THE GAMBLER AND THE PLAYER
Robert J. Cipriani arrived in Sydney feeling the way he always did on the eve of a gambling trip: giddy, confident, a hustler with pure intentions. It was August, 2011. Under the pseudonym of Robin Hood 702, Cipriani billed himself as an unorthodox philanthropist: the high stakes blackjack player who used his winnings to benefit those in need. It was an act inspired by his own hardscrabble past in blue-collar Philadelphia, and conceived during regular sojourns to Las Vegas (702 is the city’s area code). Though Cipriani kept his identity secret, shielding his face in a baseball cap, aviator sunglasses and the occasional fake beard, he was not exactly inconspicuous in his guise as a workingman’s hero. Those seeking his help submitted stories of financial woe to his website, and Cipriani would select a “winner” before hitting the tables, ideally with a camera crew in tow. Fox News had once christened him the “Sin City Savior,” and he envisioned himself the subject of similar publicity during his stay in Sydney, where as “Robin Hood” he planned to spend the next few days gambling on behalf of downtrodden locals at the Star Casino.
Within an hour of getting settled in his suite at the Four Seasons, however, there was an unexpected knock at the door. Cipriani was greeted by an American businessman he knew by the name of Junior DeLuca. In his late twenties, DeLuca was a figure of shrewd intelligence and imposing physicality, striding into the room with the coiled energy of someone who at any moment might drop to the floor and pound out 100 pushups without breaking a sweat. He had slicked back brown hair, a jawline that could double as a nutcracker, and sculpted shoulders tugging at the pressed seams of his dress shirt. Entering the suite, he was lugging two large suitcases behind him.
From what Cipriani had gleaned, he and DeLuca had plenty in common. Both men lived in Los Angeles, spent significant time on the Strip in Vegas and shared an irrepressible need for attention, cultivating an air of nebulous, self-manufactured fame. The difference, as became apparent the moment DeLuca unzipped the suitcases, was that while Cipriani promoted himself as a kind of altruistic outlaw, DeLuca’s business seemed to be of the more straightforward criminal variety. Inside were crisp bundles of cash totaling $2.5 million in Australian dollars – a staggering pile of money that would come to derail both men’s lives in spectacular fashion.
“Listen,” DeLuca said, “I need you to do me a favor.”
Four years later, on September 9th, 2015, a former football player at the University of Southern California named Owen Hanson stepped onto the manicured fairway at the Park Hyatt Aviara Golf Club, in Carlsbad, California, a resort town on the Pacific coast 90 miles south of Los Angeles. Hanson had been a walk-on tight end on the storied Trojans squad that Pete Carroll, today the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, led to repeat national championships in 2004 and 2005. Though Hanson never played a down, his brief stint on the outer periphery of the spotlight left a lasting impression. Ten years removed from college, he referenced his USC days often, maintained a USC email address and led a life that, on the surface mirrored those of better-known former USC teammates, like Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, who went on to sign multi-million-dollar contracts with the National Football League.
Hanson, or “O-Dog” as he christened himself as a charismatic fraternity brother at USC, still certainly looked like a formidable athlete. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing more than 200 pounds, he cut a steroidal silhouette on the golf course, emitting the icy confidence of a man who viewed life as a competition he was used to winning. He drove a white Porsche Panamera, owned property in Mexico and Costa Rica, and routinely partied with athletes like Jeremy Shockey, the rambunctious former tight end who won Super Bowls with the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints. In Hanson’s hometown of Redondo Beach, a seaside community in L.A.’s South Bay, he had built himself a sleek residence that featured a lap pool, an ornate “tequila room,” and wall décor that included a silver-plated AK-47 embossed with the Louis Vuitton logo. “I go to Vegas a few times each month, and I wanted my house to feel like some of my favorite hotels there,” Hanson told an online magazine in 2014, in a profile that showcased the property as an extension of Hanson’s success as a real estate developer.
As Hanson prepared for his 18 holes that September afternoon, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Organized Crime Squad arrested him for arranging the sale of five kilograms of cocaine and another five of methamphetamine –charges that turned out to be only a preview of the extraordinary case authorities had built against him. In January, Hanson was named in a federal indictment as the unlikely leader of a drug trafficking, sports betting and money-laundering ring called O-Dog Enterprises that stretched from Southern California to Australia. According to authorities, Hanson appears to have used his connections within the world of professional sports – first established back at USC and later fostered in the VIP rooms of Los Angeles clubs and Las Vegas casinos – to bolster his organization. Aside from hanging out with famous athletes while operating Betodog.com, a website that processed illegal wagers on their games, he is accused of coordinating the sale of five grams of cocaine and 15 capsules of ecstasy to “a professional football player” in 2014, according to the indictment; and among the 21 others arrested in January as alleged co-conspirators in Hanson’s scheme – a dizzying list of characters that includes an accused drug dealer nicknamed “Tank,” a bookie who went by “Jazzy,” an enforcer known as “Animal,” and a Hollywood private detective – is a former N.F.L. running back named Derek Loville. The winner of a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994, and two more, in 1997 and 1998, with the Denver Broncos, he now stands accused of selling cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy as an Arizona-based member of Hanson’s alleged racket.
