has decided, over 20 years later, to come forward with documents, including her handwritten casino journal notes from the time period and B.C. Gaming Commission revenue documents that appear to record the exact moment when Macau-style money laundering exploded in B.C.’s economy.
These records, given exclusively to Global News, could be problematic for the current NDP government, which, along with independent reviewer Peter German, has placed most of the blame for B.C.’s casino-money-laundering scandal on the B.C. Liberal government, which took power in 2001.
Although Labine didn’t know exactly what she was seeing in the summer of 1997, her documents appear to provide an extraordinary historical record — a view from the casino floor of the months when frightened staff witnessed the arrival of Macau casino gangs.
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Great Canadian Gaming was asked repeatedly to respond in an interview to a number of the specific allegations made in Labine’s records, which are reported in this story.
The company responded with only this comment: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on employee matters, and specific to this request, we are challenged to understand how allegations from 20 years ago provide value to Global readers/viewers.”
Big Circle Boys
Eventually, Labine says she and Richmond casino staff came to believe from security staff that loan-sharking members of the Big Circle Boys and other Triads — drug-trafficking and casino-money-laundering syndicates that are linked to Chinese officials and Hong Kong tycoons, according to RCMP records — had become, as Labine saw it, dangerous co-workers.
She started to complain to managers. Staff shouldn’t have to work with gangsters, she told them, according to her complaint records.
Over and over, casino management had the same answer, her records allege.
“Management was coming out of the back office, saying: ‘They’re just friends loaning money to friends,’” Labine recalled.
“There was no question that they were not ever going to use the word ‘loan shark,’ ‘gangs’ or ‘money lenders.’ No, the company was not going to use those words — they were denying it.”
So Labine changed her plan. Her records show that, like an internal investigator, she built an intelligence network. She chatted up casino surveillance staff, started to pry information from co-workers and recorded detailed notes in a journal. She and others described suspected gangsters, assigning them code names and logging their associations and hierarchy, the flow of cash night to night and how they were connected to each other.
Her notes also recorded observations of tense meetings between suspected Big Circle Boys kingpins — older men that Labine judged were feared and respected — that occurred in the Richmond casino’s rooms after a shooting occurred in a Richmond restaurant.
“We are all concerned for our safety, and we feel we need to document these activities for our own well-being,” an Aug. 1, 1998 entry in Labine’s journal reads.
“We feel the baccarat pit is getting out of hand and that the casino is ignoring our warnings … staff are becoming more aware of the gangs that are now working amongst us … supervisors are feeling intimidated and overwhelmed.”
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About two years later, Labine would use her notes to escalate a complaint all the way to the top, making stunning allegations that are recorded in her exchange of letters with Great Canadian Gaming’s then-president and founder, Ross McLeod.
After May 1997, Labine collected casino revenue sheets and matched them against the transactions she was observing in the baccarat pit.
The number of tables in the small Richmond casino did not change — it had 30 betting tables and no slot machines.
In May, the total casino revenue after paying out bet wins was $1,617,000, B.C. Gaming Commission documents obtained by Global News show. The majority went to B.C.’s government, and Great Canadian’s share was $647,000. In June, after the baccarat and higher bet limit changes, revenue in the Richmond casino surged to $2,490,000, with Great Canadian taking $996,000.
In July, the Richmond casino win had nearly doubled to $3,035,000. And in August, total Richmond casino revenue was $2.65 million, B.C. government documents show.
Month to month, the number of “human tellers” in the casino continued to rise, according to Labine’s journal records.
“The reports show clearly the huge increase in revenue the month the limits were increased to $500 and the mini-baccarat game was permitted in the casino, which coincided with the arrival of the gangs,” Labine told Global News.
“Most of that money did not appear to be coming from a bank, but instead from the loan sharks through their clients.”
The journal entries
In minute detail, Labine’s journal notes describe the wild new economic factors in play.
“The population of $500 players has grown substantially over the last few months,” an August 1998 journal note reads. “It is not uncommon for more than 20 people to be playing a single baccarat table.”
Labine and some of her colleagues described the men she believed were funding these baccarat players, as the “Boys.”
“We are aware that there is more than one gang operating the tables,” an August 1998 journal note says. “The Asian dealers and the casino security have slowly been feeding us this information … the ‘Boys’ have their own clients, which they are catering to exclusively … providing anything they want, but mostly handing them large quantities of cash or chips when they run out of money.”
