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$700,000 Michigan casino heist leads FBI on trail back to Chicago

A high-profile $700,000 heist from Michigan casino last year has led federal authorities on a trail back to Chicago, where a South Side man was arrested this week on charges of participating in a made-for-Hollywood scheme to impersonate the casino’s tribal operator and cage boss, court records show.

Jesus Gaytan-Garcia, 43, was charged in a criminal complaint last week in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids with one count of theft from the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Tribe, which owns the Four Winds Casino in Hartford, Michigan.

Garcia-Gaytan was arrested in Chicago and appeared for a detention hearing Thursday at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where he was ordered released on electronic monitoring over the objections of federal prosecutors.

According to the charges, Gaytan-Garcia was one of three co-conspirators who stole $700,000 from the Four Winds Casino on the afternoon of July 23, 2023 — a heist that made headlines in Michigan both for the amount stolen and the unusual manner in which it went missing.

Three weeks before the casino was targeted, the Nevada Gaming Control Board in Las Vegas issued a warning that criminals were using “social engineering tactics to pose as casino executives” and direct cage employees to withdraw cash.

“The amount of money involved in this theft is extraordinary,” U.S. Attorney Mark Totten, who heads the office in Grand Rapids, said in a statement Thursday. “Unfortunately, instances of telephone scams at casinos are on the rise across the country, impacting both tribal and commercial gaming operations.”

Prosecutors said that at least two co-conspirators remain at large.

The heist began about 1:20 p.m. when a caller to the casino’s switchboard falsely claimed that he was the tribal chairperson and needed to speak with the cage manager, according to the complaint. The caller was patched through to the casino’s cage, where the manager, identified in the charges only as “D.Y.,” spoke to him, according to the complaint.

As the manager was on the phone, she also began receiving text messages from another person claiming to be the cage director, who was out of town. The texts stated he needed D.Y.’s help “to make an urgent payment within the next 20 minutes,” according to the complaint.

“The texter urged D.Y. to follow the instructions of the caller and that she needed to be ‘discreet’ in handling the money,” the complaint stated.

Casino surveillance captured D.Y. opening a drawer while she was still on the phone and removing seven bundles of cash, which she placed in a Michael Kors handbag and then left the casino, the complaint stated.

At the direction of the caller, D.Y. drove the cash in her Chevrolet Equinox to a gas station in Gary, where she handed it over to two “unknown individuals” who had pulled up in a Chrysler Pacifica, according to the complaint.

Meanwhile, D.Y.’s supervisor reported to casino bosses that he had seen her leave with the money and police were notified to be on the lookout for her car. After dropping off the money, D.Y. called her supervisor to let her know where she was, and she was arrested at the gas station at 901 E. 5th St. in Gary, the charges alleged.

D.Y. told investigators she had remained on the phone with the man claiming to be the tribal leader for nearly two hours as she drove to Gary, and that the person had “ordered her to read off every exit that she drove by,” the complaint alleged.

D.Y. described the man she’d handed the bag of cash to as Hispanic, in his late 30s, with a goatee, wearing a gray construction shirt, the complaint alleged. She said the Chrysler then departed the gas station and headed east on Highway 20.

A search of license plate readers later picked up the Chrysler as it turned onto Interstate 65 around the same time, according to the complaint. The license plate on the vehicle was registered to Gaytan-Garcia’s wife at the home they shared in the 5900 block of South Keeler Avenue, in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood.

Last week, FBI agents along with Pokagon Tribal Police executed a search warrant at the home and found a safe in the basement with bundles of $100 bills with wrapping stamped “SOFT COUNT, JUL 30 2023 HARTFORD,” according to the complaint, which included a photo of the cash.

Gaytan-Garcia’s wife and daughter, who were the only ones home during the search, told investigators that Gaytan-Garcia “seemed to suddenly have a lot of money” after July 2023, and that he’d paid about $90,000 for two trailer homes, one of which he lived in part time in central Indiana, according to the complaint.

His wife added that she “saw a lot of money on the table in the garage in $100 denominations” around the same time as the heist, the charges allege.

During Thursday’s detention hearing, Gaytan-Garcia sat at the defense table in an orange jail jumpsuit, listening to the proceedings through a Spanish interpreter.

His attorney, Patrick Eamon Boyle, said his client has lived in Chicago for at least 20 years and works in construction. Though he is not in the U.S. legally, Gaytan has no criminal record and is not accused of using any violence in the casino heist, Boyle said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole allowed Gaytan-Garcia to be released pending trial in Michigan, with his wife, who was present in court, serving as a third-party custodian.

“I’m betting on you,” Cole said.

Meanwhile, the casino’s cage manager, D.Y., was initially charged with embezzlement in state court in Michigan, but those charges have since been dropped, according to news reports.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com