If in his public life Hanson gave the impression of an ambitious young man who worshipped money and emulated pro athletes, his downfall as a kingpin, to judge from court records, stems from a need to develop a more sinister self-image, building his empire through ruthless intimidation, paid beat downs and baroque death threats. In his criminal shadow life, he even went so far as to adopt an alias befitting a mafia don.
Junior DeLuca, he called himself.
The story of how Robert Cipriani became entangled with Owen Hanson – the story, that is, of how a vigilante gambler unwittingly helped bring down a USC athlete turned accused crime boss – can be appreciated from any number of angles: as a clash of misguided egos, a glimpse into the turbulent psyches of former athletes or as a cautionary tale, quintessentially American, about what can happen to a certain breed of individual bent on chasing the sort of dreams that burn especially bright in places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It begins, however, in Sydney, where back in 2011 Hanson, inhabiting his alter ego as DeLuca, showed up at Cipriani’s room at the Four Seasons with $2.5 million in Australian dollars (worth $2.7 million in U.S. dollars at the time) stuffed into suitcases.
When Cipriani first shared with the FBI his version of the chain of events leading to that encounter, to say nothing of the macabre absurdity that followed, he says agents at the bureau’s Philadelphia office were less than receptive. “Literally,” Cipriani explains, “they just laughed.” In fairness to the authorities, such a reaction to Cipriani is understandable. A tall and rangy guy who in middle age retains the blustery temperament of an adolescent, he dresses, by this own admission, “like a bum,” but portrays himself as floating through a glittering world of comped hotel suites and flights on private jets. He speaks in grandiloquent, expletive-laced monologues that, much like his Robin Hood shtick, tend to be both entertaining and inconceivable. Give him five minutes and he’ll tell you about his friendship with the boxer Lennox Lewis; the legs of his wife, a Brazilian actress-model named Greice Santo; and his foolproof solution for preventing future terrorist attacks. The man has a certain off-color charm, but as someone who makes his living hustling, you can’t shake the itch that in some hard-to-pin-down way he is trying to play you.
Yet to spend time with Cipriani is to discover that the most preposterous thing about him may not be the hucksterish, self-mythologizing exterior, but the fact that so much of what he says checks out. When Lennox Lewis served as a pallbearer in Muhammad Ali’s funeral earlier this year, the boxer sent Cipriani a photo of the ceremony via text – one that Cipriani happily passed on to the Daily Mail. When Vanity Fair published a two-part exposé on Tiger Woods back in 2010, there was “Robin Hood 702” serving as a prominent source. And in the federal government’s sweeping case against Owen Hanson, it is Cipriani, a confidential source nicknamed “Jackpot” by the FBI, who serves as the man who provided some of the most incendiary evidence about how Hanson pursued his extralegal affairs.
The two had met in June of 2011, when Cipriani first traveled to Sydney to drum up media interest in his forthcoming escapades as Robin Hood. The way Cipriani remembers it, he had heard about Hanson from a woman he dated years ago in L.A. “Mexican, smoking hot, used to being given $25,000 Hermès bags,” is Cipriani’s description. She mentioned, vaguely but intriguingly, that she knew a wealthy young American who did business in Australia and was a “fan” of Cipriani’s. Could she arrange a meeting? When Cipriani arrived in town, he found Hanson waiting for him at the lobby bar of the Four Seasons.
“Mind you, he’s still Junior to me at that point,” Cipriani recalls. “We make some small talk and then he says, ‘Look, I want to give you some money to gamble with.'” He invited Cipriani to discuss the matter further at a nearby apartment. “Wasn’t the overly impressive place that you would think, because he was really well dressed,” continues Cipriani. “You know, with fucking cufflinks. Anyways, we went upstairs and he had a suitcase already just sitting there. He goes, ‘Here, I’m gonna give you a million dollars.’ And I said, ‘Bro, you don’t even know me and you’re gonna give me a million dollars?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, but I heard a lot about you, I have a feeling.’ And I say, ‘But you understand that there’s a chance that I don’t win?’ He goes, ‘Look, I’ll tell you what, I believe in you so much…’ And he opens this cabinetry that literally was stacked with $50 bills in Australian dollars. No locks, no keys, nothing! He grabs some more and says, ‘I’m giving you a million and a half.'”
