The $1 Billion Plano Gambling Ring

I worked undercover for 10 years to bust these bookies. It all started with an anonymous tip.

My brothers and I had a reputation. If you came after one of us, you’d have to deal with all five. So I’d gotten in trouble a few times—fighting, disorderly conduct, that sort of thing. Maybe a minor in possession. I went to jail four or five times. When I ran into a friend from Garland High and he said I should take the test to work as a city cop at Love Field, I said, “You know me. You think they’re going to let me be a cop?” This was 1982. I was working in construction, and it was going well. I asked my wife what she thought about it. She said, “Does the job come with benefits? Then I think you should go for it.” I had to take a polygraph, and they actually asked if I’d ever had sex with an animal. I passed it. 

That same friend used to work in Plano. He came to me one day not long after I got on with the airport job and said, “You’re wasting your time out here. Plano is giving a test. They pay more, and it’s a better opportunity.” Three hundred and eighty people took the test. They took three of us. The whole Plano force back then was probably 130 people. I worked patrol for about a year and a half, and then they drafted me into narcotics. 

Detective Curtis Coburn in a picture taken during his investigation. Photo courtesy of Curtis Coburn
That’s how I first got started with undercover work, buying dope. It didn’t pay more, but it was more interesting. It’s a five-year stint. That’s all they’ll let you do because of the drugs and the money you’re dealing with. They don’t want an officer going bad. 

The job suited me. I’m about as shy as you can get. I can’t stand up in front of a crowd and talk. But when it comes to sitting down at a bar and striking up a conversation, I guess I’ve got a gift. I’ve always been able to talk to people like that. If I want to meet somebody, if I have a target, I am going to meet him. I promise you that.

Training for undercover work is really pretty simple. After 30 years on the force, I’ve done a lot of it. You take the new guys to a bar and get them used to talking to people. They had me train my own partner, Grant Harp. So I took him out on Greenville Avenue. We sat at a bar, and he started talking to a girl. I told him, “You have to pay attention to everything that’s going on around you.” Well, the bartender was an old biker. I pointed at Grant and told the bartender, “You see this guy here? Can you believe he’s wearing women’s underwear?” I started a conversation like that just to see if my partner would snap to it. He never picked up on it, because he was concentrating on that girl. When we got back to the car, I said, “I noticed that you and the bartender turned cold toward each other.” He said, “Yeah, he quit talking to me. No idea why.” Then I told him the bartender didn’t much care for him because he was wearing women’s underwear.

I did well in narcotics. I made the first hand-to-hand buy of a pound of cocaine in Plano, in 1986. We had a reputation. You couldn’t get people to sell drugs in Plano, because we were putting people in jail. My partner and I, we kicked ass. It got to where we’d have to call dealers and meet them in Dallas or Collin County. We were always in the paper for making busts. They wouldn’t come to Plano. 

That job ruined my marriage. When I was working narcotics, there was a lot of night work. I was gone all the time, and she was pretty possessive. I was buying dope off women, too. We didn’t have cellphones back then. The pager would go off, and I’d call and it would be a woman. When I got into a good case, I’d get obsessed with it. That was always my problem. I’d tell my wife, “I’m going to the grocery store. I’ll be back in a minute.” Then I’d be back in four hours. Because I was either pulling someone’s trash or going to have a look at a house. My ex ended up finding someone else. We split the sheets. 

My wife now, she understands. She’s my best friend, and she understands what the job demands. I’ve taken her to bars when I was working undercover. There’s no telling how many different aliases she’s had to keep straight. And I’ve taken her and our kids out on trash runs, too. That’s how I broke the biggest case of my career. It was really just talking to people and stealing trash.

•••

We got an anonymous letter at the intel department one day in 2001. The letter described a bookie operation run by a father and son named Larry and Brent Coralli. It talked about the son, Brent, putting money in a safe deposit box. It probably came from someone who was betting with them and was in too deep. But you also get tips like that from wives or ex-wives who are fed up. I happened to be at the station that day, and I’d worked gambling cases before, so it ended up on my desk.

TV and the movies get it wrong. The bullets mostly stay in your gun. In detective work, it’s mostly a lot of sitting around, surveillance. Sometimes it drives you nuts.

