POTH, Tx – Illegal cash payouts for 8-liner wins could be the worst-kept secret in Texas.
The popular gambling devices can be used legally if you're playing for things like cheap stuffed animals. Once players receive cash for winning, though, it becomes illegal.
When the Defenders went undercover at two game rooms in Poth in Wilson County, including one housed in a building owned by Poth Mayor Anthony Smolka, cash payouts were exactly what we found.
After our visits, we showed these clips of video from the two game rooms to Wilson County Sheriff, Joe Tackitt and Poth Police Chief Lowell Hull Jr. The clips include cash payouts to members of our team at both locations as well as a cash payout to another player.
"No. It's not legal," was Tackitt's first reaction to the video.
That wasn't stopping the game room operators, though.
"They don't really get shut down any more," the attendant at one of the locations told our undercover Defenders producer. "You know they used to because this is illegal."
"It is," she asked?
"It is," he answered, "but it's fun. It's worth trying and they don't really mess with you anymore."
The same attendant told our producer that some people try their luck a lot.
"It's crazy when you see people that put $50s and $100 bills in these machines and they end up putting over $1,000 in by the end of the night," he said.
Tackitt said these operations need investigation and need to be shut down.
"I don't know that we can do anything off of this video," Tackitt said, "but we're gonna check with the county attorney, the district attorney and see what can be done."
Hull said it's hard for him to investigate game rooms with no undercover officers.
"They're not going to do that when a police officer walks in," he said.
Hull said he'll contact the Attorney General's Office and follow their lead. He said they have more expertise.
"If they don't investigate it, more than likely I won't investigate it," Hull said.
Poth Mayor Anthony Smolka owns the building that houses one of the two game rooms we visited, the old Lee Roy's One Stop. Smolka said he just leases the space out and thought the game room was paying out in gift cards.
When we visited Lee Roy's again on Monday, Eddie Garcia, to whom a sign in the game room referred "any questions or problems," showed the $5 WalMart gift cards he said the game room paid out. If a player wins $15, he said, they would get three cards. This was the same game room where our producer was paid out in cash.
Gift cards as prizes are also illegal.
These sorts of game rooms are prevalent in many counties, including Bexar County. In San Antonio, police records show they have busted 116 game rooms in the past five years with 8-liners. Those busts resulted in 344 arrests, with charges ranging from gambling, promotion of a gambling place and gambling involving organized crime.
An undercover investigator with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office told the Defenders he knew "of probably five or 10, but there's a number between 10 and 60 I would say. There's a lot of them I'm sure I don't know about."
In Poth and Wilson County, though, busts are much more rare. Hull, who took his post with Poth Police Department in February 2013, said he had never busted a game room and didn't know of any busts before he became chief. Tackitt said his deputies busted an 8-liner game room "10 years ago....maybe not that long."
We asked Hull what he thought about the game attendant's comment that the game rooms "don't really get shut down any more,"
We'll see," Hull said.