Gamble with the money, Hanson proposed. Keep what you win for the Robin Hood thing, and return the rest.
According to court records, Hanson made the bulk of his drug money in Australia, importing over a ton of cocaine into the country and later boasting to an undercover F.B.I. agent that he sold kilos of coke there for $125,000, or more than triple the going rate in the U.S. In Cipriani, he apparently saw a means of solving the problem that has long confounded many successful criminal organizations: a surplus of dirty money, no easy way to clean it. By having Cipriani cash the drug profits into chips, gamble for a bit to avoid suspicion, and then take it back in the form of an easily-transportable casino check, Hanson was attempting to slyly turn the casino into a shell company for laundering money. Cipriani concedes that he was an ideal mark: “If you don’t have the reputation of being a high-roller and you try to walk into a casino with millions in cash, they’re gonna go, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ But because I’m this famed international gambler, they don’t think twice.”
Believing he had stumbled upon a patron of sorts – a personal “whale,” in casino terminology – Cipriani took the money and hit the tables at the Star Casino, a palace of curved glass framed by palm trees located a few blocks from the Four Seasons. “I play what they call, in the casino industry, being a shortstop,” he says. “I hit and run – $20,000 spot here, $30,000 there. It’s the only way you can beat the casinos.” Within a few days he had made nearly $300,000, and, per his agreement with Hanson, got a casino check for over $1.7 million.
The initial signs of trouble began when he phoned Hanson about delivering the funds. “I’m traveling,” Hanson said. “Just hang onto the money, and give it to me back in L.A.”
What followed was a surreal few weeks leading up to Cipriani’s second trip to Sydney that August. Back in the States, he did what any gambler with an insatiable appetite for risk would do: He flew to Vegas to see if he could keep his streak going. But after a few days only about $200,000 was left. Panic set in when Hanson called, saying he was back in town and would like his money.
“Dude, I told you you shouldn’t have let me keep it,” replied Cipriani, explaining what had happened.
Hanson was all calm swagger, expressing certainty that Cipriani would turn his luck around. “That belief in me,” Cipriani says, “it drew me in.” He stayed in Vegas, working the casinos until he had a million dollars. Returning to L.A., he met Hanson for lunch at the Fairmount Miramar Hotel, in Santa Monica, where Cipriani handed Hanson a duffle bag filled with the money. Then it was back to Vegas, but when he called Hanson about an additional $250,000, he was again out of town. This time Hanson instructed Cipriani to give the money to the former fling who had first introduced the two. A week or so later, when Cipriani had another $150,000, Hanson told him to meet another associate, this time in the parking lot of the Fairmount Miramar. These clandestine handoffs of large sums of cash did not, Cipriani says, sit well. But before he could pay back the $100,000 he still owed, he was due to travel again to Sydney as Robin Hood.
It was then, in August, that Hanson showed up at the Four Seasons with the $2.5 million stuffed into two suitcases.
Forget the debt, Hanson said, proposing again that Cipriani gamble with the money and return the original in check form. In fact, he told Cipriani he could go ahead and lose up to $600,000 of the $2.5 million, an offer that would have been enticing if it didn’t sound a whole lot like blatant money laundering.
“I’m not comfortable with this,” Cipriani said.
Here is where Cipriani says he got his first glimpse of what U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy described, in the wake of Hanson’s indictment, as the “extreme threats of violence employed by the O-Dog Enterprise.” A whiff of casual menace creeping into his voice, Hanson mentioned that he knew where Cipriani lived in Santa Monica.
“You have a beautiful wife,” Hanson added, mentioning Greice. “You’re going to do this, you understand?”
As Cipriani relates it, he had no option but to go through with the plan. He claims he didn’t know the extent of what Hanson was up to – the gambling business, the drugs, all that would trickle out later – but he felt he was in legitimate danger. So once again he took the money and cashed it into chips in the “cage” at the Star Casino, only this time with a caveat that he kept to himself. Rather than playing “shortstop” out on the floor, he decided to put the whole affair “in the hands of the gambling gods,” as he puts it, betting the maximum limit on every hand he played. It was a rash decision with perilous results. The $2.5 million was gone in a matter of days.
“I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I just lost all this guy’s money!'” Cipriani recalls. “And, like I told the FBI, that’s when everything hit the fan.”