Labine had questions about the $20s pouring across the baccarat tables, and journal records show the staff scrutinized how the money was distributed.
“We have been wondering where they manage to find these massive amounts of twenty-dollar bills … the well, it never seems to dry up,” a 1998 journal record reads.
“(Name redacted), a head loan shark who has been operating for quite some time at our casino, comes in. He is carrying a grocery bag full of money. He signals the other ‘Boys’ to join him. They all stand at the concession stand, and (head loan shark) opens the bag and begins to pass out bundles of twenty-dollar bills … The ‘Boys’ bring the cash back to the tables to begin the transactions.”
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According to her records, the gangs were able to easily exchange $20s for $100s in the casino.
“The ‘Boys’ will frequently buy in with bundled twenty-dollar bills that total $1,000/$2,000 each bundle. We have been forced in recent weeks to send these men to the cash cage to make the transactions … the cage will then exchange the smaller bills for larger bills that can be more easily changed on a gaming table.”
While Labine’s journal does not note it, exchanging $20s for $100s is a money-laundering technique known as “refining” currency. Also known as “colouring up,” the transaction allows criminals to exchange $20s used in street drug transactions for $100s that are more acceptable in banking and business transactions.
Labine says she strongly suspected the $20s flooding across baccarat tables were drug money. Referring to a senior employee, a 1998 journal note reads: “(Name redacted) feels strongly that heroin, not extortion, is the major source of income for the sharks … according to him, deals occur all the time and are visible if you are paying attention. In public washrooms, according to him, on several occasions, (he) was witness to drug deals by the ‘Boys.’”
This observation is consistent with records in B.C. court files, which say police believed the Big Circle Boys preferred to make drug transactions in casinos because if police caught them, they could use casino play as an excuse for large amounts of cash.
These investigators point to a Big Circle Boys kingpin who was believed to be the top loan shark in the Richmond casino and a violent heroin trafficker. Investigators alleged the kingpin, who was facing a deportation order, would lend out his “buckets” of cash through his “minions” into the hands of Chinese high rollers in the casino.
These loans would be secured against luxury vehicles and Vancouver homes, court records allege. And the loan shark was paid back with cheques — a fact proven when cheques worth hundreds of thousands were seized from his home, records show. If casino borrowers could not pay back, the kingpin and his cell of Big Circle Boys would extort their victims, making threats and seizing vehicles, furniture or homes as repayment, according to the allegations.
The seized vehicles were sold at a Vancouver car dealership owned by the loan-sharking kingpin, Canada Border Service agents alleged, and also shipped to China and Hong Kong.
‘Lay off him’
Labine says her fear of the Big Circle Boys increased when she saw Richmond casino customers threatened and coming to the baccarat pit with facial bruises.
“I came into the casino one night to go to work, and there was one of our customers with two of the loan sharks. (They) had him up against the wall on the outside of the building, threatening him, saying: ‘We want our money, we want our money,’” she recalled.
Her journal records point to several men who seemed to instill fear wherever they went.
“We were told by senior casino management months ago to ‘lay off him. He is not someone you want to deal with,’” one entry in Labine’s journal alleges.
“He stood only about five feet high, was balding, in his fifties and had the most sinister look one could ever imagine. He was the only shark that was given free cigarettes and drinks by the casino.”
According to her journal, this man “was once seen shaking hands and engaged in long conversations with the vice-president of the casino … Most of the staff seemed highly intimidated by this fellow.”
There was another man, a VIP gambler, who seemed to be equally feared and allegedly threatened a casino manager, who was a Chinese woman, over the outcome of a baccarat bet.
“The ‘Fat Man’ is a high roller who associates with gangs. Certain members of management have informed us of their desire to remove him, however higher management, out of fear and/or out of greed for the man’s money, have opted not to,” a journal entry alleges.
“The threat that was uttered to the supervisor was, ‘I’m going to put a bullet between your eyes.’”
Great Canadian Gaming did not respond to a question about whether an employee was threatened in this case.
The journal notes point to a number of Asian organized crime “families” — but only the most prominent gang is named.
“Security informs us that one of the gangs is the Big Circle Boys,” a 1998 journal record reads.
By this time, Labine had gathered what she calls “physical” evidence of loan sharking in the casino — paper records indicating loan amounts to code-named high rollers — the journal records show. But even then, she was not 100 per cent sure that her observations and fears about the “Boys” were accurate.
