An Heiress Loses It All In Vegas Deal For The Tropicana Casino Goes Sour

Posted: March 18, 1990

LAS VEGAS — The white-haired hostess in the tasteful floral print dress seated two patrons in the deserted restaurant behind a failed casino. She picked up a Styrofoam cup, strolled to the lounge, pressed the Coke button on the bartender's gun and watched it fizzle.

"It's all gone," the soft-spoken grandmother, forcing a smile, said to no one in particular. "I sure know about that."

Indeed she does. Her name is Mitzi Briggs and once she had $44 million. Now it's all gone.

Camelot, her charming Gothic mansion on the San Francisco Peninsula, has been sold. Her Bahamian Island is gone, along with her lavish homes in Nevada and California, and 35 breathtaking acres of waterfront on the Monterey Peninsula. And so is her job as hostess at the now-closed Carving Cart restaurant behind the defunct El Morocco casino.

Today the Stauffer Chemical Co. heiress lives in a Las Vegas apartment, working days as a secretary in a Roman Catholic church.

Briggs, 60, lost her fortune in a Las Vegas casino, the Tropicana - not by gambling, but by buying it.

She lost it all when Ramada Inn Inc., the motel chain, bought the Tropicana

from her and others 11 years ago, then refused three years later to make a $5.7 million payment.

Last year, a Nevada state judge concluded that the company had "displayed corporate arrogance" and awarded Briggs and other investors $14.225 million in damages, $260,000 in legal fees, and interest.

Attorney Harold P. Gewerter, who won the case, said that accumulated interest has pushed the sum to $35 million, making it the largest civil award in Nevada history.

But even if the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the award after hearing the company's appeal next month, Briggs would still be broke. "I won't see a penny of it," she said.

The reason is that she had pledged her last $10 million in Stauffer stock as security for a loan she had intended to repay with money from Ramada. When the company didn't pay and the value of her stock fell below the loan balance, she lost it.

Briggs then signed over any proceeds from the lawsuit to Ed and Fred Doumani, who were investors with her in the Tropicana and who often helped her out financially.

Is she bitter?

"Not at all," Briggs said, smiling serenely during what she said was the only interview she has ever given. "Money doesn't make you happy. Having money or not having it isn't what's important. My children, they're important."

Briggs had five of them and adopted a sixth. She lavished attention on them, drove them each morning to private schools, set up trust funds and financed a son who wanted to take up automobile racing.

As she sat at the Carving Cart bar before it closed earlier this year and took long drags on her cigarette, Briggs' eyes lit up as she discussed the joys and pains of parenting a large family. But when the talk turned to the fortune lost, she shrugged and said, "really, it doesn't matter."

"Being at peace" is what matters, she said.

Her fortune began with her grandfather, John Stauffer, who founded the chemical company in San Francisco in 1881. He died in 1940, passing much of the fortune to his daughter, Marie Stauffer Sigall, who leaped to her death

from the fourth floor of a San Francisco hospital in 1951.

Mitzi Stauffer, then 22, an only child who had earned A's studying philosophy at Stanford University, inherited the $2.8 million estate.

Before she graduated, she married marine biology student Jack Briggs, then divorced him and married his brother, R. Carlyle Briggs, whom she divorced in 1958. She married and divorced twice more.

By the late 1960s, her fortune had reached $44 million, but Mitzi Briggs had become a deeply troubled soul - so much, she later testified, that she was committed to mental hospitals four times against her will in the next 20 years.

She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1967 and came to believe that she had become, in succession, Christ's sister, wife and mother. She later told the story of her religious experiences in a rambling vanity book titled Naked Before Thee: A Religious Autobiography, which she wrote under the name Maria Josefa.

Shortly before Christmas in 1970, one of her daughters committed her to a mental hospital in Belmont, Calif., prompting a hearing a month later on whether she was sane enough to manage her money.

The 1971 hearing revealed that Briggs made shrewd deals and gave generous gifts. She once donated $5.5 million to the Catholic Church.