What possessed Owen Hanson, the product of a coastal enclave of Los Angeles known for its Republican politics and reliable surf breaks, a talented student-athlete at an iconic university, to morph himself into Junior DeLuca, an alleged kingpin so flamboyant he would entrust Cipriani, a gambler who turned a messiah complex into a carnival act, with $4 million in drug profits? It is maybe the most puzzling facet of the case – and one only Hanson can fully explain. But if he has a different version of what went down between him and Cipriani in Sydney, he isn’t sharing it. Since his arrest last year, Hanson has been held without bail at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where as inmate number 50825-298, he is facing life in prison on multiple counts of racketeering, money laundering, operating an illegal gambling business and conspiring to distribute drugs. A trial date is currently set for next February. His lawyer, Mark Adams, who recently represented the leader of a Tijuana drug cartel tried in the U.S., says that at this point Hanson has no comment.
Talk to those who knew him, those who investigated him, as well as a number of people currently indicted in his scheme, however, and you begin to understand Hanson’s criminal evolution as the byproduct of his most dominant traits: the competitive impulses, the aspirational streak of a middle class kid raised in proximity to tantalizing opulence, the belief that whatever he had was never quite enough. His upbringing in Redondo Beach was modest – divorced parents, a younger sister – especially in comparison to neighboring towns like Santa Monica and Laguna Beach. His father, who now lives in a $1.5 million home in Montana, where friends say Hanson joined him on occasional fishing trips, was a property maintenance manager for over 30 years. At Redondo Union High School, Hanson played basketball, ran cross country and was a force as an outside hitter on the volleyball squad.
Charlie D’Agostino, a Los Angeles real estate developer, has known Hanson since he was 17, when he worked menial jobs on D’Agostino’s construction sites. D’Agostino, whose firm 3Ten Development worked on Hanson’s Redondo Beach estate, allows that he “wasn’t really surprised” by the allegations against Hanson, describing him as ambitious to a fault. “Some of it’s probably true,” he says, “some is overblown.” But he declines to go into detail given that he, too, is also under federal indictment, charged with collecting gambling and drug proceeds on Hanson’s behalf. Denying the charges against him, D’Agostino says, “I was the source of Owen not doing illegal things.”
Michael Lee, the architect who designed Hanson’s home in Redondo Beach during the same period he was allegedly establishing himself as a criminal, was shocked when he heard about the arrest of his former client. “You got the impression he was a wheeler-dealer type,” says Lee. “He was busy, a little bit rushed, always looking at his watch, but always pleasant. Generally speaking, people who are building homes are ambitious and successful. Some you find out are ruthless, but that wasn’t Owen.”
You hear this sentiment from plenty of people who knew Hanson, or at least those who knew him only as a young real estate developer – that he was a prototypical bro among men, a flirt in the company of women, hardly vindictive.
“Was my buddy really living a double life?” asks Jeremy Shockey, the former NFL star. “I guess anything is possible, but I just can’t fathom it.”
The two first met over a decade ago at a pool party in Las Vegas, says Shockey, whose Instagram feed is dotted with images of him and Hanson: raising margarita glasses, hanging with NBA star Kris Humphries, surrounded by a bevy of women at a concert. Shockey was introduced to his ex-wife through Hanson, when he brought her to a party Shockey threw on a yacht. The two spent significant time together in Costa Rica, where, as Shockey understood it, Hanson made his money building houses and running a legal gambling business, taking advantage of the nation’s lax regulations. “The guy I knew was just a savvy businessman,” he says. “Sure, he liked celebrities and hanging at clubs – free bottle service and free models and all that – but drugs? Maybe I’m just gullible, but I didn’t pick up on any of that. He never once mentioned going to Australia.”
If there is a period where Hanson began to exhibit certain tendencies that would later draw the attention of law enforcement – a hunger for power, a lust for money, an obsession with status – it is during his years at USC, where he entered the Los Angeles of wealth and extravagance that was just out of reach growing up. There, aside from playing on a football squad where Snoop Dogg was a regular at practices, Hanson was a member of Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity that was banned from pledging on campus. They briefly reformed as an underground society known for throwing wild parties called the Stumpos Raiders – so named, according to rumors, because they were raided by an LAPD officer with the last name Stumpos. It was in this realm that Hanson appears to have emerged as “O-Dog,” the campus hustler who was boys with the school’s athletic gods. “If you wanted something you went to O-Dog,” says someone familiar with the group. “Coke, steroids, you name it.”
After college, Hanson expanded his campus identity into the larger realm of Los Angeles. He was a member of the MountainGate Country Club, located in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, where he developed a reputation for flaunting the wealth he attributed to his real estate savvy. “The guy loved to gamble, and he gambled big,” says a former golfing partner. “A thousand a hole, five thousand a hole. If you went high, he went higher.”
