Money loves silence. The story of the creation of the offshore gambling brand 5Dimes, its development, persecution by the USA authorities, and, as the final result, the kidnapping and murder of its founder and owner. 5Dimes is an online gambling brand that was founded in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 1996. It was started by a man named Tony Williams, who wanted to create a safe and reliable platform for sports betting and casino games.
In the early days, 5Dimes operated as a sportsbook and casino, taking bets on a variety of sports and offering popular casino games such as blackjack and roulette. Over time, the brand expanded to offer a wider range of gambling options, including poker, bingo, and lottery games. One of the unique features of 5Dimes is its reduced juice betting options, which allows bettors to place wagers at lower odds than other sportsbooks. The brand also offers a variety of bonuses and promotions to its customers.
In recent years, 5Dimes has faced legal challenges and regulatory scrutiny due to its offshore operations and lack of proper licensing in some jurisdictions. In September 2020, the brand announced that it was shutting down its operations in the United States market and would be focusing on its operations in other parts of the world. In early 2021, 5Dimes was acquired by a company called “BetUS,” and the brand has since undergone a rebranding process. The website has been redesigned, and the brand has shifted its focus to sports betting and casino games in international markets.
It was a warm, rainy September night in San Pedro, Costa Rica, in 2018, when 43-year-old William Sean Creighton left his office and headed home for the night. Along the way, he was stopped by two police officers near San Francisco in San Isidro y Heredia.
The police knew Creighton. At least they knew him as “Tony,” a name by which everyone in Costa Rica knew him. Creighton, owner of the huge online bookmaker 5Dimes, was one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Costa Rica. His business, while legal in Costa Rica, was against the law in the United States, of which Creighton was a citizen. So he spent most of his adult life in Costa Rica, marrying a local woman and having two children. He also became rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Creighton wasn’t pulled over because he was speeding or breaking any other law. The cops were waiting for him. They were werewolves in uniform. They wanted his money. A gray pickup truck soon pulled up next to Creighton’s Porsche Cayenne. Four men got out of the car and pushed Creighton into the truck. One of the kidnappers drove the Porsche one way and the truck the other.
Creighton had always kept a low profile in Costa Rica. Despite his fabulous wealth, he dressed casually, T-shirts and sandals were standard uniform. He drove himself. He rarely used security. He took great care not to be photographed. He registered his companies under fronts. And he never let anyone in Costa Rica know his real name. His colleagues and clients only knew him as “Tony.” And for nearly two decades that served him well, keeping him secret and safe from both the law and criminals. On this night, however, a coalition of both caught up with him. “5dimes Tony” was kidnapped.
Creighton belonged to a generation of sports bettors who emerged at the dawn of the Internet, when American bookmakers were moving their operations overseas to avoid prosecution. By 1998, there were several dozen sports betting sites from places like Curacao, Malta and Costa Rica. Gamblers like Creighton looked at the various betting lines offered at these many betting sites and looked for discrepancies in the odds at the various sites. Creighton created his own models for handicap games using Microsoft Excel and was able to find lines that he thought were wrong. And he took advantage of a marketing ploy by online bookmakers to attract new customers by offering them bonus money for opening new accounts. “Tony would deposit $10,000 at a bookmaker’s office, and in three weeks the account would be six figures. – One of Creighton’s colleagues of that era said. “He was bankrupting the bookies.”
One of the pioneers of the offshore online sports betting market was American bookmaker Al Ross. Ross ran several online bookmakers and casinos, including a group of sites called sportsbook(.)com. Creighton won a fortune on Ross’ sites. In 1998, Ross was one of 21 offshore bookmaker operators charged by the U.S. government in the first-ever federal prosecution for Internet gambling. As his legal costs were mounting, Ross decided to cut his losses with Creighton. He offered Creighton one of his own betting shops as payment for the gambling debt. Creighton accepted the offer and by 1999, he was opening a site in Costa Rica with two childhood friends and five other Americans he had hired. Creighton’s bookmaker’s office was called 5Dimes. Creighton had a lot of experience beating bookmakers, so he had some idea of how to avoid losing when he was on the other side of the monitor.
