A few years ago, the IRS decided it would be a great idea to issue my $3000 tax refund on the exact same day that I happened to be driving to Las Vegas for a friend's birthday. I literally found out about the direct deposit through an email alert that arrived roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. My first reaction was to just pretend the money didn't exist all weekend. That lasted until right around 1:30 am the first night. And, not surprisingly, by the end of the weekend, I had blown through the entire refund. I was depressed about it for weeks and the experience made me sort of hate Vegas ever since.
I shudder to imagine what it must feel like to gamble away tens of thousands, or even a hundred thousand dollars in Vegas. Or millions. Or tens of millions… Or how about $125 million?
Sounds impossible right? Believe it or not, that's exactly what Chinese-Mexican man named Zhenli Ye Gon managed to do between 2004 and 2007. Who is Zhenli Ye Gon? Let's start our story somewhat in reverse with an incident that turned out to be the Largest Drug Cash Seizure of All Time.
The date? March 2007.
The setting? The back bedroom of an an unassuming house in the suburbs of Mexico City.
After receiving a tip about suspicious activity from an informant, Mexican drug agents and American DEA raided a home in the wee hours of March 15th 2007. After knocking down the front door, the proceeded to search the home, room-by-room. Here's what they discovered a back bedroom:
Low and behold, when they opened the door to a back bedroom, agents were shocked to discover a mountain of neatly stacked money three feet high and six feet wide. In total, the mountain was made up of…
That's $207 million made up of mostly US hundred dollar bills. It still stands as the largest amount of drug money ever discovered in history.
Further investigation showed the mansion that was hiding $207 million in a back bedroom was owned by a businessman named…
Zhenli Ye Gon
So, who is Zhenli Ye Gon and how did he end up with nearly a quarter-billion worth of cash stacked in his guest room?
Zhenli Ye Gon moved from Shanghai to Mexico in 1996 to work in the import/export business. By 2002, he was running a supposedly legitimate chemical importing company called Unimed Pharm Chem. Somewhere along the way, Mr. Ye Gon allegedly began re-directing a portion of his imports from legitimate businesses to the Sinola drug cartel. The cartel then used these precursor chemicals to manufacture massive quantities of crystal meth which were then shipped to the US.
Zhenli Ye Gon was actually not at the house when the raid went down and when he found out what happened he fled north, to The United States, of all places. When he reached the US, Zhenli claimed he was forced to hold on to the $207 million by a Cabinet member of Mexico's then President Filipe Calderon. Zhenli admitted that the money was from the Sinola cartel and further claimed it was to be used in Calderon's upcoming re-election campaign. Oh, and he also admitted that the total amount of dirty money he was "forced" to babysit was actually closer to $350 million.
Zhenli Ye Gon was indicted in The United States in 2007, but after a series of witnesses recanted or coincidentally turned up dead, the case was eventually dismissed. However, he is still fighting the government to not be extradited to Mexico where drug trafficking laws are slightly looser.
Gambling Away A Fortune
So how does this saga connect back to Las Vegas?
When he wasn't babysitting cash and manufacturing chemicals, Zhenli Ye Gon was visiting Las Vegas. A lot.
Between 2006 and 2007 alone, Zhenli transferred $45 million in cash to the Venetian from various banks and money exchanges located around Mexico. He proceeded to not only blow the entire $45 million, but an additional $35 million he received on credit from the casino.
For a while, Zhenli was by far and away the largest all-cash-upfront gambler in the history of Las Vegas and thanks to these unprecedented losses, the casinos treated him like a God. He was showered with comped rooms, private jets, meals, cars, girls… we're talking comps that are beyond mortal imagination.
When it was all said and done, Zhenli lost $85 million at the Venetian and another $40 million at a small handful of nearby casinos. For a total loss of…
For a while, this was a great deal for the casinos. They were making money hand over fist off one of the biggest whales in gambling history. Unfortunately, after the raid in Mexico city, not only did the money stop flowing but Zhenli refused to pay back the $35 million marker he had been given. To make matters worse, the US government fined the Las Vegas Sands $47.4 million for not reporting Zhenli's suspicious transactions. That effectively means the Venetian actually lost $37.5 million as a result of Zhenli Ye Gon. And while that may not seem like a lot to a massive casino corporation, the losses were actually a large enough to wipe out all executive bonuses at the Venetian for 2007 and temporarily cause Las Vegas Sands' stock to plummet. The company's CFO even had to address the Zhenli Ye Gon incident specifically during a quarterly conference call with investors.
Throughout it all, Zhenli maintained his innocence. Which is particularly crazy when you consider that he doesn't dispute the allegation that he earned $350 million over a three year period while running Unimed. He also did not dispute that he gambled away $125 million in Las Vegas. He spent nine years in the US fighting extradition to Mexico, but he was extradited in October 2016 where he is being held in the maximum-security prison of the Federal Center for Social Readaptation. His wife was also arrested and sentenced to prison. She was released in May 2022 having served part of a 15-year term.