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Cops fold seven video poker outlets
11 arrested, more than $500K seized Thursday
01.23 raid 1
Effingham County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Lewis counts out money taken from one of two video gaming machines at the Sunoco station on Highway 21 across from Westwood Drive. Seven such establishments were raided Thursday. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue
Under arrest
Vipulkumar Patel, 45, Rincon
Rajesh Patel, 44, Rincon
Dineshbhai Patel, 46, Rincon
Anita Patel, 39, Rincon
Pravina Patel, 47, Springfield
Vinubhai Patel, 56, Springfield
Shanta Patel, 54, Rincon
Jayeshkumar Patel, 42, Rincon
Vanu Patel, 52, Springfield
Kimberly Underwood, 32, Clyo
Rameshbhai Patel, 51, Rincon

Locations raided
• Sunoco station, Highway 21 and Silverwood Drive
• Shell station, Highway 21 in Rincon
• BP Station, Highway 21 and 9th Street, Rincon
• El Cheapo station, Long Bridge Road
• Rinku, Guyton
• Time Saver, Springfield
• B and N Shop and Go, Springfield

It’s the last hand for some video poker operations in Effingham County.

The Effingham County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Guyton, Rincon and Springfield police departments and state Department of Revenue agents, raided seven businesses suspected of illegal video gambling Thursday morning. The sting was the culmination of a six-month undercover operation conducted by the sheriff’s department.

Throughout the day, deputies and investigators continued to find money throughout the stores, a total that exceeds $500,000, Detective David Ehsanipoor said.

They also removed nearly two dozen video gaming machines, according to Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie.

Investigators found cash in registers but also in a cooler in a store, in cigar boxes and hidden away in backrooms of the stores.

“They’re trying to account for the cash and where it’s at. It’s not all in one location (in the stores). It’s all over the stores,” Ehsanipoor said. “It’s a very tedious process, and it’s very time-consuming. It’s taking a little bit of time to count.”

The preliminary estimates of how much money was recovered staggered authorities.

“We knew it was going to be big,” Ehsanipoor said. “But this ….”

Deputies and police officers also arrested 11 people involved with the illicit gambling operations. Cashiers and clerks at the stores likely will face misdemeanor charges, but store owners could face felony charges.

“There will be more arrests,” Ehsanipoor said. “We’ll have more warrants for additional people involved in this operation.”

Sheriff’s undercover agents won anywhere from $20 to $100 playing the video gaming machines. Under state law, the machines themselves are not illegal and players can win prizes in store merchandise or up to $5.

According to Sheriff McDuffie, there are 11 establishments that had those machines in operation.

“These seven are the only ones that were not following the law,” he said.

McDuffie said he’s been getting complaints about the video poker machines for the six years he’s been sheriff.

“It’s just over the last few years where we had to do something,” he said. “With these game machines, it’s not the easiest. The courts are still looking at whether the actual machines are legal. That’s not what we have here. We don’t have a problem with the machines. We have a problem with the payout.”

Investigators also were trying to determine if any of the money had been co-mingled with Georgia Lottery funds.

Lottery money is supposed to be kept separate. McDuffie said he wasn’t sure if that was the case at the stores raided Thursday.

Two Department of Revenue agents aided investigators in downloading information off the video machines. At one location, the Rinku in Guyton, deputies and Guyton police officers uncovered an elaborate system that allowed a person behind the counter to erase the information on the video machines and also operate a buzzer to alert game players if cops were coming.

“We just want them to do what they’re supposed to do with the machines,” McDuffie said. “This problem has gotten so much attention. The citizens are seeing it, and they’re tired of it.”

The sheriff’s office ran the investigation through its drug and criminal investigations division and worked in conjunction with the municipal police departments in the raids Thursday.

“They just didn’t have the manpower and the assets to do it,” McDuffie said. “We lucked up and were able to put together this operation to do it.”

Undercover agents played machines across the county and videoed their results, including getting paid for winning, according to the sheriff.

“That’s not always the case,” he said. “You can’t just go into a lot of places and do that. The cities asked us to help them. We had the same problem in the county, so it’s been one big venture together.”

A similar sting several years ago resulted in the arrests of people playing the machines. But the players weren’t the target this time.

“This operation was focused on the businesses conducting the operations, more so than the people playing the machines,” Ehsanipoor said. “They can also expect to see us again if they continue these illegal gambling operations.”

For another offense, the sheriff’s department could seize the property. With the money and the machines seized Thursday, the cities will get one-third of the money taken from the businesses in their municipalities after the cases go to court and a judge decides how much is part of the illegal gambling and how much isn’t. The district attorney’s office gets 10 percent and the clerk of courts office also gets a percentage.

The rest goes into the sheriff’s department seized assets fund. Money from that can go to purchase equipment, such as cars, in-car computers and cameras, and also drug abuse resistance education materials.

McDuffie reiterated that the law enforcement officials aren’t out to arrest someone for simply having the machines. But it’s paying out more than the state allows that gets them into trouble.

“We’re not out there picking on anybody,” he said. “If you’re going to have those things in there, do what the law says to do, do it the way it’s supposed to be done and it’s not going to be an issue. But once you start one illegal operation, it usually leads to something else until it gets to be a big problem.”