five dimes

words: David hill

art: ben marra


It was a balmy, rainy September night in San Pedro, Costa Rica in 2018 when 43-year-old William Sean Crieighton left his office and headed home for the night. On his way, he was pulled over by two police officers near San Francisco of San Isidro in Heredia.


The police knew Creighton. At least, they knew him as “Tony,” the name everybody in Costa Rica knew him by. Creighton, the owner of the enormous online sportsbook 5dimes, was one of the most powerful and wealthy people in Costa Rica. His business, while legal in Costa Rica, was against the law in the United States, where Creighton was a citizen. So he had spent much of his adult life in Costa Rica, marrying a local and fathering two children along the way. He had also grown rich beyond his wildest dreams.


Creighton wasn’t pulled over because he was speeding or breaking any other law. The cops had been waiting for him. They were dirty. And they were after his money. A grey pickup truck soon pulled up alongside of Creighton’s Porsche Cayenne. Four men got out and forced Creighton into the truck. One of the kidnappers took off in the Porsche in one direction, and the truck took off in another.


Creighton had always kept a low profile in Costa Rica. Despite his fabulous wealth, he dressed casually, t-shirts and sandals were a standard uniform. He drove himself. He rarely used security guards. He took great pains to not be photographed. He kept his name off of his company’s records. And he never let anyone in Costa Rica know his real name. His colleagues and customers only knew him as “Tony.” And for nearly two decades this had served him well, kept him under the radar and safe from both the law and the outlaws alike. On this night, however, a coalition of both had caught up to him. “5dimes Tony” had been kidnapped.




Creighton was part of a generation of sports bettors who came up in the early days of the internet, when American bookies were taking their operations offshore to avoid prosecution. By 1998, there were several dozen sports betting websites operating from places like Curacao, Malta, and Costa Rica. Players like Creighton would scour the various betting lines on offer across this bevy of sportsbooks and look for discrepancies in the odds between different sites. Creighton created his own models for handicapping games using Microsoft Excel and could find lines he believed were wrong. And he took advantage of a marketing spree by online sportsbooks to attract new customers by offering them bonus money for opening new accounts. “Tony would deposit $10,000 in a sportsbook and in three weeks the account would be over six figures,” says one of Creighton’s colleagues from that era. “He devastated bookies.”


One of the early pioneers in the offshore, online sports betting market was an American bookmaker named Al Ross. Ross ran a number of online sportsbooks and casinos including a group of sites under the banner of Creighton was winning a fortune from Ross’s sites. In 1998, Ross was one of 21 offshore sportsbook operators to be charged by the US government in the first-ever federal prosecution for online gambling. Because his legal fees were mounting, Ross decided to cut his losses with Creighton. He offered Creighton his own sportsbook as payment. Creighton accepted the offer, and by 1999 he was in Costa Rica setting up shop with two of his childhood friends and five other Americans he had hired. Creighton’s sportsbook was named “5dimes,” gambler-speak for $5,000. The name itself was a message to the world of gamblers that Creighton was willing to book big action. Creighton had plenty of experience beating sportsbooks, so he had some inkling of how to avoid getting beat when he was on the other side of the counter.


“Tony was always a gambler first,” says Mark Howard, one of those first employees who helped Creighton start 5dimes. “He’d take any bet, and if it was too big, he’d either lay off or play the action.” What this meant was that when Creighton accepted a wager that was larger than he wanted to have to pay off if he lost, he’d have a decision to make.He could either bet the other side with another bookie, thereby “laying off” most of his exposure, or he could make the same bet with another bookie for even more money, and then root for his customer to win the bet. Where a lot of bookies were content to try to balance action on a game and live off the “vig,” the baked-in advantage the house had when the same amount of bets were made on both sides of a game, Creighton was always gambling. Even as a bookmaker he was still leveraging his money, looking for edges and weaknesses in the market. Because of this, he wasn’t afraid to take larger bets from professional players. “We’d take action from Billy Walters,” said Howard, referring to the notorious American sports gambler, who was so good at gambling most Las Vegas sportsbooks refused to book his action. Creighton, however, wanted to know what Billy Walters was betting. That was information he could use. Creighton could copy Walters bets at other bookmakers. Because he ran his own sportsbook, Creighton rarely had any trouble getting his own bets down. “They all took Tony’s bets,” says Howard. “And all of them got their asses handed to them.”


