Ronald Sacco, better known as Ron Sacco or his by nickname Cigar, is the most famous bookmakers to ever service the US market. His name first appeared on public record in early 1971 when he and Ronald Noto were arrested on bookmaking charges. The two were given up by one of their phone men (Mr. Asbury) who turned state witness and they were later convicted and sentenced to 3-years in prison by the state of California under the newly enacted Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. This was only the first of MANY prison sentences the godfather of sports betting Ron “Cigar” Sacco would serve during his long and industrious career as America’s #1 bookie.
Clearing up a Ron Sacco Rumor
Cigar is no doubt a legend, gambling icon, and one of the bookies I most respect. However one popular myth is that in late 1985 he set up a phone-in betting business in the Dominican Republic that became the first ever foreign business to target US sports gambling. While he did later run a Dominican operation he was hardly first. In 1983 Detlef Train established Intertops in the UK and, though not advertising there, US clients were welcome. Meanwhile in 1985 Charles Bowman founded American Football Pools also from the UK, selling parlay cards to US residents, this eventually was expanded to become the online sportsbook bowmans.com, which operated until Bet365 purchased them in 2006.
Of course, most would argue that the UK doesn’t count as “offshore”, but even so… Ron Sacco was far from the first to set up shop offshore and wasn’t even the first in the Dominican Republic. The first “true” “offshore sportsbook” was most likely Grande from the Dominican; they set up shop there in early 1986. When companies now known as CRIS and BookMaker state their histories date back to 1985 in Dominican the facts are a little distorted. The 1985 date refers to the US operation from the time Sacco and Tony Ballestrasse first started together. The two most likely utilized Grande’s Dominican Republic call center prior, but it wasn’t until 1988, and while Sacco was in prison, that the Dominican version of their company was established.
America’s Largest Bookie Busted Again
On June 20, 1987 – Los Angeles County sheriff’s vice detectives raided an illegal sports betting operation and arrested six people including Tony Ballestrasse (age: 30) and Marisa Lankester (age: 24). Exactly one week later, Sacco’s home in the Los Angeles suburb Chino Hills was raided and he was arrested for the second time on bookmaking charges. In what was an otherwise open and shut case, the Sacco defense argued during both his trial and a subsequent appeal that the evidence the authorities seized was inadmissible because he had filled all of his taxes and these records were stored in the event of an IRS audit. While many legal experts and even the court agreed that IRS filings cannot be used to self-incriminate, the court and appellate ruled these documents were also required to run the operation and were therefore admissible. As a result, once again Ron Sacco was convicted and sentenced to 3-years in prison. After serving one year and one week he received early parole and was released on November 3, 1989.
Clearing up more Ron Sacco Rumors
The popular version of the Ron Sacco story suggest he relocated to the Dominican Republic in 1988 and set up a call center business there. This is factual error that has been repeated time and time again by media who copy others rather than check the facts; Cigar was custody for all of 1988 and most of 1989. His operation however has proved over the years to be much larger than he, and there is STRONG evidence he was the ring leader of the Dominican operation from 1991 on, in the form of seized documents and his own confession first on 60-minutes and later to the authorities. However this business might have been established, what we do know is that it was massive, and John Gotti’s Gambino Crime family utilized it for a gambling racket that spanned the entire nation.
July 18, 1993 60-minutes
On July 18, 1993, 60-minutes (a long running US television show) aired an episode that featured Ronald Sacco as well as private investigators who built a case against him while paid by both Sacco and the FBI. While the video isn’t available online, at least not as far I can see, the dialogue can be read in this Major Wager thread. Many gamblers and fellow operators heavily criticized Ron Sacco for going on 60-minutes and many feel this was the reason he was arrested and extradited to the US. What’s most interesting is the US FBI claimed at this point his business was taking more than 100 million USD in wagers each and every month – over $1 billion per year.
Ron Sacco Arrest for a Third Time
In September 1993, Ron Sacco and another familiar name from the 1987 arrest Tony Ballestrasse were arrested by Dominican authorities for running an illegal operation. You see, while they were licensed to operate there, their license covered only domestic business. These guys were taking business abroad over the telephone and marketing to the US. Both were later extradited to the US as non-desirable aliens. Upon return Ron Sacco faced bookmaking charges for the third time – this time reported his Dominican business took over $1 billion in bets per year. Sacco pled guilty in a San Francisco court and was sentenced to 68-months in prison. He was released on May 15, 1998 in order to serve the final 3-years of his sentence on supervised release.
Ron Sacco and BetCRIS
Ironically, Ron “Cigar” Sacco is best known as the founder of Costa Rican International Sports (CRIS) which you can read about in our on page the history of BetCRIS. However he didn’t actually start this company. After his arrest in the Dominican Republic in 1993, this operation was closed entirely. Some of the unindicted partners returned to the US and launched a bookmaking business from Santa Monica. When this business was raided then ring leader Harry Craft moved the operation to Margarita Island, Venezuela where many of Sacco’s former Dominican employees relocated to work. In 1994, the business was moved to Costa Rica and was renamed Costa Rica International Sports (CRIS).
