OPELOUSAS, La. — Surveying an expanse of green outside the snack bar of his country club, Leandrus J. Young says he has no regrets about partnering with the "casino czar" of Mexico. He made money, a lot of money.
While others say they were swindled by Juan Jose "Pepe" Rojas-Cardona, Young only sings praises.
"Not with all the money I made, I'm not going to talk bad about that guy," Young said, seated in a wheelchair, a nurse seated attentively nearby.
Young is one of a group of Louisiana investors who did well taking bets on the nascent Mexico casino industry. They live in Lake Charles, New Orleans and this crossroads settled by French Creoles and Acadians that is a haven for gambling, tasty Creole food and Zydeco music.
A Lake Charles lawyer, Edwin F. Hunter III, first introduced him to Rojas-Cardona in 2000, Young said. The two agreed on a business plan. Rojas-Cardona had a permit to open a gambling club, and Young provided the capital.
Young moved to Monterrey, Mexico's industrial hub less than three hours drive south of the Texas border, and the two transformed the Granada Inn in Monterrey's San Nicolas district into the Bella Vista casino. Upon opening its doors in 2002, it had 1,200 slot machines. As one of the first gaming parlors in Mexico, money poured in. Some of the machines made $300 a day, net, Young said.
Once the business was running well, Young said he sold a 45 percent stake to a group from New Orleans. The group included John Georges, a Greek-American maritime services, grocery distribution and arcade tycoon who launched unsuccessful bids for governor in 2007 and mayor of New Orleans in 2010.
Georges' office did not respond to email and telephone queries. Hunter, the Lake Charles lawyer who was a rainmaker in the deals, said by email that he would answer questions about his role but then did not do so.
Young said the New Orleans group was paid handsomely.
"They were making 20 percent a month" on their investment, Young said. His own returns were even greater, he added.
Eventually, Pepe Rojas-Cardona decided to buy out the New Orleans group.
How Rojas-Cardona won permits for casino operations, later expanding them dramatically, despite a checkered past that included drug trafficking, is not clear.
"Pepe handled all those contacts. I didn't want to know," Young said.
Young said he and Rojas-Cardona eventually parted ways over the growing business. Young said his former partner "went bad" over money, driving a $250,000 car and sporting a $100,000 watch. Young said Rojas-Cardona also lost $150 million in a failed bid to win a stake in a bankrupt low-cost Mexican airline, Aviacsa, that flew multiple routes from Mexico to Las Vegas.
Despite the frictions, Young spoke warmly of his one-time partner, describing him as "smart" and saying that he might step back in to help Rojas-Cardona, who has encountered difficulties with angry creditors.
"Pepe can't get any more (slot) machines," Young said, before telling a reporter that he would talk no further and requesting that he leave.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011