Within a couple of years, Creighton had put a number of other offshore bookmakers out of business, including all of the other sportsbooks that rented office space in the same building as 5dimes headquarters in San Pedro. 5dimes would absorb many of the shuttered shops, and Creighton steadily grew his empire. By 2003, according to Howard, 5dimes was taking in a million dollars a day.




When Creighton was finally removed from the truck, he found himself in a strange place. It wasn’t a dank and dark basement with a swinging lightbulb. It was the modest and well-appointed home of an old woman in La Trinidad de Morovia, about 6 miles from where he had been pulled over by police and abducted. His Porsche was driven to another location in Heredia, far from where he was taken, and crashed into a barrier to make it look like there had been an accident.


At around 3AM, Creighton’s wife, Laura Varela Fallas, received a phone call from someone she didn’t know. The caller told her they had her husband and demanded $5,000,000 in ransom. She was going to need time to figure out how to get the money. It was late. And how would she even know they were telling the truth? The caller put Creighton on the line with her so she would know they had him and that Creighton was still alive. And they let her know they weren’t going to wait until morning for her to get the money. How, she wondered, would she get five million dollars to them before morning? Simple, the caller answered. Bitcoin.


Unable to secure the full five million, she agreed to send nearly one million in bitcoin immediately. After a series of clicks, it was done, and the kidnapper had the money in his bitcoin wallet. He and his conspirators began to pack.


When morning broke across Costa Rica a few hours later, Varela Fallas had already hired two private security consultants, both former FBI agents from the United States, to help her locate Creighton. At 9:00am she contacted the Costa Rican Judiciary Investigative Police (OIJ), but it was clear that she wasn’t willing to put her faith in the local authorities alone. The Americans and the OIJ each conducted their own separate investigations, racing to see who could find Creighton first.


The Americans suspected they were up against some dark forces. They reached out to a connection in the Costa Rican underworld and arranged to purchase illegal firearms to protect themselves. Then, once they were sufficiently armed, they set out looking for Creighton. The Americans struck gold first, locating Creighton’s crashed Porsche. They immediately suspected the crash was staged. They went to the OIJ to let them know about their suspicions. The OIJ weren’t grateful or looking to cooperate. They kicked the Americans off of the investigation after learning about their illicit gun purchases.


For their part, the OIJ were able to trace the bitcoin transaction to three separate bitcoin wallets and discovered they belonged to a 25-year-old computer engineer named Jorduan Morales Vega. Despite being a computer engineer, Morales Vega must have misunderstood how cryptocurrency worked and assumed it was anonymous. According to the OIJ, the bitcoin wallet the ransom was transferred to was opened from Morales Vega’s residence in Cartago. By viewing the blockchain, they were able to eventually ascertain Morales Vega’s name and address. But it wouldn’t matter. By the time the OIJ had Morales Vega’s name, he was already gone, having crossed the Panamanian border on his way to Cuba. Morales Vega, as well as “5dimes Tony,” had disappeared.



If Morales Vega needed some pointers on how to disguise his identity and launder the ransom, he would have only needed to have asked his captive. Creighton had lived the better part of the last two decades as a ghost. Unlike a lot of American bookies who had expatriated to Costa Rica who were afraid of returning, Creighton freely traveled between the United States and Central America. According to Howard, Creighton often ran 5dimes from West Virginia, communicating with his staff through instant messenger, never over the phone. Even his employees knew him only as “Tony.” He tried to keep his name off of 5dimes official documents, and installed various Costa Rican citizens as titular officers and executives to disguise his ownership.


Creighton had good reason to take such caution. He had seen Al Ross and a host of other Carribean sportsbook tycoons get ensnared in prosecutions in the United States. Some of them went to jail. Some could never return home to visit friends and loved ones, forever exiled. Some even took their own lives.


