Four gunmen attempted to steal a promotional booth filled with cash from Barona Casino early Wednesday, firing off several shots in the process, but no one was hurt and the money was recovered after being abandoned by the robbers, authorities said.
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The black-clad gunmen carried handguns and rifles as they robbed the East County gaming facility about 2:20 a.m., said San Diego County sheriff's Lt. Hank Turner. It was initially reported that the men used an AK-47 in the brazen robbery.
The general manager of Barona said there were 500 people inside the casino at the time of the robbery but it happened so quickly that no one noticed.
However, patrons playing slot machines told reporters they heard gunfire and scrambled to cash out before searching for loved ones gambling in other areas of the casino.
The gunmen entered the casino and approached a promotional booth filled with cash, then proceeded to attach a steel chain around the booth, according to sheriff's Sgt. Tom Poulin. The other end of the chain was attached to a black SUV parked outside the casino, he said.
While the gunmen were still inside the casino, a gun was fired and at least one round struck the promotional booth, Poulin said.
According to the general manager of Barona, a single rifle shell casing was found inside the facility. However, the San Diego Sheriff's Department said they responded to a report of multiple shots being fired.
A couple, who wished to remain anonymous, witnessed the heist and spoke to 10News about their frightening experience.
The husband had just pulled their car into the valet area and left the engine running with his wife inside as he went inside to find their two friends.
The woman told 10News reporter Allison Ash a black SUV pulled to within five feet of her car, and she watched as four men armed with guns and wearing dark clothing and ski masks jumped out of the vehicle. She said they ordered several people in the valet area to get on the ground.
"They just went down. They were very scared, very nervous, and they just went straight down on the floor," the woman said. "I was just very scared because my car was unlocked and it was running. They could have just abandoned their car and jumped into mine and held me hostage."
The woman tearfully told 10News she thought of the couple's 3-month-old baby at home as the incident unfolded.
Inside the casino, her husband and their two friends heard loud screams and initially thought someone had won some cash.
"We heard a bunch of guys yelling, 'Get down, get down, were not messing around, get down,'" the husband said. "I knew it was real when I actually saw the guy in the ski mask and actually saw the guns."
The robbers pointed the guns at guests, most of which ran to the back of the casino to get away.
"All I was focused on was getting outside to make sure my wife was OK," said the man, who added that each attempt to leave was met with a bandit pointing a silver handgun at him.
The man told 10News he heard the chains being dragged across the floor, and the sound of gunshots as the see-thru box of money was toppled to the ground.
During the heist, a female friend of the couple fainted and needed medical attention.
Minutes later, his wife saw the men leave with a black duffel bag that appeared to have money in it.
After their ordeal, the couple was reunited. Hours later, they told 10News they were glad nobody got hurt, but questioned the display of cash which could be a magnet for thieves.
"How can they have a promotion like that and not have security protecting the players?" said the husband.
The gunmen then fled in the SUV with a small amount of cash, Turner said. They apparently did not succeed in stealing the promotional booth.
The getaway vehicle was found abandoned about a mile away on Wildcat Canyon Road a short time later, Turner said, adding that the loot was inside the SUV. Authorities could not immediately say why the vehicle and the money were abandoned.
Vehicle checkpoints were set up on the north and south ends of the Barona Indian Reservation in the hopes of catching the men, Turner said. The checkpoints were at Wildcat Canyon Road and San Vicente Road in Ramona, and at Wildcat Canyon Road and Willow Road in Lakeside.
The checkpoint operation lasted several hours but no suspects were found.
Audrey Doherty, a representative for Barona, told 10News most of the cash inside the box was fake.
"It's like a Hollywood prop," Doherty said, adding that although the promotion is for a $250,000 prize, there was only a couple of thousand dollars in the box.
Doherty told 10News that every precaution is taken for the security of guests at the Barona Resort and Casino, including state-of-the-art security.
"Our number one priority is our guests," she said.
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