By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Once the investigators had identified the tellers involved, they confronted several. One of them, Madeline Mixon, a middle-aged mother, agreed to cooperate and wear a secret microphone. She'd worked at the track for about 20 years and said she at first shied away from ten-percenting, but during the 1990s, she got desperate for cash after a bout with cancer.
When word of the IRS investigation spread, the cheating dropped off. Cindi Smith, a teller since 1978, took W-G2 forms that had been presigned by Miller and burned them in her backyard. She warned Mixon, "If you tell the truth, we all go tumbling down." Another teller advised wearing surgical gloves so as not to leave fingerprints on the tickets.
At one point, the investigation turned toward Joe Ryan, the 59-year-old operational manager of the track, but he passed away in August 2000. The probe had also targeted four other ten-percenters who operated like Miller, but two died during the lengthy probe, and prosecutors could not locate the other two. "They were going after something grand," asserts Carl Lida, an attorney who represented one of the tellers. "And then the principals of that investigation died."
A federal grand jury indicted five tellers and Miller in May 2003. "Some of them got a deal because the government reduced the amount they were being held responsible for," says Randee Golder, who represents Miller, now 51 years old. "But there was no deal there for Warren. The government used him as the focal point for the whole thing." Golder contends that her client has difficulty understanding right from wrong because of brain damage. For example, when Miller made his first appearance in court, the judge asked him what he did for a living. "I'm a ten-percenter," he replied.
Four tellers pleaded guilty earlier in January to filing fraudulent tax documents. In February, a jury found Miller, Smith, and Thaer Ayoub, who had been supervising tellers on the main line, guilty of conspiracy to defraud and filing false tax documents. Smith was also convicted for witness tampering for urging Mixon not to cooperate.
During her sentencing, Smith told Gonzalez that track officials had been well-aware of the ten-percenting. "It was almost considered a courtesy for the customers because the money would go back to the track anyway," said the 52-year-old Smith, whose shoulder-length gray hair framed her flush-red face. "There were doctors, lawyers, even judges doing it." Smith and Ayoub were sentenced to one year in jail. Miller got 18 months.
When William J. Syms Sr. proposed erecting the Hollywood Kennel Club in the early 1930s, many considered it an absurd notion. There were already three tracks in the Miami area. Not only that, the site he chose -- at today's intersection of Pembroke Road and Federal Highway -- was at that time a barren landscape. Syms was persuasive enough, however, to bring in backers, and construction began in 1934. After the investors got cold feet, Syms finished the track late that year with his own money.
The morning of December 12, 1934, was icy. Temperatures that night had dived well below freezing, making it the most frigid night anyone in South Florida could recall. Still, 200 dog race fans journeyed to the track for opening day. Swaddled in winter attire, the crowd gawked as Buddy Hawk zoomed across the finish line. Those sharp enough to bet on him to win walked away with $62 -- a helluva lot of money in the midst of the Great Depression. When the champ and his owner stepped into the winner's circle, they were given a trophy by no less than Damon Runyon, the Guys and Dolls author who'd gained fame with his stories about racing and gangsters. The crowd bet about $14,000 that day, equivalent to about $200,000 today.
Despite the tough economic times, the track grew steadily more successful, adding a clubhouse in 1940. Each year, it increased its handle, which is the total amount wagered. Attendance also grew progressively, except during World War II, when gasoline rationing curtailed the races. After the war ended in early 1945, track managers tried to make up for lost time by holding a 40-day season in the fall, then a regular season beginning in December.
Hollywood Kennel radiated class in those days, and the celebrities (and fading stars) took every opportunity to bask in that glow. Ceremonies at the finish line included the likes of Milton Berle, the Ritz Brothers (the original madcap comedians), Buster Keaton, Mansfield, and William Holden, who showed up in 1953 the same week he won the Academy Award for Stalag 17. Heavyweight boxing champs like Jack Dempsey and Primo Carnera were regulars.
During the 1960-61 season, the track pulled in more than 500,000 visitors who bet $20 million (about $125 million in today's dollars). On February 2, 1965, the track hosted a record crowd of 10,832. The owners spent $60,000 tearing down the old grandstand in 1973 (about the same amount it had cost to build it 40 years earlier) Its replacement, a 9,000-seater, was built on the west side of the track and opened for the 1973-74 season.
The good times continued to roll well into the 1980s. The track had its all-time record attendance of 14,577 on March 4, 1978. Its handle didn't peak until the evening of February 5, 1982, when visitors bet a little more than $1.22 million.