“Tony was always a gambler first and foremost,” says Mark Howard, one of the first employees who helped Creighton start the 5dimes. That meant that when Creighton took a bet that was more than he wanted to pay out if he lost, he often hedged his possible losses by betting at another bookmaker.
While many bookmakers were content to try to balance cash flows from players and live off the margin, Creighton was always gambling.
Even as a bookmaker, he still used his money to find advantages and weaknesses in the market. Because of this, he wasn’t afraid to take larger bets from professional players. “We would take a bet from Billy Walters,” Howard said, referring to the infamous American sports bettor who was so good at gambling that most Las Vegas sports bookmakers refused to take bets from him. However, Creighton wanted to know what Billy Walters was betting on. It was information he could use. Creighton could copy Walters’ bets at other bookmakers’ houses.
Within a couple of years, Creighton had thrown a number of other competing offshore betting shops out of business, including all the other betting shops that leased office space in the same building as 5dimes’ San Pedro headquarters. 5dimes would absorb many of the closed sites, and Creighton steadily expanded his empire. By 2003, according to Howard, 5dimes was making a million dollars a day in the United States.
When Creighton was finally taken off the truck, he found himself in a strange place. It wasn’t a damp and dark basement with a swinging light bulb. It was the humble and well-furnished home of an elderly woman in La Trinidad de Morovia, about six miles from where the police had pulled him over and kidnapped him. His Porsche was driven to another location in Heredia, far from where he was taken and simulated an accident by crashing it into a barrier.
Around 3 a.m., Creighton’s wife, Laura Varela Fallas, received a call from a man she didn’t know. The caller told her they had her husband and demanded a ransom of $5,000,000. It would take her a while to figure out how to get the money. It was too late. And how would she even know they were telling the truth? The caller put her through to Creighton so she knew they had him and that Creighton was still alive. And they let her know that they weren’t going to wait until morning for her to get the money. How, she asked, could she get them the five million dollars before morning? Simple, the caller replied. Bitcoin.
Unable to get the full five million, she agreed to send almost one million in bitcoins immediately. After a series of clicks, it was done, and the kidnapper had the money in his bitcoin wallet. He and his conspirators began to assemble.
When morning came over Costa Rica a few hours later, Varela Fallas had already hired two private security consultants, former FBI agents from the United States, to help her find Creighton. At 9:00 she contacted the Costa Rican Investigative Judicial Police (OIJ), but it was clear that she did not want to rely solely on local authorities. The Americans and the OIJ conducted their own investigations, competing to see who could find Creighton first.
The Americans suspected that they were opposed by some dark forces. They contacted the Costa Rican underworld and arranged to buy illegal firearms to protect themselves. Then, when they were sufficiently armed, they went in search of Creighton. The Americans were the first to come across Creighton’s wrecked Porsche. They immediately suspected that the accident had been staged. They went to the OIJ to inform them of their suspicions. The OIJ was ungrateful and uncooperative. They dismissed the Americans from the investigation after learning of their illegal arms purchases.
For its part, the OIJ was able to trace the bitcoin transaction to three separate bitcoin wallets and discovered that they belonged to a 25-year-old computer engineer named Jorduan Morales Vega. Although Morales Vega was a computer engineer, he must have misunderstood how the cryptocurrency worked and assumed it was anonymous. According to the OIJ, the bitcoin wallet to which the ransom was transferred was opened at Morales Vega’s residence in Cartago. By looking through the blockchain, they were eventually able to identify the name and address of Morales Vega. But it didn’t matter. By the time OIJ got Morales Vega’s name, he was already gone, having crossed the Panamanian border on his way to Cuba. Morales Vega, like the 5dimes Tony, was gone.
If Morales Vega needed clues as to how to conceal his identity and launder the ransom, he could only ask his captor to do so. Creighton has lived as a ghost for most of the past two decades. Unlike many American bookies who emigrated to Costa Rica and were afraid to return, Creighton traveled freely between the United States and Central America. According to Howard, Creighton often ran 5dimes out of West Virginia, communicating with his employees via messenger rather than by phone. Even his employees knew him only as “Tony.” He tried to keep his name off 5dimes’ official documents and appointed various Costa Rican nationals as nominee executives to hide his ownership.
