Brazen ‘Gambling Shack’ Operators Hard to Catch, Prosecute

Illustration by Neil Ballard

Illustration by Neil Ballard

In mid June, Taraval Police Station Capt. Denise Flaherty received a tip about the new occupant of a storefront in the heart of Ingleside on Ocean Avenue. The description of the business matched that of a “gambling shack” on Mission Street in the Excelsior: no sign, several jukeboxes sat in the front window display and a poorly installed security camera monitored the gated entrance.

Early in the evening a few days later, three police officers paid a visit to do a permit inspection.

After being let in by the “Cash Out”—a person in charge of dispensing winnings to patrons—Officer Dan McLaughlin requested to see the required paperwork, according to the SFPD incident report.

The Cash Out and Officer McLaughlin went to the 700-square-foot space’s back office to retrieve the permits. McLaughlin saw 11 digital gambling machines and three men gaming.

The operation had only been open for a few weeks, the Cash Out said, moving from a previous location in the Outer Mission. He showed the surveillance system and also provided additional details about the operation’s workings. However, he could not provide any paperwork. No action was taken.

Station Investigation Team

Taraval’s Station Investigation Team, or S.I.T. Team, a group of sergeants led by an inspector, reviewed Officer McLaughlin’s report, which included pictures and video that he recorded from the inspection.

On July 1, Sgt. Jesse Farrell picked up a search warrant from a judge to enter the premises of the Ocean Avenue gambling shack.

Early in the morning on July 10, a group of officers went to the storefront and alerted the occupants that they had a warrant.

The officers then rapidly entered the building and detained the employees—the Cash Out and security guards—and patrons.

The officers breached the gambling machines to collect the cash inside. A glass pipe used for smoking methamphetamine was located in the bathroom and taken into evidence. One patron was later found to have narcotics on his person.

All told, $2,535 in cash was seized from the gambling machines and the office cashbox along with 11 working gambling machines and one broken machine.

Six men, including the Cash Out, were cited for gambling. A note for the owners, who the officers could not reach by phone during the search, was left to alert them that the machines would be destroyed in 30 days.

The officers also collected “payout sheets”—pieces of paper marked with an operation’s information used by patrons to collect winnings—from six other locations into evidence.

Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Doubt

The Ocean Avenue gambling shack case is not currently being pursued by the District Attorney. Despite the evidence collected, gambling is a misdemeanor and the people cited are only employees, not the operation’s owners.

“These charges have not been dropped, we’ve asked the police department to investigate further so we can meet our burden of proof,” said Maxwell Szabo, spokesperson for District Attorney George Gascon. “Once they’ve obtained sufficient evidence we look forward to working with SFPD to proceed on these charges.”

Ingleside Police Station officers have investigated more than a dozen gambling shacks. They have found operators who run up to three or four gambling shacks at a time. But collecting evidence—gambling machines, payout sheets, money transferring, guns, drugs and prostitution—to get to the operation owners is difficult.

“The people who we are arresting are the operators, not the people running it, not the owners,” Ingleside Police Station Capt. Joseph McFadden said. “We can hit the person running it all day long and they’re just going to get someone else to take their place. So we’re trying to get the top dogs and their owners.”

Although SFPD has been successful working with the City Attorney in pursuing civil cases, gathering criminal evidence for these types of cases is only now being formalized.

“We’re trying to make a format: This is how to run [the investigations]; this is how the D.A. wants them,” Capt. McFadden said. “It is a very hard case for [the D.A.] to prove. It doesn’t come to the amount they want.”

At a roundtable meeting with neighborhood newspaper publishers in August, Chief Greg Suhr seemed to prefer using the City Attorney to file charges against the property owners for allowing gambling shacks to be a nuisance to the community.

“That said, a landlord [can say] heads up and the endeavor moves and we start all over again,” Chief Suhr said.


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