Law enforcement losing big on local gambling

Far from bright and glitzy casinos, the nondescript parlors in Harris County have become targets for crime — and officials are having a hard time keeping up

By CAROLYN FEIBEL and PAIGE HEWITT
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

The gaming room off the Katy Freeway looks like hundreds of others scattered across Harris County: an unmarked door nestled in a strip center, a tiny security camera, blocked-out windows and a door bell. In other words, it looks like nothing. Virtually invisible to the general public, ''Lucky 7s" draws its clientele strictly through word of mouth.

Inside, cigarette smoke and the dazzling glow of 32 video gaming machines creates a stupefying haze. There are free drinks, warm enchiladas, cake and chips. Players — most are tidily dressed, older women — sit before the screens, fingers stabbing "bet" again and again.

Time trickles by unnoticed, punctuated only by computerized bells and pings. Every half-hour, a lucky club "member" wins $25 in a drawing. A hostess buzzes in new arrivals, hands them a $10 "match" (weekend nights only) and pushes beer. A sign on the wall warns: ''Only You Know Your Financial Status/Please Bet Responsibly."

Gaming rooms have proliferated throughout the Houston area in the past few years. They have become targets for crime, law enforcement say, because the operators handle large amounts of cash and most patrons are female or elderly.

Everyone knows these places offer illegal gambling, police say. But savvy owners disguise them as "amusement rooms," taking advantage of weaknesses in Texas gambling law.

''Local law enforcement can't keep up with them," said Marc Brown, chief of the Harris County District Attorney's Office's misdemeanor division. "One shuts down, and another one opens up."

City Councilwoman Toni Lawrence is working on an ordinance that would force gaming rooms to put up signs, uncover their windows and allow unfettered access to law enforcement. Austin passed a similar law in March.

The proposal is tacit acknowledgment that game rooms are so numerous that more regulatory tools are needed. Lawrence said she hopes that forcing game rooms to be more visible will help police monitor their activities, and, perhaps, drive them away.

Capt. Steven Jett of the Houston Police Department estimates that Houston has 300 to 400 gaming rooms. Inside, one typically finds row after row of video gaming machines, often called ''eight-liners" because there are eight ways to win based on the combination of images on the screen. The machines also can be found tucked into convenience stores, coin-operated laundries, even dental offices.

''They're dangerous places to be hanging out in," said HPD Northeast Division Lt. D.R. ''Duke" Atkins. ''You're coming out of there with cash, and you're elderly, and you're going to get accosted violently."

Harris County sheriff's investigators echo that.

In the past year, sheriff's deputies responded to 12 robberies and four shootings — three of them fatal — at gaming rooms in unincorporated Harris County, said sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Field.

A 31-year-old woman was shot to death July 14, just outside a gaming room in the 2900 block of Gears, in northwest Harris County. The owner told investigators he was shooting at an armed man who was trying to force his way into the gaming room when Gloria Cruz stepped into the path of the bullet.

George, a west Harris County resident who did not want his last name published, said gaming rooms can be dangerous. Last year, he was gambling on a Sunday afternoon at a clandestine spot on the county's southwest side. Five armed men entered and corralled the 15 customers, many of them elderly women, and ordered them down on their knees, George said. After going through the players' wallets and purses, the robbers beat up the manager, George said.

Police were never called. Law enforcement officials say that is typical, as game room owners do not want their operations discovered and shut down.

"I think what's reported is a drop in the bucket," Field said.

'Fuzzy animal' amendment
Video gambling is illegal in Texas, but the gaming machines are not — unless they pay out a prize over a certain threshold. In 1993, Texas lawmakers changed gambling laws to allow for ''amusement" machines that award noncash prizes such as stuffed animals. This so-called ''fuzzy animal" amendment was intended to legitimize carnival-style games. But it led to a proliferation of illegal gambling dens, law enforcement officials say.

''The difference between an amusement machine and a gambling machine is what happens after you win," Atkins explained. ''If you get monetary compensation for your winnings, you're gambling, and in Texas that's illegal."

The game violates the law if a single "win" is worth $5 or 10 times the value of the bet, whichever is less. To prove actual gambling, police must go undercover and get that payout.

