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Nevermind the indictments, everybody loves Las Vegas gambler Bill Walters

Bill Walters, 69, is the sort of person for whom it is possible to use the phrase “latest indictment.”

But, notably, none of those indictments has ever resulted in a conviction.

Former Clark County Sheriff Bill Young said he’s lost track of all the law enforcement agencies that have bragged they were “going to nail Billy Walters.”

“I’m still waiting for that, and I’m long retired,” Young said with a laugh.

Not that the agents have stopped trying.

On May 18, the FBI took another shot at nailing the famed sports bettor. They arrested Walters at his Bali Hai Golf Club on allegations of insider stock trading said to have made him a fortune.

Young wouldn’t say that he and Walters were ever close, but the sports bettor and the cop who grew up in Sin City and made his bones as head of the vice squad came to understand each other.

The Las Vegas police once took their own shot at Walters, investigating allegations that city officials had rigged a deal in Walters’ favor. The trail led to a public works director, who detectives found likely had committed a crime, Young said, and although the case was solid, an expired statute of limitations kept it from becoming more intense.

The issue had more to do with officials bending over backward than from anything Walters did, he said.

That’s how life works for a man often described as the world’s most successful gambler.

Walters is a hard man to dislike. His Southern charm and “aw shucks” attitude will “dazzle you to death,” Young said.

“I’ve known a lot of people who have a history, or a rep, or past or the word ‘alleged’ is used with them quite frequently,” Young said. “Bill may have all those monikers, but I never had a problem with him. I doubt Bill is the worst ‘alleged’ I’ve ever met in this town.”

$1 MILLION BOND

In his first interview since being released on a $1 million bond May 19, Walters told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he’s not planning to spend time in a federal prison.

“It’s quite clear in my past what the facts have been,” he said. “I’ve been accused of those things, but the facts have come out, and I’ve been exonerated every time. That’s just the truth.”

This time will be no different, he said.

“I can’t wait for my day to go to court,” Walters said.

When they come out, he said, the facts of the case won’t look anything like the story told in the 10-count indictment or the parallel Securities and Exchange Commission civil case.

That story is this: Over six years, Thomas Davis, the former chairman of Dean Foods Co., leaked Walters inside information about one of the nation’s largest food conglomerates to cover his gambling debt. The gambler gave Davis a prepaid cellphone — an untraceable ‘burner’ favored by drug dealers — to hide his calls. When the two spoke, it was in a code he gave to Davis. “Dallas Cowboys” meant Dean Foods.

Authorities say Davis’ information allowed Walters to buy when the time was right and sell when things went south, netting him about $40 million in profits.

Professional golfer Phil Mickelson also owed Walters, so Walters passed stock tips on to him, according to the indictment. Mickelson has not been criminally charged. Davis, who resigned from Dean Foods’ board in August, has pleaded guilty in the insider trading investigation and is cooperating with authorities.

Walters faces serious prison time if convicted.

But for Walters, it’s always a big “if.”

A VEGAS TALE

You can find a fair range of opinion about the charming man with a reputation for skill and uncanny luck.

But both the lawyer fighting to keep him out of prison and the man who ran the 1980s FBI investigation sum him up the same way: A true American success story.

Walters has been a gambler since he was a dirt-poor boy in tiny Munfordville, Kentucky, where gambling wasn’t legal.

His father died when he was a year old and his mother split. The grandmother who raised him had a profound effect on his life — and gave him his first lesson in business. She took him to the bank when he was 7 and arranged a $40 loan so he could buy a power lawnmower and make money cutting grass. Two years later, they borrowed $90 to start a paper route.

That was about the time young Walters learned that money hard-earned could also be lost.

He saved up all his earnings — he recalls it was $120 — for 18 months and then laid his first bet with a local grocer: His heroes, the New York Yankees, had to win the 1955 World Series.

It remains “one of the most hurtful, memorable losses I’ve ever had,” Walters said.

The devastating loss should have deterred him, he said with a laugh, but instead it made him more determined to win.

His prospects after high school were limited, but he had a wife and daughter to support. He landed a job at a car dealership and learned he could sell.

Today he owns 18 dealerships in California, Kentucky and Georgia — and plans to build two more.

“I fell in love with it because you got out of it what you put in it,” Walters said of auto sales. “I learned everything I know about business from the automobile business.”

