A Scottsdale man jumped in excitement when a slot machine at a tribal casino flashed three red double-sevens in a row for what he thought was a $50,000 jackpot.
The actual payout was $4,000, marking the start of a monthslong effort to resolve what he saw as a major discrepancy in his win at the Phoenix-area Talking Stick Resort and Casino, which is owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
"That doesn't seem right," Sherry told The Arizona Republic . "If it's showing one thing, the reason why you have pictures up here is to give you a snapshot of what you're getting close to, or what you should be paid out. If it's something different, the machine is not actually working properly."
The win was a learning experience in who regulates the state's more than two dozen tribal casinos. Federally recognized tribes like Salt River have their own governments. When casino patrons think they have been wronged, they can take it up with the tribe or sue in tribal court — if the tribe allows itself or its entities to be sued.
Under compacts with Arizona, tribes agree to give up a certain percentage of revenue in exchange for exclusivity in operating casinos.
The state Department of Gaming has little oversight when it comes to disputes over winnings, but casino patrons still turn to the state for answers. The department's data show 37 inquiries since 2012, including for jackpot disputes.
The department's assistant director, Aiden Fleming, said the state can force the tribe and a casino patron into arbitration if they cannot resolve an issue, but that rarely happens.
"The compact limits our approach, and that's the deal that the state has made with each tribe to respect their sovereignty," he said.
Sherry said the Salt River tribe's gambling office and the casino told him the machine paid out the correct amount. He said a tribal gambling investigator also told him a lightbulb in the machine was broken, making the seven appear red when it actually was orange.
The tribe's gambling board didn't return a message left Tuesday by The Associated Press, and a message left through a tribal spokeswoman wasn't returned.
Caroline Oppleman, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Gaming Department, said the state has some authority to inspect gambling machines. Machines that aren't working properly cannot be played until they're fixed.
She said that wouldn't have applied to Sherry's situation because a burned-out bulb doesn't affect game play or the outcome.
No signs inside the Talking Stick casino explain customers' rights under tribal law or who regulates the casino. The point at which people cross over onto reservation land isn't always clear.
Bob Miller, an Arizona State University law professor who has served as a judge for tribes, said being subject to another government's laws shouldn't be a surprise. The same thing happens when people cross state lines, he said.
Ali Farhang, a Tucson-based attorney who has represented casino customers in federal court, said the tribes have too much at stake financially when disputes arise. Sovereign immunity — which protects tribes from lawsuits — can be a means to avoid oversight and accountability, Farhang said.
Sherry said he filed a complaint with the tribal gambling office but decided against a lawsuit because he lost trust in the tribe to judge him fairly.
"If they are judging themselves, what type of result are you going to get?" he said.