The casinos run by American Indian tribes in Northern California work to attract lonely seniors on fixed incomes by offering cheap transportation on charter buses like the one that crashed over the weekend, killing eight people and injuring dozens.
The casinos also provide free meals and complimentary slot machine play to the thousands of seniors who have helped fuel the industry over the past decade. Some seniors fund the excursions with their Social Security checks and return home worrying about not being able to cover basic living expenses.
"Every single time, they always complain they don't have money," said Pa Phang, 37, whose 87-year-old father-in-law Xee Hue Vang died in Sunday's crash an hour north of Sacramento. Her mother-in-law, Mao Lee Yang, 75, remains hospitalized.
Phang, whose in-laws each received about $700 a month in public assistance, recounted a conversation the Hmong pair had a few weeks ago: "My dad was telling my mom, 'I think we shouldn't go. You already lost $200 on the first of the month.' My mom said, 'It's my money.'"
An effective network
Gambling opponents and social workers say that while casinos draw all types of players with dreams of striking it rich, California's network of bus services and recruiters has been especially effective in luring seniors to the state's 56 Indian casinos.
But James May, a spokesman for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents 41 casinos, would not comment on the age or race of players that frequent the casinos.
"I'm sure each of the tribes handles their charters in different ways," May said.
The charter bus that crashed Sunday in Williams, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, was en route to Colusa Casino Resort, which said it had done business with the bus company since 2006 but did not have an appointment with it that day.
The California Highway Patrol arrested the 52-year-old bus driver on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Officials said that he did not have the proper license to carry passengers and that the vehicle had an invalid license plate. The investigation continues.
Theresa Saechao, a social worker who has been helping bus crash victims and their families, said casinos and charter bus services have profited by targeting poor Southeast Asian communities, particularly seniors who can't drive and face language barriers to finding jobs. "It's destroying these communities here," Saechao said.
Problem gambling under scrutiny
State lawmakers have held hearings on problem gambling in recent years. And Democratic Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said his panel is requesting information about Sunday evening's crash in Colusa County.
Relatives of the victims say recruiters for chartered buses come to the community, and then word of the gambling trips spreads.
"They are actually going into low-income neighborhoods and picking people out," DeSaulnier said.
There are 1 million Californians who have a serious gambling problem, a state-sponsored study estimated two years ago.
Another state study found that the rate of problem gambling is lower among adults older than 65 than among the disabled, the unemployed and African-Americans. But gambling opponents and family members say seniors are hit especially hard by losses because they are on fixed incomes.
"Many live very insecure financial lives and by them being in a situation where they begin to lose $50 to $100 a week, it might be enough to jeopardize their financial situation and make them unable to make payments on utilities," said Rev. James Butler, executive director of the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, a faith-based organization.
Drawn by the prizes, food
Some seniors playing quarter slot machines at Thunder Valley Casino told a reporter they were drawn by a nightly prize drawing, fine restaurants and the chance to get out of the house.
"I used to spend a lot of money on grandkids, but now I spend it on gambling, hoping to get rich — so I can spend more on them," said Beverly Osborne, 72, who drove the 30 miles from her home in Sacramento.
The casino, built on former rangeland between Lincoln and Roseville northeast of Sacramento, is so lucrative that it is now adding a 24-story hotel that will jut above nearby suburban communities in Placer County.
Dr. Timothy Fong of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it's hard to say whether similar bus services should be considered a predatory practice; many seniors book the tours because gambling excursions are simply entertainment.
Because the bus trips have become common practice, Fong said, a better question for lawmakers and regulators is to educate seniors so they understand the risks of gambling.
"It's not just a matter of should they, shouldn't they," Fong said. "If it's going to happen, we should address it head on and have some safeguards."