THE BIG PAYBACK
THE SPECTACULARLY STRANGE STORY BEHIND A BRAZEN CASINO HEIST
A FAKE ASSAULT RIFLE. A CAN OF PEPPER SPRAY. TWO ATVS. A MOTORIZED SKATEBOARD. AND A BLOW-UP DOLL. THE INSIDE STORY OF HOW A TWENTY– SOMETHING REFUGEE FROM BOSNIA HATCHED A BRAZEN SCHEME TO LIVE OUT HIS OWN VERSION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM.
EARLY ONE FRIDAY MORNING in July 2006, just before dawn, Adnan Alisic, 26, and his friend Fleka, 24, crouched in the back of a hot green van in a parking lot across from the Casino Arizona on the eastern edge of Phoenix and waited. Beside them, in duffel bags, lay the tools for the elaborate heist they’d planned: pepper spray, road flares, smoke bombs, a replica AK-47, a blow-up doll, gas cans, and maps of the area’s maze of subterranean sewer tunnels. After months of meticulous planning, they were about to embark on one of the boldest and most inventive heists of all time. But as the minutes crawled past, they began to fear they’d missed their target, an armored truck carrying as much as $10 million in cash. Maybe it had already come and gone? Then Fleka spotted it. Adnan leaped into the driver’s seat, donned ski goggles and a knit cap, and cranked the van into gear, following the truck. He lifted the fake AK onto his lap and hissed to Fleka, “Come on, let’s do this.”
ADNAN ARRIVED IN PHOENIX 10 years before the heist, at age 17, with his parents and sister, one family among a flood of Bosnian refugees escaping Europe’s worst genocide since World War II. Though at first he spoke no English, Adnan was friendly and sharp-witted and soon found work as a room-service attendant at the Doubletree Hotel in Scottsdale, where his mother, a schoolteacher in her native country, worked as a maid. After a few years, when he’d saved enough to buy his own wheels, a guy he worked with encouraged him to check out a used-car auction.
Adnan was a born hustler who’d honed his entrepreneurial skills as a child during the war. At the used-car auction in Phoenix, he recognized an opportunity—he could snap up cheap vehicles, clean and repair them, and resell them on Craigslist for a hefty profit. It took him six months to flip his first car, but by age 21 he’d opened his own dealership—alisic Motors—and was buying and selling a dozen cars a week. He soon opened a body shop and then a restaurant called Café Empire, which quickly became a social hub for the area’s sizable Bosnian population.
If the American Dream had a spokesmodel, Adnan could’ve fit the bill—handsome and full of energy, he flashed around town in a gleaming black Mercedes SL600, hit nightclubs with friends to catch Bosnian singers, and landed a beautiful girlfriend, Lejla Selimovic, from Sarajevo, whose family had escaped similar horrors. Adnan had washed up on American soil traumatized and undernourished, battered by war, owning nothing but the clothes on his back, and in just a few short years, he’d willed his way into a life of enviable comfort.
Too much comfort, perhaps. As his businesses flourished and Adnan grew his staff, he suddenly found himself with plenty of free time. His friend Nermin, who was dating Lejla’s twin sister, Sejla, told him about the fun he’d had playing blackjack during a weekend trip to Vegas, and one night Adnan drove alone to the Casino Arizona in Scottsdale, a sprawling complex just beyond Phoenix’s eastern border. It was the first time Adnan had ever been inside a casino. He played small-stakes blackjack for a few hours, losing $300.
It was his next visit a couple weeks later that got him hooked. “Call it beginner’s luck,” he says. “You know those nights when you just can’t lose?” Adnan crushed it at the blackjack tables and walked away with nearly three grand. “You feel invincible,” he says. “Luck smiles on you, and you think it’s because you somehow deserved it.”
Adnan began to play blackjack at Casino Arizona every night, sometimes alone, sometimes with Nermin, and sometimes with his friend Ismar Kabaklic, known as Fleka, a loyal but hotheaded Bosnian he’d hired as a salesman at his dealership. Inside, time seemed to stand still, as a symphony of slot machines dully jingled, waitresses doled out free drinks, and dealers spun cards. When at last they headed out to the parking lot, it was always a surprise to see the sun coming up.