Creighton had good reason to be so cautious. He had seen Al Ross and a host of other Caribbean bookmaking tycoons trapped in prosecutions in the United States. Some of them went to prison. Some could never return home to visit friends and loved ones, forever banished. Some even committed suicide.
After the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act, most offshore gambling sites ceased doing business in the U.S. market. The UIGEA made it virtually impossible for Americans to deposit and withdraw money from gambling sites, even if the site was in a place where gambling was legal. Popular payment processors such as Netteller and PayPal stopped processing transactions between the U.S. and gambling sites, as well as all major companies and credit card banks. As a result, many offshore betting shops that did business with Americans have completely changed their operations. They kept their call centers and websites, but stopped accepting bets. Instead, they switched to an agent-based PPH (Pay Per Head) system. The idea was that the gambling agents and their customers would settle in person. The site was never involved in these transactions.
The Pay Per Head (PPH) model is a business model used in the gambling industry where the owner of a betting shop or casino pays a third-party company to provide the technology platform and gaming management services. The essence of this model is that the bookmaker pays a commission for each active player who uses the services on its platform. This means that the cost of the service depends on the number of active users on the platform, and the company providing the service receives a certain percentage of the revenue. The PPH model gives an opportunity to reduce the cost of developing and maintaining its own platform, as well as personnel and equipment. The bookmaker gets access to a wide range of services, including sports lines, technical support, financial management, analytics and reporting. This model also reduces risk for the bookmaker, as he is not responsible for technical problems related to the platform and does not have to worry about keeping an updated version of his system. In general, the Pay Per Head model is popular among bookmakers and casinos who want to launch their business quickly, reduce costs and focus on attracting new customers and increasing revenues.
Such operations have become widespread after the adoption of the UIGEA. Many offshore betting operators have even returned to the United States to return to outdoor betting, turning from online bookmaker owners to online pay-per-view customers. “The best of the best, the upper echelon became a who’s who, and everybody started copying their lines,” says Gadun “Spanky” Kairollos, a major American sports betting player and former 5dimes customer. “Bookmakers used call centers in Costa Rica and a standard set of lines to process bets. Now the bookmaker’s office doesn’t answer the phone and they don’t have to build a line. They simply use a set of lines that they copy from a major bookmaker. This meant that many of the betting shops that emerged in Costa Rica during the heyday of Internet gambling became igaming zombies. They didn’t hire analysts, they didn’t trade their action, and they didn’t follow the games. They didn’t even take bets. They became hired call centers that provided independent bookmakers with the infrastructure of an online bookmaker, simply copying the moves of the lines of more established and larger bookmakers around the world for just $10 a week.
Creighton tried to move 5Dimes to a similar scheme, but it didn’t last. “He was like Michael Jordan,” Howard says. “Going to the Pay Per Head system was like taking on a smaller role.” “He was a bookie,” one of Creighton’s clients told me. “He needed action.” Operating a pay-per-head scheme, Creighton could earn a steady income from other bookmakers and stay out of the long arm of the U.S. Justice Department. But for Creighton, gambling was never all about the money. – You wouldn’t have even guessed he had that much money. He dressed very simply. He drove himself,” Howard says. “It wasn’t about the money for him. Creighton wanted to be in that upper echelon, the biggest bookie. He quickly reverted to the standard work pattern.
By 2016, the U.S. government was paying close attention to 5dimes. They knew the company was still doing business with American customers, but they still didn’t know the full extent of the schemes, and they had no idea who was running the whole show. Everyone knew the name 5dimes Tony, but few people in the United States had ever seen his picture or even knew his real name. More than a decade later, even though he was phenomenally rich and at the top of his industry, Creighton was still operating virtually anonymously. The National Security Investigations Unit was investigating money laundering schemes at Amazon(.)com when they discovered several suspicious Amazon accounts tied to an IP address linked to 5dimes. They learned that 5dimes was using Amazon to process payments to U.S. customers. The customer was asked to purchase Amazon gift cards for cash and then email photos of the cards and receipts to 5dimes, which would then fund the customer’s gaming account. If the customer won money, they were paid with items sent to them from Amazon, such as gold coins, Tiffany bracelets or mink coats.