I started going by Brent Coralli’s house in Plano, doing drive-bys, checking out his trash at night. This was all on my own time. It wasn’t an official case. I only sleep about four hours a night. So I’d get up at 3 in the morning and go steal his trash. I’d check what color trash bags they used—black, white—then go steal someone else’s trash to replace it. At that point, I was just thinking he was a small-time bookie. No big deal. Brent is the CEO and owner of Sting soccer, the largest female select soccer organization in the country. He was soft, really soft. But cocky. 

One day, he came out, and I followed him around. The first time I had to tail someone, when I started undercover, I lost them. I learned not to follow too closely, and I learned to change my appearance. I carry a cowboy hat and a baseball cap. I might be following someone, and they’ll pull up next to me at a red light three times. I’ll look different all three times. Now the training is more formal. There are procedures. But we came up with it all by trial and error when I started. 

So I followed Brent, and he pulled up side by side with another car in a parking lot. I saw an envelope go between their windows. I knocked off the tag of the guy he met with. And then he went on to do the same thing in other parking lots, envelopes going between windows. I started researching all the people he met with, and they’re all filthy rich. These are executives at publicly traded companies you’ve heard of, a big television sports anchor in town. 

I went back to my partner, Grant, and told him, “You know, this guy might be a little bigger than I thought.” Grant started digging into all the businesses that Brent was involved with. He’s great with the computer stuff. He doesn’t have the gambling expertise, but he’s a great cop, and he’s on SWAT, too. That guy can find people. If I went bad and tried to hide, I’d wait to do it till Grant had retired. He’ll find you. 

Larry Coralli published card-dealing instructional videos. Photo courtesy of Curtsi Coburn
Grant found three or four of Brent’s businesses that all led back to a P.O. box near the Addison airport. And his father’s name, Larry, was on just about everything. That’s when I started looking into Larry Coralli. He was a little harder to find. When I tracked him down, he was living in an apartment in Dallas, off Belt Line. He was pretty proud of his criminal history. He published a book in 2002 that was put out by a small Las Vegas-based publisher. It was called The Vulture’s Wisdom, and there was a website for it where he sold videotapes showing what he could do with cards. He was a mechanic, a crooked dealer. Watching those tapes, I could see that he was really good. Normally I can spot the cheating, but with him, I couldn’t pick up his moves. I wound up talking to people and learned that he made a lot of money dealing in back-room poker games around Dallas.

I started hanging out in a few sports bars near Brent’s house, in Plano. Usually you’ll find bettors or a bookie in a sports bar. I don’t care where it is. Other names popped up, nickel-and-dime bookies, but nobody was talking about the Corallis. 

Then one night I found myself in a bar. I was working for another unit on a different case and followed a guy there. There was a football game on. I was sitting at the bar, talking to some guys, and I said something about how there was a lot of steam on the game. Let’s say the line starts out at minus 3 for a certain team, and then all of a sudden it moves up to minus 7. That’s steam, when the line moves that much. So I said, “There’s a lot of steam on this game.” 

One of the guys I was talking to looked at the other guy and said, “Yeah, I called Brent about this game. I’m losing my ass.”

There it was. I had Brent’s name. I wondered if it was Coralli, but then 9/11 happened, and everything was put on hold. For about nine months, we were all looking for Osama bin Laden in Plano. 

•••

TV and the movies get it wrong. The bullets mostly stay in your gun. Detective work is a lot of sitting around, surveillance. Sometimes it drives you nuts. If you look through binoculars too long, you’ll go cross-eyed. You can only do about three hours. Then you have to call in for some relief. We might work 12 hours of surveillance. I learned to bring my lunch. And you carry a jar for when you have to pee. 

In 30 years, I only fired my weapon once. I killed an assassin. He was wanted for questioning on one homicide in Kansas and two in Missouri. The guy’s name was William Brouse. We found him in a pickup truck, taking a nap in a parking lot at 15th and 75, near Boston Market. It was August, so his windows were open, and his feet were hanging out the window. We called in a sniper, but before he could set up, a patrol officer across the street radioed and said Brouse was moving. My wife had just called. She was saying something, and I interrupted her: “I’ve got to go arrest this guy.”

My partner Greg Ulmer and I had already suited up with our bulletproof vests. So we pulled up behind Brouse, who had moved to get under a shade tree. We got out and approached him, gave the orders: “Show us your hands!” Well, he went to the floorboard. Greg walked up and slapped the windshield to get his attention. When he did—because his adrenaline was going pretty good—he shattered that windshield. We both knew what Brouse was going to do. 

