published Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Chattanooga DAs hand out plea deals to 'The Poker Depot' gamblers

Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston
Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LEGAL GAMING

Tennessee's Charitable Gaming Implementation Law states that a charity can host one gaming event each year to raise money.

• Authorized types of gaming: Raffles, reverse raffles, cakewalks and cakewheels.

• Unauthorized types of gaming: Bingo, pulltabs, punchboards, lottery video games, keno and "games of chance associated with casinos," including slot machines and roulette wheels.

• For more information or gaming applications, visit www.tn.gov/sos/charity/gaming.

Source: Tennessee Secretary of State

About three dozen people slid into the pews of the small courtroom, folding their hands and craning their necks to look at prosecutors standing in the front, holding up a large stack of paper citations.

They were the group — mostly middle-aged and older men and women — arrested June 7 in a gambling sting conducted by the Chattanooga Police Department at a Lee Highway joint called "The Poker Depot."

Nearly all 41 pleaded guilty Monday. Those without prior criminal records will be eligible for judicial diversion, which means the charge and the guilty plea may be expunged from their records if they meet requirements set up by the judge.

Those who didn't plead guilty set up new hearings to give them more time to make their decisions.

"Excuse my phrasing, but you're rolling the dice if you go ahead and plead guilty and it turns out you aren't eligible for diversion," prosecutor Neal Pinkston explained to the crowd before the pleas were made.

White-haired Melba Yates, 62, told Pinkston that "I'm very inexperienced with all this."

Though several who pleaded guilty had traffic and drug-related charges on their records, many, like Yates, have no criminal record. Yates said she was fired from her job at a security company after receiving her citation, she said.

"If they want to bust innocent people, they should go to a Catholic church casino night," she said.

"We're all a bunch of decent people. We're all friends," echoed Pamela Wrinkle, who said she played poker with the group several times a week before the raid and many times they'd take collections for charity.

Wrinkle wasn't at the poker game on June 7 because she was out of town, but came to court to offer moral support to her friends.

"I just don't see how it's any different than playing the lottery or playing in some big fancy golf tournament," she said. "Our game that got busted was just a $20 buy-in."

In most cases, there actually isn't much difference in types of illegal gambling, said Chattanooga police spokesman Officer Nathan Hartwig.

"Basically any sort of gambling, any sort of game of chance, is illegal," Hartwig said. "If we get calls on it, we're going to investigate it as minor as it may be. We have guys in our department who are specifically tasked to do that."

Tennessee law makes exceptions for gambling at "annual events operated for the benefit of charitable organizations" that are approved by the state through an application process.

Police rarely receive calls on illegal gambling, Hartwig said. In 2010, only 21 people were arrested on gambling charges, according to newspaper archives.

The investigations conducting by the department's vice unit typically focus on high-stakes games that Hartwig said could "open the door for a lot more criminal activity than just the gambling aspect, like robbery."

The June 7 raid came on the heels of an April 12 raid of a high stakes poker game at ATC Healthcare on Gunbarrel Road, where police say Clifford Billups, 33, turned a gun on a police officer, who then shot him. Billups now faces attempted murder and six other charges from the raid.

Most of the 17 men arrested on April 12 have either pleaded guilty or their charges have been dismissed.

Raymond Crawford, 69, Neil Spitalny, 61, and Dale Roesel, 28, all entered guilty pleas in General Sessions Court on Tuesday. Crawford and Spitalny were both granted diversion, Roesel was not, court records show.

William Evans, who served as security for the operation, had his charges dismissed Tuesday.

Alexis Tarumianz, 65, has had his General Sessions court date rescheduled to Sept. 18. Ralph Kennedy, 51, and Billups' next court date is Aug. 21.

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