All-in or Nothing

Rene Medina’s Colma casino brought life to a city of cemeteries. It also brought federal agents looking for corruption.

In a town where the dead vastly outnumber the living and quietude is a virtue, nothing much is expected to happen in Colma. Many of its 1,600 residents like it that way. And some were none too pleased when San Francisco tour bus operator-turned-card club impresario Rene Medina flipped the tiny community — famous for its 17 cemeteries and their 1.5 million "inhabitants" — on its ear nearly a decade ago with his Lucky Chances Casino.

Surrounded by graveyards on three sides, the sprawling if architecturally uninspiring faux Mediterranean card club, with its 43 gaming tables and two restaurants, is a monument to Medina's tenacity. Since it opened nine years ago, Lucky Chances has become one of California's most successful non-Indian gaming establishments. It even has hosted a televised World Poker Tour event, attracting the biggest names in the game including Phil Hellmuth.

Success didn't come easily. In fact, it almost didn't come at all. Medina's dream of opening a card club was almost short-circuited when his other passion — cockfighting — got him into trouble with the law. And both before and after the card club opened, he has had to overcome numerous obstacles: a rash of lawsuits, heated elections, a nasty recall campaign aimed at four members of the City Council, not to mention opposition from wealthy cemetery owners and a rival card palace. Through it all, Medina, the immigrant son of an impoverished Filipino farmer, survived and became wealthy.

Lucky Chances Casino.
Paolo Vescia
Lucky Chances Casino.
Rene Medina, shown here at the casino's grand opening in 1998.
Paolo Vescia
Rene Medina, shown here at the casino's grand opening in 1998.

His plush estate in Atherton is a testament to his success. His neighbors include a who's who of Silicon Valley industry captains and venture capitalists. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, lives around the corner. State controller and ex-eBay executive Steve Westly's house is a few cul-de-sacs away.

But Medina's fortunes have suddenly taken a turn for the worse. His luck started turning about three years ago when FBI agents showed up around town asking questions about the card-club king and his dealings with local officials. For years, critics have said Medina got where he is by buying off the town and its leaders. Recent events have only helped feed those suspicions. Over the past few months, a federal grand jury has indicted two former council members, Phillip Lum, 54, and Ron Maldonado, 49, each of whom avidly supported the casino, on corruption charges. The men were charged with felony mail fraud in connection with gifts they accepted from Medina but did not report on campaign finance forms.

Some locals believe the council members weren't the real targets of the probe. "They got reeled in with the big fish," says a veteran Colma City Hall observer, who, like some others in the close-knit town, didn't want to talk for the record about the indictments.

For a while, Medina escaped criminal charges, but not any longer — although he did not get in trouble for illegal payoffs to Colma politicians. In March of last year, federal prosecutors indicted the politically well-connected — if publicly anonymous — Medina of cheating the government out of nearly $1 million in taxes. Among the ways he is alleged to have shaved his taxes is by claiming illegal deductions for $250,000 worth of furniture he and his wife bought for the house in 2000 and 2001. Medina and his niece, Phyllis Reyes Cuison, who also faces tax fraud charges, persuaded a store to produce fake invoices to make it look like the furniture was being bought for the casino, the indictment alleges.

The Lucky Chances owner is currently free on $6 million bail. Medina, who has not spoken to the media since his indictment, and who did not respond to interview requests for this article, has proclaimed his innocence.

To his supporters, especially in the Filipino American community, the government's pursuit of Medina for felony tax evasion in the absence of other charges is widely viewed as overly punitive. A criminal conviction would cause his card club license to be revoked and force him to give up the casino he worked so hard to make a success. "To me," says Helen Bulos, 77, the grand dame of Bay Area Filipinos and five-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention, "it's like the government decided to kill a fly with a cannon."

In Colma, where interment has been the marquee industry ever since San Francisco outlawed burials and began digging up cemeteries and transferring its dead to the tiny community a century ago, opponents look at Lucky Chances and see sacrilege. "This is consecrated ground," says Phillip C. 'de Baca, who owns Pet's Rest Cemetery, an animal graveyard up the street from the casino. 'De Baca once led a drive to keep the casino out. He says there's still a bullet hole in the front door of his home — above the cemetery office — to show for it.

The corruption investigation has reopened old wounds in Colma, where anti-casino resentment still runs deep among the town's traditionalists, who take pride in its long-standing role as one of the nation's better-known necropolises. (The town motto, inscribed on a plaque at City Hall: "It's great to be alive in Colma.") "That card club never belonged here, and now we're seeing the fruitage of ever allowing it in the first place," says 'de Baca.

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