He got off the first shot. Then Greg and I each fired three times. Seven shots fired in about a second. That’s the only time I ever had to fire my weapon. I felt pretty bad. Not because I’d killed a guy, but because I thought I’d lost my partner. When Greg stepped back, I thought he’d been hit. And then he went around to the other side of the truck. I pulled Brouse to the ground, and he fell like a sack of potatoes. I was covering him, and I didn’t know where Greg was. I thought he was dead. To this day, I still have nightmares about that.  

After we got everything situated, I called my wife back. And she started up at the same spot in the conversation where we’d left off. I said, “Baby, I was just in a shootout. I can’t deal with that right now.” She said, “What about the other son of a bitch?” I said, “He didn’t make it.” 

Anyway, after all the 9/11 stuff died down, I started following Brent Coralli again. I saw him doing all these handoffs in Addison, Dallas, Richardson, Plano. I finally went to my sergeant and said, “I’m going to get me a bookie so I can see what’s going on here. I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I’m going to get me one.” He said, “Go for it.”

I went to Austin Avenue, a bar at the corner of Parker and Alma. I’d just hang out at the bar. You can pretty much sit at any bar and find a bettor, if you know how to get him into a conversation. And he’s going to have a bookie. My plan was to try to get into the bigger Coralli group through a small-time bookie.

There was a guy I met there named Bill. I could tell he was into gambling. I was steadily pouring drinks down him, buying him dinner. We’d talk sports. One time, when I saw him coming in, I picked up my phone and pretended to have a conversation. When he sat down at the bar, I was saying, “You screwed me last time. I ain’t betting with you anymore if you screw me again. Last time, dude.”

When I hung up, he said, “Who was that?”

“None of your business,” I told him. 

After a couple months, he finally said, “Man, I’m going to hook you up. I trust you. I’ve known you a while.”

He called somebody, told them he had a new guy. He wrote down an 800 number for me and said, “Here’s the number you call. And here’s the password.”

I called the number on the way home that night and said, “I’m the new guy. I’d like to get some action on the game tonight.” 

It was a $500 payout, meaning my account had to be up or down that much for money to change hands. After two or three weeks, I was still at $400. I was trying to lose, because I wanted to meet the bookie that Bill was dealing with. Everybody knew him as Bull. But I couldn’t lose enough. I made some ridiculous bets. Bull would even say on the phone, “Are you sure?” I’d say, “I’ve got a feeling.” Of course, he did, too. He had a feeling he had an idiot betting with him. 

Finally, I got down about $900. Bull called me and said, “Hey, I’m going to be at Austin Avenue. I need to meet with you.”

He was a big guy and had long, dark curly hair and a beard. I paid him, and I bought him a couple drinks. He drank some sort of crazy vodka. What I liked about Bull, he liked to meet at gentlemen’s clubs. He knew every stripper in Dallas. I bet with Bull for probably a year and a half. I was working other cases, too, but a big part of my job was hanging out at those bars, betting with Bull, keeping up with sports. Because you can’t lose all the time. It’s the Plano Police Department’s money. The city didn’t have any problem with my losing, but there’s a limit. I had to try to stay even. The city is like your wife: “You can have your fun, but if you lose too much, I’m going to get angry.” They can put you on the box any time they want to, have you take a polygraph. I was probably betting $1,000 a week. And this whole time, I’m still getting up in the middle of the night to go steal Brent Coralli’s trash. I’m being patient.

Well, what I came to find out was that all these people I was meeting at bars, they weren’t betting enough to deal with Brent. Brent only took bets from high rollers. It came time where I had to do something. That’s when I got the IRS involved. I had an idea that Bull was connected to somebody else. He had to have a bank. But it was just a hunch. They assigned an agent to it, but his forte wasn’t gambling. The IRS just wasn’t very enthused about it. 

They were actually the last agency I’d tried to bring in on the case. I went to the Texas Attorney General, the FBI, shopping this case around for a partner. My partner Grant had already done enough work to show that the Corallis were laundering money. But all these agencies wanted 80 percent of whatever we ultimately confiscated. The most we’d get was 20 percent, but here we were, doing all the work. That’s when I called the IRS. They ran it by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They agreed to split it 50-50.

Then Bull started messing up. He got into drugs and was drinking heavily. He’d call me and say, “Hey, you’re down nine.” I’d say, “I paid you last week, dude. Don’t you remember meeting me?” And he’d say he had to check his records. He was a mess. 

