It reads like a Hollywood movie script but it’s actually a true story: Marisa Lankester is the daughter of a United Nations official and was raised in an affluent New York suburb. But her thrill-seeking nature led her from car racing to playing a key role in America’s biggest illegal gambling organisation while still in her twenties. It’s a remarkable tale that that involves the mob, FBI raids, fugitives, jail time, corruption, offshore betting, sexual assault and more.
Punting Insights You’ll Find
- The enormous size of the illegal gambling industry in the USA
- How a well educated woman ended up working for the mob
- The story behind one of the world’s great betting masterminds
- The role of allegedly corrupt police and military officials
- How she eventually got out of the business to live a more normal life
- Marisa Lankester Dangerous Odds
David Duffield: Sports betting down here in Australia is legal and widely advertised. How different would your life have been if that was the case in the land of the free, the USA?
Marisa Lankester: Well, off-track betting is permitted in many locations, but we were taking illegal bets on horses because I guess we could take more than you were permitted to at the track, and I think we also offered more exotic variations than you could just make legally.
David Duffield: And sports betting tends to dominate in America with all the pro and the college sports, but almost everywhere it’s illegal outside of Nevada, so how does the typical American sports fan get a bet on?
Marisa Lankester: Well, $380 billion was wagered illegally last year. It’s only legal in four states, but people aren’t getting on an airplane and flying to Las Vegas to make a sporting bet. They usually have someone that they know, either in a bar or a friend of somebody who’s taking bets, and that’s how they’re placing their bets.
David Duffield: Okay, so to take it back a bit in your career, in 1986, you were pretty young at the time, early 20s I believe and you were taking bets for one of the largest gambling organizations in the US. How did that come about?
Marisa Lankester: I was in Vancouver, and I participated in a car rally that went from Vancouver to Acapulco up to Alaska and back to Vancouver. It was three weeks long, and I met an American rally driver who happened to rig the telephone lines of Ron “The Cigar” Sacco’s gambling operation, and they needed clerks. I had no idea how big this operation was or what I was getting myself into when I went down. I was just looking for some money and to enjoy some of that California sunshine.
David Duffield: It must have been a bit of an eye-opener for you when you saw the volume of bets coming in?
Marisa Lankester: Unbelievable. I knew nothing about gambling. It’s legal in Canada. I didn’t understand why it was illegal, but I was working in the big office where we were taking bets from the professional gamblers, the heavy hitters, so in 1986 we were taking $10,000 on football games, $5,000 on basketball games. Then we had parlays, round robins, and things. It was an enormous amount of money: $40 billion in bets in 1986.
David Duffield: That was ’86, and then ’87 I believe you ended up in jail?
Marisa Lankester: Yes, I did. I was actually arrested on the Kentucky Derby in I think it was May 2, 1987. That was my first arrest. I had actually started with the organization under the impression that the LAPD were paid off, and they were, in fact. We had a contact, but as we expanded to Vegas, we got the sheriff involved, so I was arrested and went back to work the very next day. We had another 1-800 line. I mean, everything’s set up at a back-up location and we were back in business.
David Duffield: The whole operation was headed up by Ron “The Cigar” Sacco. What can you tell the listeners about him?
Marisa Lankester: I think he’s been referred to as the godfather of gambling. He was the first man to take gambling off-shore, establishing the first company in the Dominican Republic. He was a brilliant businessman. He treated this like a serious organization. Players were screened according to how much money they could afford to lose. They were given caps. It was really a gentleman’s agreement. You bet, you won, you got paid. You lost, you paid. Because he ran this business as well as he did, he had legions of people placing bets with him.
David Duffield: So, how did you go from being a lower level clerk right up to upper management within the operation?
Marisa Lankester: Shortly after we moved to the Dominican Republic the boss, so, Ron Cigar Sacco and the, I guess, General Manager, they were both incarcerated. They appeared in court in Las Vegas on what was supposed to be just a formality, their charges were supposed to be dismissed on grounds of double jeopardy and they were both taken from the court house directly to jail. So, I found myself moved up very quickly and in charge of all the financial dealings in the Dominican Republic.
David Duffield: At that time, you were married to the right hand man and also had a daughter. Is that right?
Marisa Lankester: Yes. I fell in love with the, I always call him the brains behind the operation, he was sort of a mathematical genius and just an amazing guy, very honorable guy, fell in love with him. We got married, had a daughter. We actually briefly retired and moved to the Dominican Republic under the the impression that we were untouchable. That the United States authorities would not be able to interfere in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, we were wrong.