That changed in November 1998 after a lower-level loan shark code-named in the journals as “Michael” was shot during a mah-jong game in the back room of a Richmond restaurant by a senior shark code-named “Scarface.”
In the attempted murder case, court heard the two men were loan sharks in Richmond and that they were associated to the Big Circle Boys along with another alleged casino loan shark named Betty Yan, who was witness to the shooting of Michael, the Vancouver Sun reported in 1999. Yan denied she was a Big Circle Boys gangster in the case. But in deportation hearings, she was linked to a loan-sharking operation, records show, before she was shot dead in 2009 while sitting in her Mercedes outside a suspected illegal Richmond casino.
“We have to stand around hoping and praying that we are safe from harm. We are in the line of fire more than any other,” a November 1998 note from Labine’s journal says. “We are four days away from the bail hearing of ‘Scarface.’”
And meanwhile, large amounts of cash kept flowing to baccarat tables, causing staff to fear high rollers would be robbed at gunpoint, according to December 1998 journal notes.
“The staff are becoming more aware of the currency the ‘Boys’ are generating for the casino,” the notes say. “The drops are in the hundreds of thousands, and it never seems to let up. It is common now to see men carrying handbags full of cash.”
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Some staff hoped the shooting of Michael in the Richmond restaurant would bring sustained police attention inside the casino.
“We are speculating that the police are again attempting a house cleaning … recent arrests within the casino certainly help to make the sharks find a new home,” the notes say.
But by January 1999, hopes of a prolonged police crackdown had faded.
“As we expected, the ‘Boys’ are back. They seem to know that after a few weeks, the entire house-cleaning project will cease, and it will be business as usual,” a journal entry reads. “We almost feel sorry for the police at this point in time. They seem to be as helpless as we are, and before too long, it is very likely that we could be robbed at gunpoint.”
Labine says she decided to rally staff around her concerns and joined several employee issues committees, including one focused on workplace safety.
“What I found out scared me. This was organized crime,” Labine told Global News in an in-depth interview.
She says she escalated her campaign against loan sharks and gangs in the workplace to a staff meeting attended by Adrian Thomas, Great Canadian’s vice-president at the time. Thomas left the company’s operations in 2003 and says he no longer has any connection to Great Canadian Gaming.
“I raised my hand and said: ‘I want to talk about the gangs on the agenda.’ Adrian looked at me and said: ‘They are just friends loaning money to friends.’ And that was the end of it,” Labine recalled. “He shut me right down. Right there.”
Labine said she came to realize her efforts would fail.
“Casino revenue was soaring. The gangs and the cash they generated in the casino became the goose that laid the golden eggs,” she recalled. “It became pretty obvious that the more business the gangs did, the more profits the casino made. I couldn’t see the casino killing the goose anytime soon.”
Eventually, Labine alleges, Thomas asked Labine for a private meeting in a poker room at the casino. She said Thomas asked her if she was concerned about staff safety. And she is still shocked by what she said she heard.
“I said yes, I was. I knew there were gangs in the casino, and this was no longer a safe place to work,” Labine said. “He said: ‘You have nothing to worry about. These are only Asian gangs. They are not the Russian mafia, and it’s not the Hells Angels.’
“He then said to me: ‘I have made a deal. They won’t s–t in their own nest.'”
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Labine continued. “He said he had made a deal with the other casino gangs, too, that there were at other locations. I was totally shocked. This was my workplace, and he tells me they won’t s–t in their nest. When did my workplace become their nest?”
In an on-the-record interview, Thomas responded to a number of Labine’s allegations. There are some areas in which Thomas and Labine agree. The introduction of baccarat tables and raising bet limits to $500 changed everything, both say.
“It was a new thing for members of our staff. Remember, up until that time, we deal with bets of $25 in this province up until 1997,” Thomas said. “Of course, as soon as the government comes in, everything they had denied before — ‘Oh no, we can’t have high betting limits’ — then, of course, that was exactly what they did, just to make it bigger for themselves, which is quite understandable.”
Thomas said once casino management could prove a cash lender was in the wrong, he and his top managers would bar them.
“You have to differentiate. If you see somebody handing somebody else some money, you have to be able to say, ‘Well, is this a friend?’” Thomas said. “’Is this a relative, is it a loan shark, whatever?’ You see big amounts of money and you see it often enough, you know it could possibly be from what you call a ‘loan shark.’”
