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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Police raid suspected gambling houses in Appalachia

Authorities say the operations may be linked to town officials.

What began as a state police investigation into election fraud in Appalachia has shifted to a network of gambling houses on the town's Main Street and their possible connections to elected officials.

Armed with battering rams and search warrants, a team of law enforcement officers forced their way into four suspected gambling enterprises Saturday morning.

Authorities believe that "past and present public officials" in Appalachia took kickbacks from the businesses in exchange for directing town police officers to allow the illegal activities to continue, said Tim McAfee, the special prosecutor overseeing the investigation.

McAfee declined to name the officials, or to say how much they were paid by the gambling houses.

There were no arrests Saturday, but authorities seized "lots and lots of gambling paraphernalia" and about $20,000 in cash, McAfee said. The investigation will likely continue for weeks before McAfee decides whether to seek charges, he said.

McAfee said some members and ex-members of Appalachia Town Council are suspected of frequenting the gambling houses, which are run out of vacant storefronts on the town's dusty and dilapidated Main Street. Open for business every day but Sunday, the establishments reportedly offer wagering on poker games and sporting events.

But there's more to the investigation than busting up a poker game or two, McAfee said.

The prosecutor said there's an overlap between gambling in Appalachia and the allegations of election fraud in the 2004 town elections, where some candidates were charged with buying some votes and stealing others to gain control of the town.

Ben Cooper, the mayor and alleged mastermind of the operation, is accused in a 300-page indictment of creating a corrupt police department to do his political bidding.

According to an indictment returned by a Wise County grand jury in March, Cooper sometimes directed the police department to conduct warrantless searches on the homes of his political enemies. Now there's evidence to suggest the police officers were also instructed to protect the town's friends in the gambling business.

"Assuming that there's evidence that people wanted to gain political power illegally, and one of the motives was to control the police department and to receive monetary benefits, then there is an overlap" between voting and betting, McAfee said.

Some town residents say gambling is as much a part of the town's history as election fraud.

"They have been here ever since I was a little child," Emma Jane James, a longtime resident who has written a history of Appalachia, said of the gaming houses. "It was just a form of entertainment for the people, the men especially."

Some families operate the gambling enterprises as their sole source of income, she said. "They draw a pretty good crowd, especially after payday."

James recalled that years ago, after a particularly busy night, Main Street would be littered with the torn-up paper slips that are used to bet on sporting events.

From the outside, the gambling houses appear no different from the other vacant storefronts on the main thoroughfare of Appalachia, a town of about 2,000 that has seen hard times since the decline of the coal business.

But for those in the know, a knock on the door is all it takes to gain entry into what authorities say is a big-time business. "Once you're in, you're in," McAfee said.

Although some say the gambling houses are Appalachia's worst-kept secret, they apparently attracted little legal scrutiny beyond town limits until state police began to investigate the 2004 town elections.

As a result of that investigation, 14 people -- including Cooper, a second town council candidate and their supporters -- were accused of offering beer and cigarettes to voters in low-income neighborhoods in exchange for their votes. After enlisting absentee votes from the citizens, the defendants then stole ballots from the intended voters' mailboxes and used them to vote for themselves, according to an indictment that listed about 1,000 offenses.

Led in new directions by the election fraud probe, authorities went to a circuit court judge Friday afternoon with a sealed affidavit outlining their suspicions about gambling.

The judge issued 38 search warrants that led to Saturday's raids, which McAfee said were conducted on both the suspected gambling houses and the homes of various suspects by a team of about 40 state and county law officers.

Based on what they've found so far, McAfee estimated that the illegal operations cleared at least $10,000 a month.

"People might say: 'They're just playing poker; what's the big deal?' " McAfee said. "But when you've got $150,000 that is being made tax-free in a year and the government doesn't know about it, that becomes a big deal."

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