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By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
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Mark Cantrell had just finished climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge when he saw the message blinking on his phone. With long, stringy hair and a supersize upper body, Cantrell resembled a professional wrestler past his peak. He was on vacation with his fiancée in Australia, but suddenly he became very worried. The message was from Steve Cross, Calder's track superintendent. Cantrell excused himself and called Cross. Over the whipping South Pacific winds, he could just make out Cross' message: The jig was up.
"Churchill Downs has lawyers all over this place," Cantrell remembers Cross telling him in March 2008. "They are on to us."
For ten years, Cross, Cantrell, and a man named Israel Campos had run a massive fraud operation out of Calder. As the person in charge of maintaining the grass and track, Cross ordered nearly $4 million of chemicals from Cantrell and Campos (plus almost another million from unidentified plumbing, welding, and painting contractors). But the goods were never delivered, and Cross received roughly $2 million in kickbacks from the phony vendors.
The trio was finally charged this year. On the surface, it seems like an open-and-shut case of employees ripping off their clueless bosses. But there is more to the story, Cantrell claims. He says Cross could never have ordered $5 million of fake goods without his supervisors noticing.
Current Calder officials acknowledge the track had management problems that contributed to the scheme but say they've solved the problems with new leadership. "I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Steve Cross, but our company has identified the improprieties under his watch through a thorough audit process," Marshall says.
When Cross first met Cantrell in 1999, he was convinced the guy was a cop. But Cantrell was in trouble. He and his dad owed thousands after a failed exterminator business. Cantrell had two kids, and his wife was pregnant with twins.
A friend had told Cantrell about the operation Cross and Campos had started the year before at Calder. It was as easy as filling out fake receipts and then cashing the checks, the friend said. Cantrell showed up at Cross' trailer on the backside of Calder. Eventually convinced that the cash-strapped mess wasn't a cop, Cross cut Cantrell in on the scam.
Every week for the next decade, Cantrell stopped by Cross' trailer and exchanged a phony receipt for a real check, issued by the Calder accounting department. Then Cantrell would pass Cross an envelope with his half of the fraudulent funds, usually $3,000 to $5,000. Campos did the same. The simple deception earned them each roughly $150,000 a year, while Cross made twice that much.
Flush with cash, Cross began driving a Corvette and taking gambling trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Cantrell, meanwhile, went downhill after his divorce. He wallowed in drugs and prostitutes for a couple of years, he admits.
There was too much missing money to hide forever, though. Campos had Cross issue the checks to one of his employees, but cashed them himself. When the woman received a W-2 listing income of more than $300,000, she freaked out and went to the IRS. By March 2008, Calder was swarming with Churchill Downs attorneys. That's when Cross called Cantrell in Australia and told him to keep quiet.
But when Cantrell returned to Florida, there was a subpoena waiting for him. He promptly spilled his guts to Calder's lawyers about the $4 million scheme in return for immunity from a lawsuit.
"You can call me a fucking rat. I don't care," he says. "In the end, it's your own skin that you're worried about."
Calder fired Cross and then sued him. The case remains open.
Cantrell's deal with Calder didn't protect him from federal investigators. He and his co-conspirators were indicted this past February. Again, he cooperated in hopes of reducing his sentence. It worked. On May 22, he got 13 months in prison. Campos received 33 months, and Cross nabbed nearly five years. In court, prosecutors admitted that Cantrell had made their case.
Standing beneath the hulking stone awning of the federal courthouse in downtown Miami, Cantrell seems at peace. After a decade of thrills financed by fraud, he no longer looks much like a cop. His long hair is greasy and streaked with bleach like a surf bum's. His face is half-frozen by all the Xanax and codeine syrup he's been taking to avoid violating his parole. And he's wearing a blue Smurf T-shirt that reads, "Call Me Big Papa."
Yesterday was Independence Day; today he's turning himself in. "I never lied to anybody," he says in the shadow of the federal prison where he'll be locked up for the next year. "As soon as I got caught, I turned myself in and told them everything."
Two things still bother Cantrell, though. First, he'll miss a year of his kids' lives. But he's also pissed that it's business as usual at Calder. The race course recouped most of the stolen money thanks to its employee theft insurance. Cross was the only Calder employee charged in the scheme; he told prosecutors that his bosses played no part in it. Cantrell claims Cross was simply covering for his higherups.