While Hanson had a brush with the law as early as 2007 – an arrest in Orange County that has since been disposed – he cut his teeth as a bookie, according to the FBI. Gambling, of course, has long occupied murky legal terrain in the United States: against the law almost everywhere, yet so tacitly accepted as a pastime that bookies in Vegas regularly see their spreads incorporated into mainstream sports coverage. Serving those who happen not to live in Vegas (or prefer to bet against spreads that differ from those set in Vegas) are a variety of bookies operating outside of the law, fueling a shadow economy that is estimated to bring in between $80 and $380 billion in illegal wagers annually. “We don’t make a habit out of busting illegal gambling organizations,” says Brett Fenoglio, one of the FBI agents who oversaw the investigation into Hanson. “Technically, they’re all over the place: Guys running small-time books at sports bars, buddies betting for fun. For us to get involved it needs to be more nefarious than friends betting on football games when they’re out golfing.”
Hanson became part of something more nefarious, according to Fenoglio, when he linked up with an organization called Macho Sports, which in 2011 became the target of an F.B.I. investigation, also led by Fenoglio. Run by Jan and Erik Portocarrero, two brothers from the South Bay who sought shelter from the law by operating their business through servers in Lima, Peru, the ring thrived for over a decade, processing tens of millions in bets and building a loyal client base in Southern California. “Macho was routinely taking wagers of $40,000 and $50,000,” says Fenoglio. “Not a lot of guys can do that.” Macho also offered gamblers generous lines of credit, luring in customers much the way banks did before the housing crash. “It’s like giving a drug user free cocaine,” says Fenoglio. “These guys were preying on people with problems.” While Macho paid its winners promptly, the group showed little mercy when losers failed to hold up their end of the bargain, employing an enforcer known as “Lurch” to intimidate, and sometimes rough up, those who went into debt.
Far from being discreet, the Portocarrero brothers displayed their money in peculiar ways. Erik, an aspiring rapper, self-financed a lavishly produced video for a song called “The Clam Eater” in which he saunters through a sea of thong-clad women rapping, with unflinching earnestness, about his love of cunnilingus. (Sample lyric: “I’m a clam eater, a bottom feeder/I use my tongue more than my peeter”). “That video basically tells you everything you need to know about the kind of guys these were,” says Fenoglio. In 2013, the Portocarreros were arrested along with 16 others; nearly $14 million was forfeited. But, as is typical with gambling cases, Jan and Erik received relatively light sentences of 18 and 22 months. Though Fenoglio can’t talk directly about the case against Hanson while it’s being prosecuted, he says that Hanson’s organization started as a subsidiary of Macho Sports. His website, betodog.com, was run from the same servers in Peru, and Hanson shared the brothers’ predilections for both ostentation and menace. “Owen was a protégé of the Portocarreros,” says Fenoglio.
Avoiding prosecution during the Macho takedown, Hanson appears to have stepped into the void left by the arrests of the Portocarreros, establishing himself as a force in the gambling underworld of Southern California. One self-described “heavy gambler” who placed bets on college and NFL games through Hanson describes him in larger-than-life terms. “The guy was unlike anything we’d ever seen,” says the gambler, referring to a crew of friends who also bet through O-Dog. “He was like Leonardo DiCaprio after Titanic – boom, ‘I’m huge, fuck you.’ Most bookies, they’re pretty gentlemanly. Contrary to what you see in the movies, they don’t break your legs when you don’t pay. They don’t want the heat.” Hanson, like the Portocarreros, seemed to crave it. “He ran his gambling business like drug dealers run the drug business,” the former customer explains. “If you’re short a little money they’ll kill you – that’s the attitude that he brought. It took all of us off guard. We are all educated pussy white dudes. We thought he was one of us, but he acted like an Italian gangster from Queens.”
When this gambler went into debt – “close to $75,000,” he says – he learned just how severe Hanson could be when it came to collecting. “He enjoys fucking with people,” says the gambler. “The guy threatened me for years, calling at all hours. Honestly, I thought I was going to end up dead.”
Hanson’s arrest, according to the gambler, didn’t come as a surprise. “We all knew it would burn out for him,” he says. “We were actually placing bets on when he’d get busted. The over/under was a year.”
In Sydney, after Robert Cipriani blew through Hanson’s $2.5 million, he spent a few days dodging Hanson’s calls as he tried, and failed, to gamble his way out of the hole. Then one afternoon as he was walking through the Star Casino, he was cornered by Hanson. At his side stood an Australian that Cipriani would later learn was a man named Sean Carolan, reportedly a former cage fighter and racehorse trainer who was acting as Hanson’s muscle. After Cipriani explained that he’d lost the money, showing proof in the form of a win/loss statement from the casino, he says Hanson and Carolan became irate.
