Stardust Memories: The Thief Who Got Away
“We all have a little larceny on our souls.”
Sometime during the morning of September 22, 1992, a casino employee named Bill Brennan walked out of the Stardust in Las Vegas with $507,361 in cash and gaming chips.
He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
That brazen yet seemingly effortless crime caper remains the casino industry’s most lucrative unsolved heist ever. Now, close to a quarter-century later, Brennan not only has vanished. He remains the only successful mastermind of an inside job in Las Vegas history who (apparently) got away with it. Amazingly, he very likely committed the theft entirely on his own. He’s either passed away since then, or odds are in his favor that he’s still out there somewhere, perhaps even reading this article right now.
If we all truly have “a little larceny in our souls,” Brennan isn’t so much an object of derision any longer; Rather he’s become the object of our odd infatuation and even affection with the classic anti-hero. He didn’t merely “break the bank” as Charles Wells is alleged to have done at the Casino at Monte Carlo way back in 1891. Brennen didn’t just break the bank. He didn’t even rob the bank. He stole the bank.
Brennan, who was age 34 at the time, was employed at the Stardust Casino for about four years when the theft took place. His co-workers later described him as a quiet person, someone who usually kept to himself (it’s always the one you’d least suspect). “Gaming Today” writer Richard Saber, who was the former Stardust race and sportsbook manager recalled, “he was basically a total complete loner.” [FOOTNOTE 1] “They never found a trace of Bill Brennan anywhere. Never a trace.” [FOOTNOTE 2]
Even more remarkable — Brennan’s exit wasn’t captured anywhere on surveillance cameras, even though virtually every square inch of the casino floor space was watched and recorded 24-hours a day. Police and security analysts weren’t able to figure out exactly where he departed the building, or ascertain where he went afterward. All that’s known was, Brennan dutifully arrived at work on what was to be his final day, and then disappeared with more than half a million dollars secretly seized from the race and sportsbook’s vault. There’s been no sighting of him since that morning.
Several theories abound as to what actually happened. Some insiders at the Stardust at the time noted that Brennan had become friendly with someone described as “a big bettor,” who also disappeared from the Las Vegas sports gambling scene a short while following the daring theft. Yet no one has identified the big-betting mystery man by name (at least not in information that’s been released publicly). The theory Brennan fell under the spell of “a big bettor” who was dishonest and perhaps even encouraged a trusted employee to commit the crime doesn’t make much sense. After all, why would Brennan need the assistance of an outsider, since he was taking on all the risk? Given the heist included not just cash but casino chips, how could the bettor cash them out later, without being detected? This theory seems circumstantial, and even far-fetched. Nonetheless, the conspiracy theories continue to swirl.
Another theory goes that Brennan paid off one (or more) security personnel, so he could make his exit undetected. No one has been able to prove this. Evidence is non-existent. Race and Sportsbook employees then, just as now, would have been required to enter and exit the building via one of the employee’s entrances (the Stardust had one access point, but then also had a large number of un-alarmed fire exits). Casino workers typically are not permitted come and go to and from public areas. Such employee policy infractions were (and still can be) a terminable offense. Given that Brennan had worked inside the race and sportsbook for four years, his face would have been well-known to most security personnel, who patrol the exits at all times. Certainly, his exit hoisting some kind of bag holding an exceedingly large sum of cash would have been noticed by security. This seems to be another accusation lacking in merit.
Yet another outlandish theory is Brennan was set up by someone else on the outside and had a partner. Allegedly, he stole the money, and then was killed soon thereafter by figures connected to organized crime. Once again, this appears to be a wild concoction lacking any evidence. Truth is, this crime was an embarrassment for both Stardust management and security. Indeed, in the face of the proverbial thief David felling the casino giant Goliath, some have become desperate enough to grasp at conspiratorial straws which somehow diminish the precept that sometimes a lone man armed with little more than gutsy fearlessness can commit a daring act and get away with it. The establishment is reluctant to hate to admit being outfoxed. So instead, we invent illogical theories to reinforce an illusion that good always triumphs over evil and the bad guys end up in prison.
During the aftermath and investigation, Brennan’s apartment was visited by authorities and searched in a last-dash desperate grasp for clues. Investigators discovered that he lived alone and had a pet cat. This was hardly the plot of an intriguing CSI episode. When police searched the abandoned apartment, Brennan and his cat were both long gone. However, they did reportedly find several books and other materials related to the subject of changing one’s identity and moving overseas. It remains uncertain as to how Brennan might have traveled to another country with a cat, without being detected or listed in a record somewhere, but I digress.
The Stardust is now but a fading memory. It’s become a vacant lot filled with blowing garbage and dormant construction equipment layered in desert dust. Days have become months, which turned into years. The casino was demolished in 2007. Nobody’s searching for Bill Brennan anymore. In all likelihood, he could probably dance over the pavement where he committed his crime years ago, scream out “Here I am! I did it!” and no one would take much notice.
