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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Poker Stories: Drawing Dead

This story originally appeared on Harris Online on October 8, 2006...

Inside the poker room at the Commerce Casino, as long as there are players at the tables, nothing stops the games. They go on 24 hours a day, all year long, and the only non-human sound you hear is the constant clicking, stacking, and shuffling of chips.

That changed just after 2:30am today, when gunshots rang out.

It took about a half-second for me to register what I'd heard and hit the floor, as did the other players and dealers in the room. The gunshots had come from right outside the main entrance of the casino, preceded by quickly approaching police sirens. We stayed on the floor, looking in the direction of the front door, wondering if some crazed nutball had burst into the country's largest poker room, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in play, in an attempt to rob and kill us all.

After five or six minutes, with the disturbance seemingly over, many tables quickly emptied, as frightened people used the back exit to head for their cars.

A few of us stood up to investigate. I talked to a casino security officer who was keeping people from leaving via the front door, and he told me what had happened:

The California Highway Patrol and LA Sheriff's deputies were involved in a high-speed chase on I-5 with a man in a black Scion, when the suspect suddenly pulled off the highway and into the entrance to the Commerce Casino. He headed for the front door, where he drove into the valet lane, with police right on his tail. When he smacked into the back of a Porsche and couldn't go any further, he jumped out and fired several shots at the police. They returned fire, killing him. His female passenger was taken into custody.

I had heard 5-7 shots, but the security guy, who had been right at the door and seen the whole thing, told me it was more like 15-20. Officers quickly marked off the area with yellow police tape, declared it a crime scene, and no one was allowed to leave through the front. That meant that everyone who had a car parked in the valet area couldn't leave, either -- many of them were given a hotel room, but most used it as an excuse to stay and play more poker.

Thankfully, no one inside the casino had been hit or hurt (although that Porsche owner was probably having a fit!). There was a new edge and electricity in the room, particularly as stories were passed around by people who had heard pieces of this, rumors of that. One guy leaned over to me and, after hearing that the suspect was dead, said, "He tried to out-shoot the cops? Talk about going all-in!"

But mostly, despite a corpse and a major police presence some 20 yards away, poker players did what they do best -- riffling chips and telling stories.

Side note: I couldn't help but wonder why the suspect thought this casino, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles, was a good place to try to escape. After all, a huge operation like this has hundreds of surveillance cameras, so it wasn't like he was going to find a safe hiding place. I've heard that more fugitives run to Las Vegas than anywhere else, despite it being the city with more security cameras than any other in the world. Ah, the criminal mind at work.

Update at 11am: I've gotten a few hours sleep and just checked the scene outside. The yellow tape is still up, with several patrol cars and CSI-types doing whatever they do eight hours after an incident like this. The valets are now walking customers to their cars, and new inbound traffic is being pointed towards the back, where the steady stream of another day of card players continues.