But he also loved gambling, even though Kentucky didn’t share his passion. He got busted as a bookie and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, which he later had expunged from his record, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In those days, a gambler was seen as a dark, seedy person, he said. He didn’t just long to gamble legally, he wanted to be a professional.

“I wanted to come to the Wall Street of gaming,” Walters said of his 1982 move to Las Vegas. “Financially, I was broke. The people in Las Vegas, as far as I’m concerned, are very giving. You’ve got an equal opportunity here.”

Walters quickly built a reputation for beating Las Vegas at its own game, playing the tables and joining the “Computer Group,” a syndicate that used revolutionary technology to analyze sports teams and players.

The “Computer Group” helped make him a legend, but it also led to his first run-in with the FBI, which considered it an illegal bookmaking operation. Walters was charged, but acquitted.

“My view is the system is the system,” Tom Noble, the retired FBI agent who headed the investigation, said about Walters’ acquittal. “He knows what he did. I know what he did and all the prosecutors know what he did and everybody in his group knows what he did. Sometimes 12 people don’t see it the way you do.”

Noble said the case was a great learning experience.

“Billy schooled me in gambling,” Noble said with a laugh. He remembered Walters as a man with “nerves of steel,” and a mind constantly on alert, along with unquestionable charm.

“He used to be a car salesman, what more needs to be said?” Noble said. “He knows how to talk to people.”

‘THE LUCKIEST MAN ALIVE’

Walters also knows how to accurately predict the outcome of sporting events. Exactly how he knows is his secret.

It’s been said his mere presence at a sports book could change the odds on a game. As his power grew, many wouldn’t take his bets — he was just too good.

So Walters created elaborate systems to make bets through other people, just to stay in business. Cutouts also helped prevent competitors from copying his play — or allowed him to manipulate the odds in his favor.

As his fame and wealth grew, he bought auto dealerships and high-end golf courses and gave generously to local charities.

He also became a force in local government, gaining stature as a man able — somehow — to win unusually favorable terms and discount prices when doing business with elected officials.

“He kind of fits with the pattern of Las Vegas. People in other parts of the country that were in trouble came to Las Vegas and become the pillars of the community,” Noble said. “He runs with some pretty influential circles. He’s a very personable person, but he is also very business, and he has got to be the luckiest man alive. He just is.

“It’s the American success story,” he said. “He really, truly is.”

Mike Luce, the longtime president of the Walters Group investment company, doesn’t even consider Walters a gambler — that was a long time ago, he says, and besides, when you’re that good it’s business, not gambling.

How does Walters skate so close to the edge, yet always seem to come out ahead?

Luce says it’s simple: Walters works harder than anyone else, he cares about the commitments he makes, and he finds and keeps quality people.

Yet to many in Las Vegas, Walters is seen more as a guy with juice who might get sweetheart deals for reasons other than hard work.

CONTROVERSIAL DEVELOPMENTS

Take, for example, Las Vegas’ willingness in 2005 to eliminate a deed restriction that prevented him from redeveloping his Royal Links golf course as housing.

Lori Wohletz was the city’s environmental administrative officer then. She said she’d long heard employees around City Hall gripe about demands from Walters, but never experienced any trouble herself until she produced a report on the feasibility of the Royal Links redevelopment.

Walters wanted to pay the city $7.2 million to lift a deed on land he’d bought in 1999 for $894,000, a deep discount, especially considering he got the price on the eve of the opening. The plan had been to go with a $100,000 a year lease, but city officials threw that out at the last minute.

Clark County assessor’s estimates at the time showed removing the restriction would mean land Walters paid about $5,600 an acre for would suddenly be valued at about $400,000 an acre.

The report showed the city could end up paying $100 million to control odors from a necessary waste treatment plant, and raised concern about putting homes so close to the plant, Wohletz said.

Word came down that she was to scrub everything negative from the report so the deed restriction could go through, she said.

“I got put in an impossible situation. I couldn’t sit on that report,” Wohletz said. “I never had any agenda. My only agenda was to make sure the city had the damned information.”

Wohletz resigned in frustration after she stuck to her guns and was treated like a “potted plant” around the office. The writing was on the wall when the city manager emailed every employee, even firefighters, to more or less call her a liar, she said.

