Game rooms' growth in Victoria brings concern about illegal activity
June 7, 2014 at 1:07 a.m.
Updated June 9, 2014 at 1:09 a.m.
Through the iron bars guarding the front door, a handwritten note, black marker on copy paper, was taped to the glass: "Closed until further notice."
Twenty-four hours after a pair of armed robbers fired shots at an employee and made off with $300 cash, Royal 7's game room was lifeless.
The broken windowpane just to the right of the door shielded an unlit open sign, and blue painter's tape patched the cracked windows facing East Red River Street along the front of the red brick building.
Save for a half-dozen lipstick-stained cigarette butts discarded in a faded red Marlboro ashtray, the building was nondescript, but the 79 eight-liners arranged inside were known for tantalizing players with blaring bells, bright lights and winning dreams.
"Join us, be a winner!"
So long as the prizes players win aren't worth more than $5 - set out in the 1993 "fuzzy animal law" - game rooms are legal. However, it's an open secret to players and police officers across the state that the payoffs are usually much higher.
During the past year, about 20 game rooms have applied for licenses to open shop in Victoria.
With the boom in gaming businesses, law enforcement is taking notice.
Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig said the city is seeing more violent crimes against patrons or the businesses themselves.
"People are showing up with money, and the businesses have money on hand and very little, if no, security," he said.
The clientele deals with cash, and many are elderly, Craig said.
"It's an environment that looks to be easy victims and easy crimes to commit," he said.
The department investigates all types of crimes, but there's a potential that some game room crimes are going unreported, he said.
Good, clean fun
Brooke Brown, 25, of Victoria, plays Deuces Wild, Shamrock 7s and blackjack at Good Times Game Room on Laurent Street.
"You can play as low as 5 cents, and I usually like to bet low," Brown said.
While she might spend as little as 30 minutes or as much as her whole evening betting and doubling-down, Brown said, what draws her in are cash drawings and free meals.
"It's a great place to go if you're broke," she said.
She's never seen anyone paid out in cash, but rumors fly around the eight-liner community of where to go if you want something better than liters of soda or canned food, she said.
For game rooms operating above-board, the competition with illegally operating game rooms can be devastating.
Belinda Tipton-Romanowski, 31, of Victoria, said her family closed their game room, Five Jokers, a little more than two years ago.
"We did everything that the DA asked of my father," she said. "We didn't pay cash, and unfortunately, we couldn't compete."
The game room had about 40 machines and was in business about eight years.
Customers would speak openly about where to go for cash payouts.
"It was like gossip," she said. "You would hear about it all the time."
She still goes to other game rooms but has never seen a cash exchange.
"If you know the owner very well, you go into an office and do the cash exchange," she said. "It wasn't openly done. They had to know you and be comfortable with you to give out cash."
At her family's game room, the prizes were household items - cereal, soda and specialty meat from Prasek's Hillje Smokehouse.
They reported the illegal businesses but never saw results. Some, she said, are still open.
"As long as these other game rooms are paying cash, we refuse to go back into business," she said.
Just across the Guadalupe River in downtown Victoria, a man made off with $22,000 from Lady Luck Game Room on Sept. 30, an amount that startled many, including Mike Sizemore, president of Sizemore Media and Consulting in Victoria.
"People are violating the rules all over the state, including, we believe, here," said Sizemore, who has in the past represented charitable organizations that receive funding from bingo revenue.
That case is still under investigation.
Sizemore said Victoria has an "open season" sign on its front lawn for people looking to make a quick buck off eight-liners.
"I've said in the past, if you're interested in running a profitable eight-liner operation, come to Victoria because there's no enforcement," he said.
The whole industry is about cash, he said.
"It's hard for me to believe people are playing so they can get some toilet paper and a can of soup," Sizemore said.
With almost 17 percent of the county's population at poverty level, the possibility for a bigger payday is enticing.
Karl Fontenot, owner of Palace Bingo, has seen the ebb and flow of the game room industry since first opening up in Victoria about 18 years ago.
"People love to play slot machines, and that's what they are," Fontenot said.
Fontenot's bingo hall, which benefits six Victoria charities, recently added a sweepstakes room in the back with machines similar to those found in game rooms as a way to compete with the growing popularity of video game machines.
"I personally have always supported elevating the penalty from a Class A misdemeanor to a felony offense," Fontenot said.
However, he said, it's a move that has never garnered much traction with state lawmakers.
Illegal game rooms have been busted across the state, including in Goliad and Victoria.
This April, a Victoria judge dismissed a case the Victoria district attorney had built against three people charged with running an illegal gambling operation known as the Victoria Internet Cafe.
The people faced charges of engaging in organized criminal activity and money laundering of more than $200,000. The charges for organized crime and money laundering come with higher penalties than operating a game room illegally.
Cases are pending against three others connected with the Victoria Internet Cafe, but the investigation cost taxpayers thousands of dollars for what may amount to be a Class A misdemeanor - two grades above a traffic ticket - for keeping a gambling place.
If convicted of illegally operating a gambling place, owners face a maximum penalty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine.
The police chief said harsher penalties would ensure there is enough "teeth" behind the law.
"You'll send a message that there's consequences to criminal activity," he said.
As the law stands, law enforcement aren't sending much of a message to criminals, Sizemore said.
Limited resources, including time and money, put a strain on enforcement efforts, he said.
"There's no enforcement, that's the problem," Sizemore said. "It's not that playing those machines is a bad thing. It's against state law to give the prizes they do. Come on, people gamble every single day. The whole thing is about cash."