After the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act in 2006, most offshore gambling sites stopped doing business with the American market. The UIGEA made it virtually impossible for Americans to deposit and withdraw money with gambling sites, even if the site was located somewhere where gambling was legal. Popular payment processors like NetTeller and PayPal stopped processing transactions between the U.S. and gambling sites, as well as every major credit card company and bank. As a result, many offshore sportsbooks who did business with Americans completely reinvented their operations. They kept their call centers and websites up, but stopped taking bets. Instead, they rented out their infrastructure to local bookies. For a monthly fee, bookies could give their customers a login to a website where they could make their bets. The website would update the lines and track the bets, but no money would ever change hands other than the monthly fee paid by the bookie. The idea was that the local bookie and their customers would settle up in person. The website never participated in those transactions.


These operations were known as “Pay Per Heads,” and they proliferated in the wake of the UIGEA. Many offshore sportsbook operators even decamped back to the United States to go back to booking bets on the street, going from proprietors of online sportsbooks to customers of online Pay Per Heads. “The best of the best, the upper echelon became the who’s who and everyone started copying their lines,” says Gadoon “Spanky” Kyrollos, a major American sports bettor and former customer of 5dimes. “Bookmakers used call centers in Costa Rica and a vanilla set of lines, processing the bets. Now the bookmaker doesn’t field any phone calls and doesn’t have to make a line. They just use a set of lines they copy from a major screen bookmaker.” This meant that many of the sportsbooks that had sprouted up in Costa Rica during internet gambling’s heyday had been reduced to zombie operations. They employed no oddsmakers, they didn’t trade off their action or monitor the games. They didn’t even handle any bets. They had become call centers for hire, who provided independent bookies the infrastructure of an online sportsbook, while simply copying the line moves of more established and larger bookmakers around the world, for as low as $10 a week.


Creighton tried to convert 5dimes to a Pay Per Head, but it didn’t last. “He was like Michael Jordan,” Howard says. “Going to Pay Per Head was like taking a lesser role.” “He was a betting bookie,” one of Creighton’s customers told me. “He needed to be in action.” As a Pay Per Head, Creighton could have earned a steady income from other bookies and steered clear of the long arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. But for Creighton, being in the gambling business was never just about money. “You’d have never even known he had so much money. He dressed like a slob. He drove himself around,” says Howard. “It wasn’t about money for him. It was about kicking someone’s ass and having them hang their head in shame.” Creighton wanted to be in that upper echelon, a major screen bookmaker. He quickly went back to booking bets, and unlike a number of his competitors, he never quit taking bets from Americans.


By 2016 the United States government was paying close attention to 5dimes. They knew that the company was still doing business with American customers, but they still didn’t know how nor did they have any idea who was running the show. Everyone knew the name 5dimes Tony, but few in the United States had ever seen a photo of him or even knew his real name. More than a decade on, despite being phenomenally wealthy and at the top of his industry, Creighton was still operating essentially anonymously.


The Homeland Security Investigation Division was looking into money laundering schemes on when they discovered a number of suspicious Amazon accounts tied to an IP address associated with 5dimes. They learned that 5dimes was using Amazon to process payments back and forth to American customers. The customer was told to purchase Amazon gift cards with cash, then email photos of the cards and receipts to 5dimes, who would then fund the customer’s betting account. If the customer won money, they were paid off with items shipped to them from Amazon, such as gold coins, Tiffany bracelets, or mink coats.


An HSI investigator named Geoffrey Gordon noticed that one of the accounts was being used to purchase things like office chairs, and he suspected that account was how 5dimes was processing their profits, rather than paying off winning players. He then noticed that the account he believed was used for 5dimes had sent over $168,000 in gold coins and a safe to an address in Pittsburgh, and had attempted to send nearly $500,000 more in gold to the same address before Amazon caught the suspicious transaction and cancelled it.  Gordon thought the Pittsburgh address might be an important link to 5dimes, and not just another customer.


