published Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Sheriff Steve Wilson denies officers harassing business

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

As cars zoom by on busy U.S. Highway 27 in Rossville, the dilapidated red-brick building sits empty, a "live bait" sign taped next to the announcement "Open, come on in."

But the doors are locked, and a peek in the dirty windows reveals an abandoned room with old Budweiser signs tacked to the wall.

Three weeks ago, neighbors say, the building was a pool hall that attracted business to the area. But owner Ronald Cline closed down before some locals even knew he was open.

Before closing, Cline had gone on a local news channel to bash the Walker County Sheriff's Office. He claimed a deputy was harassing his patrons about his video poker machines, which he said were in compliance with the law.

Cline could not be reached for this story.

Sheriff Steve Wilson denied the allegation and said his officers only were running radar while parked next door to Cline's business at the rundown Dee Dee's shoe store building.

But neighbors close to the pool hall and a nearby business owner say it was common to see multiple officers from the sheriff's office and the Rossville Police Department parked across the street, next door and sometimes standing outside their cars in the business' parking lot.

"They would sit in the gas station across the street. They were swarming everywhere," said Alisha Kidd, whose house sits adjacent to the store. "Ever since [Cline] shut down [police] quit coming around."

This isn't the first time local law enforcement has been accused of harassing a business operating video machines.

Last year Joe Mohwish, a Rossville bingo hall manager, accused police of unfairly targeting his business. He claimed he was running a raffle charity, which is legal in Georgia. Mohwish made the claim after he was charged under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act for what police called an illegal gambling operation. Mohwish died in February, before his case went to court.

In Georgia, licensed video machines are legal if a business gives out merchandise to winners and not cash. But that can be difficult to monitor unless police go inside the store undercover and play the games.

Lawmakers are hoping an overhaul of Georgia's gambling law that was signed this spring will help police monitor the worst offenders more easily and keep the lawful businesses open.

The changes brought the gambling industry under the supervision of the Georgia Lottery Corp., which eventually will require all machines to be plugged into a network monitored by the state. There also will be harsher penalties for those caught operating illegally.

"This should make the monitoring easier," said Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who spoke in favor of the bill in the Senate. "The most egregious violators will be easier to catch and close down."

Georgia Association of Convenience Stores President Jim Tudor said the group supported the bill because the law makes it more difficult to operate illegally and will help owners who are trying to run legitimate businesses.

"The activities of some reflect bad on everyone," he said. "There is a place to play games, but they must be operated legally."

Wilson said his officers never checked whether Cline complied with state gambling laws. They also never received any complaints. But some locals think Cline, who records show has a lengthy criminal history, was run out of business by police.

Others disagree and say they wanted more police scrutiny for the type of clientele Cline brought to the section of LaFayette Road. Troy Green, owner of Carriage Metals, said he saw customers on his surveillance videos wandering onto his car lot at night checking to see if doors were unlocked, several times swiping batteries.

"If anything, [police] didn't stay enough," he said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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