Officers confiscated 34 video gambling machines and cash from two nondescript buildings where police say illegal gambling operations were being run. One was outside Canton and one was in Waynesville — each housing rows of video gaming machines and little else.
“I started receiving phone calls from family members of people going down there, and family members told me they were spending their entire pay check and didn’t even have meal money for their child to go to school the next week,” Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher said. “That’s when we asked our guys to start to take a look at this.”
Undercover officers frequented both gambling parlors and played the machines, which featured video poker and keno. To build a case, they had to play until they won and collect cash payouts, according to police reports. But it wasn’t terribly tough to infiltrate the play-for-cash operations.
“They were advertising cash payouts on the walls. It was no secret,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.
There have been no arrests or charges made yet, pending the cases appearing before the grand jury. The investigation is ongoing.
The two video gambling parlors do not appear to be connected. The one in Waynesville, located on South Main Street near Super Walmart, clearly advertised what was going on inside with signs on the outside of the building.
But the one in Canton, located on the old Asheville Highway east of town, had sheets over the windows and no sign on the building. Yet there were always plenty of vehicles in the parking lot, according to police reports.
“They had a lot of enticements to bring people in to the establishments,” Christopher said.
They would give out free sodas, coffee and snacks, sometimes with crock-pots of food keeping warm on a table.
Coincidentally, 17 machines were confiscated from each. Due to the sheer size of machines — much bigger than the stash of drugs and guns that typically fill police evidence lockers — an off-site evidence room had to be set up just to hold them.
The video gambling industry has sparred with law enforcement and state lawmakers over the past decade. The state has banned various forms of video gambling three times — in 2006, 2008 and 2010. But each time, video gambling operators tweak their machines’ software to exploit loopholes in the law and keep on humming.
The latest incarnation, known as video sweepstakes, have continued to operate in plain sight, tucked into the corners of gas stations around the region. Police have made arrests but have been unable to make charges stick in court due to ambiguity over the machines’ software.
However, the machines confiscated in the two busts in Haywood County don’t fall into the murky category of sweepstakes, but are forms of outright video gambling clearly outlawed by the state, Hollingsed said.
“These games were patently illegal on their face by state statute,” Hollingsed said.
Christopher said law enforcement could not morally turn a blind eye to the activity.
“We are sworn to uphold the law, whether it is illegal drugs or gambling,” Christopher said. “The number of complaints we had received at the sheriff’s office was huge. I felt after listening to these complaints and these family members tell us what was happening that we had to do our job.”