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Fighting for his Foxwoods job back

Imagine the alarm experienced by Zbigniew "Ben" Sobala when he awoke from a post-golf nap in his apartment one Friday afternoon in August to find some half-dozen police officers standing over him, preparing to handcuff him.

"I can never forget it," Sobala told me last week, in recalling his sudden arrest, on his day off from his job as a table games supervisor at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Sobala said the incident was especially chilling because it reminded him of his years behind the Iron Curtain, in Poland.

Sobala was a member of the Solidarity Union in his native Poland and ended up immigrating to this country, in 1984, as a political refugee.

"The main reason I chose to come this country was freedom," Sobala said.

And yet he is still reeling from the frustrating series of events that began that afternoon in late August, a situation that might reasonably make him question his notion of freedom here.

Sobala was arrested on charges related to allegations that he had threatened to bring a gun to the casino and start shooting people if he was laid off.

Police alleged that Sobala, days before he was arrested, had conveyed his intentions to come back to work to shoot people to a co-worker while the two were leaving the casino early in the morning, at the end of a shift.

Sobala was fired from Foxwoods at the same time he was arrested.

Police searched but never found any weapons in his house.

Earlier this month, on the eve of a trial, prosecutors agreed not to pursue the charges against Sobala, after his attorney, M. John Strafaci, presented new evidence to them that the Foxwoods employee who alleged the threats had made similar unfounded allegations against someone more than 10 years ago.

By coincidence, Strafaci had represented someone in 2000 who had been accused of making a death threat by the same Foxwoods employee who accused Sobala. In that case, a casino manager eventually testified before a casino disciplinary hearing that he did not believe the person claiming the threats was telling the truth, and Strafaci's client retained his job.

Also pointing to Sobala's innocence was a videotape from the casino's surveillance system that shows Sobala leaving the casino with the person who accused him of making the threats.

Although the video has no audio, it's clear that the two are friendly with each other throughout the time they left the casino together right to the time they "high fived" each other before leaving an elevator.

Strafaci noted to prosecutors that not only did the two appear friendly together, but the other employee didn't report the alleged threats until two days later.

The video even showed him walking near the employee relations office when they were leaving, Strafaci said.

Even police, Strafaci said, questioned casino officials, who learned of the allegations early on a Friday morning, why they waited until later in the day to notify them, a report that resulted in Sobala's almost immediate arrest, at home on his day off.

Now that Sobala has beaten the criminal charges, he will try to get his job back.

A hearing has been scheduled in November before an employee relations board, made up of other employees. That board will then make a recommendation to the casino's chief executive officer, who could reinstate him with back pay.

Sobala said he moved to Philadelphia when he arrived in this country, where he was sponsored by a Catholic organization.

He eventually moved to Atlantic City, where there seemed to be work, and took training classes to become a casino dealer.

He was among the first New Jersey dealers who came to Foxwoods when it opened in 1992.

"It became the biggest casino in the world," he said. "We were always very proud of it."

He has been promoted over the years and most recently worked predominantly in the high-roller casinos at Foxwoods.

His attorney says they are contemplating a lawsuit against the employee who accused him of making the threats, a suit that would accuse the employee of making a false statement.

I hope Foxwoods will hire him back.

And I also hope that Sobala won't always think of this country as the kind of place where police might come and drag you out of bed one afternoon, just because someone has accused you of saying the wrong thing.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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