Interview with a Casino Bandit

September 20, 2013 Posted in Vegas by No Comments
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GamblingForReal.com Exclusive: Interview with Jeff Hopper

Jeff Hopper

The case notes read like a Hollywood movie. A Texas man gets a job as a security guard at the Stardust Casino. He studies the layout, the security procedures and flow of currency at the casino. Several smoke bombs, three getaway cars and two robberies later, the Hopper family ends up with more than a million dollars’ worth of ill-gotten gains.

It is a September morning in 1991 and Royal Mayne Hopper is working as a security guard at the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas. He is escorting a money cart along with a coworker. Suddenly, a man armed with a .45 semi-auto appears and persuades the security guards to hand over $153,000.

The armed robber flees in a taxi and the security guards call the police to report the robbery. The robbery goes unsolved at the time, but authorities later learn that the armed robber was actually Royal’s son, Bobby Lee Hopper. This was the first of two inside jobs masterminded by the Hopper family.

For the second robbery, Royal recruits both of his sons (Bobby and Jeffrey) and a fourth man (Wesley Carroll). This time, they target an armored truck outside the Stardust Casino.

On the day of the armored truck robbery, Jeff Hopper diverts casino security with a false report of a fight near the swimming pool. Meanwhile, the other men don wigs and false beards. They enter the casino armed with guns and wait for the armored truck driver.

When the men spot the armored truck driver, they set off smoke bombs to create a smokescreen between the driver and the gambling area. The men then knock the driver to the ground and take two bags from the driver. One of these bags contains nearly $500,000 in cash and the other bag contains another $627,000 worth of negotiable instruments.

Today, GFR.com has an exclusive interview with Jeffrey Hopper. Jeff served his time, turned over a new leaf and now serves as a pastor to jailhouse inmates. He will be releasing a novel soon detailing his life in crime, a near-fatal accident, reconnection with his children and his subsequent redemption.

Jeff has a story to tell.

GFR: Jeff, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. You have a fascinating story to tell, but public information about your life is limited mostly to case notes and newspaper clippings. Can you tell us about the two casino robberies from your point of view?

Jeff: The heists were a product of a living a life outside of the law for many years. I was fourteen when I stole my first car and dealing drugs before I was out of high school.

We were involved in many illegal activities in Texas and when it became too hot for us there, half the family moved to Las Vegas and we all laid low. At the time there were people who wanted me dead so I was looking for a way out of that life – and that takes money.

I had a five year old daughter and I wanted to take her and move away. I took a job at a local lumber yard [in Texas] hoping that I could live a normal life. I hoped the other drug dealers and cops would forget about me in time and I’d be the average working slob.

GFR: Who wanted you dead and why?

Jeff: I was involved in drug trafficking pretty heavy. A group of my fellow dealers were together one night when we hatched a plan to expose the cops in the clubs. We were “burning” them; exposing them as cops to all the dealers we knew and were friends with. If other dealers weren’t part of our clan then we let them get busted.

At one point, I was pinned to a car with a gun to my head by a group of undercover vice cops who asked me…”why shouldn’t you die?” I didn’t say a word. I was told to not come back to the club.

After all the busts went down and I didn’t get hit, people thought I was the snitch and word got out to my family that when they found me I was dead.

GFR: The case notes say that you were recruited by your father for the second robbery. How did he bring this up to you?

Jeff: I was at work one day when I got a call from my dad. He voice was shaky when he told me he had been robbed at work. He was escorting the daily receipts to the vault when a gunman came from a row of slot machines with a gun pointed at him. My dad needed to take some time off and asked if he could come stay with me in Texas for a week or so to unwind.

My father arrived two days later in a newly rebuilt hotrod. It was a 1973 SS El Camino with a 454 engine, burnt orange color and flawless leather interior. He picked me up at work and we went to lunch. He told me he had some things going on in Vegas that he needed my help with. I didn’t want to get involved with anything but when he dropped me off he handed me an envelope, “think about it” is all he said then drove off. I should have never looked; it was a stack of hundred dollar bills.

I had a choice to go back to work making seven fifty an hour or do what I was used to doing. The envelope had thousands in it; my last pay check for two weeks’ pay with overtime was less than 700 dollars. The choice wasn’t hard to make but I knew it wouldn’t end well. I learned later that it was my little brother who robbed my dad, that it was an inside job.

GFR: How did you get caught?

Jeff: The gaming commission and the feds suspected my father’s involvement from the beginning. When the first heist went down they grilled my dad for a few hours over the details of the bandit and what seemed like his unspoken cooperation in the crime.

It seemed to them that my dad and the thief were going through a routine. They were right but couldn’t prove it. There were some mistakes made that tied the first and second robbery together, some evidence and snitches sealed the case. The most damaging piece of evidence was a finger print of my brother on a Dr. Pepper can that was found under the seat of one of the getaway cars.

