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video poker

A video poker machine. (Journal Times file photo by Scott Anderson)

CALEDONIA — Two men were arrested earlier this month after they were reportedly found scamming a video gambling machine in a Caledonia bar.

One suspect then said it didn’t matter, according to a police report: He’d been arrested before and nothing came of it.

The video gambling machine scams have been occurring regularly in the Racine-Milwaukee area, with people fraudulently collecting money from a bar without putting money in the gambling machines, or stealing money directly from the machines.

But since the machines are illegal under state law, it can be problematic to prosecute the cases. In some cases people are getting away with it.

“The law is a bit of a mess when it comes to video gaming machines,” attorney Chris Geary, who represents the Village of Caledonia, said in an email.

The scams

In the Caledonia incident, two men allegedly took $235 from Corner Connection, 6961 Douglas Ave., and were trying to collect another $175 when the bartender called police. They had put the same money in the machine repeatedly, using a tool to pull it out each time, according to a police report, then claimed to have credits.

Chuck Beth, owner of Racine Amusement — which operates some of the gambling machines in area bars including those at Corner Connection — said scamming video poker machines is a statewide problem.

He is on the board of Wisconsin Amusement and Music Operators, Inc., a statewide game operator association, and he said the board talks about the issue monthly.

Ralph Fleege, CEO and president of Mitchell Novelty Co., a Milwaukee gaming machine operator, said the problem has been occurring over the past several years in the Milwaukee area. The scammers fraudulently rack up credits and cash; other times they physically pry open the machines and steal money, he said.

When police are called, they end up saying their hands are tied since the machines are illegal, Fleege said, but to help manage the problem bar operators circulate photos among themselves of suspects to watch for.

Here in the Racine area, Beth said his machines are targeted at least every month and sometimes every week.

There are laws prohibiting bars from giving out money through the video poker machines, but Beth said when someone cheats the bar “it’s still stealing ... the DA should be able to do something.”

Tough to prosecute

One of the men arrested for the scam in Caledonia, Charles A. Gibson, told police he’d been arrested for the same crime about a year ago in Racine and the charges were dropped. Court records show a June theft charge against him was later dismissed.

Racine County District Attorney Rich Chiapete explained the cases are problematic to prosecute and said in situations where the machines are placed in a facility contrary to law, “we will not prosecute.”

He compared it to a case where an individual is cheated in an illegal dice game or card game and said his office would not prosecute those cases either.

Even though the District Attorney’s Office declined to issue charges in the recent Caledonia case, the police issued citations totaling $2,687 for each man, said Lt. Gary Larsen of the Caledonia Police Department.

State law basically precludes local officials from taking any action on the machines as long as a bar has no more than five machines, according to Geary.

“Because the machines, of dubious legality, are nevertheless facts of life in this state, we determined it was appropriate to treat theft as theft,” Geary said in an email. “The alternative would have been to essentially sanction theft, in support of state law that can’t seem to decide whether the devices really ought to be illegal in the first place.”

As of Friday, Larsen said, one man had already paid his citation. Hopefully, the tickets will serve as a deterrent from future scamming, he said.


THE MACHINES AND THE LAW

Video gambling machines at bars and restaurants are illegal under state law. It is a misdemeanor for establishments with a Class B liquor license — places such as restaurants or bars where alcohol is served — to have five or fewer gambling machines, according to the state Department of Revenue.

It’s a felony if Class B establishments have more than five machines.

If an establishment has more than five machines, the Department of Revenue will work with local law enforcement on the violation, according to the department. Only a special agent from the department certified as a law enforcement officer may handle cases where a Class B establishment has five machines or fewer.


THE SCAM IN CALEDONIA

Caledonia police were called to Corner Connection, 6961 Douglas Ave., on Dec. 12 for a possible theft from a video poker machine in the bar.

Video surveillance showed two men at the video poker machine, later identified as Charles D. Givens, 41, of Knoxville, Tenn., and Charles A. Gibson, 56, of Louisville, Ky., according to a police report.

The men reportedly put money into the machine and took it back out again using some sort of tool, and never went into their pockets to take out more money, the report said.

It was obvious they were not playing the poker game, but were accumulating credits using the same dollar, the report said. They ended up collecting $235 from the bar and tried to collect another $175 when the bartender called police, the report said. Later, when police opened the machine, they only found $41 inside, according to the report.

Caledonia police arrested both suspects for theft and possession of burglary tools and issued them citations.

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