As someone who describes his life as a series of improbable encounters with questionable individuals, Cipriani had traveled to Australia with what he terms an “insurance policy” – in this case, a reporter for Fox News named Rick Leventhal. Leventhal had been the one, back in 2008, who anointed Cipriani the “Sin City Savior” in a segment for the channel – the only mainstream coverage, as it happens, that Cipriani has received for his Robin Hood endeavors. (He appeared on the network looking like a cartoon bandit: black sunglasses, black cap, black bandana over his face.) The two had forged a mutually beneficial relationship in the years since: Cipriani enjoyed the occasional plug on Fox News, legitimizing his Robin Hood persona, and Leventhal, it appears, enjoyed the perks (potential leads, brushes with B-list celebrities) that came with entering Cipriani’s peculiar orbit.
Now, as Hanson and Carolan demanded that Cipriani follow them back to the nearby Hilton to pick up the next installment of cash, Cipriani played his ace. “I can’t leave with you,” he said. “I got a guy from Fox News doing a story on me.”
This wasn’t exactly true: Leventhal, according to Cipriani, was enjoying a lavish gambling vacation paid for by an occasional subject. But the specter of a journalist lurking about was enough to give Hanson and Carolan pause. They told Cipriani to meet them in a few hours, giving Cipriani time to concoct an exit strategy.
“So I’m frantically calling Rick, who’s just been gambling and refuses to pick up his phone,” recalls Cipriani. “Finally, I get a hold of him and say, ‘Get your shit and meet me at the Four Seasons.’ He’s like, ‘Dude, I’m down 12 grand!’ I say, ‘I’ll give you 12 grand!’ He says, ‘What happened?’ I say, ‘The reason why I fucking brought you happened.'” (Leventhal turned down numerous requests to comment, but Cipriani provided flight and hotel records, as well as text messages between the two, corroborating Leventhal’s presence in Sydney.)
When Cipriani received a call from Carolan demanding that Cipriani meet in room 3026 of the nearby Hilton Hotel, Cipriani instead took a cab to the airport with Leventhal, calling Hilton security en route and reporting – anonymously, falsely – that there was man with a gun in room 3026. Though he wouldn’t know it for years, at that moment he had planted the seeds for what would evolve into a sweeping international investigation. When the police arrived, they did not find a gun, but they did find Sean Carolan and a suitcase filled with $702,000 in Australian currency. (A curious sum, Cipriani points out, given that he says it was intended for him – a gambler who calls himself Robin Hood 702.)
When asked by police about the money, Carolan reportedly claimed it belonged to an American businessman named Owen Hanson who had invested in Carolan’s fledgling weight-loss business. This explanation sounded dubious to the authorities, who seized the money. As they began looking into the matter, a number of suspicious personalities came out of the woodwork, shedding light on the company Hanson was keeping in Australia. First, an ostentatious concert promoter named Andrew McManus (pasty, bloated, known for bringing Kiss and Fleetwood Mac to Australia) claimed the money was in fact his – the proceeds of a Lenny Kravitz concert that Hanson was helping him “sneak” into Australia from New Zealand. Then McManus changed his story, saying the money had been delivered to Hanson by Craig Haeusler, a mutual friend who happened to be a convicted drug kingpin in Australia, and who was reportedly giving it to Hanson to repay him for helping fund a ZZ Top concert. Haeusler, when interviewed, told authorities that he and Hanson bet on NFL games together in the U.S. In 2012, when Hanson was eventually questioned by Australian authorities via video-link from the Beverly Hills Police Department, he was not exactly coy on the subject of the mysterious cash, exhibiting the cocky manner that would later get him into trouble with an FBI undercover operative.
“Do you want me to tell you the full story of how basically this money was laundered?” he allegedly asked agents, adding, as if to legitimize himself, “I deal with a lot of professional athletes.”
Yet, if Hanson was concerned about being tied to the investigation in Australia, to say nothing of the one being conducted into the Macho Sports empire, he didn’t show it back in America. His business continued to thrive with a reliance on threats and intimidation – much of it, according to court records, directed at Cipriani. First there were phone calls, dozens of them, demanding that he pay back the $2.5 million he lost. And then there were threats, subtle at first, and then increasingly chilling. Flowers were sent to Greice, Cipriani’s wife. A man in a van – later identified as Jack Rissell, the enforcer referred to in the indictment as “Animal” – was often stationed outside Cipriani’s Santa Monica home. “Just lurking,” says Cipriani, “and scaring the shit out of me and my wife.”