David Duffield: I’ll get to that in a moment, but before I do, you mentioned that at the time he was a mathematical genius. How did that apply in the bookmaking world, because, I think, now a days, a lot of that sort of thing is baked into the line and it’s accounted for, but fifteen, twenty years ago, it’s probably quite different.
Marisa Lankester: The volume of bets that we had coming in, and we had, at that time, in 1986, we five clerks in the office and you are taking bets for 10, 15, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 of these tickets are flying across the desk, so he has to add up the amounts quickly and adjust their lines based on the amounts that he’s seeing. It’s an enormous amount of work. He also had a great feel for it, or natural feel, but he could add up, I saw him hundreds of times, adding up columns in his head, columns of numbers, faster than any of us could add up on the calculator, and he was always right, so, definitely a mathematical genius.
David Duffield: This was probably pre-spreadsheets? Pre Internet?
Marisa Lankester: Oh, yes. I mean, this was all done by telephone, all the bets. The line moved way to fast for you to start messing about with computers. I mean, it was split second. If we had, let’s say two or three players at the same time on a game, you had to move the line immediately, right away or you have too much money at a certain point. Nobody got into computers until, I would say, early 90’s.
David Duffield: Because was there the risk of being middled if you didn’t move the line?
Marisa Lankester: Oh, yeah. There’s always the risk of getting middled.
David Duffield: So, for the people listening, so that’s basically if you’ve moved the line but you’ve taken bets on either side, and the game falls right on that line,
Marisa Lankester: Everybody wins.
David Duffield: You’d be paying out on both sides.
Marisa Lankester: Yes. It happens sometimes. Not very often. But, yes, that’s not a good day for a bookmaker.
David Duffield: So you are in the Dominican Republic and you believe that you are away from the clutches of the FBI and you’re in a place where the legislation says that gambling is OK. What happened from there, because it wasn’t the smooth sailing that you expected?
Marisa Lankester: No, but we were operating out in the open. We had a sign on the door, we had business cards, we had a lawyer on staff, and one day, it was in January 1992, I was at work and I literally saw soldiers coming over the walls. They had their face painted, you know, like those videos or those movies that you see about Vietnam, and they burst into the house and they arrested us. Initially, when you saw the amount of soldiers, you thought it was a coup, and then later on we heard American voices and that’s never a good sign.
David Duffield: And, so what happened there, because the interview’s been enjoyable so far and you can look back on it with some humor but it probably wasn’t a lot laughter or good times from that point on for quite a while.
Marisa Lankester: No, no, no. I mean, things got very ugly, very quickly. We were taken down to the offices of the secret service. I was separated from the men and interrogated. They also had recovered some of the tapes, so they heard my voice taking bets, and what our clerks were telling them was that I was just a model. I had done TV commercials. I’m very tall and blonde and I got quite a bit of modeling work in the Dominican Republic which was fun to do on the side. So it was quite a recognizable face, which initially helped me, but as soon as they heard me taking bets, and they realized the amount of money that we were dealing with, they were very happy to get in on the action. From that point on they hid me from the FBI, they pretended to be cooperating with the FBI, but their intent was to have our offices reopened as soon as our staff was deported and go back in business with them, which is what happened.
David Duffield: And were you victimized by your captors?
Marisa Lankester: I was, yes, by a high ranking Dominican officer who is still in power. He maneuvered himself into a position where, I was under house arrest. The secret police was making sure that I wasn’t leaving the apartment. My telephone was tapped, and he had sent Tony away for his own protection. We were all basically supposed to be safely under watch to keep us from having the FBI find us. And he’d just basically came over and then you have somebody standing at a gate with a gun and not letting him in certainly had much greater consequences than letting him in.
David Duffield: Shocking story. So, from there the FBI have left the country or at least they’ve gone off that trail. Why did the Dominican authorities want to get the sports betting business up and going again?
Marisa Lankester: It was just an enormous amount of money. We were then taking in about $100 million a month in bets and they knew from the tape that we were bringing in a lot of money. They had no issue with it because gambling is legal on the island, but they wanted a cut. So the deal was that they got paid to protect or to hide our activities from the FBI. They were very happy to have us as partners and we re-opened under their direction, and we were back to making probably more money than ever.
David Duffield: How long did you remain in the Dominican Republic?