Some nights Adnan won big, especially at first, but over time the losses came more frequently and spiraled ever higher. Why would Adnan keep coming back, flushing away his hard-earned cash? He attributed his blackjack addiction to a toxic brew of poisoned genes from his alcoholic father, survivor’s guilt from the Bosnian War, and, most of all, a ferocious competitive streak. “I just hated to lose,” he says now. Each trip to the tables presented a fresh opportunity to come roaring back, and on the nights he won big, the adrenaline surge was beyond euphoric.
Over the next several years, Adnan drained cash from office accounts to spend at Casino Arizona, and without money to pay his employees, they slowly melted away, leaving only Fleka; his sister, Adnana; and a few others scrambling to keep his businesses afloat. Sometimes Adnan managed to keep himself away from the casino for months, but his addiction always outstripped his resolve, and he’d wind up back at the Arizona, walking out to his car at dawn, full of heartache and fury, pockets empty.
Soon he was borrowing money and blowing it the same night, racking up debts he couldn’t repay. Adnan had started at the bottom, made it to the top, and fallen back into a deeper hole than when he’d stepped, penniless, off a U.N. plane. He’d even pulled Fleka and other Bosnian blackjack fans into the abyss. Adnan lost nearly $800,000 at Casino Arizona; add Fleka and their other pals, and the total was over a million.
One evening, Adnan scraped together a few hundred bucks and made the familiar drive to
If they won’t let me win my money back, I’ll find another way,” Adnan resolved.
Scottsdale to gamble. But this time, he was on a tear. “Simply couldn’t lose,” he says. “If I had a bad hand, the dealer went bust. If I needed an ace, I pulled an ace.” He was up almost 60 grand—on his way, perhaps, to getting back on his feet.
Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by security guards who asked for his ID, though he’d been such a frequent visitor he knew many of the blackjack dealers on a first-name basis. On principle, he refused, and the guards hustled him toward the doors. Adnan was furious. The casino had had no qualms about squeezing him dry night after night, but the one time luck was on his side, they’d quashed his monster rally. He shouted at casino workers and even shoved a guard, and as they escorted him out of the building, they told him he was banned. That’s fine, Adnan resolved, sitting in his car, boiling with rage. If they won’t let me win my
money back, I’ll find another way.
ADNAN’S WINNINGS OFFERED a brief respite, as he covered bills and paid down debts. But it wasn’t long before he was back at the tables. Eighty-sixed from Casino Arizona, he started visiting neighboring casinos, arriving full of hope, and leaving, most nights, broke and desperate.
Late one night, while heading home on the 101 freeway, Adnan pulled over to take a leak. Afterward, he peered over the guardrail, looking down an embankment to the desert floor 30 feet below, and in the dim starlight glimpsed a dark, hollow shape that appeared to be the mouth of a tunnel. The entrance was as round and wide as a car, and he was able to walk in without even ducking his head. It twisted under the road, then doglegged to the right, disappearing into darkness toward the Casino Arizona. That’s when a crazy idea seized him.
The next morning at Alisic Motors, Adnan grinned at Fleka. “I know how we’re going to get our money back,” he announced.
Later that night, they dressed in dark clothes, burned over to Scottsdale, and parked at a shopping center near the tunnel entrance. Waiting for a lull in traffic, they scrambled across the freeway and down the embankment, into the opening.
The stench was overpowering. Their flashlights shone across a trickle of trash and raw sewage. Graffiti covered the walls. Rats scampered past empty beer bottles. Some pathways forked off in mysterious directions; others curved back and forth and came to a dead end. Where the main tunnels ended, Adnan noticed giant green plastic pipes, several feet in diameter. Banging his Maglite against them produced an indeterminate hollow sound. “I want to see what’s inside,” he told Fleka.
Using power saws from the auto-body shop, they cut their way through eight inches of plastic tubing before striking metal. Adnan drove back to the shop to retrieve a welding mask and acetylene torches, and returned to shear open the green pipe, revealing a ventilation shaft just wide enough for a man to crawl into. Adnan and Fleka ducked their heads inside and aimed their flashlights into the looming shadows.
A few nights later, they returned with a skateboard rigged with a gaspowered motor from Adnan’s auto shop. Adnan squeezed himself inside the green pipe, lay back on the board like a luge racer, fired up the motor, and rumbled down the narrow pipe, shooting past the first manhole, hundreds of yards farther along to a second vertical chute. That’s when the motor sputtered out. Adnan realized he’d made a terrible mistake.
