Activity at game rooms poses problems for police, community

Vice officers serve a warrant at Fresh Amusement on July 20.

Some may see it as a victimless crime. Others, like Beaumont Police Department’s Sgt. Bobby Anderson, know better. He’s seen the victims.

Over the last 18 months or so, Anderson has tracked the calls for service to game rooms and gaming sites throughout Beaumont. Robberies, theft, arson, assault … the list goes on and on, for roughly 500 pages of call reports alone.

Many of the crimes occurring at the gaming sites make for front-page news. December 2016, a clerk at Magic Touch Game Room was assaulted and shot during an aggravated robbery in front of seven customers who not only did not help the gunshot victim but fled before help could even arrive. A few months before that, two men — armed and dangerous — robbed the Joy Luck Game Room on Washington Boulevard and a game room on Magnolia Street, according to victims who said they were forced on the ground and ordered to comply with demands to hand over cash. Joseph Colone, recently convicted and sentenced for capital murder, not only robbed a game room, but later retaliated against the witness fingering him in that case, killing the game room clerk and her teenage daughter.

“This is just one slice of the pie,” too, Anderson explained, because agencies other than the Beaumont Police Department are sometimes called first. For example, calls reporting smoke or fire are routed through the fire department. According to fire department records, in the time Anderson has been tracking the activity of service calls to Beaumont’s gaming sites, the fire department has received 133 calls for service to known game rooms.

There have been three arsons connected to game rooms in the city in the last few months alone.

“We’re talking about a Molotov cocktail thrown through a window,” Anderson said. “You just don’t see that anywhere else in Beaumont.”

And that’s just the crime that can be traced to gaming sites registered and permitted through the city. According to city data, there are 46 gaming sites currently permitted in Beaumont; but according to Anderson, the true number of places with casino-like “8-liner” gambling machines well surpasses that official tally.

“We walk into places all the time, and there’s games in there,” Anderson said. As the point of contact at the Beaumont Police Department responsible for game room and gaming site inspections, Anderson should have records for every gaming location in the city. He knows he does not.

Not that the “legally” permitted gaming sites registered though the city are much better, as far as operating within the law, than those flagrantly flying in violation of it.

“You cannot operate a game room legally and stay in business,” Anderson said. “It’s impossible. No one goes to those places for $5 gifts.”

If anyone were going to Beaumont’s game rooms looking for $5 gift payouts, they would be disappointed.

“Most of the places don’t even have gifts to give,” Anderson said. The couple that do have “gifts” in stock, he added, sport merchandise coated by layers of dust. “I’ve maybe seen two in the past 4-5 years” with novelty prizes on hand. “I’ve never seen anyone walk out the door with a prize, either …”

State law makes it illegal to pay out cash for play on 8-liners and gaming machines, but what is referred to as “The Chuck E. Cheese Law” allows for permitting those same games “for entertainment purposes only,” with the caveat nothing over the value of a $5 prize could be given in connection with “winning” at the game. Gaming machines should be recorded through the state comptroller’s office, and in the case of cities that offer permitting like Beaumont, machines and operators should be registered with the appropriate officials.

And while it is common knowledge that gaming operators usually pay out cash for winning on their establishment’s 8-liners, that’s difficult to prove, Anderson said.

“We have to catch them paying out cash, or have someone say they’ve received cash,” Anderson said. “Most of the time, people lie and say they don’t get paid.”

Problem is, as noted earlier, illegal payouts are not the most egregious crimes going down at these gaming havens.

“The players,” he said, “are the least of our worries.”

Taking a detailed look at a randomly selected game room address gives a glimpse of what type of activity is transpiring at the locations. At one Beaumont game room alone, there were a total of 19 calls for police intervention in the last few months on a number of topics including animal cruelty, shooting victimization, burglary of a building, theft, robbery – “That’s just one game room, at random,” Anderson reiterates, “but it shows you some of the things that come along with opening a game room.”