In July of 2012, Cipriani flew to Costa Rica to discuss a payback plan with Hanson. It didn’t go well. Cipriani got spooked when he noticed that the man Hanson sent to pick him up was carrying a gun, and left the country without meeting Hanson. “It made me think,” Cipriani says, “that he was trying to whack me.” Meanwhile, back in the States Hanson’s threats were only becoming more disturbing. That fall, around the same time that Hanson was being questioned by Australian police, Cipriani received a photograph of his parents’ graves in a cemetery outside of Philadelphia; the tombstones were splattered in blood red paint, and photoshopped into the image was one of Hanson himself, wearing a Mexican wrestling mask and holding a shovel, as if to imply that Cipriani would soon be joining his family if he failed to pay. A few months later, in January of 2013, Cipriani received a DVD in the mail from Hanson that contained gruesome footage of two men being beheaded with a machete and chainsaw. Included with the DVD was a message: “If you don’t pay us our money, this will happen to you.”
By then, through his own gumshoe detective work, Cipriani had discovered that Junior DeLuca was in fact Owen Hanson. He knew about his days at USC, his friendships with pro athletes. This time, he decided to contact the FBI’s San Diego branch. They had reason to listen. The office had just finished their takedown of the Macho Sports empire, during which Hanson’s name had popped up. At the time they figured him for a minor player, but now a new investigation, this one focused solely on Hanson, was opened.
“Is it not fucking crazy?” says Cipriani. “Had I not gone to the feds, this motherfucker would still be out there!”
On October 18th, 2016, Hanson’s lawyers filed a pre-trial motion that suggests an effort to undermine the government’s case by discrediting Cipriani as a witness. By highlighting Cipriani’s own past brushes with the law – namely a 2006 conviction for insurance fraud that Cipriani chalks up to a complex family feud – the defense portrays Cipriani as an established charlatan with a history of exploiting others for financial gain. They imply, in no uncertain language, that Cipriani was not an unwitting mark in Hanson’s scheme, but an active participant, questioning why Cipriani has so far avoided prosecution for the $1.5 million he successfully laundered through the Star Casino back in June of 2011. “The inescapable fact is that Mr. Cipriani was an important, yet unindicted, member of the alleged conspiracy,” the motion reads.
It is a curious line of defense: one hustler conceding, in essence, that he was outwitted by another. Cipriani, with his insatiable hunger for attention and lofty vision of himself as a “famed international gambler,” may not be the most reliable narrator, but given that he recklessly blew through $2.5 million of Hanson’s money a few weeks after he nearly gambled away $1.5 million on a stint in Vegas, neither does he seem to be the professional extortionist Hanson’s lawyers suggest. More critically, while Cipriani became an improbable catalyst for a federal investigation, it is what the FBI subsequently discovered that constitutes the most convincing evidence for their case against Hanson.
Remove Cipriani from the equation, for instance, and you still have Betodog.com, the sports betting site Hanson established as a subset of the Macho Sports regime. You have numerous text messages from Hanson, all post-dating his interactions with Cipriani, instructing various runners to collect and deliver gambling proceeds. You have his communications with Luke Fairfield, a San Diego accountant also under indictment, that suggest a variety of Breaking Bad-like schemes (shell companies, structured bank transactions) to avoid scrutiny of Hanson’s finances. You have Hanson emailing Jack Rissell, the enforcer, in order to ask if a delinquent gambler in Minnesota was dealt with properly. “I paid 2K for a smack down,” the message, from 2013, reads, making it clear that Cipriani was not the only target of his wrath. You have at least $5 million scattered in bank accounts, and an IRS agent’s conclusion, from analyzing only the books of three alleged bookies, that Hanson generated income of $323,179 in just three months in 2012, giving a sense of his operation’s scope.
While the investigation into Hanson began as an inquiry into illegal betting, it is in his alleged role as a drug dealer that he faces the most severe punishment. Here, too, the most damning evidence is disconnected from Cipriani. You have Hanson, caught on a wiretap in 2014, praising a “new batch” of GHB, a controlled sedative commonly referred to as “liquid ecstasy,” received by “Tank,” the nickname of Giovanni Brandolino, the dealer indicted in the scheme. “Strong and makes me real horney [sic],” Hanson noted in a text, and on November 17th, 2014 you have Hanson directing Brandolino to sell cocaine and ecstasy to “a current professional player then located in Nashville, Tennessee,” a day the Titans played the Pittsburgh Steelers. You have him bragging to an undercover agent about how he sold kilograms of coke in Australia for $125,000, not to mention the five kilograms of cocaine and another five of methamphetamine that initially got him locked up. Rufus Rhone, who conducted that deal with an undercover agent, allegedly on Hanson’s behalf, has already pleaded guilty; he is currently serving a sentence of six years.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a number of arrests have been made in connection to the $702,000 found back in 2011, including those of Andrew McManus, the concert promoter, who in August pleaded guilty to perverting justice by lying about the money, avoiding the more serious charges of knowingly participating in a criminal group. His lawyer, Michael Croke, who also represented Hanson in Australia, has been arrested for his role. Most recently, in August, a 31-year-old Australian named Jonathan Fagan was charged with importing 88 kilos of cocaine from the United States between 2014 and 2015 as part of the same alleged syndicate.
