On any given day, thousands of dollars pour into the Games section of Six Flags Over Mid-America, passing through the hands and till belts of dozens of young employees before ending up in the drop boxes of some two dozen games before ending in the vaults of Cash Control. But along the way, scores of dollars will end up in pockets and purses, skimmed from the operation to pad the pay of employees who think they can quietly rob their bosses.
It's officially called Till Mismanagement, and officially, it's a firing offense. It's a crime, too, but in my four-summer stint, I never heard of anybody going to jail for it. That's probably why it continued.
Till theft is treated as a fact of life by our department head. "We've said goodbye to a lot of you," he says at one employee meeting. "We'll probably say goodbye to a lot more of you before the summer's over."
It's easy because drops are made with each game, no security cameras are around to catch people on tape, and the sections have various nooks suitable for moving cash around in secret. The actual technique varies, but many will short-drop: taking a dollar bill but dropping 50 cents into the box. Some will take wads of money at a time at a group racing game, but only drop half that in change, instead of dropping each dollar in change as it's collected. Later, they'll duck into the hiding place and pocket the excess. A few bold quick-buck artists will slip a dollar into their own pockets every so often instead of the till belt. Remember, the amount of money in the till belt is not supposed to grow or contract at any time -- it's solely there for making change.
Forepeople figure out ways to skim, shorting stand workers a few dollars each while selling change. Each worker thinks they've just gone short of the $80 that's supposed to always remain in the till by making a mistake in dropping. Meanwhile, the excess dollars add up and end up in the foreperson's pocket.
Six Flags does have its own undercover detective agency, but Internal Investigations are only as effective as their anonymity and their technique. A rookie gumshoe will stare constantly at somebody in a stand, and it's an obvious tell. One employee I know confronts a girl with eagle eyes.
"Do you work for Internal?" he queries.
"Yes," she says, breaking down nearly into tears, cover blown.
Sometimes I notice people walking around with camcorders held in awkward positions. They pass through, wait a few minutes, and then they pass through again.
I nearly catch two people in the act while training as a foreman during the summer of 1991. "Jared" and "Scott," as I'll call them, already had a dodgy reputation because they always worked together and walked together, leading people to think they did other things together as well. Enough said about that part.
As I'm selling fresh change to my comrades, one of the forepeople takes me aside and tells me not to sell to the racing game where Jared and Scott are working. Another tells me to ask if people need change before selling it to them -- which I was already doing.
While I make my rounds, a foreperson and a supervisor meet privately in the Britannia backroom, presumably discussing something that didn't seem right or something they saw. The foreperson calls for me, and I cautiously knock on the door.
"Pull a guy quick from Fishin' Hole," she tells me, "and send them to Bedrock Bedlam."
"You didn't see any of this," the supervisor says as I'm walking out the door. She and the foreperson head straight to Jared and Scott's stand, have them take off their till belts, and escort them out of the section. I never see them again.
Most busts take place out of my sight, and out of the guests' sight. We hear about it later through the rumor pipelines, long after the guilty parties are gone.
One summer later, Six Flags decides to get tougher on the skimmers, and so they deploy a battalion of till auditors from Cash Control into Britannia. They come up the back way, from the Thunder River dock. They stand around, discuss some strategy and wait until the crowd of players has thinned out a tad.
"GO!" somebody shouts, and the swarm of auditors splits up and spreads out to each stand like an FBI raid. They order every employee to hand over their tills with their nametags. Some auditors nearly rip the tags off their targets. Everybody gets fresh tills, temporary nametags, and probably a few dirty looks. The same operation goes down in Old Chicago.
Forepeople aren't exempt. One auditor takes his $3000 change till and hands him an $80 black-tag till.
Hours later, when our shifts end, we're summoned to a mandatory meeting in the training center, where we're all debriefed by two full-time Games honchos, a security officer, and a Eureka Police Department detective who speaks of an "ongoing investigation."
He tells us they're building hard evidence on people, but nobody in the room is a "suspect." He reminds us till theft is a crime, but he offers us a deal: any skimmer can some to Security within 24 hours, fess up, and be terminated without prosecution. After that, skimmers face a crap shoot.
I voice a couple of thoughts about the way it all went down. "I'm concerned about people's civil rights being violated," given the way the auditors went about their business.
The department head empathizes, saying that these weren't the best people to have going out doing audits. He reminds us not to count our tills in our stands, as seen on some of the covert camcorder tape. The other honchos give us an opportunity to see whether we were over or short at the time we were shaken down, and I find I'm two bucks over, which management tells me is nothing to be concerned about.
I never hear if anybody takes a deal, although we joke about whether we're going to surrender or not the next day. The auditors don't return for the rest of the summer. The investigations continue.
And skimmers continue to game Games.