The exhaust had nowhere to go, and he began to cough and choke as the fumes filled his lungs. Desperately, he turned back the way he’d come, paddling deeper into the thick cloud of smoke. Beneath Dobson Road and Indian Bend, he sank to the ground, unable to breathe. No, he thought. I can’t let the casino win. He picked himself up and dived down the next stretch of pipe. His lungs burned. His vision swam with purple stars. Several times, he nearly passed out before shaking himself awake again and willing himself onward. Finally, in his hypoxic haze, he heard Fleka’s voice crying his name, and then he was loose, back in the main tunnel, flopping like a fish, gasping for breath. “What happened?” Fleka shouted. “You could’ve died down here! Now have you had enough?”
Adnan heaved a series of ragged breaths and crumpled on the tunnel floor. After several minutes, he collected himself and slowly lifted his head. “Never enough,” he croaked. “Let’s come back tomorrow night.”
ADNAN GREW UP IN THE CITY of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s second-largest city, after Sarajevo. Though his father sometimes got drunk and roughed up his mom and sister, his childhood was mostly a happy one. He played soccer, swam in the river, and explored back alleys. Then, when he was 12, everything changed. Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic seized power and began using the Yugoslav Army, along with Bosnian Serb militias, to target Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics through an infamous ethnic cleansing campaign. Soon the country was engulfed in a brutal sectarian war.
Banja Luka was the Serbs’ stronghold, often described as the world’s largest prison; Serb soldiers and police ruled the streets, and Muslims like Adnan and his family were forced to hide in their homes or risk arrest, imprisonment, and death. Vans and SUVS stuffed with soldiers prowled the city, dragging away dissenters, who were rarely seen again. For months Adnan bought and sold eggs and candles at a bustling black market in town, stopping on his way home to buy food for his family. Cigarettes, he soon realized, turned a far higher profit. He’d buy a carton in the morning at the rations depot and sell them off pack by pack, earning just enough to put another day’s food on the table.
Across the countryside, Serb fighters were executing a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing, burning villages, raping women and girls, and slaughtering Muslims and Croatians by the dozens—even the hundreds. As the conflict escalated, Adnan, a street urchin creeping between towns, hopping boxcars at night, saw some of the war’s worst atrocities.
One night, he recalls, he slipped into a darkened train car and found
it crammed with the murdered corpses of men, women, and children, en route to a mass grave. Another time, a train he was on stopped on the way back to Banja Luka, and as he hid in the bushes, Serb commandos poured off the train into a nearby village. Adnan watched them round up villagers and execute them. On occasion, he was shot at by police and soldiers, and he was twice grazed by bullets. Once he was captured by police, who savagely tortured him for four days before he escaped.
A decade later, after he lost his fortune at the blackjack tables, the Casino Arizona became conflated in his mind with the Serb war machine—both were faceless enemies who’d coldly ruined his life. The agonizing powerlessness and rage he’d felt toward the Serb regime, which had occupied his city and turned the Bosnian countryside into bloody killing fields, he now channeled toward the casino. A successful heist would not only provide the cash needed to erase his debts but also allow him to deliver the kind of revenge he’d desperately longed for since war had first torn apart his native land. “I was going to find a way to strike back,” Adnan says, “no matter what it took.”
SUMMER BROUGHT UNRELENTING heat and misery. Adnan was beyond broke, his businesses in shambles, his debts climbing dangerously. He worked around the clock, racing to prepare for the heist. Inside his auto dealership’s vacated office, he spread out hand-drawn maps, along with aerial views he’d printed off the Internet. Initially, he had wanted to hit the casino’s vault and then escape through sewer tunnels, but he’d since cooked up a new scheme that was in some ways even crazier.
Without fail, an armored truck delivered millions in cash each morning, parking in an alley behind the casino. Adnan knew that each truck carried two armed guards. A third guard followed in a backup vehicle.
Adnan was adamant that he and Fleka and their crew pull off the heist without using actual weapons. He’d spent many late nights googling
Adnan had managed to grab $749,000— almost exactly what he had lost playing blackjack.
