Police: Gamerooms offering illegal gambling can spur violence in community


We took our hidden cameras into several Houston-area gamerooms like this one. What you're watching is illegal gambling, and it was all caught on our hidden cameras. And at several of these locations, what we found is money flowing freely. When there is a winner, the illegal payout comes.

Gamerooms not following the law is a widespread and growing problem overwhelming Houston police.

"Obviously we have found quite a few that are not," said Charlie Dunn with HPD Vice.

And with the money often comes the violence.

Within less than 24 hours of our report, two gamerooms were hit, including the Monroe gameroom on Almeda Genoa, where gunshots were fired and an employee was left dying. Police say Yolanda Lara tried to hide a bag of cash she was carrying from the robbers and was shot in the head and died. The suspected trigger man, 20-year-old Obed Rodriguez, has been charged with capital murder.

But it's not just employees and security guards being gunned down; gamblers are also being targeted.

"If they win big, they make themselves potential targets for people waiting on the outside," a former law enforcement officer told us.

And that's exactly what police say happened last July when intruders shot and killed 49-year-old Mario DeSantiago and his 21-year-old son Leobardo in their home in east Harris County.

Investigators believe Mario and his wife were followed home from a gameroom that night and the suspects were looking for money.

"My father was just on the couch just trying to hold up, and my brother was already long gone," Roberto DeSantiago, Mario's other son, told us shortly after the shooting.

Two suspects have been arrested in the double murder; a third is still being hunted.

The violence is all too common place.

In fact, Houston-area gamerooms have seen 90 aggravated robberies and more than a half-dozen homicides in the past few years. And 25 percent of these robberies go unreported because of the fact of the illegal activity going on inside the gameroom; that's according to the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

This is the Monroe gameroom, where our hidden cameras caught illegal gambling going on inside. And a few days later, employee Yolanda Lara was gunned down during a robbery. This is a makeshift memorial in her honor.

It's no secret what goes on inside most of these places. They're all over town, illegal gambling, and some people are blaming law enforcement for not doing enough to shut them down.

"We reached out to several law enforcement agencies in the area, tried to work with them. They say they'll work with you, they're real busy. They never have a chance to get back with you," a former law enforcement officer told us.

This former law enforcement officer came to us because he says he tried to get these illegal operations shut down, but got no help from the city.

"Recently called the mayor's office, and somebody on the mayor's staff said that they're not really interested in it," the officer told us.

The mayor's office says it has no record of the call, but says shutting down illegal gamerooms is an ongoing battle for local law enforcement.

Captain Charlie Dunn is head of HPD's Vice Division; we showed him our undercover video.

"Is your department doing enough to shut these illegal eight-liner places down?" we asked Dunn.

"Well we do everything that we can do. And I believe it's an ongoing problem that we're going to continue to work on," he said.

The vice captain told us violence at gamerooms is actually decreasing. He says that's because most are now harder to get into and most now have armed security.

With each HPD gameroom investigation taking up to 125 hours, the vice squad has its work cut out for it. That's because there are now more than 350 licensed gamerooms in the city. But there have been only 20 gambling-related offenses in the first six months of this year, 15 in 2012 and 24 in 2011, according to stats provided by HPD.

"From what we've seen, the vast majority of these eight-liner gamerooms seem to be operating illegally, like little mini casinos," we told Dunn.

"It's hard for me to put a number on what are legal and what are illegal," he said.

"Well paying out cash," we said.

"Obviously, if they pay out cash in excess of what they're allowed to, which is the 10 times the wholesale value or $5, whichever is less, then they're crossing the line. And when we catch that, we're going to do our best to enforce it," Dunn said.

But the reality is, with gamerooms able to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits a month, it's hard to put them out of business for good.

"Here in Houston it's wide open. They go out and hit some places, they open up a few days later and they're back in business," the former law enforcement officer told us.

The city of Houston does make money off of all gamerooms, including legitimate businesses that follow the law like Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. But the majority are eight-liner operations.

And the number of gamerooms popping up in Houston has exploded in the past two years. All you have to do is look at the sale of gameroom permits required by the city: They brought in $50,000 in 2011, but that number skyrocketed to more than $164,000 in 2012. That's a three-fold increase. Also, each machine must have a city-issued license. The city has collected over $1 million since 2009 from those individual licenses.

But we're not done yet with our investigation yet. Coming up in the next few days, we'll explore why attempts to give law enforcement more legal tools to crack down on these places have been shot down in Austin.

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