Vegas Royalty

09.30.13

The Ballad of Mitzi Stauffer Briggs, Heiress Who Lost It All in Vegas

The Stauffer Chemical heiress, who died this month, was hustled out of her fortune after she bought the mobbed-up Tropicana resort in the ’70s. Nearly penniless, she was never bitter, says John L. Smith.

The lunch trade had slowed to a gaggle of cackling tourists at the venerable Peppermill restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip. The visitors would be forgiven for not knowing they were dining with casino royalty.

Deposed royalty, to be sure, and no place casts aside faded high rollers quite like Las Vegas. But the chain-smoking, coffee-drinking woman, so gray under the restaurant’s garish lighting, had once reigned as queen of a Strip casino.

“That was a long time ago,” Mitzi Stauffer Briggs said. “It seems like a lifetime ago. But really, I’m OK now.”

She would often remind me during our many conversations that she was in a better place than when she had millions and was a majority owner of the Tropicana. That was in the late 1970s. The Tropicana was a mobbed-up resort riddled with hidden ownership, casino skimming, and bad debt. The experience ended up draining the Stauffer Chemical Co. heiress of her fortune and left her nearly penniless.

Briggs died September 22 after a battle with cancer. She was 84.

Although her misfortune was a reminder of the challenges and treachery of doing business in the Las Vegas casino racket of the 1970s, she looked at her experience differently. She wasn’t simply a victim, and she avoided being consumed by bitterness by doubling down on her Catholic faith and love of family. The mother of six left 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mother and friend,” said Linda Leonard, Briggs’s daughter.

Briggs was searching for a sound real estate investment when a friend introduced her to the Tropicana deal. In press interviews that in retrospect make her seem achingly naïve, she freely admitted she hadn’t the first clue about the casino business. She knew Las Vegas casinos generated high net profits, but no one had told her about the knife fights that operators of the era often went through to secure their bottom line.

“I was warned not to go into the Tropicana, very, very severely,” Briggs once told me. “Because I was told that there were all kinds of things going on in there that shouldn’t be going on in there. But the people I met, to me, seemed very nice. And I thought, ‘Maybe this is just sour grapes on the part of some people.’”

Nevada gaming regulators expressed concern about Briggs’s lack of experience, but they also were concerned about the foundering business at the Tropicana. She was given a temporary license and privately was warned by Gaming Control Board agents about the characters she was about to encounter. She received final approval for licensure in January 1976 on the condition that she maintain an arm’s length relationship with Joseph Vincent Agosto, whose criminal background and suspected mob connections prevented him from being licensed for the casino but didn’t preclude him from the entertainment director’s job. He played at producing the Folies Bergère floor show and secretly helped skim untaxed casino profits to Nicholas Civella’s Kansas City mob family.

Briggs knew nothing about it. She was admittedly charmed by Agosto, who seemed so sincere in a Runyonesque sort of way.

“I’ve always taken people at face value,” she said. And she did. Agosto and others took her to the cleaners.

Her first buy-in was $6 million, but the stake quickly rose to more than $11 million for 51.2 percent of the company’s stock. By the end of the line, it’s estimated she lost $44 million chasing good money after bad.

“I don’t feel bitter because, first of all, I was the one who went in there and did all this. It was my own fault. And it doesn’t do any good to be bitter. It doesn’t help.”

After a wiretap at the home of a Civella relative produced devastating evidence of hidden ownership, the FBI moved in. The law enforcement raid on February 14, 1979, at the Tropicana would be known in mob circles as the “second St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” and exposed the Civella clan’s grip on the action behind the scenes.

Briggs was forced to sell. But even after the Tropicana transferred to the Ramada hotel chain, Briggs said she “never received a penny.”

Many years after leaving the Tropicana, Briggs worked as a restaurant hostess and then in the gift shop of the Guardian Angel Cathedral, where she also served as the sacristan and was relied on to count the Sunday collection.

“I don’t know what I would do without my faith,” she said in 2009. “I get frightened sometimes and go in there and pray my way through it, pray my way out of it. I have faith that we will be provided for. I never could have made it through any of this without my faith.

“I don’t feel bitter because, first of all, I was the one who went in there and did all this. It was my own fault. And it doesn’t do any good to be bitter. It doesn’t help. I firmly believe in God’s will, that God allows certain things to happen.”

Her fall from the ranks of Las Vegas royalty provided an object lesson for other high rollers who possessed dizzy dreams of casino stardom. It’s what came after that made Mitzi Stauffer Briggs a remarkable woman.

“I knew her at the time she had money and when she had no money, and she was always a classy lady,” longtime Las Vegas casino owner Michael Gaughan said after learning of her death.

Of those many tales of Briggs being hustled out of millions by Tropicana insiders, the hard-nosed casino man added, “They beat her like a drum.”