Crown's fake shake: How a $12,500 cocktail helped cover a $32m heist


Crown's fake shake: How a $12,500 cocktail helped cover a $32m heist, by Mark Hawthorne
- 27th June 2015

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The Winston: $12,500 worth of cocktail. Photo: Supplied


It was the cocktail that grabbed global headlines. Sold in 2013 for a mind-boggling $12,500, it even gave Crown Casino's Club 23 - the bar owned by James Packer, Shane Warne and Joe Hachem - a Guinness World Record.

Except, despite the billing, it wasn't the most expensive drink ever sold - technically, it wasn't sold at all. Fairfax Media can reveal the purchase was faked to help cover up a $32 million heist that had taken place at the casino just a day before.

In February 2013, Crown had announced that New Zealand millionaire James Manning would pay the five-figure sum for "The Winston" - a cocktail made with 1858-vintage Croizet Cuvee Leonie cognac, the drop that Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower sipped when planning the D-Day landings.

In what was perhaps a bad omen for Crown, it was also the cognac stocked on the Titanic.

Manning had been lured to the casino by one of its VIP services staff, the division that handles high-rollers. What Crown didn't know was that Manning had friends on the inside.

In what would later be described by police as an Oceans 11-style scam, Manning embarked on an extraordinary winning streak on the card tables. Eight winning hands in the streak, which netted $32 million, piqued Crown's interest.

"We could not believe what he had won and some of the bets he placed were very, very suspicious," a former Crown executive said. "Those eight hands, in particular - he bet against the odds and won, so one of our surveillance guys decided to take a closer look."

After examining video, the surveillance expert realised that Crown's network of cameras in the VIP room had been breached and someone was giving signals to Manning at the table. Crown eventually worked out the VIP services manager who had invited Manning to the casino was in on the scam. "It was very elaborate and they nearly got away with it," the executive said.

A security guard knocked on the door of Manning's luxurious villa at Crown Towers in the middle of the night, and the gambler and his family were evicted. As the majority of the $32 million of winnings had not yet been transferred out of the casino, Crown management decided not to press charges. Manning was given an exclusion notice, banning him from the premises.

But the late-night sting left Crown's public relations department in a bind. The casino had already announced that Manning, "a businessman from New Zealand", would be buying the world-record cocktail.

 

 

The event was scheduled for February 7. Jason Gillott, the Hong Kong-based marketing manager for Croizet, had flown in with a bottle of 1858 Cuvee Leonie, worth an estimated $150,000. Some guests had been asked if they could be official witnesses for a Guinness World Record. "Having James Manning done for a gambling heist just before the event was not in the script," said a former member of Crown's PR team."We had the cognac, we had the event organised, we just didn't have a buyer. We were in an awful bind."

Even in the rarified world of Crown, finding someone willing to pay $12,500 for a cocktail is no easy task. With a PR embarrassment looming, two Crown executives - Vice President of VIP Services, Ishan Ratnam, and the Chief Operating Officer of Crown Hotels, Peter Crinis - approached a regular face at Crown Towers, Giang Nguyen.

Nguyen is a financial backer of the Geelong Football Club, sometimes lives in a villa suite at Crown Towers, and is a close friend of Ratnam and Crinis.

He was also a reluctant buyer, but eventually a deal was struck. Nguyen would sign for the drink at Club 23, thereby appeasing the Guinness World Records judges, and the money would be repaid to him by Crown at a later date.

"The whole thing was fake... $12,500 was repaid to Giang so he would pose for the pic," a former Crown employee told The Sunday Age. "Giang stepped in at the last minute. He made the transaction as per Guinness rules, but he got his money back and it never came from Club 23."

Crown would have got away with it if it had not been for the scandal engulfing former Fiat Chrysler boss Clyde Campbell, and his links with Crown. Ratnam has been named in court documents alleging that Campbell funnelled Fiat Chrysler money through a company called My Alfa Romeo - which Ratnam owns with Campbell's wife, Simone - to buy a $400,000 luxury boat.

The revelation about Campbell and Ratnam encouraged three past and present employees of Crown to come forward. They recall how, on the night of the world record attempt, Nguyen turned up to the glamorous cocktail party wearing old sandals, direct from his hotel room, with Ratnam following him.

Nguyen was in such a hurry to leave he didn't even finish The Winston. "A sip for the cameras and he was gone," said a former staffer.

"I can tell you now, Giang 'bought' the cocktail at the event, but was never charged, as he stepped in as Ishan's friend. I am glad it is out in the open now."

None of the parties involved responded to questions from Fairfax Media - including whether Club 23 would relinquish its world record title. According to the Guinness World Records website, Club 23 still has the title for the most expensive drink ever sold.

(The Age)