The house always wins.

Jian Qiao Chen had already lost $3,000 playing Baccarat. He was about to lose even more. But not to a card game.

Chen was gambling at the Commerce Casino, an establishment that has a church-basement vibe, complete with matted floral carpeting and rickety red-cushioned chairs. Guests expecting the glitz of the Vegas strip might describe it as “seedy,” but for serious players, it’s a hub of competition. According to their website, the Commerce Casino is California’s # 1 venue for games of skill. That includes draw poker, blackjack, Texas Hold’em, and Baccarat. No slot machines. The dings and flashes of the gaming gadgets are replaced by the incessant chatter of players crowding card tables.

It was 4am, but for the occupants of the casino, it could have been 3 in the afternoon. Time in the windowless halls was meaningless. The drinks kept flowing and cards kept flipping 24 hours a day. Perhaps the only indication of the clock’s steady tick forward was the most primitive: the bladder. Chen set down his remaining $7,000 worth of chips on the Baccarat table and excused himself to go to the restroom.

When he returned, the chips were gone. Chen checked under the table and turned his pockets inside out. No dealer had spotted a thief. No bystanders saw who snatched the chips. No security guards intercepted a suspect.

Only the eye in the sky saw anything at all.

Security footage showed a man in black tennis shoes, blue jeans, a white t-shirt, black hoodie with horizontal stripes and a trucker hat with a brim that obscured his face from the overhead cameras. The man in the hat took the perfectly pocket-able chips.

Despite what television would have you believe, in most cases it’s clear who committed the alleged crime. What’s left to be determined is the exact nature of the act and the individual’s intentions. Was it self-defense? Did her statements constitute a criminal threat? Was it kidnapping or a father’s rightful custody?

But this is an old-fashioned who-dunnit.

On September 18, 2019, Nhut Bao Ton is in court for his preliminary hearing facing charges of grand theft. Specifically, the grand theft of Jian Qiao Chen’s casino chips. Bao Ton is a 45-year-old man. He wears a blue, county jail jumpsuit. A hint of a goatee frames his thin lips.

It’s undisputed that Bao Ton was at the Commerce Casino the night of the theft. He was identified as a potential suspect because of the amount of money he cashed out that evening. When officers arrived at his house three days later, he was adamant that he didn’t take the chips. Then they asked what he had been wearing. He respectfully told them:

“Black tennis shoes, blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black hoodie with a design.”

In the gallery, a young woman in a plaid cotton dress sits by an elderly woman in a moss green blouse. They watch Bao Ton with tears glistening in their eyes. The elderly woman clutches her shaking hands in prayer. An emerald ring hangs on her frail ring finger.

Bao Ton has already spent 15 days in jail, but her quivering breaths are for the larger stakes at hand.

In California, grand theft is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Arresting officer Andrew Morrell takes the stand. Silver ballpoint pens shine in the breast pocket of his yellow, collared shirt. He testifies confidently regarding the content of the surveillance footage. A still photo of the suspect is presented to Judge Lynne Hobbs with the caveat that the “security footage is much clearer.”

She squints at the grey low-resolution image.

Deputy Public Defender David Moore rises from his seat at the counsel’s table. He adjusts his speckled, blue tie and motions that the case be dismissed due to insufficiency of evidence. It’s a Hail Mary motion heard in nearly every case, but this time, before the Judge can open her mouth, Moore triumphantly adds “on grounds of 1523.” A debate ensues in which Moore asserts that oral testimony regarding evidence is inadmissible in preliminary court, suggesting that Officer Morrell’s testimony regarding the security footage is insufficient evidence. Deputy District Attorney Matthew Bunnett argues that the 1523 rulings only apply to trials, but ultimately, Judge Hobbs agrees with Moore.

The case is dismissed. Moore looks back at the women in the gallery who are hugging like they’ve hit the jackpot. Nhut Bao Ton’s shoulders relax as he basks in the promise of freedom.

This chapter of the case is closed. The great who-dunnit question sprawls out unanswered. Maybe there’s another man, another story or explanation. But that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is Nhut Bao Ton’s nightmare is over.

Then the bailiff stands to take Bao Ton back into custody.

The judge tells the women to go to the third floor.

The women are confused.

The case was dismissed.

But the prosecutor will file the same charges again. He has until 4pm. 

The DA’s office gets another chance because the case has been dismissed “without prejudice” a judicial ruling that allows prosecutors time to address issues with the case before trying it again. Generally the law allows prosecutors two shots at presenting evidence for a felony case as long as the second case is filed within the statute of limitations. There’s no double jeopardy here.

The elderly woman’s face contorts into something more complicated than sadness. It’s existential: the inability to believe that this is reality. As if she stands astride two parallel universes. One is our own, the other perverse.

Imagine a casino that holds 2.3 million people. Walk inside and the doors lock behind you. Now you must wait until you’re given permission to leave. Time doesn’t exist in this casino. It’s waived and continued and put over so frequently that all notions of schedules lose their meaning. While glitzy signs flash jackpot acquittals, the typical gambler leaves the casino at a loss: attorney fees, bail fees, and restitution accumulate. Here, lady justice moonlights as lady luck. There are innocents facing life sentences and guilty walking free. As you walk the raucous halls, breathing in the stale cigarette air and sipping from a weak drink, you hear the prevailing wisdom whispered by the occupants:

The house always wins.

Update: The prosecutor refiled the charges before the 4pm deadline. Nhut Bao Ton remains in custody. He is scheduled for a pretrial setting on December 20, 2019.