She also gave 184 acres of land in San Jose, Calif., worth $600,000, to people she believed were militant Native Americans involved at the time in the occupation of Alcatraz Island. She testified at the commitment hearing that her gift averted a "Red Power" uprising in which the Indians planned to ''blow the faces off Mount Rushmore."

John E. Thorne, a Bay-area attorney who represented Briggs during the hearing, described her recently as "the kindest, gentlest, sweetest and most generous person you could ever meet." But, he added, she was gullible. "The people she was involved with turned out not to be Native Americans at all."

Gewerter agreed. "She was an innocent swimming among sharks."

After the hearing, a judge freed her from the Belmont hospital and briefly placed her in a conservatorship under her son, John David Briggs, then 20, and the San Mateo County public guardian, and put her money under the control of a bank.

Her involvement with the Tropicana came in 1975 when it was a struggling gambling hall at the far south end of the Strip.

She bought in for $6.4 million. Still, the Tropicana kept losing money, so she poured in an additional $8.6 million, court records show. She took little or nothing out. Casino executives routinely charge first-class airfare to their expense accounts, but Briggs' associates said she always flew coach and paid her own way.

The Tropicana had too few hotel rooms to keep its Polynesian-theme casino hopping. It was better-known for big-name entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. and the bare-breasted Folies Bergere.

In 1978, the hotel added a tower, and new rooms filled the casino with patrons. But the turnaround came to an abrupt halt in 1979, when the FBI revealed that the Trop had lost money because the Kansas City mob was skimming millions of dollars.

The FBI said Joe Agosto, the Folies Bergere producer, ran the skim. Nevada gaming regulators said, and court records confirm, that Briggs did not know about it. She could not believe that the charming, gracious Agosto had cheated her and flew to his prison to ask whether it was true.

"Mitzi, I couldn't help it, they had a gun to my head," she said he told her. She believed him.

Pressed by Nevada gaming regulators to sell, Briggs and her partners turned to Ramada, which was looking for new profits through gaming.

The Tropicana's books were such a shambles that it was hard to agree on a price. Ramada paid $18.5 million immediately, which went to creditors. The balance was to be based on five times the casino's profits during a future period, minus some costs.

When Ramada failed to make a $2 million payment in 1980, Briggs and her partners could not pay some creditors, who then sued Briggs, her partners and others. Ramada later cited this litigation as a justification for not making additional payments.

Meanwhile, a dispute broke out over whether Ramada was running up excessive costs at the Tropicana, thus reducing profits and the amount due Briggs and her partners.

In the summer of 1981, Ramada's board scrapped the sales agreement based on profits and agreed to pay Briggs and her partners a flat $14.225 million. Briggs said that the new accord gave her less than half what she had anticipated, but she agreed because it made payment a certainty.

Ramada documents, introduced in court, show that Ramada executives thought that the agreement benefited both sides and that it would help Briggs, "who will get some cash."

The documents also show that Ramada executives feared that using the old sales agreement could cost them a fortune. They reasoned that gamblers friendly to Briggs "could connive to lose millions of dollars" in the casino, and that Ramada would have to pay five times those losses to Briggs and her partners.

But when Briggs' attorneys showed up to sign the deal setting forth a flat payment, the Nevada judge later determined, Ramada chairman Richard Snell ''pulled the rug out from under" the sellers by making a demand that was impossible to meet: He insisted that Briggs and the other investors produce a signed statement from every one of Tropicana's nearly 400 potential creditors, forgiving all debts. One of these claims was for $4.96.

Snell said that, without every release, the deal was off. And it was. Ramada kept the Tropicana without making any more payments. Since then, Ramada's management has sold the motel chain and renamed the company - which operates three casinos, including TropWorld Casino & Entertainment Resort in Atlantic City - Aztar.

Briggs, meanwhile, lost her stock, filed suit and went to work as a secretary and hostess. Her children are not supporting her financially, and she has indicated that she would not want them to. Whatever feelings she harbors deep inside, Briggs is resigned to her circumstances.

As Briggs related her story in the Carving Cart several months ago, another patron stepped into the restaurant. Briggs stood up, stubbed out her cigarette, and said, "Back to work."

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