The Peppermill on the Strip was crowded with its usual lunch-hour mix of tourists and locals. Waitresses in tropical print blouses hefted overstuffed dishes and hustled from one table to the next.
The older woman at the table for two drew no attention, which is fine with Mitzi Stauffer Briggs. A little peace amid the boulevard's cacophony: just the way the quietly spiritual woman likes it.
From where Briggs sat it was about a $3 cab ride to the Tropicana, the hotel she once owned. Before she busted out, Briggs was victimized by mob and corporate sharks. She was tricked like a carnival rube and watched her 51 percent stake and $44 million fortune disappear.
Briggs, who studied philosophy and education at Stanford, once owned substantial real estate that included an island in the Bahamas and lavish homes in California and Nevada.
Today, the 79-year-old lives humbly in an apartment not far from her job at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, just off the Strip not far from the Peppermill. She sets up the communion altar for the priests, plans weddings and works in the gift shop. She struggles with her personal finances. Long ago, she used up her reserves helping to care for family, but she does not complain.
Briggs was introduced to the Tropicana in 1975 after learning that casinos netted 20 percent profits.
"Well, it turned out that that wasn't quite the way it was in there," she said, a self-effacing sense of humor emerging.
She wasn't told that profitable casinos had locks on their back doors, verifiable owners of record and a minimum of thievery. The angle-shooters at the Tropicana saw her coming from 100 miles away.
She was befriended by Joseph Agosto, who officially was affiliated with the Folies Bergere but unofficially ran the casino skim for the Kansas City mob. With Briggs under Agosto's charm, her fate was sealed as millions in bad gambling markers went uncollected. The casino's credit book was filled with more fiction than "Jane Eyre."
Gullible to the end, Briggs denied the undeniable even after FBI agents and Gaming Control Board investigators pulled off a raid in February 1979 that became known as the second "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The investigation resulted in a solid case of skimming that linked the Civella family in Kansas City to their pals at the Tropicana.
Briggs was so taken in by Agosto that, once his loyalties were revealed and he was jailed, she flew to the prison and asked him if what she'd read in the newspapers was true.
"Mitzi, I couldn't help it. They had a gun to my head," Agosto told her.
She decided to believe him. At the Peppermill three decades later, she still called him "Poor Joe Agosto."
Gradually, Briggs came to the painful realization that she had been a pawn. While she tried to maintain an ethical standard at the Tropicana, millions in bad credit markers went uncollected and small percentage owners used the hotel as their personal playground.
In hindsight she admitted, "We were some kind of unauthorized bank for those people."
But Mitzi Briggs' bruising Las Vegas thrill ride wasn't finished. When she and her fellow investors sold the hotel to Ramada, the result was a corporate mugging that finished off her faltering fortune.
Even after a Nevada court finally forced Ramada's hand, Briggs was cut out of the final Tropicana payday.
Through all that she betrays no bitterness. In fact, her faith seems stronger than ever.
"Without my faith, I would be dead," she said. "I've been very grateful to God that I still have a job and still have the health to work. The only thing I've really got left is my faith."
Her millions didn't guarantee happiness, and losing a fortune hasn't made her miserable. It's helped her appreciate all the good people she met at the Tropicana.
"The people that worked there were my greatest allies," Briggs said. "They were so good to me. They did everything they could. They were trying so hard to make a go of it."
These days, she occasionally meets one of her former employees at church, where locals and tourists gather for Masses that sometimes touch on the fleeting nature of material wealth.
And when someone laments their bad luck at the tables and complains of losing it all in Las Vegas, Mitzi Stauffer Briggs consoles them and tells them she understands.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.