A report commissioned by Nevada Attorney General George Chanos, who declined comment for this article, later found “a consistent pattern of political and financial favoritism granted to Mr. Walters’s business entities by the city of Las Vegas.”

The City Council rescinded its approval. Chanos referred the matter to the FBI. The Metropolitan Police Department investigated. The city’s public works director, who Metro found had likely committed a crime and cost the city millions, retired under a cloud but was never charged. The problems Metro found had taken place years earlier and detectives concluded no public corruption had occurred involving the deed restriction issue.

Then and now, Walters fiercely rejects the notion that he received favorable treatment. He argues that he responded to bids to build golf courses in high-crime areas where others would not, invested millions in them, hired people from the neighborhood and improved the area.

That’s how his friend, former Mayor Jan Jones Blackhurst, sees it.

“It’s just being smart. A lot of people aren’t as smart as Billy Walters. People always say lucky. That’s not luck,” Jones Blackhurst said. “I will hear people say ‘I can’t believe Billy got that.’ Well, Billy got that because he’s a good negotiator. If you’re going to negotiate with him, you better be paying attention.”

Jones said she suspects the gambler in him got a thrill out of the risk of developing the golf courses, which were considered a major selling point for a community.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who has spent time on the other side of the table from Walters in negotiating deals for county land, also endorsed the gambler’s prowess.

“Does he get the better of the deal? I don’t know that he gets the better of the deal, but he doesn’t get the short end of the deal — put it that way,” Sisolak said.

NOTED PHILANTHROPIST

Although he supports a variety of Las Vegas charities, Walters is best known as a major donor to Opportunity Village, a local nonprofit organization that helps people with intellectual disabilities find job placement and attain more independence. It’s a personal passion.

Walters’ son Scott was given 30 days to live when, at age 7, he underwent surgery to remove part of his brain to get at a tumor.

He’s 48 now.

“Basically, it was a miracle,” Walters said.

Walters heard Opportunity Village might be able to help his son and decided to check it out. He said he and his wife were “smitten.” Intellectually, Walters’ son remains a child. Walters has been public about his son’s effect on his life, writing in full page newspaper ads for Opportunity Village about how his son has made him a better man.

“You’ve got people there who — through no fault of their own — have gotten dealt a really rotten hand in life,” Walters said. “They are the most positive people in the entire world. They probably inspire me more than anything or anybody I’ve ever been exposed to.”

Walters’ employees at Bali Hai also note a caring attitude from a boss who always makes it a point to inquire about their well-being.

“Honestly, I love that dude,” said Kontiki Crossley, a restaurant worker who notes he predates even the palm trees at Bali Hai, which opened in 2000.

“Obviously, he’s loaded and those types of people don’t usually talk to the smaller people in the company,” Crossley said.

But Walters always asks about his family, and once offered to help his mom financially.

That wasn’t a hollow offer.

Juan Huizar, who works maintenance at Bali Hai, said the company has given him several no-interest loans to assist with family medical emergencies. The first came shortly after he started working at the course, and Walters asked him why he seemed sad.

“I don’t see any other company do that,” Huizar said. “And it’s not just me.”

Luce, who has helped Walters run his business ventures since 1997, said Walters came “truly from zero” and hasn’t forgotten it. The boss cares about people and he cares about his name and about keeping his word, he said.

“I’m a simple guy. Commitments to me are everything,” Walters said. “To me no one is different than anyone else. The size of your bank account has nothing to do with who you are. We all put our clothes on the same way.”

Young said Walters’ has done a lot for the community and he shudders to think where Opportunity Village would be without his support.

‘60 MINUTES’

But even those who think they know Walters well say they’re baffled by his decision in 2011 to cooperate with the CBS news show “60 Minutes.”

Young said he could never figure why Walters agreed to let the notoriously hard-nosed news program into his life. He thinks Walters must have had a plan in mind, but he said he couldn’t even tell what the game was.

The episode, in any event, is largely considered to be a fawning portrait.

Walters said he agreed because he knew “60 Minutes” would do its research and be fair.

In front of the camera, Walters expressed disdain for Wall Street swindlers who sold him a lot of stock in Enron and WorldCom.

“So you would say that the hustler from Vegas got hustled by Wall Street?” correspondent Lara Logan said.

“No doubt about it,” Walters said.

But if you ask the FBI and the U.S. attorney, it was the other way around.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @betsbarnes on Twitter.

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