Visitors to Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino are greeted by a giant eagle looking much like he has been skewered by an three-story saguaro cactus.  The Desert Oasis, as it it titled, is 51-foot tall, weighs 10 tons, and is topped with an eagle with a 33-foot wing span.  It is the largest bronze sculpture in the Western Hemisphere, exceeded only by a 90-foot Buddha in Hong Kong.  The sculpture took rough form as foam from a roofing gun, which artist Snell Johnson then carved into shape with a butcher knife at his Phoenix studio.  The foam was covered with thin layers of clay to achieve the final shape.  To be cast in bronze, the work was cut into pieces from which wax molds were made and sent to a foundry. Johnson also sculpted the 45-foot tall bronze lion in front of the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas which lost its number one standing to the Ak-Chin sculpture.2

Inside the casino, the visitor will find 40,000 square feet filled with 475 slot, blackjack, and poker machines, and air so heavy with smoke that one longs for the brown air of 1960's Los Angeles.  64 year old retired farm worker Herminia Rodriquez was one of those visitors in October, 1997.  She fed $100 of quarters into the "Quartermania" slot machine  until it locked on a row of cherries.  Lights flashed.  Bells sounded.  Herminia was pronounced the winner of a $330,000 jackpot.  Casino employees celebrated with her, giving her balloons, candy and a free meal.

Five hours later, Herminia was still waiting for her jackpot when casino officials broke the bad news to her:  A bad chip in the machine's computer, confirmed by an independent lab, caused a malfunction.  There would be no payoff.  As she would soon tell the Phoenix media, she was crushed.  She said that she had hoped to use the money to help a granddaughter who has kidney problems and might require dialysis.  "I hope no one else will go through the same pain I went through, " she said.

The machine was truly defective.  Herminia knew that something was amiss.  A malfunctioned interrupted her play about 45 minutes before the jackpot, and a technician had to reset it.  She continued to play and collected money from the machine several times without depositing coins.   But, Harrah's did not take the machine out of play.

Harrah's shared her pain.  Herminia went to the media.  The story was broadcast nationally giving Harrah's far more than $330,000 of air time and newspaper space.  Revenues dropped at the Ak-Chin Casino.

In January 1998, three months after the jackpot was revoked, Harrah's announced that it was paying Herminia the $330,000, saying, "it is appropriate for Harrah's to satisfy the expectations it created for the customer."  The Quartermania slot she was playing was in a pool with a number of other casinos in the Southwest.  Harrah's did not have control of the pool's payoff, and paid the jackpot from its own funds.  Whether the Quartermania pool ever contributed to the payoff hasn't been disclosed, but Quartermania slots are no longer featured at the Ak-Chin Casino.

On the whole 1998 did not work out too bad for Harrah's.  Earnings were $167.2 million, up 75 percent from the previous year, although the increase would have only been 9 percent if it were not for the acquisition of the Rio and Showboat casinos in Las Vegas.

Things did not go nearly so well for Robert Mulryne Jr., who was the spokesman for the tribe throughout the controversy.  He died at the age of 41 from a self inflicted gunshot wound in an apparent suicide ascribed to the Quartermania incident.   Relatives said that he felt that he was "being dragged through the mud" over the controversy.

A workman puts the finishing touches on Snell Johnson's "Desert Oasis."  3-01
Inside Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino where the Quartermania slots that paid the $330,000 bogus jackpot can no longer be found.  2-01

1. "Table DP-1. Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000--Arizona," American FactFinder, U.S. Census Bureau. Back to text

2. Sam Lowe, "ARIZONA: HOTBED OF FUNKY ROAD ART," The Arizona Republic, 12-03-2000. Sam Lowe, "BRONZE STRIKES GOLD; SCULPTURE WILL TOWER OVER CASINO," The Arizona Republic, 03-04-1999, pp EV4. Back to text


Associated Press, "REPORT SAYS WOMAN KNEW SLOT WAS KAPUT," Denver Rocky Mountain News, 02-26-1998, pp 50A.

Associated Press, "Three Months Later, She Hits the Jackpot," Newsday. 01-15-1998.


Graham, Patrick, "IT'S GAMBLER BEWARE AT ARIZONA TRIBAL CASINO, " The Columbian, 01-11-1998, pp A; Pg. 7.

Harrah's, "Harrah's Chairman Says 'Satisfy the Customer,'" Harrah's Press Release # HET-01-98-0001, 1-13-98.


Yerak, Becky, "Casinos guard against mistakes," Gannett News Service, 09-22-1998, pp ARC.

James, Steve, U.S. gambling boom boosts Harrah's casino earnings. , Reuters Business Report, 04-21-1999.

This page was last revised on 07/13/04.