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Here's the backstory of the Pasco casino boat operator whose ship caught on fire

TamThese drone images, taken on Jan. 16, 2018, show what remains of the casino shuttle ship that caught fire in Pasco County two days earlier, leaving one passenger dead.  Photos courtesy of Chuck Vincent
TamThese drone images, taken on Jan. 16, 2018, show what remains of the casino shuttle ship that caught fire in Pasco County two days earlier, leaving one passenger dead. Photos courtesy of Chuck Vincent
Published Jan. 17, 2018

Long before a shuttle ship from Tropical Breeze Casino caught fire Sunday off the coast of Port Richey, leaving one passenger dead, the company behind the operation was a source of controversy.

The casino operator went by various names over the years — SunCruz, Paradise, Pair-A-Dice, Port Richey Casinos — but was consistently a major player in tiny Port Richey, where founders Alex and Mollie Kolokithas wielded heavy influence in local government. They also were connected to the larger gambling boat operation SunCruz, which was run by a millionaire who was later killed by a mob hitman in South Florida as his sale of the company devolved.

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A spokeswoman for Tropical Breeze could not be reached Tuesday morning.

Early on, the Kolokithases worked under the umbrella of SunCruz, run in the late 1990s by South Florida millionaire and Miami Subs founder Gus Boulis. He sold the company for $147.5 million in 2000 in a deal that quickly grew contentious.

Boulis, 51, was shot and killed by a hitman in 2001. The sale later led to the imprisonment of Jack Abramoff, a former influential lobbyist and one of the buyers of SunCruz, who pleaded guilty to fraud.

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The Kolokithases, who had leased SunCruz boats in exchange for sharing dock space in Tampa Bay with Boulis — ultimately splitting the profits — continued in the offshore gambling business undeterred. They fought over their right to use the SunCruz name in court with the company's new owners while at the same time breaking off the business relationship.

In 2003, the family was at the center of a fierce debate in Port Richey over a bingo ordinance, which cropped up after the Kolokithases opened a bingo hall. The ordinance allowed commercial operators to run games all week, overriding restrictions from county law. The City Council ultimately voted to repeal it.

The next year, the casino operation was called Paradise of Port Richey when one of its shuttle boats caught on fire. It had just dropped off 78 passengers, and the captain and two crew members were rescued by a passing boat. The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the fire was started by a faulty fuel line, which would have been detected if the business had a preventative maintenance program.

In 2008, the gambling boat company ran afoul of state environmental investigators, who suspected the big ships were cutting up sea grass beds offshore.

The Kolokithases started their business out of almost nothing in the mid-1990s. They had operated a gambling boat in Texas, which was shut down by a bankruptcy court in 1992. They turned to Florida and launched the Mr. Lucky gaming boat in Tarpon Springs.

Mollie Kolokithas' brother, Floyd Howard, told the Tampa Bay Times in 1998 that they were so cash-strapped, they had to scrape together gas money.

"The first lemons, limes and oranges that were put on the first Mr. Lucky cruise were bought with Mollie Kolokithas' food stamps," he said at the time.

In 2002, when the Kolokithases had moved on to Port Richey and were trying to collaborate with local government, Mollie Kolokithas told a Times reporter they wanted "immortality" in the small city.

An obituary shows she died in 2015.

But state corporate filings for Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz, LLC show the business remains in the family, and in Port Richey, with Alex Kolokithas as manager.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

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