The woman who lived at the Pittsburgh address was named Allison Stawarz, and after doing some digging, Gordon found Stawarz’s name mentioned in an obituary for Marianne Creighton, Sean’s mother. He also found property that Stawarz and Creighton co-owned in West Virginia years before. It wasn’t long before Gordon could trace Creighton, who had been listed in court documents as a consultant to 5dimes, back to the sportsbook. Gordon was convinced that Creighton was Tony, the shadowy owner of 5dimes. In March of 2016, HSI seized the Amazon accounts, though 5dimes was able to clear most of the accounts prior to their seizure. Of the nearly $2,000,000 that was spread across 15 accounts, HSI only ended up with just over $150,000.


That same month, 5dimes came under scrutiny from Costa Rican authorities for large transactions between Banco de Costa Rica and accounts in both Malta and Dubai that appeared suspicious. With investigations coming from both the United States and Costa Rican governments, and Creighton’s identity now exposed, it seemed likely that 5dimes would go the way of many offshore sportsbooks that came before it. On sports betting messageboards 5dimes customers debated whether they should pull their money out of the site before it was seized by some government agency or spirited away by “5dimes Tony” as he made a run for it. But weeks later Costa Rica’s Deputy Prosecutor from the Office of Money Laundering, Alvaro Montoya, announced he would not pursue any charges against 5dimes, since the money involved was made through sports betting. “That is not a crime in Costa Rica, betting is not a crime,” Montoya told La Nación. “If they tell us that in the United States they are investigating 5dimes for laundering drug money, it would be different.” “5dimes Tony”, it appeared, would live to bet another day.


For the next two and a half years, he did exactly that. No longer able to move between Costa Rica and the United States as freely as before, Creighton settled in to Costa Rica and dug into his work. He continued to grow 5dimes’s footprint among gamblers around the world, expanding their betting options to include virtually any contest, from political elections to professional wrestling, and offering generous bonuses to new players. Throughout 2017, 5dimes remained one of the top rated sportsbooks in the world. All the while, Creighton kept his name out of company records, yet continued to directly run the operation himself.




On October 20th, 2018, the Costa Rica Star reported that OIJ authorities had located Sean Creighton’s body, citing an anonymous source. Rumors spread that he had been tortured for four days straight before he was killed and that his body had been buried deep in the woods in a national park. While news outlets ran wild with the story, members of the sports betting community were skeptical. On internet forums, some gamblers refused to believe that Tony was actually dead. Like Elvis or Tupac, Tony’s legend loomed so large that some gamblers could only believe that he had faked the whole thing and was hiding out somewhere.


Those fans weren’t alone in their disbelief. 5dimes denied the rumors in a press release that stated that he remained missing, and that their “thoughts and prayers join the rest of the online gambling industry for Tony’s safe return to his family. The OIJ also suspected that Creighton was alive. Their investigation of Creighton’s disappearance had led OIJ to a network of Central American counterfitters who made fake identification documents. They had a lead that Creighton had purchased his own false passport, one that said he was a Nicaraguan citizen. Given that the US government had recently identified Creighton and were actively pursuing him, and given that there was still no body to be found, it wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility that what they were investigating wasn’t a kidnapping, but an elaborate ruse that involved Tony faking his own death.




In the days after the kidnapping, Jorduan Morales Vega travelled through Panama to El Salvador, and eventually made his way to Cuba, where he withdrew the bitcoin funds. After staying in Cuba for a month, Morales Vega arrived in Spain on November 9th and met up with other members of his gang, which included his mother, his wife, and his uncle. But by then Spanish authorities were expecting them, having been tipped off by the OIJ that the kidnappers were headed their way.


Morales Vega must have felt the heat on the back of his neck. Wherever he or his family members went, they took cabs. Whenever they were asked for identifying information, they gave false names. Over the course of several weeks, Morales Vegas and his family changed residences several times, each time paying extravagant sums of money for rent. Whether Morales Vega knew it or not, his caution was warranted. Police were monitoring his every move, waiting for the right time to strike, hoping that Creighton was still with him.


