January 11, 2021 13:54
Some W14.5 billion in cash has vanished without a trace from the safe of the Landing Casino in the Shinhwa World Marriott Resort on Jeju Island (US$1=W1,092).
Around 1,100 CCTV cameras were running in the casino, but someone managed to pull off the heist undetected and make off with the stash of crisp W50,000 bills weighing 290 kg.
Also gone without a trace was a 55-year-old Malaysian woman who had been assigned to manage the cash. She went on holiday late last month and has not returned to work.
Shinhwa World was established by Chinese real estate conglomerate Landing Group, which invested W1.7 trillion in the hotel and casino via its Hong Kong subsidiary, Landing International. The foreigners-only casino is the second largest in Korea after Paradise City Casino in Incheon.
When the woman did not return, the casino launched an audit, which led to the discovery on the evening of Jan. 4 that the W14.56 billion were gone from the safe. The cash was stored in the safe in a secret office close to the gambling floor rather than the casino's official safe that also contains the chips, which is why the casino discovered it so late.
The 50 sq.m secret office is filled with wall safes. A Landing Casino source said, "Only a small handful of people who work at the casino know about the room, and only a few people, including [the Malaysian staffer], are allowed in there."
Why so much money was stored in the secret vault is a mystery. "Sometimes huge amounts of cash are kept in storage to impress and attract more customers, but it's quite rare to store hundreds of billions of won." an industry source said.
Landing Entertainment Korea, the operator of the casino here, in a statement said the money "is not related to the operation of the casino but had been deposited with the local entity by Landing International. It will not affect the operation or finances of the casino," it added.
It is not clear if that was all the cash that was stored there and why the Hong Kong office kept it here.
Observers speculate that the money could be linked to the arrest of Landing International chairman Yang Zhihui by Chinese police. The casino generated W369.4 billion in revenues in just four months after it opened in 2018. That is three times the money the eight other casinos in Jeju earned in 2017. The main clients are Chinese nationals.
But the conglomerate faced a major crisis when Yang was arrested by Chinese public security agents in Cambodia in August 2018. At that time, press reports linked his arrest to a corruption scandal involving the ex-chairman of China's largest investment fund, Huarong Asset Management. The ex-chairman, Lai Xiaomin, was recently sentenced to death for corruption.
After being investigated by Chinese state security, Yang returned to the helm of Landing International in Hong Kong, but he seemed to be a different person. He became a recluse and kept a distance from managing Shinwha World and Landing Casino.
Heavyweight gamblers from China stopped visiting Landing Casino and withdrew money they had deposited there, causing losses of some W3 billion at one time.
The Malaysian woman was apparently close to Yang, and insiders believe it was Yang who sent her to manage his funds at Landing Casino. The woman apparently communicated primarily with the Hong Kong office and barely interacted with executives in Korea, raising suspicions that the disappearance of the money could be the work of more than just one person.
Police have identified the Malaysian woman as the prime suspect, but it remains a mystery how she could have simply walked off with a stash that weighed almost 300 kg.
Analysis of CCTV footage around the secret safe apparently shows no evidence of the woman walking away with the entire stash. "CCTV camera footage is usually stored for a month. Analysis of footage before a month ago could lead to more information," a source at the casino said.
Police believe the woman walked off with small portions over a longer period and are also eyeing the possibility of one or more accomplices. They are also tracking exchanges or wire transfers.
The woman is believed to have left Korea already, but there is little chance that she departed with the money in a suitcase since the bulk would have caught the attention of customs officials.
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