American Hustle

A story of slot cheats-turned-killers that could only happen in Sin City 

They say that history is written by the winners. The long and twisting tale of the murder of Larry Volk — and how it changed gaming in Nevada — is a perfect case in point. You see, you probably already know Volk’s sad story; you just never knew his name.

This is the story of the American Coin murder, but despite the bravado of so many of the players involved, at the end of the day this is the story of one quiet, down-on-his-luck computer programmer who got a job at the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, Larry Volk was so invisible that it would be his testimony from the grave that would bring even the smallest modicum of justice to a tale so crazy, it could only happen in Sin City.

Our story is set in the 1980s, when the business of Nevada’s one-armed bandits was slowly moving into the computer age. This was the early days of games being written in computer code and jackpots being calculated by algorithms—all of which was neatly contained on computer chips called EPROMs (or Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory). If you remember Robert De Niro’s disgusted monologue at the end of Casino—the part after the movie depicts real-life bookmaker Lefty Rosenthal’s car blowing up in 1982—when the lead character Ace laments the change in Las Vegas to corporate casino empires and computerized slots … those little EPROM computer chips (and another car bomb) are at the heart of that change and this story.

In August 1990, Romano got a call from Volk. Someone had just bombed his house while he and his wife were on vacation. Romano recalls Volk saying he “had a lot of threats.”

By the 1980s the Gaming Control Board had made its name with meticulous background checks—ferreting out connections to organized crime—but was understaffed and relatively unprepared for what this new technology could mean on casino floors and in the slot banks in bars and restaurants. As any longtime Las Vegan knows, those slot banks are the lifeblood of small pubs and restaurants, which otherwise can’t compete with casinos that offer deeper discounts and famous eateries. Here, too, is a constant revenue stream for the slot-route operators, such as American Coin, which at the time was the fourth-largest in the state.

American Coin, formed in 1984, was jointly operated by father and son Rudolph and Rudy M. LaVecchia, and Frank Romano (who had married into the family). It had more than 1,200 machines, including poker, keno and blackjack, according to Romano’s tell-all American Coin: A True Story of Betrayal, Gambling and Murder in Las Vegas. As Romano recounts in his book, which was published in 2013 as his dying wish, business was booming, but as tensions with the LaVecchias reached a boiling point in the spring of 1988, Frank wanted out. He and his wife, Maria, owned a rental car company called USA Motors, and the two of them wanted to end any entanglements with the LaVecchias and focus on their own burgeoning car business.

“The friction between Maria’s blood family and me was ever present,” Romano writes. “Her father and brother, Rudy Senior and Rudy Junior, were always challenging to deal with even just as in-laws. As business partners, though, they were more than a challenge.”

Romano offered them a $16 million buyout of his one-third share in American Coin. The LaVecchias flatly refused. At nearly the same time, the gaming commission announced an investigation of the company’s computer program, which had failed a surprise field test. As Romano tells it, the surprise was not just the failed test, but that there was an EPROM field test at all. It was virtually unheard of for computer chips to be tested outside of the lab and almost never after they had passed initial board certification.

“That really left the door open for cheating, because you could go in and change the code after it was approved,” says Jeff Burbank, who covered the American Coin case as a reporter and is the author of License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age. (In fact, the lead investigator, Ron Harris, would later be convicted himself of orchestrating computer-enabled felony cheating in video poker and keno machines.)

As the days of investigation dragged on into weeks, things got stranger. One day when Romano showed up to work, the LaVecchias pulled him into a closed-door meeting in which they played a tape that appeared to have a clandestine recording of a gaming board staffer possibly colluding with an American Coin competitor to bust the company for wrongdoing. As the LaVecchias played the recording over and over, Romano grew increasingly annoyed.

“I figured the entire exercise was contrived by the two of them as a feeble attempt to scare me into a lower selling price. The idea that a sting operation was being planned just didn’t make any sense,” Romano said. “There just wasn’t a way to set a sting into motion if you’re operating by the rules and maintaining your internal business controls.”

Soon, gaming control investigators were zeroing in on Volk, the company’s computer programmer. The LaVecchias seemed more and more nervous and continued to stall any attempt by Romano to end his part in the business. One day, Romano showed up to the office on Industrial Road to find the entire day’s cash drop gone — some $250,000. When Romano asked his business partners about it, the only answer he got was that it was gone. The next day, the Gaming Control Board raided the company and shut down their machines, and the LaVecchias were nowhere to be found.

“At the time when I was covering the meeting for the Las Vegas Sun, we frankly thought Romano was guilty, along with the others,” says Burbank, who now works at the Mob Museum. “We got it wrong.”

During the confusion, Romano and his attorney, Jeff Clontz, got a call from the reserved Volk, who wanted to tell his story on the record. They set up an official deposition, at which Volk confessed to “gaffing,” or corrupting the EPROMs with a code that on poker machines would prevent a royal flush from being dealt. In other cases, the bad code would prevent jackpots or certain keno lines from hitting.

“And they asked me then, ‘You’re going to have to write one for us.’ And I refused. I’ve been in the business, at that time, almost 19 years,” Volk said in his deposition, which was read in court as his testimony after his death. “No one had ever asked me to do anything like that before, and it was an inconceivable thing.”

Volk explained that he was forced to write the bad code for fear of losing his job, which he badly needed to pay the bills from his wife’s serious medical condition.

“At that point I gave in easier,” Volk said. “My wife had been in the hospital quite a long period of time at that point. I had tried to find another job several times, and I couldn’t. … So you get stuck. You get worried. You get scared. You got bills. You don’t know where it’s going to end.”

Volk gave his deposition on July 27, 1989, but it would take years before the case would be resolved with the gaming commission. By then, the LaVecchias were in the wind, not even appearing as part of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings for American Coin, which would not get resolved until 1995.

Still, by the summer of 1990, Romano thought things were finally looking up. He considered the American Coin mess behind him and was looking forward to expanding the car businesses he owned with his wife. Then in August 1990, Romano got a call from Volk. Someone had just bombed his house while he and his wife were on vacation. He asked Romano to go board up the holes in the house. Romano recalls Volk saying he “had a lot of threats.”

A month later, Volk and Romano exchanged pleasantries at Romano’s used car dealership on Sahara Avenue (where Volk had purchased a car for his wife a couple of years earlier). As Romano recounts, they even discussed the bombing at Volk’s house and Romano left, saying, “Larry, I’ll see you later.”

The next day, October 1, 1990, Volk was shot in the head with a military-style assault weapon while he was in his driveway. The one and only whistleblower in the American Coin cheating case was gone. Volk was murdered by a hired gun—rumored to have been arranged and paid for by one or both of the LaVecchias — but it would take nearly a decade for the truth to come to light.

After investigators quickly ruled out Romano as a suspect, they turned their attention on former American Coin employee Soni Beckman, her nephew Vito Bruno (a.k.a. John Sipes) and hired hitman David Lemons. The case against Lemons, in which he agreed to kill Volk for $5,000, resulted in a not-guilty verdict in 1993 because of circumstantial evidence. However, while in prison for another crime in 1998, Lemons found religion and confessed to the murder and implicated Beckman and Bruno. Beckman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in 1999, but was given a deal in exchange for testimony against Bruno.

“The tragedy of it is that the people who were really responsible for it pretty much skated. There wasn’t enough evidence in Volk’s murder,” Burbank says. “The system failed. The bad guys got lucky. But still, there’s something missing. A contract murder happened.”