An HSI (Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations) investigator named Jeffrey Gordon noticed that one of the accounts was used to purchase items such as office chairs, and suspected that the account was used to have 5dimes process its transactions rather than pay out winnings to players. He then noticed that the account he believed was being used for 5dimes had sent more than $168,000 in gold coins in a safe deposit box to a Pittsburgh address and tried to send nearly $500,000 more in gold to the same address before Amazon discovered the suspicious transaction and canceled it. Gordon thought the Pittsburgh address might be an important link to 5dimes, not just another customer.
The woman who lived at this Pittsburgh address was named Allison Stawartz, and after a series of investigations, Gordon discovered that Stawartz’s name was mentioned in the obituary of Marianne Creighton, Sean’s mother. He also found property that Stawartz and Creighton had jointly owned in West Virginia many years before. Gordon was soon able to trace Creighton, who was listed in court documents as a consultant to the 5dimes, all the way to a bookmaker’s office. Gordon was convinced that Creighton was Tony, the shady owner of 5dimes. In March 2016, HSI seized Amazon accounts, though 5dimes managed to clear most of the accounts before they were seized. HSI had just over $150,000 of the nearly $2,000,000 that had been distributed across 15 accounts.
That same month, 5dimes came under scrutiny by Costa Rican authorities over large transactions between Banco de Costa Rica and accounts in Malta and Dubai that seemed suspicious. After investigations by the U.S. and Costa Rican governments and the discovery of Creighton’s identity, it seemed likely that 5dimes would go the way of many of the offshore bookmakers that came before it. In sports betting forums, 5dimes customers debated whether they should withdraw their money from the site before it was confiscated by some government agency or stolen by “5dimes Tony” when he fled. But a few weeks later, Costa Rican deputy prosecutor Alvaro Montoya of the Anti-Money Laundering Office announced that he would not file any charges against 5dimes because the money was made from sports betting. “It’s not a crime in Costa Rica, betting is not a crime,” Montoya told La Nación. “If we had been told that 5dimes was being investigated in the United States for laundering drug money, things would have been different.”
For the next two and a half years, Creighton worked virtually without rest. No longer able to travel between Costa Rica and the United States as freely as before, Creighton settled in Costa Rica and immersed himself in his work. He continued to expand 5dimes’ presence among players around the world, expanding their betting lines to include just about any event, from political elections to professional wrestling shows, and offering generous bonuses to new players. Throughout 2017, 5dimes remained one of the top-rated bookmakers in the world. All this time Creighton kept his name out of any mention in any documents, but continued to run all significant operations himself.
On October 20, 2018, the Costa Rica Star newspaper, citing an anonymous source, reported that OIJ authorities had discovered the body of Sean Creighton. Rumors spread that he had been tortured for four days just before he was killed, and that his body had been buried deep in the woods in a national park. While news outlets were excited about the story, gamblers on gambling forums were skeptical. Some players refused to believe that Tony was really dead.
These fans were not alone in their disbelief. The 5dimes denied the rumors in a press release stating that he was still missing and that their “thoughts and prayers are with the rest of the online gambling industry for the safe return of Tony to his family.” OIJ also suspected that Creighton was alive. Their investigation into Creighton’s disappearance led OIJ to a network of Central American counterfeiters who had produced false identities. They had a theory that Creighton had bought himself a fake passport that said he was a Nicaraguan citizen. Given that the U.S. government had recently identified Creighton and actively pursued him, and given that the body had still not been found, the version of a staged own kidnapping was very likely.
A few days after the kidnapping, Jordan Morales Vega traveled through Panama to El Salvador and eventually made his way to Cuba, where he withdrew funds in bitcoins. After a month in Cuba, Morales Vega arrived in Spain on November 9 and met with other members of his gang, which included his mother, wife and uncle. But by then they were already waiting for the Spanish authorities, who had received information from the OIJ that the kidnappers were on their way.
Morales Vega must have felt a fever in the back of his head. Wherever he or his family members went, they took cabs. Whenever they were asked for identifying information, they gave fictitious names. Within weeks, Morales Vegas and his family changed residence several times, each time paying extravagant amounts of rent. Whether Morales Vega knew it or not, his caution was justified. The police watched his every move, waiting for the right moment to strike, hoping that Creighton was still alive.