The Christmas holidays came and went, and still no arrests were made. Nor had Creighton been located. Rumors were flying that Creighton was safe and sound and had changed his identity yet again. Others believed that Creighton was dead, his already-hidden fortune pilfered, and that no arrests would be made because every level of government was involved. 5dimes continued to operate without Creighton, taking wagers and setting odds as if nothing had happened. And in a way, nothing had. Creighton had lived so much of his life in secret, flying under the radar, taking great care to never use his real name or allow any photos to be made of him. For much of his life, he worked hard to make it seem like he didn’t exist at all. And now that he had vanished for real, outside of Creighton’s own family, it was hard for anyone to notice any real difference.


In January, more than three months after the kidnapping, it appeared Morales Vega was relaxing somewhat. No longer content to ride in cabs, he had inquired about purchasing a luxury SUV. He also moved his family into a large residence in Zaragoza, one that was big enough to fit his entire crew, who he had sent word to come join him in Spain. No sooner had Morales Vega settled in to the new and opulent home than Spanish Civil Guard officers came barging through the front doors. Police arrested Jorduan Morales Vega, his 45-year-old mother Guiselle Vega Aguirre, and his 24-year-old girlfriend, Maria Fernanda Solis Chaves.

That same day across the Atlantic, Costa Rican police attached a chain to a door of a dilapidated building and attached the other end to a truck. As the truck sped away, the metal door came flying off the hinges, allowing a phalanx of heavily armed officers to file into the building. In all, police conducted ten separate raids across the country and rounded up nine different suspects, including the two police officers suspected of pulling Creighton over the night he was abducted, and Morales Vega’s 71-year-old grandmother, Aguirre Leal, whose house was where the gang held Creighton the night he was kidnapped, and was the last place he was known to be alive. At Leal’s house, a team searched the basement wearing full biohazard suits, breaking the concrete floor and digging under the foundation.They also brought a backhoe and excavated the yard, searching for Creighton’s remains, but all they turned up was dirt. Two days later, Marci Gonzalez reported on the search for Good Morning America. “Police in Costa Rica say that with all of the digging in that basement and the yard of that home, they still have not found any evidence there,” Gonzalez said. “We spoke with Creighton’s family this weekend, and they are hopeful he still could be alive.”


Helberto Moreira, the lawyer who represented Morales Vega and many of the other kidnappers, said that his clients were caught up in an elaborate ruse, and that Creighton was alive and had faked his own death. “The line of the Public Ministry is that he was kidnapped and allegedly killed,” Moreira said. “The record shows that he was being summoned to appear (in the US) before his disappearance and alleged kidnapping.” Because Creighton’s identity had been uncovered by the Department of Homeland Security and a warrant issued in the United States for his arrest, Moreira argued Creighton concocted the entire scheme to escape justice.While Morales Vega and his mother and girlfriend waited in Spain to be extradited, the kidnappers in Costa Rica were sentenced to six months. The two police officers were let off with probation.


There was still no trace of Creighton, so no murder charges could be filed. Still, it seemed they were getting off easy for such a serious crime. The lack of public information about the case, the tight lips from 5dimes management and the government, the involvement of police officers who now were getting off virtually scott free, the maelstrom of rumors about Creighton’s fate—all of it combined to create the appearance of a conspiracy. And despite the relatively modest ransom of a million dollars, “5dimes Tony” was worth much, much more, and a lot of that fortune was squirreled away in secret accounts. The imagination can go many places if one lets it. “Honestly this isn’t a big country,” says Howard. “It wouldn’t take much money to buy off the entire government.”


In March of 2019, the Costa Rican tabloid Diario Extra reported that they had received a video of Creighton’s body being buried on a farm off Route 32. The video showed a body wrapped in black plastic being buried in a shallow grave. The source told Diario Extra that while Creighton was being held captive at the grandmother’s house, tied to a chair, he recognized one of his captors, a man who had once worked for Creighton as an employee at 5dimes. Having no other choice, the captors put a plastic bag over Creighton’s head and left him alone to suffocate. Once he had expired, they wrapped him in black plastic and buried him on the farm.