“armored-truck robberies,” and his research showed that guns usually led to disaster. The last thing he wanted was a firefight, which risked a guard or bystander getting shot, not to mention himself.
The plan was devilishly creative. As Adnan envisioned it, he and Fleka would pull up behind the truck as the guards unloaded the cash, blast them with pepper spray, and grab the cash. To discourage the guards from reaching for their handguns, Fleka would brandish the fake AK-47.
Once they had the money in their van, Adnan and Fleka would drive a few hundred yards to the corner of Dobson Road and Indian Bend, stopping above a manhole (which they’d have fitted with a fake cover for easy entry) that led to the tunnels below. As police swarmed the scene, they’d set off smoke bombs, strap a blow-up doll wearing a ski mask into the van’s front seat, and place the fake AK in the doll’s lap. Then, with the smoke billowing, they’d squeeze through an open hatch they’d carved in the floor of the van and shimmy down rope ladders into the manhole, with the bags of money. Before replacing the cover, they’d pull a string to shift the van into gear, letting it roll into a guardrail at the end of the block.
Law enforcement would surround the van, caught in a tense standoff with a blow-up doll, at which point a fuse would ignite two gas cans, en-
gulfing the van—and any remaining evidence—in flames. Meanwhile, Adnan and Fleka would zoom a couple of miles through the sewer tunnels on ATVS, then enter the green underground ventilation pipes, crawling 20 yards to another vertical shaft. From there, they’d haul themselves up a second rope ladder, through another manhole cover, and up a secret hatch in the floor of a second van, piloted by two confederates. The drivers would rocket them to a second set of getaway cars before meeting at a hotel room several miles north to split the cash. Adnan had bought two plane tickets to Bosnia, one for himself, one for Lejla, who was unaware of the heist. It would be his first time home since they’d fled the war.
Adnan knew how completely insane the plan sounded, but he’d been preparing for months. The vehicles had all been smuggled off auction lots and couldn’t be traced. Every piece of gear—the pepper spray, the ski masks, the fake gun—had been bought with cash in various distant suburbs. He knew that a million dollars in twenties and hundreds could fit into a duffel bag, and that police dogs at airports were trained to sniff out bundles of U.S. dollars—but not euros. So he planned to stash some of the money and trade the rest for 500-euro notes, which he’d arranged to have waiting at a local currency exchange. By the time investigators discovered his identity, Adnan reasoned, he’d be long gone.
A few weeks beforehand, a pair of Bosnian brothers named Dinko and Ivica whose help Adnan had enlisted dropped out; the plan was just too risky. Adnan brought in an old Bosnian hustler called Gypsy to drive the getaway van, along with Gypsy’s son Danijel. Meanwhile, Fleka was refusing to pull the heist without a gun. “The guards have guns!” Fleka said. “This is suicide.”
“No weapons,” Adnan said. “I don’t want blood on my hands.”
THE SUN ROSE on the morning of July 21 while Adnan and Fleka crouched in the back of the van in the parking lot of the Casino Arizona. They’d added plain lettering that said arizona painting co. on the front of the van to avoid arousing suspicion.
Adnan hadn’t slept or eaten in days. “Want to skip out and go for a burger?” he joked to Fleka. But they were in too deep to turn back now.
The armored truck pulled into the lot and rolled down the side alley, headed for its usual drop point. Adnan followed in the van. They passed an armed guard, loping in the same direction. This was Robert Brown, who’d worked for Bantek West, the armored-truck company, for 16 months. Holstered at his side was a shiny service revolver.
Fleka saw the weapon and began screeching at Adnan. “Did you see the gun? He’s gonna kill us, man! I’m telling you, he’s gonna kill us!” “He’s not going to kill us,” Adnan fired back. “Just follow the plan.” When they reached the truck, one guard stood beside it, loading bags of money onto a rolling cart, while another sat behind the wheel. Adnan donned a knit hat and a pair of ski goggles. Stepping from the van, he readied a canister of pepper spray.
Brown later described what he saw in a statement to the FBI: A green work van parked behind the armored truck. He saw a man in work clothes approach the guard outside the truck, Joshua Ouellette. Then a yellow cloud appeared, and Ouellette fell to the pavement, writhing in agony. Brown dived behind a ventilator, realizing they were under attack.
