highway message board

State transportation officials use highway message boards for a variety of purposes but don't want to use them so much that drivers no longer pay attention.

Q: Why aren’t the new MnDOT reader boards along the highways (I often see the one on westbound Highway 60 near Lake Crystal) used more? They could be very useful lately to remind motorists of the new cell phone law. When it’s raining, they could be used to remind motorists to drive with headlights on. Why aren’t they used 24/7?

A: We’re talking, here, about the permanent electronic message boards that have come to major state highways in south-central Minnesota in the last few years.

Rebecca Arndt — a public affairs coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation and longtime member of the Ask Us Answerer Hall of Fame — referred this question to a couple of MnDOT experts.

“I believe a lot of why they are not lit up all the time is because we want the messages to mean something when they are on there,” said Chase Fester, acting maintenance operations manager for MnDOT’s Mankato-based District 7.

“If people see them on every day, they tend to grow accustomed to them and don’t pay as close of attention to messages being displayed. I’ll let Scott throw his two cents in on it.”

“Scott” is Scott Thompson, a MnDOT traffic engineer who is a likely future inductee of the Ask Us Answerer HOF if he maintains his current level of productivity.

Thompson said Fester nailed it.

“When we use the dynamic message signs, the messages shown are to be timely and relevant to passing motorists,” Thompson said.

“To ensure our ability to convey that information to motorists, the signs need to have a high impact. Displaying a message 24/7 would erode their impact on motorists.”

Q: I really enjoyed the movie “Ocean’s Eleven” with George Clooney and Julia Roberts (the first one) but I am wondering if anyone in real life has tried to rob a Las Vegas casino? The movie showed them how.

A: This question has been in the “To be answered” file for several years, mainly because Ask Us Guy had not actually seen “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Also, Ask Us Guy’s boss prefers that he focus on questions that have a south-central Minnesota angle.

But, Ask Us Guy recently rented “Ocean’s Eleven.” And he figures the question actually has a local angle, considering that many Mankato-area residents have seen the movie and/or visited a casino.

So, here goes.

No one has ever pulled off a casino robbery nearly as elaborate as the one in the movie (unless it happened and the casino was too embarrassed to report it). But many people have tried — and mostly failed — to steal large sums from casinos.

Perhaps the most successful Las Vegas casino theft was committed in 1992 by a sports-book cashier at the now-defunct Stardust Casino.

It was about as far from the intricate “Ocean’s Eleven” heist as could be. William Brennan simply filled a garbage bag with more than $500,000 in chips and cash, flipped the bag over his shoulder and casually walked out of the Stardust.

When police reached Brennan’s apartment, both he and his cat were gone and neither has been apprehended. Ask Us Guy described him as “perhaps” the most successful casino thief because there is some speculation online that the Stardust, which allegedly had connections to the mafia, dealt with Brennan in an extra-judicial manner.

Another half-successful Vegas heist happened the year after Brennan’s $500,000 payday on his final shift as a Stardust cashier.

In 1993, armored car driver Heather Tallchief collected $3 million in cash from the Circus Circus casino and — instead of delivering it to the bank — took it to the Netherlands. Tallchief also took her boyfriend, Roberto Solis.

In 2005, by then the mother of a young son, Tallchief turned herself in. Various reports suggested that Solis took all the money shortly after the couple arrived in the Netherlands; others said Tallchief wanted to spare her boy from life as a fugitive. She was sentenced to more than five years in prison. Solis has never been captured.

For a truly triumphant big-bucks casino heist, Ask Us Guy would take readers away from Vegas to the Ritz Casino in London. In 2004, two Serbian men and a Hungarian woman teamed up to nick 1.2 million pounds — more than $2.1 million. And even though they were caught, they weren’t convicted of a crime and were allowed to keep the money.

The trio used lasers, disguised in cellphones and connected to a sophisticated computer program, to gauge the speed of the roulette wheel and the most likely numbers where the ball would land.

The system worked well enough that the threesome had garnered more than $2 million in net winnings before casino security become suspicious of their unusual skill at picking winners.

But, as it turned out, there was no crime on the books in Britain at that time that specifically covered what the players had done. While they were allowed to go free and keep their winnings, they were banned for life from London casinos.

Of course, the legal system and casino security adjusts with each heist and attempted heist, and measures are in now in place to deter those sorts of schemes.

As for the reader’s comment that Ocean’s Eleven taught criminals how to rob a casino, Ask Us Guy would note that it would be difficult to duplicate that heist even with the blueprint provided by the movie.

After all, it required — among many other components — an incredibly skilled Chinese acrobat, a pulse-generator massive enough to knock out the Las Vegas power grid, and a guy who looks like George Clooney to distract the casino owner by wooing the owner’s girlfriend.

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.