Watching the video, however, there was no indication that the body was Creighton’s. It wasn’t even evident  that what was being buried was a body. The video may have been accurate, but it just as well could have been staged. And if the video was real, there wasn’t much reason for the source to provide it to the media without any specific information about where the body could be found. If the hoax theory was true, however, then an anonymous tip like this one made perfect sense. The OIJ quickly refuted the report, stating unequivocally that they had not located Creighton and still didn’t know if he was dead or alive. In late April Morales Vega and his family were finally extradited back to Costa Rica to await trial.


Six months later, on September 5, 2019, OIJ investigators searched a cemetery in the harbor town of Quepos, Puntarenas, about three hours from where Creighton was last seen alive. The investigators exhumed a crypt in the cemetery and discovered— naturally—human remains. But OIJ investigators were acting on yet another confidential tip that this was where the kidnappers had hidden Creighton’s body, so they intended to run forensic tests on the remains to determine if they belonged to the missing bookmaker. Teeth that were found matched Creighton’s dental records, and the OIJ announced they had at long last found “5dimes Tony.” ESPN confirmed the discovery soon after, with a quote from the US. State Department: "We can confirm Costa Rican authorities identified the remains of a US. citizen in Costa Rica."


Some sports bettors, however, felt like they had seen this movie before. When David Purdum, the ESPN journalist who wrote the story, tweeted the statement from the State Department, it was met with replies of  “he isn’t dead,” and “doesn’t state whom,” and “ya, just how Epstein ‘killed’ himself.” On the subreddit /r/sportsbook, one user commented “We should make it a tradition to find his body every year.”


The Costa Rica Prosecutor’s Office, too, were skeptical. Despite the OIJ’s announcement, the Prosecutor’s Office refused to confirm that the remains were in fact Creighton’s, saying they were waiting on a complete forensic report rather than just a dental examination. And Creighton’s wife and extended family (both of his parents are now deceased) requested a DNA test be conducted. As of this writing, the results of any DNA test had not yet been announced, and the question of whether “5dimes Tony” had been found was still uncertain.




5dimes continues to operate in Costa Rica and is still one of the top-rated online sportsbooks in the world. And in the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision overturning the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May of last year, 13 states now permit sports betting, and another 30 plus the District of Columbia are currently moving in that direction. As each new state comes on board, thousands of Americans are placing bets on sports for the first time in their lives, and the image of the bookmaker and the sports gambler as shady characters thaws a little. Bookmaking was once a crime that landed Americans in prison or exiled them to small island nations. Today it is celebrated, and elected officials pose for photo ops with grandmothers in lavish sportsbooks in places like Iowa and Arkansas.  Since June of 2018, Americans have already bet nearly ten billion dollars in newly licensed, legal sportsbooks, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and tax revenues.


Sports wagering companies from all over the world are setting up shop in the United States to take advantage.  It’s a virtual gold rush, and everyone wants a piece of it. Even Sean Creighton’s home state of West Virginia now has a legal sportsbook. If Creighton is still alive somewhere, chances are he’s watching what’s happening in his homeland with a fair amount of surprise and resentment. Then again, he might be rooting for sports gambling’s continued growth and success. “If he was still alive, then he’d still be running 5dimes,” said Howard. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”


Perhaps Creighton did fake his own death. Perhaps, after fifteen years of operating in secret, the Department of Homeland Security uncovering his identity made it necessary for him to disappear, to give himself a fresh start somewhere. It would explain a lot. Like why someone went to such great lengths to try to convince the police that he was dead, but could never produce a body or any physical evidence. Or why none of the dozen people arrested for his disappearance have ever revealed what had happened to him. It’s also possible that the simplest explanation is also the truth:that the thieves who took Creighton also murdered him, hid his body, and will never speak of it aloud. In either event, whether Sean Creighton is dead or alive, “5dimes Tony” is gone forever.


“He was smart. He knew his business,” says one of Creighton’s customers when asked if he thought Creighton was alive or dead. “If you were going to bet on it, that bet will never be paid, because whether Tony’s dead or alive, nobody’s ever going to see him again.”