That soft underbelly of the old Stardust was perfectly plump for someone like Bill Brennan to come along and slice open that bulging belly bloated with treasure. A decade removed from the saucy Argent scandal that resulted in several murders and took down the crime-syndicate ownership and management, this becoming the basis of the movie “Casino,” the Stardust was still the sportsbook of choice for many wiseguys and high-stakes gamblers. Still operating under out-of-date policies and procedures that dated back to Las Vegas’ archaic era of mob infiltration, when no one would even dream that a lowly rank and file employee would dare to walk out the door with half a million dollars without risking being buried somewhere in the desert, Brennan wasn’t just a thief. He was a wake-up call jacked to the hilt with a lead foot straight to the groin of the casino establishment.
Long after the facts of the crime were reported, I’m still puzzled as to how a lone employee could exit a casino with so much money, and leave unnoticed. What follows is my take on this mysterious caper.
Note that September 22, 1992 fell on a Tuesday. This is an important day of the week. It was not randomly chosen. That meant, the theft took place immediately after the third week of the NFL season, which would have been a very busy time for any Las Vegas sportsbook. The volume of wagers in cash would have been highest on this week perhaps than any other time other than the Super Bowl. The previous night, the New York Giants played the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. This also would have been a big game with a large betting handle. In other words, the vault was stoked with cash.
A few years before the Internet and the popularity of offshore betting exploded, when the only serious rival was the Las Vegas Hilton, the Stardust would have taken in quite a bundle in wagers. Since payouts would have been massive over the next 24-hours (again — recall the heist occurred on a Tuesday morning), the amount of funds stored within the race and sportsbook vault likely would have been at its high point. Given his experience, Brennan was most certainly aware of this. He would have been determined to maximize his gain given the immense personal risk. After all, he wasn’t going to chance going to prison for years robbing a casino on a slow day with a small amount of cash in the cage. So, Brennan chose one of the richest cash days of the year.
Additional evidence suggests that Brennan would have had to carry out a bag weighing 11 pounds, at the very least. Given that $500,000 in one-hundred dollar bills weights about 22 pounds, the absolute minimum weight would have been about half that — which is 11 pounds. However, typically race and sportbooks take in vast sums of currency in much smaller denominations — including banknotes of $5, $10, $20, and $50. Brennan would have been forced to carry out a significantly heavier amount of total weight, probably between 30 to 50 pounds based on the breakdown of what’s in most casino cages (perhaps two thirds in $100s, the other third comprised of other denominations). The red flag wouldn’t have been weight so much as volume. Brennan would have had to hoist bundles of currency amounting to the size of a microwave oven, and then escape inconspicuously out one of the exits without being noticed. This seems implausible without being recorded.
I’ve been in the back of the Stardust before, and remember the layout well (I interviewed the legendary sportsbook manager Joe Lupo a few times in his back office, before he left the business in 2002). Behind the tellers, there was a huge tote board along with multiple television screens hanging overhead. To the rear of the long counter were several cramped offices, consisting of desks, computers, and copy machines (race and sportsbooks print up a massive volume of odds sheets, and also distribute the Daily Racing Form for several racetracks, which is quite an undertaking). Somewhere within all this noise and clutter, there was a vault tucked away somewhere (I never saw that part of the operation) and Brennan had full access to it. He must have taken the loot from there, and then made his daring escape.
A final consideration is the casino chips which were included as part of the heist. To date, Las Vegas Metro Police have not disclosed the amount of chips believed to be part of the spoils. One presumes it would have been relatively easy for one of Brennan’s associates to launder the stolen casino chips through tables in the pit in exchange for cash (I know a little something about this — recall my $5,000 chip what was confiscated by the MGM Grand in 2006, which became a major news story). At the time, RFID technology did not exist, so even the larger chips would have been untraceable. It would have been much easier to launder chips through the cash later on, in multiple visits posing as a gambler. Admittedly, this would have required Brennan to likely use an undetectable associate, who wouldn’t be noticed gambling at the tables, and then cashing out numerous times. Then, there’s the possibility that he never tried to cash the chips, assessing the risk was too high.
Some robbers and thieves commit acts so remarkable they become mythological, even sympathetic to some degree. One of the best illustrations of this was “D.B. Cooper,” who hijacked a 727 flying between Seattle and Portland in 1971, and then jumped out the jet’s back door loaded with a parachute and $200,000 in a ransom that was paid. He has never been captured. That great mystery remains unsolved. This crime is every bit as intriguing, and frankly, far less known for reasons which are pretty obvious. Casinos are eager to catch thieves and even make public examples out of them — that is, if and when they’re caught. But when they’re not captured, casinos would prefer the successful escapades of criminals to receive as little publicity as possible. Casinos don’t want their workers getting any wild ideas to pull another Bill Brennan.
As expected, casino race and sportsbooks learned some valuable lessons from the Stardust heist. They implemented new controls and installed added layers of security which presumably would hinder any single employee from raiding a cashier cage and get out the door with so much money. In fact, no race and sportsbook has been robbed since then, at least not as an inside job.
Nonetheless, Bill Brennan appears to have committed the perfect crime without ever using a weapon or threatening anyone. A mild-mannered man whom no one would have suspected beat the system, beat Las Vegas, and then vanished. He even, in all likelihood, managed to outlive the Stardust, which has since disappeared.
Writer’s Note: The suspect’s full name is William John Brennan. He has been identified in media reports as both “Bill Brennan” and “John Brennan.”
Footnote 1: “TIME IS A THIEF”
Footnote 2: UNSOLVED MYSTERIES