Finished Line

Federal indictments. Drugging. Lowbrow culture. Hollywood Greyhound Track is for the dogs.

He saunters toward Sonny and Marty, New York snowbirds, heavily tanned and dressed in tropical shirts, khaki shorts, and white socks with black loafers. Roberto isn't a hard-sell kind of guy, but he's familiar with New Yorkers who guess more than handicap. Roberto knows they value the opinion of old hands. He stands in front of their table and leans in. "Two, with one, three, eight," he says. In gambler's patois, he explains the logic of his choice. Sonny, apparently won over, takes him up on the tip. He sends the old man to the teller with $6. Marty goes with his own hunches.

A couple of minutes later, the announcer declares, "Heeere cooomes Hollywood!" The two mechanical lure dogs swerve by the starting box, tripping a release switch, and the eight greyhounds explode out of the swinging gates. Magic Ratman, a black 76-pounder that is Roberto's key pick for first, takes the inside but remains in second place through the backstretch. In the final quarter of the race, however, he bursts ahead, winning handily against Regall Dodgeball, dog one.

Roberto smiles exuberantly. The 2-1 combo is among the perfectas he bet. It pays $32.40 -- not a princely sum, but it'll put him back in the game. He heads to a teller and collects the 30-odd dollars, shrewdly cashing out in singles. He hands the money to Sonny, who splays it in his hands like a deck of cards. He awards Roberto with four bucks.

Old greyhounds used to sometimes end up as gator food, says Michelle Weaver, who with husband Jerry Deitch helps adopt out Hollywood's retired dogs.
Colby Katz
Old greyhounds used to sometimes end up as gator food, says Michelle Weaver, who with husband Jerry Deitch helps adopt out Hollywood's retired dogs.
Self-described hustler Stefo Yankovski ponders the next race.
Colby Katz
Self-described hustler Stefo Yankovski ponders the next race.

Marty verbally kicks himself in the ass, and his pal Sonny is eager to help. "I said, 'Let Roberto make a bet for you,'" Sonny chides.

"Yeah, yeah," Marty agrees.

"And you said, 'Fuck Roberto!' Remember?"

*******

Warren G. Miller was a familiar sight at the Hollywood Greyhound Track through most of the 1990s. Toting a plastic bag filled with odds and ends, the Jheri-curled middle-ager shuffled around the betting parlor looking like a homeless man. With his top front teeth missing, he had a drooling problem and wiped his lips frequently with a handkerchief. Even so, Miller stood out from the down-and-out gamblers for only one thing: He was a key player in a scheme to bilk the IRS out of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars.

Two weeks ago, federal Judge Jose Gonzalez sentenced Miller to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay the IRS $442,000 in restitution. The judge also meted out jail time, fines, and probation to a half dozen tellers for their part in the so-called ten-percenting scheme. The case reveals a deeply entrenched culture of fraud and greed at the track.

Depending upon whom you believe, Miller was either a shrewd operator or a mentally impaired gambling addict. He'd dropped out of high school in the 1960s and, from that point on, spent most of his life at local horse and dog tracks. His brother, Charles Miller, told Gonzalez that his sibling had been born a "waterhead" baby, though the family didn't realize the effect it had on his brain at the time. "Warren just takes his bags and leaves," Charles Miller said. "You can say things to him over and over, but he just doesn't understand."

By the 1990s, Warren Miller had found a steady stream of income through ten-percenting, a relatively common practice in racetracks around the country. The IRS requires that a gambler file tax form W-2G for any winning bet that pays out more than $600. If the ticket pays more than $5,000, then 28 percent of the winnings is automatically withheld and submitted to the IRS. There's no automatic withholding, however, for amounts between $600 and $5,000, just filing the W-2G form. Here's where people like Miller make money. Gamblers offer front men a proportion of the winnings to cash the ticket using their own Social Security numbers. That way, the gambler doesn't have to declare the winnings on his income taxes.

The practice, termed ten-percenting because that's traditionally been the commission, can also involve track employees. In this scenario, the gambler presents a winning ticket to a teller -- whom he's likely tipped well in the past -- and is then given 90 to 95 percent of its value. The teller doesn't actually cash the ticket until he finds a front man on the betting floor.

Between 1993 and 1998, Miller cashed $2.6 million worth of W-2G's. Despite that, he'd never filed an income tax return, a glaring discrepancy that the IRS computers picked up. Miller didn't respond to written notifications by the IRS. Then the case was handed to Special Agent Julio LaRosa of the department's criminal division in South Florida.

LaRosa, bantam in build and demeanor, and his partner, Art VanDesande, began following Miller's trail of W-2G's in the area's horse and dog raceways. They finally found Miller at Hollywood, and the bettor immediately knew LaRosa and VanDesande were IRS agents, LaRosa testified during the trial. Miller admitted that he was ten-percenting and knew it was against the law, but he would not name any of the other people who had been involved.

Soon after, LaRosa began shadowing Miller -- who didn't even break stride in his illegal avocation -- and discovered that numerous tellers were involved. A good many had worked at the track for 20 years or more, and they'd become close. On the first floor's main line, tellers sit mere feet from their neighbors; everyone knew what was going on. Some tellers would call out "Warren!" when they needed a big ticket cashed. Tellers working on the facility's upper floors would routinely call their co-workers on the first floor to locate Miller, who usually knew his services were needed because the track's tote board indicates winning bets of $600 or more.

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