Investigations can cost thousands of dollars and take months to complete — if the gaming room has not closed its doors and moved elsewhere by then, police say. Even if a prosecution is successful, state law classifies "keeping a gambling place" and "gambling promotion" as misdemeanors.

The maximum penalty is a $4,000 fine and a year in jail. The Harris County District Attorney's Office has handled nearly 300 cases in the past five years, but Assistant District Attorney Marc Brown said he could not recall a case in which an operator was given jail time.

The fines do not hurt large-scale operators who have stashed machines across the county and are raking in thousands of untaxed revenue every week, law enforcement officials say.

''Their attitude is, that's just the cost of doing business," said Lt. Steve Rabago of the Houston police's vice squad.

HPD has four officers to conduct undercover gambling investigations.

"We do the best we can with what we have," said Capt. Glenn Yorek of the vice division. Since 2003, the department has made 219 gambling-related arrests and seized 2,771 video gaming machines.

City police officials are trying to find more space to store seized machines. "There's no room to take down a large-scale operation," Yorek said. "It does us no good to make a case, but not take the machine. That's how you hurt them, take the machine and the cash."

Since 2005, Harris County District Attorney's Office officials have seized about 3,100 machines in cases handled by various law enforcement agencies. The sheriff's office is storing nearly 1,200 machines in the old county jail on Baker. Machines are destroyed upon conviction.

Prosecutors say the most effective way to fight the problem is to seize machines. "If you leave the money-making device in place, it's not any type of disincentive," said Karen Morris, division chief for the district attorney's forfeiture division.

'It's like a wildfire'
In the past two years, gaming machines have popped up along Martin Luther King Boulevard, local residents say. Sporting names like Cherry '96 and Fruit Bonus 2000, the machines can be found along the back walls of gas stations and convenience stores.

''It's like a wildfire," said Byron Jones, a music store owner and minister, watching people get buzzed into a gaming room not far from his store. ''One day, it was a few people, then the parking lot was full. People are just throwing their money away."

The gaming room opened about four months ago, Jones said. He watched a truck pull up and disgorge dozens of video machines. Since then, he has watched the patrons come and go through the unmarked door. One of the gamblers was a friend, a 50-year-old retired truck driver from Pearland. The friend, who asked not to be named, described how the operation worked:

Gambling and payouts are handled separately. For winners who want to "cash out," managers write the amount on a piece of paper and hide it inside an empty DVD case. The winners leave the gaming room and walk along the strip center to what looks like a DVD rental store. After being buzzed inside and handing over the DVD case, patrons get their cash.

A Chronicle reporter was refused entry at both places.

Some Houston police officers have taken a different approach to gaming rooms: surprise visits, where they ticket for any offense possible. Atkins leads regular inspections to check that game rooms have their licenses and that each machine has the required city, county and state tax decals.

Officers also ticket for blocked fire exits, faulty wiring, health hazards and improper food storage.

"They can either choose to do business right or move someplace else," Atkins said.

Moving through a game room during a recent inspection, Atkins pointed out blocked exit doors, overloaded extension cords and barred windows. By trying to deter robberies, managers have created a potential firetrap, Atkins said.

On July 25, Atkins's team hit 12 gaming rooms and wrote 222 tickets. At 212 Winkler in southeast Houston, patrons barely looked up from their screens as officers roamed the aisles.

Alice Brookins, 44, mashed the button on a video slot, sending animated wheels spinning.

''It's just something to do to kill the day," said Brookins, an unemployed janitor from South Park.

Carl Brown, 67, was playing nearby. He could not really afford it, the retired ironworker admitted. ''I know you can get addicted to these machines, just like drugs or alcohol or anything."

Local officials say they are doing all they can but need help from the state.

Jett said gambling room owners won't be deterred unless the crime is changed from a misdemeanor to a felony. "I suggest people just call their state legislators and judges," he said.

Some even talk about legalizing gambling.

"Texas has to do one of two things," said Morris. "Either completely eradicate it or legalize it. ... The way it is now is completely unfair. It's bad for the public and bad for the police."

Matt Stiles assisted with reporting.

carolyn.feibel@chron.com

paige.hewitt@chron.com

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