Bull threatened to kill his girlfriend over some money, and she called the police. She told them everything, that he was a bookie. The officer thought I might know him and called me. So I beat feet over there that night. I knew what he drove, a Lexus SUV. Soon as I saw his car, I told patrol to light his ass up. They got him with a pistol and 4 gallons of GHB. He’d gotten into it big-time. He also had a briefcase with him, and in it were all his betting slips.

Bull still didn’t know I was involved, so I asked the IRS agent to do the interview at the station. Bull started giving up names. And it was all the names I recognized from pulling Brent Coralli’s phone records. He said they ran their operation through a company called Global Internet Corporation, based in Curacao. For me, that’s when it really blossomed. I could see how big it really was.

But the IRS agent still didn’t get it. They eventually dropped the case. I got depressed for about two weeks, but then I said, Screw it. I just started working the case by myself. Plano did the same thing to me. In the decade that I worked this case, my own police department dropped it four times. They didn’t think it was going anywhere. Even though they pulled me off it, I kept working the case. I’d say I was leaving it alone, but in fact I was working it more than anything else. I’d made up my mind at one point that I was going to hire on with another police department and take the case with me. I’d already talked to some other agencies. I believed in it. I knew it was a good case. 

•••

A guy named Gregg Merkow kept cropping up in Coralli’s phone records. I found out that he owned two bars on Greenville Avenue, Hurricane Grill and the Greenville Bar & Grill. Gregg was also a well-known card player, locally in underground games and on the World Poker Tour. His thing was hockey sweaters and sunglasses, at least on TV. So my partner Grant and I went over there to Hurricane Grill to meet this guy. 

Gregg Merkow, one of the bookies Coburn busted. Photo by Julio Rodriguez
The first time we went, probably 2 o’clock one afternoon, there was Gregg sitting at the bar, writing paychecks. I couldn’t believe it. I picked a stool next to him. I looked over and said, “You can write one of those for me if you want to.”

There was a game on TV. I started talking about it and about how much I liked to go to Vegas to bet and play blackjack. This was 2005. Gregg finally asked me if I had anyone in Dallas. I said, “I used to, but he went nuts. He got into drugs, starting calling me for debt that I’d already paid.” Which, of course, was true. 

Gregg said, “Who were you playing with?”

I said, “I know him as Bull.”

He said, “I know Bull. Yeah, he’s gotten crazy.” He wrote out a few more checks, talked on the phone, and then said, “I’m going to hook you up.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“No,” he said. “You’re not a cop, are you?”

I said, “No. Are you?”

I told him my name was Carl Cannon, and he gave me a card that said Bet Flash, with a number, and a password. That was really what unlocked the whole thing. Later, Gregg would say he knew I was a cop all along—which, if true, would make him the dumbest son of a bitch ever. But that’s what got me in, the first trip to Hurricane Grill. Gregg gave me that card and wrote his dad’s name on it, Leo, and told me that’s who I’d be dealing with. I got a $5,000 limit per week, with a $500 payoff. 

It was funny. Because when we left and got out to the parking lot, my partner Grant said, “I can’t believe he was in there.”

I said, “Yeah. And I can’t believe he signed me up.”

He said, “What?”

He didn’t even notice. We’d agreed before we went in that Grant would engage the bartender. She was pretty good-looking. He was sitting right next to me and had no idea that I’d hooked up. 

From there, I was off and running. I was probably in there three or four days a week. It was fun times. We were drinking and eating and having a good time, but we were getting work done. And thank God for Grant and my other partner, Glenn Harris. They took up a lot of slack for me back at the station so that I could go to Hurricane by myself. They knew it was a good case. If it wasn’t for them, I’d have gotten fired a long time ago. I guarantee you.

I probably bet with the Merkows—Gregg and his father, Leo—for six months before I could get the feds involved again. They gave me some goofy undercover rules. They’ve got to have cover protection any time an undercover officer goes somewhere. And the undercover can’t be armed, and he can only have two drinks. In Plano, if something were to go down, the chief would want to know why you didn’t have your weapon on you. Those federal agents always made me uncomfortable. They had clip-on badges and big weapons. They pulled their jackets over them, but it made me nervous to know that there was a table full of cops sitting over there while I’m trying to conduct business. I always carried a five-shot .38 tucked into my belt in back, because it’s easy to conceal. I just told the feds I wasn’t armed.  

At this point, I was betting with federal money, so every time I went over there, they wanted me to have cover. But I’d go over there without telling the feds. If I only went when they did, Leo Merkow would have put two and two together. So I worked it like I knew it needed to be worked. 