Thomas strongly denied that he ever knowingly met with a suspected gang boss in the casino, as is alleged in Labine’s journal notes.
“I shook hands with many people. Did I shake hands with someone who was purportedly a loan shark or a runner? Maybe,” Thomas said. “If I had a reason to shake hands. I used to bar people myself in the casino … and I’d shake their hands sometimes. That doesn’t mean anything. That is just (a) stupid perception of people that want to cause trouble.”
“If it was a gang boss, I didn’t know anything about it,” Thomas added.
“If this was a known gang boss, why would I stand there and have a long conversation and shake hands with him? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Thomas added that the Richmond casino did not sell cigarettes so it would be impossible to “comp” cigarettes to casino patrons, such as the man that Labine’s notes claim was feared and about whom staff were told to “lay off him.”
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Thomas reiterated during a lengthy interview that he was a hands-on manager, and he would sometimes meet with suspicious casino patrons to tell them they were out of line or not welcome in the casino.
For example, Thomas said, he was aware that Yan, the alleged casino loan shark who was shot dead in 2009, came into the Richmond casino occasionally — but Thomas said Yan was “basically persona non grata.”
Thomas said that Lai Changxing, a criminal billionaire and China’s “most wanted man” — as well as a prolific baccarat gambler in Richmond who closely associated with Yan and alleged Big Circle Boys kingpin Kwok Chung Tam, according to federal court records — was once taken into a private security room in the Richmond casino by Thomas and told to not make trouble.
“I told him this is our business and we don’t want any problems with his boys,” Thomas recalled. “We had security and backup. These guys don’t s–t in their nest.”
Thomas said he received a complaint that Lai allegedly sexually assaulted a female casino dealer. Thomas said he looked into the allegation, but it was not confirmed, and the employee did not want to pursue the complaint.
Lai, who was eventually extradited to China in 2011, was also known by the nickname “Lai Fat-Man” according to reports.
Tam, who has been convicted of extortion and connected to running a drug lab in Richmond, has repeatedly asserted that he is a legitimate businessman, federal court records show.
Thomas strongly denied that he ever came to an understanding with or had dealings with gangs in Great Canadian Gaming casinos. However, he says he recalls telling some in the casino that they couldn’t be jotting down transactions in their record books in front of surveillance cameras or acting suspiciously.
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“If you think someone is operating as a ‘Human Teller Machine’ — what the staff referred to them as — if you think that is what they are doing, you have to talk to them,” Thomas said. “You tell them, ‘You can’t do this, etc., and if you want to lend someone money, it can’t be within our sight. It can’t be within our premises. Because if we see anything like that, we’ve got to do something about it.”
And it was Great Canadian Gaming that took the initiative in banning unwelcome patrons in some cases, Thomas said, and pressed the B.C. Lottery Corporation to enforce the bans.
Thomas stressed that he never had any indication that loan sharks were laundering drug money.
“Drugs being involved? Never heard it. I don’t know how anyone would know it, that a runner was running for a loan shark who was involved in drugs. I never heard it, never saw any evidence of that, never heard a rumour from staff about that so I don’t know where that comes from,” he said.
And the meeting with Labine in a Richmond casino poker room?
Thomas says the meeting did occur, and “s–t in their own nest” is probably a comment he made in reference to the characters that Labine complained about. But there was never any deal made with gangs, he stressed.
“If anybody comes out and says that, I will demand to know who it is and I will have them in God damn court and I will prove it,” Thomas said. “Absolute bulls–t. I didn’t have any dealings, and nor did anyone at the company, as far as I know, have any dealings with any bad guys or any gangs. Certainly not to do with drugs or money lending.”
Thomas says that Labine “hated” him and she has exaggerated his words and twisted the context.
Labine was motivated to lie about what she saw, Thomas said, because she was turned down for a promotion with Great Canadian and then rejected in her union organization efforts. That is why, according to Thomas, Labine became a troublesome employee and eventually left to work with the B.C. Government Employees Union.
But Labine insists she is telling the truth. And though she still fears being sued by Great Canadian Gaming and speaking out about gangsters, she feels someone needs to break the silence and hold B.C.’s government to account.
“I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s what I should have done 20 years ago,” Labine said. “Why did no one see what was going on? Someone did. They had to have. Because I could see it. And I’m a middle-aged grandmother, at the time, from the suburbs.”
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