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GFR: What happened in court? The case notes say that prosecutors pressured you guys to testify against your father. How did that work out?

Jeff: The evidence was stacked against us but they couldn’t place me in Vegas and there was a small chance I could beat the case but the D.A. came up with a new method. He threatened to put my mom and sisters in jail if I didn’t agree to testify with a couple days to think on it.

Through the jail house message system I got word to my dad about the D.A.s threat, dad’s response was “good, we’ll all go down as a family.” I couldn’t let that happen so I agreed to testify.

GFR: I don’t remember seeing as much news about your heists as others that happened around that time. Did your case not get as much coverage as other casino robberies?

The casinos wanted the story kept quiet. They didn’t want people to know that two lumber yard salesmen, a disgruntled postal worker, and a golf course maintenance man beat them twice.

GFR: There is another well-known casino robber (Jose Vigoa) who went on a string of Vegas heists in the late 90s. Some of his case notes look similar to yours. Was this a copycat crime?

Jeff: Vigoa was sitting in a Nevada state prison for cocaine when the news broadcast our second heist. The news spoke of the different vehicles used in the robberies and Vigoa did the same thing. Like us, Vigoa used three vehicles in his heists to prevent others from pursuing them.

GFR: Jose Vigoa killed two armored car drivers in one of his crimes. You guys managed to avoid spilling blood. Did you take extra precautions to avoid harming the innocent?

Jeff: Although we didn’t harm anyone in either heists we were already planning the next robbery. Vigoa didn’t hurt anyone at first but things like this always end badly if you keep going. It is likely that had we kept pulling heists we would have ended up killing someone.

GFR: There was another Stardust robbery committed by Bill Brennan. He worked as a cashier at the casino and one day walked away with $500,000 and was never seen again. You mention that you knew him. How did you know him?

Jeff: My father worked with Bill at the Stardust. One reason for the title Thief in the House is because my dad was a security guard there and knew the layout and exit through the hotel where there were no cameras.

The day my father introduced me to Bill, we all had a conversation about how the money behind the counter wasn’t locked up. We discussed how easy it would be for someone to just walk out with a suit case full of money.

We were considering robbing the sports book and feeling out each of the employees. We wanted to see who might “cowboy up” and present a challenge. Bill was a mild mannered guy who didn’t seem the type to steal even an ink pen from work.

GFR: Any guesses as to whatever happened to Bill?

Jeff: While my dad was doing his time, he told me he received an unsigned post card a few years into his sentence. The words on the card made a reference to a conversation Bill and my dad had before our last heist. It’s hard to say if the card came from Bill but he thinks it did.

GFR: Can you tell us a little about your sentence and time in prison?

Jeff: When I arrived at Federal Correctional Institute in Seagoville, Texas I was a typical bitter, angry and hate filled man. The cells were 8 x10 concrete rooms with a metal door and window, no AC.

It made fast news what I was in for and most thought I was part of the mob. I wasn’t telling them any different. I was quickly accepted by the guards and cons so life behind the razor wire didn’t start off too bad. I was only there a few weeks when I began making a list of the people who had wronged me. I listed what they did and what punishment I planned to give them when I caught up with them on the outside.

The only building that had AC was the chapel so I went like everybody else did. Each unit was allowed thirty minutes for a service. The chapel also gave away free greeting cards. They were the left overs, the ones people didn’t buy and were usually the oddball ones but it was all we had.

I was in the chapel one summer day when the Chaplain told us about the Angel Tree program. It was a ministry where gifts were given to the children of incarcerated parents. It was this ministry that turned my life around. The list of names I had made to get even with became a list of names I needed to make amends with. I began a journey there that has lasted twenty years.

GFR: You mentioned a near-fatal accident in one of your e-mails to me. What happened and how did this change you?

I had been out about two years when I landed a good job at a local plant that manufactured train container cars. I made supervisor in only a few weeks and was living good. I had a beautiful girlfriend and things looked like I was going to break free of my past.

One cold Monday in January I was headed down to the other end of the plant to do some inventory when things went terribly wrong. Due to legal reasons all I can say is I ended up dancing with a five ton piece of heavy equipment that didn’t end up very well.

When I stopped screaming and came to somewhat of a grip on reality, I was holding my mangled right leg, looking at the muscle and tendons dangling from the bone of my lower leg. It had stripped off all the skin from my thigh to ankle, tore some of the muscle off but didn’t break the bone.

Blood was flowing over my hands and pooling around me as I began to lose consciousness. Someone laid me back and I began to slip away. I believed in God. I believed in living a better life. As my mind lost its grip on this world the last thought I had was I was dying and going straight to hell.