Adnan circled the truck to the driver’s side and shot his pepper spray into the air vents below the driver’s window. Chris Williams, the guard behind the wheel, collapsed in a spasm of hacking coughs. His own eyes tearing up and burning, Adnan raced to the open doors of the armored truck, grabbed two plastic bags packed with large bills, and tossed them on the cart. He then pushed it alongside his van and yanked open the doors in back, shouting for Fleka to help him dump the money inside.
Fleka leaped from the van, ski mask over his face, letting loose a battle cry and wildly swinging the fake AK. The sight was so comical that Adnan couldn’t help laughing. “Come on!” he shouted. “The action’s over. Help me get the money in the van!”
Adnan had lost sight of Ouellette, who was coughing in the grass, trying to clear his lungs. Williams, the driver, fired up the armored truck and sped around the corner, the heavy, open doors banging loose. Meanwhile, behind the ventilator, Brown had decided not to intervene. Apparently, the guards prized their lives more than the casino’s money. The truck had left on its run with $5.5 million on board, dropped half of that at another casino, and still had more than $2 million when it reached the Casino Arizona. Adnan had managed to grab around $749,000—almost exactly the amount he’d lost playing blackjack.
With the bags of cash piled into their van, Adnan and Fleka took off. Adnan drove one short block to the intersection at Dobson Road and Indian Bend and pulled into position above the replica manhole cover they’d welded in his shop. Fleka lit a few smoke bombs and tossed them out his window, creating a thick wall of smoke on all sides. “Lift the cover!”
Adnan shouted to Fleka, as he buckled the blow-up doll into the front seat, pulled a ski mask over its head, and armed it with the fake machine gun. Adnan knew from practice runs that once they were down in the drainage system, the manhole cover replaced above their heads, it would take just six minutes for them to speed through the tunnels and pipes to the distant street where Gypsy and his son waited in the getaway van. But there was one problem. “It’s stuck!” Fleka yelled. “I can’t get the cover off!” Adnan hurdled into the back of the van, and together he and Fleka pulled at the cover with all their might, but it wouldn’t budge. When Adnan looked closer, he realized what had happened—the fake cover, a few centimeters too wide, had been mashed into the hole, perhaps by a passing car. No amount of lift was going to uncork it. “Fuck!” Adnan screamed. Frantically, Adnan tried once more to pry it loose, using the barrel of the phony AK. But the tip broke off. Then it was on to plan B—escape by any means possible. Adnan shoved the blow-up doll out of the driver’s seat, jumped behind the wheel, and stomped on the gas. Fleka whooped from the back of the van, stuffing plastic-wrapped bundles of money into black duffel bags. “We got the cash!” he sang, soaring from adrenaline. Adnan gunned the van through the Salt River Pima-maricopa Indian Community, a patchwork of dirt roads and dilapidated homes, several police cars in pursuit. Traffic clogged the 101, and the cops hung on his tail. Adnan bolted off the expressway into South Scottsdale’s quiet residential neighborhoods. He cut left, right, left again, and realized he’d somehow shaken the cops. “We’re free!” Fleka cried. Adnan sped onto Miller Road, heading north toward the getaway cars, when suddenly the van’s engine sputtered, choked, and quit completely. The vehicle jerked to a stop. Sirens wailed a few blocks away. “Run!” Adnan screamed at Fleka. “No matter what, don’t get caught!” Adnan darted up the driveway of a low, single-story office complex, leaped onto a concrete wall, and hoisted himself onto the roof. Then he crawled to the edge to look for Fleka. What he saw sucked the wind out of him—his friend was facedown in the grass. Two cops held him down and handcuffed him, while another rummaged through Fleka’s duffel bag, stuffed with $200,000 cash. Adnan sprinted across the roof, dropped to the ground, vaulted a wall, and found himself facing a large, crowded swimming pool. Grayhaired men and women milled about in the water, while others, in robes and pajamas, played backgammon at poolside tables. He’d landed on the grounds of the Springs of Scottsdale Retirement Community. In the midst of his crazed escape, this scene of lazy tranquility seemed particularly surreal. Dozens of police vehicles—phoenix PD, state troopers, sheriff’s department, FBI, and a SWAT team—had converged next door. In total, there were nearly a hundred investigators swarming the scene. Adnan plucked a white long-sleeved shirt from the back of a sofa in the lobby, pulled it over his sweat-soaked T-shirt, and edged outside onto the senior center’s lawn, creeping along a thick line of hedges. Behind the cops, locals jostled with newly arriving reporters and TV crews. Adnan stepped around the hedges and coolly crossed the street, craning his neck back at the senior center. Throughout his childhood in Banja Luka, as he passed daily through police checkpoints, he’d mastered the art of appearing beyond suspicion. Now, with the cops’ attention diverted, he made the longest walk of his life, until at last he’d crossed the street and melted through the line of law enforcement authorities. From the lobby of a hospital a half mile down the road, Adnan called Gypsy. “I’m free,” he said. “Can you give me a lift?” For the next 45 minutes, as he waited for his ride to arrive, a dazed Adnan sat with patients and security guards, watching TV coverage of the hunt for the remaining suspect who was still at large—him. After months of meticulous planning, his dream heist had spectacularly gone bust.