Still, whether the case goes to trial in February or Hanson opts for a plea deal, questions hover at the edges of the affair. Was Hanson truly a cunning kingpin, as charged by the federal government? Or was he more of a wannabe Tony Soprano, a striving, status-seeking braggadocio undone by a terminal need to live a life that rivaled those of his former USC teammates turned professional football stars? As serious as the charges against him are, Hanson’s “organization” seems ad-hoc at best, more a loose assemblage of desperate souls than a cartel of hardened career criminals. Take Rissell, who wouldn’t comment on his alleged role as an enforcer; he currently works as a Ford salesman in Sacramento, and, according to an acquaintance, was living out of the van that Hanson paid him to park outside the home of Cipriani. Similarly, Daniel Portley-Hanks, the private investigator currently facing up to 10 years in prison for conducting background checks and coordinating threats for Hanson, remains confused over his current status. Seventy-years-old, overweight, diabetic and prone to breaking down in tears when talking about the case, he has worked for the FBI in the past, helping the agency take down, of all things, a bookmaking operation run by the Gambino crime family.
“I had no idea what this asshole was up to!” Portley-Hanks says of Hanson, who, at least until Portley-Hanks’s own arrest, he thought was a real estate developer who hired him to do routine background checks on business associates. “We’d meet at a Starbucks on Wilshire Boulevard for Christ’s sake,” he goes on, adding that, as a licensed private eye, such work was legal. “The guy paid me between $50 and $500 a pop over PayPal from a USC address. It didn’t exactly scream criminal mastermind.” Over a period of 38 months, Portley-Hanks was paid a total of $4,081.82 for his services. “They’re lumping me in as being part of some multi-million-dollar conspiracy, and I’m living in a one room apartment in Studio City on a fixed income?” he says. “Does that make sense to you?”
Portley-Hanks does admit that he helped Hanson with the photo of Cipriani’s parents’ graves splattered in paint. But, in his description, the whole thing was less the menacing “threat” as portrayed in the indictment than a collegiate prank concocted by an amped-up ex-frat brother with far too much time and money on his hands. “Part of the reason I took that job, aside from being broke, is that my brother lived in New Jersey, about 50 miles from where Cipriani’s parents are buried,” he says. “It was like a free trip to see my family.” When he drove across the country, he claims, it was only to take a photo of the tombstones, for which Hanson paid him $5,000. “Then, when I emailed it to Owen, he asks if I’ll pour some red paint on it. Another $2,000. This was the day before Hurricane Sandy hit, so I’m thinking it will just wash away. But I mistakenly used waterproof paint when I meant to buy the water soluble stuff.”
Back in L.A., when he met Hanson at the Starbucks to receive his payment, Portley-Hanks says Hanson asked if he could be photo-shopped into the image for an additional fee. “So we drive over to this park behind the La Brea Tar Pits, and he pulls a Mexican wrestling mask and a shovel out of the back of his car,” Portley-Hanks recalls. “All I’m thinking at that point is: This is one whacky motherfucker. But as a private eye you come across a lot of those. I figured the whole thing was two rich assholes playing games, like the kind of mindless threats that go back and forth over Twitter.”
Indeed, the most remarkable aspect to the case may be that Hanson’s frat-boy antics and self-image as a Californian Pablo Escobar – manifesting in an unwavering obsession with hazing Cipriani and ultimately undercutting his otherwise shrewd approach to building a phenomenally lucrative illegal enterprise – is in the end the reason he sits in a prison cell today. Which is not to say that Cipriani has emerged from the feud untarnished. Though he wasn’t indicted as a player in the laundering scheme – in part, he supposes, because of a proffer letter he signed with the Department of Justice before sharing information with F.B.I. – his association with Hanson has resulted in a lifetime ban from the casinos that once sent private jets for him. If he wants to play blackjack today, he must do so in “two-bit Indian reservation casinos,” putting his persona as Robin Hood into early retirement.
“I was the one who brought this motherfucker to justice, and this is what I get?” he says. But he is quick to add that, in the wake of Hanson’s arrest, he has found a new outlet for his avenging impulses, reinventing himself as a freelance source for FBI. “Dude, I’m working on other cases right now that are even crazier than this one,” he says. “Literally, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”