Sometime later I woke from the coma. I looked around the room unsure of where I was then the accident came back to me. I remembered my leg, I remember the pain, I remembered my last thoughts. I couldn’t feel anything from my waist down but I had to look anyway.

There were two sets of toes; I still had two legs. I learned later that the doctors had blocked all the feeling in my legs. They said most can’t tolerate that kind of pain. My leg would heal in time. I’d learn to walk again eventually.

My family all came to see me but none of my drinking buddies or girlfriend did. It was a guy I worked with who came with a packet of get well letters from his church youth group. It was his pastor who came to see me. That began the quest to know God. It began the journey to become a man my children could respect. It is a journey to who I am to God, defined by Him and not by anything else.

GFR: Can you tell us more about your conversion to the right side of the law?

Jeff: While I was recovering from the injuries and skin grafts to my leg I began to visit local churches. I wanted to understand why there were so many churches and what the differences were.

I started attending college and did well in my classes. I was rebuilding my life with my daughter and she was what kept me on the straight and narrow.

GFR: What role did your children play in your conversion?

Jeff: I met a young and beautiful lady, married and my first son came into this world. God put on my heart to be the father I never had. I would live a life that my sons could respect and never lead those down a path of destruction like mine had.

I finished my bachelor’s and moved to Iowa to live near my mother-in-law and discovered the Lutheran church. I was doing Bible studies and in a construction ministry. One day I asked my pastor how I could be more involved in ministry. “Have you ever heard of Seminary?” he asked. I thought Hollywood had created seminaries or they were something from the history books.

Six weeks later I went before the district president of Iowa East. I was waiting outside and joking said to God. “Ok Big Guy, let’s see what you got; let’s see if you can get me admitted” After I filled their ears with all my past I was sure they would say no and I could say I tried. I shared with the committee my drug use, armed robberies, and colorful lifestyle. I laid it on thick.

Six weeks after that I was on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne Indiana and not long after I was studying Greek. A bit of advice for people: be careful what you ask God for and/or be ready to receive it.

GFR: You now serve as a pastor consoling other people serving time. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Jeff: I left seminary and came back south to Louisiana to try to repair my marriage and find my place in ministry. Despite my efforts, I was divorced and brokenhearted. I wanted revenge and tried to fill my heart with hate but God wouldn’t have it.

It was a difficult time, but I just couldn’t fill my heart with hate or revenge. I had lived with that for so long that I couldn’t let that take root again.

I went back to ministry and became a hospice chaplain in Texas and Louisiana. I sat with people who were at the end of their lives and counseled the families through the loss of a loved one. I sat with many people as they took their last breath and that changes you. I was with people at many different ages, several of whom were much younger than me.

Life is too short to live in anger and hate. I encourage people to forgive and make amends before the last breath because when you say I’m sorry to a coffin, they don’t hear you.

Today I work with churches all over the state of Louisiana with Angel Tree ministries. It’s part of Prison Fellowships ministry, the national organization founded by Chuck Colton, the formerly incarcerated gentlemen from the Watergate scandal.

I also visit local prisons and jails for church services, Bible studies and sometimes just to talk and encourage them. I help with what’s called a pan-hole ministry. The pan-hole is the small opening in the metal cell doors when food trays are put for inmates who never leave their cells. Hope is all they have.

GFR: You have a novel coming out soon detailing your life in crime and subsequent turnaround. What’s the name of this book and where can interested readers buy a copy?

Jeff: The book is called Thief in the House and will be released in August or September. It will be on Amazon and available from the publishers website. I welcome anyone to find my Facebook fan page and like it, I’ll be posting updates as they come. I’d enjoy having people comment or ask questions about the book or ministries.

GFR: If I had to wager on it, I’d bet there’s someone else out there right now thinking about pulling off a casino heist. If you could say something to that person, what would you say?

Jeff: If you’re planning any kind of crime like this, be sure to say goodbye to your family and friends before you do. Prison or death is where you’re headed and that is exactly where you should go. I have no sympathy for people who commit these serious crimes.

In the ministries I work with in the prison system, we don’t baby them or tell them it will be ok. They have to man-up and take responsibility for what they did.  I’ll come visit them as a chaplain and bring them a Bible, but don’t expect anything else.

GFR: What would you like to accomplish going forward?

Jeff: My life is raising my sons and watching my granddaughter grow up. I work construction to pay the bills until my writing replaces that. I’m writing on my blog and also writing a devotional for those men in prison.

I’ll finish the devotional on Mother’s day of next year.  My life is just writing and sharing with others what I’ve discovered. My desire for this book and story is for people to connect to it and have hope for a better life.

The moms out there who have a son in trouble can have hope he will turn his life around. The family and friends that want their people free and safe at home can have faith in the work God starts in someone He will finish. Even for the sake of just one man who turns his life around, it’s worth all the effort. That one man is somebody’s son, brother, or father. Somebody misses him.

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