Penny for the thoughts of counterfeiter Louis 'The Coin' is money well spent
Smithfield, R.I. — Louis "The Coin" Colavecchio introduced himself over the phone last week as the "World's Greatest Counterfeiter," a title he earned by making near-perfect replicas of slot machine tokens that confounded and impressed casino operators in multiple jurisdictions.
A few days later, he greeted a reporter and photographer with a hug and kiss before an interview at Rocco's Pub and Grub restaurant. Then he sat with his back to the wall and talked for more than two hours about the lifetime of hustling that he wrote about in detail in his newly published memoir, "You Thought It Was More."
The 73-year-old master mechanic, jeweler, imported car dealer and ladies man stopped smiling when the reporter referred to the perfectly replicated slot machine tokens he used at casinos in Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas as "fake." His brown eyes narrowed.
"Don't say fake," he said quietly. "They're high-quality counterfeits."
His able hands and his tool-and-die making skills, both inherited from his father, brought him notoriety, but Colavecchio also has a gift for spinning a story. Just as it was nearly impossible for authorities to distinguish between his slot machine tokens and the real ones, it is difficult to determine the authenticity of many of his stories. It's fun trying, especially for those who like reading about casinos, fast cars, beautiful women, precious metals and gems and the New England Mafia.
Colavecchio speaks in the brogue of his native North Providence, sounding something like the stereotypical New York mobster. The title of his book, on which he collaborated with author/professor Franz Douskey and journalist/author Andy Thibault, came from "a regionalized slang for wise guys coming from the Providence area."
"What'd you thought it was more?" or the shortened version, "You thought it was more?" was used at the end of practically every sentence, he writes in the first few pages of the book. He likens the phrase to the better known, "Forget about it," which he said he and his associates used long before it was made popular by the Sopranos HBO series.
Though he said he was associated with the Patriarca crime family, which he refers to as "The Providence Office" in his book, Colavecchio said he never "ratted" on anybody after he was arrested at Caesars Atlantic City in late 1996 with a car full of counterfeit tokens, a handgun and cash.
"After I got busted, word got around that I was offered deals and didn't take them," he said.
Retired Connecticut state trooper Jerry Longo, who was assigned to Mohegan Sun as an investigator at the time, said he spent two years on the case after New Jersey officials notified Connecticut casino operators of the scam.
"I sat there for days looking at tokens under a microscope," Longo said in a phone interview. "It was unbelievable. I couldn't tell the difference."
Even after a close inspection, the differences between Mohegan Sun tokens and Colavecchio's copies were barely distinguishable, Longo said. But there were minor defects - a bubble here or a scratch there. An American Indian woman on the $100 token had a rounded headdress instead of a sharp point, he said. The shape of a canoe paddle was slightly different.
Casinos have since replaced slot machine tokens with a paper voucher system that was under development when Colavecchio was arrested, Longo said.
"I would say on the East Coast he kind of sped it up," Longo said.
Connecticut authorities eventually arrested Colavecchio, who agreed to tell them how he had made the tokens. Colavecchio pleaded guilty in New London Superior Court and accepted a sentence that ran concurrent with his federal imprisonment.
Longo and Colavecchio have remained friendly, and Longo wrote the introduction to "You Thought It Was More."
"Louis grew up Italian, as I did," Longo wrote. "He loves to eat. So do I. At some point in our younger days, we both made choices about which road to take."
Colavecchio said the token scam lasted four years and enabled him to have "money buried all over" by 1998, when he turned himself in to serve a two-year sentence at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J. His incarceration was easy once he hooked up with people he knew, Colavecchio said. In the book, he writes of playing in bocce tournaments, feasting on pasta stolen from the prison kitchen and working at a no-show plumbing job while doing his time.
"My mother always told me I could make lemons out of lemonade," he said.
The History Channel profiled Colavecchio as the "Counterfeit King" in its series on Breaking Vegas. He doesn't say much about the episode except to point out that when the show aired, Colchester attorney Mel Scott, who represented him in his Connecticut cases, called him and said, "That's not the Louis I know."
One section of his book, with detailed explanations of each step of the token-making process, could serve as a manual for other would-be counterfeiters, but Colavecchio said nobody else would be able to do what he did. He said a representative of the U.S. Mint called him several times in prison to ask him why the dies he made lasted longer than theirs. He finally told them, he said, that he used a different grade of steel, and he claims the government reimbursed him for the press they had seized from him.
Colavecchio said that before he began making counterfeit slot machine tokens, he manufactured casino table game chips, or cheques, by defeating the micro-chip feature, perfecting the composition and using an ingenious method to extract the color from real chips and use it in the copies.
"You could not believe how I did that," he said during the interview. He said he made a lot of money but retired from chip-making when his associates started demanding more and more of the product.
"My style was to take a couple hundred grand from each casino," he said. "If I didn't do your casino, it was an insult."
Colavecchio confesses to a lifetime of illegal activity in his book, with detailed accounts of inside-job robberies and money-laundering at his jewelry stores, arson fires he helped plan, shootings he witnessed and insurance scams. The statutes of limitation for prosecution of those crimes may have expired, but his legal problems are not over. According to news stories, he was arrested after police found a marijuana growing operation, plus five pounds of the drug, at his Pawtucket, R.I., home.
"I'm glad you asked me about that," he said during the interview. "It's a bum rap."
Colavecchio said he had a license for medical marijuana and was growing 16 plants.
"I'm not into drugs, honest to God," he said. "But there's money in it, and I thought it was legal. I made the most sophisticated hydroponic (watering) system in the world."
He said he expects to resolve the charges later this month and that he won't be returning to prison.
Colavecchio, who was divorced from his first wife in 1980 and whose second wife died by drowning in 2006, doesn't talk much about his grown children and family life. His 80-year-old brother is a Catholic priest, he said, and he expects to see St. Peter when the time comes.
Meanwhile, Colavecchio said he is refurbishing and selling printing presses - there's still money in it, he said, in foreign countries - and is living with his girlfriend, Lauryn, who is 33 years old and is "turned on by my style."
Co-author Andy Thibault said he met Colavecchio in 2006 after Colavecchio's wife saw a column Thibault had written about "Louis the Coin" and called him. They hit it off, and Thibault arranged for Colavecchio to make appearances at Gateway Community College, where Douskey teaches.
"He was so popular that a retired Secret Service guy came, and someone from Foxwoods, too," Thibault said by phone Monday.
This Saturday, Colavecchio is scheduled to appear with Douskey at "Untold Stories," an event at Artspace in Hartford. Always looking for the big score, Colavecchio said he doesn't expect to make a lot of money on "You Thought It Was More," but that he held back on some of his best material for the movie he expects will follow.
"I have a million stories to tell," he said.
There is more, after all, for Louis "The Coin" Colavecchio.