In 1999, when I was working as an executive host at the Crystal Park Casino in Compton, California, there was a young Latino man who would come in with an entourage. He would play at the Asian table games at $10,000 to $20,000 limits, and poker players would follow him around hoping “Buddha” would put them in some poker tournaments.
About six months later I opened the Hustler Casino in Gardena, California, and as an executive host I tried to recruit him to play exclusively at Hustler because he was worth $10,000 to $40,000 a day in collection. I made him an offer I thought he couldn’t refuse, but he did. It made me wonder what kind of person could turn down that kind of money.
At the same time I was also an independent representative for the MGM, and I would try and get him to play there. A couple of times I booked a room for him, but he would never show up. One night he called me around 1 a.m. and asked me to book him a room. I was excited because I thought I had finally landed one of Los Angeles’ biggest “whales” at the MGM. He told me he was going to take $300,000 to play, and he would give lots of action. The next morning, I called to check his play, and they said he checked out that same night. He was a no show at the tables. I could not figure him out.
When I would play Chinese poker with him, he would pick my brain. He told me he was determined to win the World Series of Poker. I had never seen anyone attack the tables like he did, but one reason I did not try to get close to him was because he was so volatile when he was losing. As a member of management, I had to play both sides. It was a delicate balancing act; I had to make sure the dealers were not hurt, but also I had to keep him as a customer.
I could never get him to the MGM, but “Buddha” continued to play in casinos around Southern California. He became friends with Barbara Enright, an inductee in the Poker Hall of Fame, and she shared this story with me.
One day at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, California, “Buddha” bought a rack of $1,000 chips, which equals $100,000, and he went to play Pai Gow poker. He said, “Barbara, I want you to sweat me.” And as she was watching him lose him, she was thinking what she could do with a few of those chips at the World Series of Poker.
In 2002, I was looking for a house to buy in Downey, California, and as it turned out, “Buddha” was renting this house owned by a doctor. I ended up buying that house, but I kept worrying someone would knock on the door in the middle of the night.
About six months later, I woke up one morning and noticed there were several unmarked police sedans parked in front of my house. I did not realize at the time that “Buddha” was arrested that day, June 10, 2002, while playing table games at the Hustler Casino. He was up $818,120.
On May 8, 2002, a Kansas City, Missouri, jury indicted Robert “Buddha” Gomez and two others for interstate fraud and money laundering, and on June 5, 2003, Gomez was convicted and sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in federal prison for masterminding the largest automobile fraud in American history. In just over four years from 1998 to 2002, 4,000 people fell victim to Gomez’ “Miracle Cars Scam.”
Gomez claimed he was the adopted son of a rich father, John Bower, who had been a devout Christian, and when he died he left instructions in his will that his estate should “gift” a fleet of cars to fellow Christians.
For a relatively small conveyance fee of approximately $1,000 paid in advance for each vehicle to cover estimated title transfer and tax liability, the beneficiary would receive the car when the final probate was entered. Over 7,000 “cars” were “gifted” to the faithful from all over the country, including several former NFL players, to the tune of $21.1 million.
No vehicles ever existed. And there was no John Bower. “Buddha” told me he had a rich uncle. . He told my friend Max Shapiro, a well-respected poker columnist, his money came from a $20 million inheritance from his grandfather, and that his parents had another $70 million in reserve.
Max corresponded with “Buddha” for a few years when he was in prison until the time he asked for $100 so he could pay a soccer bet he lost to another inmate. When Max didn’t send him the money, “Buddha” broke things off. It reminds me of the Garth Brooks’ song, “Unanswered Prayers.”
I chased “Buddha” for years, but I thank God I did not get that close to him.
“If you want to read more, the scam is chronicled in the book “God Wants You To Roll: The $21 Million ‘Miracle Car’ Scam – How Two Teenagers Fleeced America’s Churchgoers” by John Phillips III.
Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry and is co-founder of Crown Digital Games. Robert can be reached at [email protected].