By CLINT FOSTER
The numbers are in.
Following a mass raid of illegal gambling operations in Mineral Wells and Possum Kingdom, Palo Pinto law enforcement hit the virtual jackpot, seizing $45,155 and 160 computers used in unlawful wagers, according to Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer. As of Friday, the county was still not done counting all of the cash and gambling equipment they seized.
“It’s obvious that it’s a profitable deal and that’s why people choose to do it, regardless of whether or not it’s legal,” Mercer said. “I guess they think the risk is worth the reward.”
The PPSO simultaneously conducted search warrants at eight locations Thursday with the help of the Mineral Wells Police Department, county constables and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, computer forensics specialists and undercover officers.
The location formally known as Cowboys Internet Cafe, Wildkat Sweepstakes, Tri 7 Sweeps, Mineral Wells Sweeps, the Brazos Lounge, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2399 and the American Legion were all busted in Mineral Wells along with Longhorn Smokes and Stuff at Possum Kingdom Lake. Three arrests were also made in Mineral Wells: two at Wildkat for possession of drug paraphernalia and one at Tri 7 for possession of methamphetamine, between 1 and 4 grams.
Customers gambled at these locations on computers, in the form of sweepstakes-type gambling. Mercer explained this type of gambling functions basically like virtual lottery tickets. Wildkat, Mineral Wells Sweeps, Cowboys and Tri 7 were all store fronts that functioned exclusively for the purpose of this type of gambling. Conversely, Longhorn and Brazos Lounge were more hybrid locations and gambling was not the sole activity. This was also the case at the VFW and American Legion. But the long arm of the law did not discriminate. When asked why the veterans’ organizations were involved in the busts, Mercer had this to say.
“Why would it be any different for them to do it when it’s illegal than it would be for these other places to do it?” he asked rhetorically. “We didn’t shut them down, we didn’t get TABC to come in and take their licenses, that’s not the point. The point is to stop the illegal gambling. Until something happens in the legislature that makes it legal, it’s still illegal.
“They’d all been told before that this was probably going to come at some point in time. I didn’t feel like we could do one without doing all of them. It was a joint decision between us, the PD and the district attorney’s office to go ahead and take care of all of it at once. So we did.”
Another reason for shutting down these gambling operations was the presence of drugs and drug dealing, as evidenced by the three arrests.
While not all locations harbored such activity, Mercer said it was a strong incentive for the raid.
“Not all the locations were of the nature that draw unsavory characters that deal drugs, but a lot of them were,” he said. “They seem to be a bastion for those type folks for some reason. That’s one good reason not to have them here.”
A common question that has surfaced in the wake of the successful gambling sting is how these places would be allowed to open in Mineral Wells in the first place, if they are illegal.
City Manager Lance Howerton said the answer is “not quite as cut and dry as it might seem.”
He explained Mineral Wells’ zoning ordinance in detail and how it allows for what is referred to as “amusement centers.” Such entertainment facilities can legally include anything from bowling and arcade games to billiards and batting cages. Coin-operated games, whether they are at Chuck E. Cheese’s or a casino, qualify a location as an amusement center, he noted, but added that the city does not issue permits for these businesses.
Howerton further explained that gambling machines, such as the sweepstakes computers, are not illegal per se, it all depends on the way they are used. Likewise there legal and illegal ways to use gambling equipment.
“When the first of these were introduced in our community, the consensus was that this was a legal application of that type of equipment,” Howerton said. “That has since changed, based on [Texas] attorney general opinions and case law that has come down in the last few months. You have to have a basis – playing the machines, seeing how they’re operated – to conclude that they are categorized as illegal gambling devices or if they’re categorized within the law. There are ways you can operate these as illegal or not.
“The whole issue of illegal gambling is kind of a moving target. The industry evolves their products based on what has determined to be illegal. Then law enforcement has to respond to whatever the newest iteration is and it takes a period of time to determine if that new game or approach is a legal entertainment device or is it an illegal gambling device.”
Considering this information, the City of Mineral Wells did not knowingly allow businesses to establish themselves within city limits that were involved in illegal activity. Regardless, Mercer’s hard-line stance on illegal gambling in Palo Pinto County is unchanged. If they do the crime, he’ll make certain they do the time.
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