And I went over and worked on their houses when I wasn’t supposed to. My cover was construction. I stained Leo’s fence. At one point, he needed some trim work done. I told him, “I can take care of that for you. I got a guy.” My brothers and I all did construction, so I called my brother Don and said, “Here’s the deal. My name’s not Curtis. It’s Carl. And your last name is Cannon. You can set your own price, but don’t screw this up, because I’ll put you in the federal penitentiary.” He went over there and did a good job. 

Gregg told me his whole life story. He and Leo had started out making book on the phone. He loved it, but Leo hated it. It’s nerve-racking. The phone is constantly ringing. Your whole week gets eaten up just answering the phone. And all bookies are gamblers. Every bookie has a bookie. Because they can’t bet against their own sheet, their stable of bettors. What if too many of your people bet one way on a game? You need to lay off some of that risk with a bet of your own. Gregg told me he was wearing out five bookies with his own betting action. Bull was one of them. 

As I was doing all this work on the barstool, Grant was piecing together the connections of the bigger operation. Toward the end, the feds tried to take it over. They said, “Washington is about to pull out of this deal because we don’t have one of our people undercover.” In front of me, a supervisor said, “If we introduce one of our people, we can minimize Coburn.” Minimize me? On my case? That shocked me. I’d already been on this a long time. I started this thing as a young man, and I wasn’t that young anymore. Grant was there with me. I started to stand up right there and say, “Grant, let’s go to the house. This is over.” They could have done the paper trail, but they couldn’t sit at the bar and have a beer with Leo. I was pissed. It was a slap in the face. I mean, I took this case to them. No one was going to take my case away from me. 

We eventually figured out the whole structure of the thing. Gregg and Leo Merkow, Brent and Larry Coralli—they were just the middle of the pyramid. The IRS got a wiretap on their operation to Curacao, where they had all their servers and a call center. The Merkows and the Corallis were agents who paid commissions to five guys above them who’d set up the operation offshore. During the NFL season, they’d have 80 people working down there, either answering phones or tracking the online bets that came from 25 websites. Almost 20 guys were busted in North Texas. The connection to Curacao went through Florida. When the feds tapped it, they literally couldn’t keep up with the volume of bets going through that line. Their best guess is that the whole thing, managed out of Dallas, was generating $1 billion in bets every year, with about $50 million of that being profit for the handful of leaders. 

Plano split the asset seizure with the feds, with each of us getting about $5 million, making it the largest take in Plano history. But the feds found more than 100 bank accounts, in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico. A lot got through the net. 

•••

I was born in 1952, in Wilson, Arkansas, in my family’s house. My dad was sitting on the front porch, reading a book, when he heard a baby cry from inside. He threw that book in the air and ran inside. He went back later and looked for that book but never could find it. But that’s where I started listening to Cardinals games on KMOX, out of St. Louis. That was the deal. The first present I can remember asking for was a radio so that I could plug it in next to my bed and listen to the Cardinals games at night. I’ve got a dog named Yadi, after Yadier Molina, the Cardinals catcher.

The last bet I made was during spring training in 2011. I bet $1,000 that the Cardinals would win the World Series. It was a 50-1 bet. On March 3 and 4, though, we executed 32 federal search warrants on all the guys involved. So I never got to collect that bet.

One bookie paid a $1 million forfeiture in cash. Photo courtesy of Curtis Coburn
The funny thing was, even after we busted them, they kept at it. They moved their servers and call center from Curacao to Costa Rica. I wanted to keep working the case, but Plano took my undercover truck from me. You don’t know how frustrating it was to set the alarm for 3 o’clock in the morning and have to crank your own truck up to go steal trash. My gas bill went up to $400 a month. And I brought in $5 million to the department? It really burned me up. At one point, I even lost it with my partner Grant. He was trying to help, and I barked at him about how it was my case and he could mind his own business. I’ve apologized to him, but I still feel bad about that. 

That’s when I decided to retire. Having my undercover truck taken from me was a kick in the nuts.

I got a meritorious service award, which was nice. My sergeant wrote me up for that. But I still go up to the department for retirement ceremonies, and people still harp on me. So far, Plano has only gotten about $3 million of what it is owed. People in the department will say, “Where’s the rest of our money? When is our money coming?” Hell, I don’t know. If I call Washington, they’re going to say, “Who are you?”

But when I look back, we had a lot of good times. It’s a great job. Just don’t get shot.  

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