Marisa Lankester: I stayed, actually, until 1997. The office was shut down permanently after Ron Sacco did an interview with 60 Minutes, which revealed where he was. The American government put pressure on the Dominicans, so it was closed down. But I stayed. I continued bookmaking for two Cubans for a local operation, so there was absolutely no risk of, I mean I wasn’t doing anything at all illegal, and then I went to work for an import-export company, and finally left in 1997 to go back to university. Kind of get my life back on track.
David Duffield: Quite a life it’s been. So, since 1997 has there been any further involvement in the bookmaking industry?
Marisa Lankester: No, no, no. I haven’t been arrested in a couple of decades. I’m very happy to say I’ve been squeaky clean, paying taxes, behaving myself. Still doing lots of fun stuff, because I do kind of crave a bit of an adventurous life, but nothing that would get me into trouble anymore.
David Duffield: So, for the “where are they now” part. What about Ron Sacco? Where is he?
Marisa Lankester: Well, I can’t tell you exactly where he is right now.
David Duffield: Oh, OK, sorry. In general terms, what is Ron doing?
Marisa Lankester: Well, he received the longest prison sentence ever handed out to a bookmaker, so I believe it was 68 months, and he served five and a half years, and as soon as he was out of jail he went to Costa Rica where CRIS, that’s Costa Rican International Sports, had been established by his ex-employees in his absence. This is not something that, I think a business that people get out of. There’s too much money involved. There are people who just love the business of bookmaking and Costa Rica became the new Dominican Republic. Everybody who was thinking about going off-shore ended up in Costa Rica because the government was a bit more friendly and not so likely to hand people over to the FBI.
David Duffield: And so, Bet/CRIS is one of the biggest bookmakers in the world still, isn’t it?
Marisa Lankester: It is, but as far as I know now, I mean, Ron had a stellar reputation for paying his players and I’ve followed through the years because I’m obviously curious, and it seems like now that is not the case. I believe that he has either sold or he is not directly involved with Bet/CRIS anymore. I know that he still has offices in other locations. I have friends of mine who are still in the business so I know he’s around. But I still probably shouldn’t say more than that.
David Duffield: That’s OK.
Marisa Lankester: I still like the guy.
David Duffield: What about Tony, the former right hand man or Ron and your ex-husband?
Marisa Lankester: Well, like I said, people who get into this business tend to stay in it. So they’re still doing the same thing. Most of the people that I knew in the Dominican Republic and were working, are still working, they’re just working offshore and unfortunately, it’s still illegal in the US It should be legalized. I think it’s absurd that it’s not. But obviously , they’re still at risk there.
David Duffield: And the Dominican general, who had repeatedly raped you, you said he’s still around?
Marisa Lankester: Yeah. I have the cards and obviously the names of some of these people and in doing research for the book, you know, now you have Google and at one point, well, it happens very often, you have one administration that will get rid of certain people in the military and then another comes back in power and I happen to know that several of the people that we were involved with are still in power in the Dominican Republic. Which is why I won’t be going down there any time soon.
David Duffield: Yeah, quite amazing. Tell us about the book then. That’s where I came across what is an amazing story. Dangerous Odds covered this in a lot more detail so tell us about the book.
Marisa Lankester: Yeah, I mean, it’s a great inside look into this fascinating business. It follows Ron’s office because it continued to grow and it expanded across the United States. Obviously, a little bit of a mob involvement, but it’s a very fast-paced, it reads like a thriller, but it’s a true story.
David Duffield: Surely, the movie can’t be far away?
Marisa Lankester: Yeah, we’ve had interest from a few of the big studios, yes.
David Duffield: Well, OK. Well, hopefully there’s a payday there for you, but yes, it’s an amazing story that you can look back on it right now with a fair bit of humor, but it was just a lot of thrills and spills along the way. I really appreciate you taking some time to spend with us on the Betting 360 Podcast.
Marisa Lankester: Thank you. It was my pleasure. I just want add that we have a Facebook site where, because this story sounds so incredible, but actually a lot of the newspaper articles and court documents are on there, also the FBI report about organized crime where, now in retrospect I’m happy I made that report. There are photographs, there are old modeling pictures, a lot of the back story. Quite a bit of information. It’s fun to take a look at if you have time to check it out.
David Duffield: Yeah, well I’ll include that on the show notes so that people can go straight to it.
Marisa Lankester: Brilliant.
David Duffield: Appreciate your time. Thanks so much, Marisa.
Marisa Lankester: My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. Bye bye.
David Duffield: All right. Good night.
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