July 10, 2017
By Tony Holt
Detectives are looking into two casino-style businesses that have opened this year in Volusia County and the State Attorney’s Office will soon contemplate whether raids should be conducted and charges should be filed.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said last week his agency is “actively investigating” the county’s two Internet cafes — The Hot Spot, 1230 Hand Ave., and Jumbo Jackpot, 1376 N. Nova Road.
Chitwood declined to go into detail about the investigation, but said he hoped his investigators would have it wrapped up and presented to the State Attorney’s Office in about a week. What happens next will ride on what the area’s lead prosecutor will decide, he said.
State Attorney R.J. Larizza said he was aware of the Internet cafes in Volusia, as well as others that have opened in other places in the four-county region that makes up the 7th Judicial Circuit. He also said he’s had conversations with law enforcement officials and have listened to their concerns.
“I think that’s an issue that’s going to come up for sure,” Larizza said of the prospect of prosecuting such cases.
Internet cafes contain rows of computerized games that are reminiscent of slot machines. A player purchases plays on a machine and either wins more money or loses. Victorious customers may walk out of the business with cash in hand.
Advocates say it is a sweepstakes business that is no different than promotions offered by Coca-Cola or McDonald’s that result in cash prizes. Opponents say it is illegal gambling because they offer games of chance as opposed to games of skill.
Chitwood told The News-Journal in May that some prosecutors “don’t have the stomach to prosecute” Internet cafe owners because so many cases were dismissed, ended in acquittals or were overturned on appeal.
There is also the manpower issue. When law enforcement raids an Internet cafe, that is a lot of time spent hauling the hardware out of the building, loading them into trucks, taking them off the trucks and storing them in a facility. Then each machine has to be analyzed by experts. That is a lot of work and money for such a high risk of failure, authorities said.
Larizza called the process “very resource-intensive.”
Internet cafes statewide were shut down in April 2013 after Gov. Rick Scott signed a ban that had been approved by the Florida Legislature. Additionally, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned a month earlier because of her association with Allied Veterans of the World, an embattled nonprofit that promoted itself as a charity for military veterans.
Allied Veterans collected money from its various Internet cafes located across Florida. Following an extensive criminal investigation, all of its locations were shut down and its lead attorney, Kelly Mathis, was tried and convicted of racketeering and other charges. Mathis subsequently won his case on appeal and state prosecutors announced in March they wouldn’t retry him.
Nick Cox, of the Office of Statewide Prosecution, said in March that his office’s priorities were to fight synthetic drugs, illegal opioids, human trafficking and gang violence. He added that his office would be moving on from the Allied Veterans case because it was in Florida’s “best interest” to focus more resources elsewhere.
After Mathis’ conviction was thrown out, more Internet cafes have been cropping up across Florida. The Hot Spot opened in February and Jumbo Jackpot opened in June. The latter occupies the building that previously housed Papi’s bottle club, a night spot that was once notorious for incidents that led to violence.
An employee at Jumbo Jackpot declined to be interviewed and referred all questions to the owner. He said the owner’s name was Wayne Leavett, but no record of Leavett was found.
The Volusia County Revenue Division shows a tax bill of $464.85 for Jumbo Jackpot.
The owner of The Hot Spot, Jim Dougherty, has never returned messages left by The News-Journal.
Chitwood said he would like to see Internet cafes regulated if nothing else. As of now, they’re exploiting a “gray area” and they are taking advantage of prosecutors’ attention being focused on other growing issues, namely the opioid crisis. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation hasn’t stalled.
“We’ll present our findings to the state attorney and see what he wants to do,” Chitwood said.
Larizza said he will carefully analyze any and all cases brought to his office.
“If we get any cases, we’ll review them individually,” he said. “Case by case, we’ll make a determination whether they violate any Florida (laws).
“If we believe laws have been broken and we feel we can prove that in court, we’ll prosecute it,” he continued. “We’re going to do our job and we’re going to do it based on the facts and on the law.”