Cigar was simply the master mind behind this operation from the start; he was the king of moving and cleaning money, getting credit card processing, bribing officials and the whole nine-yards. In the 1980’s he funneled millions of dollars in gambling transactions through pawn shops, in early 1990’s he made deals and infiltrated banks, in short, he’s the man that made the entire offshore gambling industry possible. A number of police officers have been linked to him, Pete Rose’s bookie laid off action to him; he’s an Icon that has done more good for the sports betting industry than anyone. Bodog founder Calvin Ayre claims reading about Ron “Cigar” Sacco was his inspiration for getting into the business. WSEX founder Jay Cohen once snapped at a man who criticized him saying with “Ron Sacco is a man of honor, a man of integrity, and a man who has gotten a raw deal on at least two occasions now. How dare you question this man’s courage?” More importantly perhaps, is Cigar had a reputation for his belief a man’s word is sacred, and there is nothing more disgusting in life then a cheat.
It was natural upon his release to welcome back the man who made it all possible. Cigar was hired immediately as a consultant to Costa Rica International Sports, taking a on what was the equivalent of an executive position. Of course, in order to take this position there was the challenge he was still serving the final 3-years of his sentence on supervised release in the US. Anxious to get back in the game, this was no challenge a few bribes couldn’t handle. With the details worked out, Mr. Sacco used a fake passport and landed in Costa Rica.
Ron Cigar Sacco with CRIS
Ron Sacco was once again the king of gambling from approximately early 1998, until March 2002, as the head of Costa Rican International Sports (CRIS) – the largest online gambling brand in the world. This was a key time for gambling as many bookmakers such as Gary Austin of Tradewinds (Justbet.cx), Simon Noble of Intertops, Joe Junior of BetOnline and of course Pinnacle Sports, WSEX, BetMaker etc. were just starting to embrace the internet and telephone wagering had become main steam in the US as well. Where he gets credit as the founder of CRIS, is that he was their main guy when they first went online in 2000 using the url www.betcris.com. His involvement after March 2002 is just about non-existent.
Ron Sacco Arrested a Fourth Time
On March 2, 2002 officials at the border post of Peñas Blancas Costa Rica discovered a man entering Costa Rica carrying two passports with the same man photographed. One passport was issued in Los Angles to a US citizen named Ronald Sacco, and the second issued in Belize to Ronald O’Malley who was listed as a naturalized citizen born in Ireland. After contacting the FBI it was discovered that Sacco was wanted in the United States for 2000 indictment in San Francisco on Bookmaking charges and was considered a fugitive. A short while later he was arrested with the crime being his use of two passports. In 2002, while others were celebrating freedom on the fourth of July, Ronald Sacco was deported the United States.
Ron Sacco Comes Clean
On March 27, 2003 Ron Sacco pleaded guilty before a United States District Court in Northern District of California, and was able to successfully petition for a light prison sentence. His defense testified Ronald Sacco had already spent far more time in prison for past convictions than current maximum sentences allow. It was also pointed out that he was current on child support payments with his youngest daughter just 6-years old at the time, he was current on all taxes, and age 60 had increasing number of nagging health ailments. A final defense, one that raised more than a few eyebrows: the FBI agreed that Ronald Sacco had cooperated with them on numerous occasions which led to significant arrests for crimes much more serious than bookmaking. He was a given a 21-month sentence with credit for the 9-months he served between Costa Rican waiting facilities and Marin County Jail.
Ron Sacco’s Return to Costa Rica
On July 15, 2004 Ron Sacco, now a completely free man, petitioned the Costa Rica government requesting return to the country in order to retire close to his daughter. His case was never heard, and he was left needing to wait until a 10-year ban from visiting ends on July 4, 2012. Today, Mickey Richardson runs the CRIS show which includes other bands such as Bookmaker, BetDSI, BetMaker and Fun Time Bingo.
Where is Ron Sacco Today?
It would appear the company running www.bookmaker.eu wants you to believe he is still America’s top Bookmaker and one of their top executives. To their credit, the lineage of Bookmaker does date back to the 1985 bookmaking operation that Ron Sacco ran with Tony Ballestrasse as his right-hand man, and the company still operates on the same principle of striving to the be the best, service punters well with football gambling and other sports, never limit collaring and paying out hassle free. However, their marketing that uses burning cigars in their advertisement banners as well as other references that have been dropped here and there on forums by affiliates – are subtle marketing designed to appeal to us old school punters who remember the days of bookmaking when “the Cigar” ran the show. Only his legacy is part of bookmaker.eu, the man himself was never a part of that brand.
Ronald Saccco is now in late 60’s but has serious health challenges. His location is well known to his friends and family, and he lives today as free man no longer involved in bookmaking and not at all an interest of the US authorities. He’s a man who dedicated his life to the gambling industry, always paid, and spent far more years in prison than he deserved. If sport betting is ever federally legal in the United States – I hope nothing more than to someday see him given a proper tribute – Ronald “The Cigar” Sacco convicted and treated as criminal by authorities, yet a hero Americans who believes in freedom and the right for adults to make their own decisions regarding how their own money is spent. I very much wish Ron the very best and hope he enjoys out his final years in peace.