Construction workers maimed and killed. Millions paid to the governor’s family. An impossibly lucrative gambling operation. And all on U.S. soil.
Dr. Marty Rohringer was ending a graveyard shift at the lone hospital on Saipan, the exceptionally remote U.S. island, when four Chinese men arrived with a body.
The figure they had with them—a middle-aged man, also Chinese, naked but for his underwear—was unresponsive, and had clearly suffered severe trauma. As an orderly lifted him onto a gurney, the four men indicated in broken English that he had fallen from a hotel-room balcony.
Rohringer began to evaluate the man under the ER’s harsh fluorescent lights. His skin was pallid and turning blue, and it was obvious that he could not be revived. One of the men who’d arrived with the body started to mime chest compressions: Was there really nothing to be done? Rohringer pronounced the man dead just before 8 a.m. on March 22, 2017. Already, the medical staff suspected that the story of his fall was a lie.
The hospital had been inundated with patients from a construction site a few blocks away on this speck of rock among the Northern Mariana Islands, in the deepest part of the Pacific. To get a sense of Saipan’s isolation from the Lower 48, imagine flying from Denver to Honolulu. Then fly that far again. Then go farther still. Saipan (population 48,000) is nevertheless American soil, with U.S. dollars, U.S. mail, and U.S. laws. But the place has seemed less and less like America since 2014, when a Chinese casino operator arrived and—with near-total impunity—turned Saipan into a back door to the U.S. financial system.
At a temporary storefront, the company, Imperial Pacific International Holdings Ltd., was somehow handling more than $2 billion a month in VIP bets. And at the construction site, it was building a gargantuan casino with a crew of hundreds of Chinese, scores of them working illegally on tourist visas. So many laborers were getting hurt that Rohringer’s colleagues began keeping an unofficial spreadsheet, separate from standard hospital records: a grim catalog of broken bones, lacerations, puncture wounds, dislocated limbs, and eyes penetrated by flying metal. The dead man Rohringer saw was not, of course, a tourist who’d stumbled over a railing—he was a builder named Hu Yuanyou, and he’d plummeted from a scaffold. His colleagues hadn’t called 911; instead, they’d pulled the work clothes off his broken body in a clumsy attempt to obscure his identity. The less that outsiders learned about the casino, the better.
Hu died building what’s become, on paper, the most successful gambling operation in history. In the first half of 2017, table for table, Imperial Pacific turned over nearly six times more cash than the fanciest gaming facilities in Macau, which themselves dwarf the activity in Las Vegas. And that was before Imperial Pacific opened its lavish megacasino in July.