ADNAN’S TRIAL BEGAN 16 months later in the U.S. District Court of Arizona. After the caper, Gypsy had dropped Adnan at home. His plan was to pick up Lejla and head straight for the airport. But as soon as he got in his sky-blue Jaguar and zoomed out of his apartment complex, police cars boxed him in from every direction. Adnan stepped out with his hands up. “Be careful of the car,” he said, as officers rushed him. Fleka had spilled everything the moment they’d nabbed him, leading the cops right to Adnan’s door. Before his trial, Adnan made one more desperate gamble. Prosecutors offered a plea deal of 10 years, but Adnan was troubled by the most serious charge against him: the use of a firearm while committing a felony. All along, he’d insisted that their gun be fake. But when the FBI pulled apart the heist van, they discovered a 9-mm pistol wrapped in a sheet—a gun both Adnan and Fleka would claim the other had brought without their knowledge. Not wanting to plead guilty to something he didn’t feel responsible for, Adnan demanded a trial. After six days, the jury found him guilty on all counts. As Adnan’s mom and sister looked on, along with Lejla, Nermin, Sejla, and an array of friends Adnan had helped and supported over the years, the judge handed down his sentence: 17½ years.
LOMPOC FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL institution is a sprawling, lowsecurity prison set among verdant meadows in a valley north of Santa Barbara, California. Adnan, now 35, sits in a visiting room. With heartbreaking candor and cinematic detail, he chronicles his strange journey from the bloody streets of war-torn Banja Luka to the blackjack tables of the Casino Arizona. Midway through his sentence, he’s remarkably full of hope, and is already plotting his inevitable comeback. “Coming to prison saved my life,” Adnan says earnestly. “Let’s be honest: I was as compulsive a gambler as you’ll ever meet. Seven hundred grand? It would’ve been gone in six months.” It was only a matter of time, he says, before he racked up the kind of debts that would’ve put his life at risk. After the trial, Lejla moved to Atlanta and started a family with another man. Adnan’s mom still cleans 15 guest rooms a day at the Scottsdale Doubletree. Adnana, his sister, waits tables in the hotel restaurant. They pay into Adnan’s commissary account so he can buy books and stamps and make phone calls. Adnan still has eight years to serve, but his mom has already prepared a bedroom for when he returns. As for his heist partners, Gypsy did two years, while his son, Danijel, received only probation. Fleka was sentenced to 6½ years, and upon his release was deported. He now lives in Austria and has recently married. Strangely, the two old friends remain close. “Fleka is still Fleka,” Adnan says with a laugh. “Usually when we talk on the phone, he’s complaining. And I’m the one in prison!” There’s a chance Adnan will be deported when he gets out, cutting the final cord to his American Dream. But he wants to stay and is visibly excited about starting another successful business. He avidly reads Fortune and The Wall Street Journal, following market trends, looking for his next hustle—an honest living this time. Maybe he’ll get into biodiesel or new farm-irrigation technologies. If he could build a thriving cigarette racket in a war zone as a kid, he reasons, he can succeed at just about anything he puts his mind to. He just wants one more shot at success. “The heist may have failed,” Adnan says. “But today I am happy. Today I’m at peace.”
Adnan buckled the doll into the front seat and armed it with the machine gun.