Anderson said the city has no way of really tracking the number of crimes committed at these gaming dens. Aside from the hundreds of calls received each year complaining of robbery, assault and arson already reported at these addresses, there are an untold number of others that go unreported.

“If the game room is doing things illegally, a lot of stuff is not getting reported,” Anderson said. Player or peddler, he added, “They don’t usually call the police when they get robbed.”

Out of the 14 game rooms Anderson has inspected this year alone, only two have passed. More than half of the game rooms inspected (8) were not properly permitted through the city, and some were even selling or serving alcohol without TABC permitting.

“We issued 468 citations to 22 separate individuals,” Anderson said, adding that the total citations he penned does not include fire department or code enforcement tickets, which were also administered at multiple locations.

Permitting violations are especially troubling to Anderson, given how easy they are to obtain.

“It’s cheap; it’s easy,” he said. There’s just a few questions and a background check on the person(s) whose name is on the application for permit as the applicant. There’s a small fee associated – and that’s it. Follow the law and keep the property up to the city’s building code to hold a Certificate of Occupancy, and there should be no problem. 

But there’s usually a problem.

Thursday, July 20, Anderson was at Fresh Amusement game room at 3070 S. Fourth Street, assisting the Beaumont Police Department’s vice squad with a warrant service at the property. Also on site were fire personnel, code enforcement inspectors, and other investigatory personnel as well as utility service providers. When serving the warrant, the BPD squad confiscated money, machinery from inside the gaming machines and “paper,” according to the search warrant return letter.

In addition, Anderson issued 97 ordinance citations for a host of infractions noted at the business. Among infractions that can produce an ordinance violation are incorrect or missing inventory list, permitting issues, not putting out proper signage, smoking, and alcohol violations. All infractions are of a misdemeanor nature, Anderson said.

Felony gaming violations, Anderson said, typically only come into play when organized criminal activity can be alleged, which takes proving that three or more parties are in collusion to commit crime. Most of the time, only misdemeanor charges are pursued from resulting inspection violations.

“And,” as Anderson said, “it’s a lot of work for a misdemeanor.”

Still, Anderson and crew – as well as the assisting crews – were on scene working the inspection and ultimate Certificate of Occupancy revocation July 20, despite the amount of manpower and budget put into the operation because, he said, “It’s a crime, and it’s our jobs to do this.”

Working in the confines of what city ordinance allows for gaming sites, however, Anderson has noted some areas that could use refinement.

In addition to raising the fees associated with permitting the gaming sites, currently set at $100 for game rooms with more than five games and $15 per machine, Anderson said he would also like to see upgrades to the permitting application – starting with identification of a “true” owner.

On the current application, the applicant can list themselves as any number of titles related to the business, all falling under the auspices of “operator.” Anderson said that line item alone makes it difficult to identify the business’s actual purveyor, and prevents keeping those same bad actors from opening game rooms time and time again that skirt the city’s ordinance.

“If we ever issue you citations for operating a game room in violation of the ordinance, I’m going to ask that you never be allowed to work at a game room again,” Anderson said of his vision of city gaming ordinance of the future. To do that, however, he needs the city to direct applicants to disclose the true owner of the establishment, as well as all employees involved in the business.

“To me,” he said, “it should be like with sexually oriented businesses – everyone who works there should pass a background check.”

Many times — nearly every time, according to Anderson — when law enforcement enters game rooms, the person they encounter manning the business is not listed anywhere on the permitting application. The same was true with the Fresh Amusement game room inspection from July 20. Officers were never met by the person whose name is on the city application, Douglas Guillory, who, according to city records, is the business’s “operator.” And a coordinating search of gaming permits licensed through the state comptroller’s office has no record of Guillory, Fresh Amusement or the business’s address on file.

Violations of the city’s gaming ordinance are punishable by fines of $200 to $1,000 for the first offense and $500 to $1,000 for subsequent violations and are handled through the Beaumont Municipal Court. According to evidence at BPD, on average, each game room takes in about $2,800 a day and roughly $1.2 million a year.