November 18, 2016
By Chick Jacobs
Cumberland County and federal authorities coordinated a series of raids Friday on gambling operations run secretly out of several homes and behind a fake storefront.
Agents seized more than $100,000, dozens of video gambling machines, guns and a “trafficking amount” of opioid drugs, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Investigators believe the suspects they targeted are part of a larger crime organization linked to New York, California and Texas.
“This is not some mom-and-pop deal,” said Sheriff Moose Butler, watching as deputies carted machines out of a Hope Mills house. “There’s some sophisticated criminal activity going on.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is part of the investigation, which targeted five locations in Cumberland County and one in Raleigh. The largest was a false storefront at 3069 Cumberland Road, called “Cumberland Biz Center,” which contained a large-scale sweepstakes operation. More than 40 games and computers were seized here.
Officers had been watching several locations across Cumberland and Wake counties for months.
“We’ve had guys hiding in the woods, watching from neighboring houses, doing everything very carefully,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Sean Swain. “We were able to piece together this operation during that time.”
Agents moved in Friday morning. Four locations were suspected gambling houses, “and one we were able to connect to the houses by traffic to that location over time,” Swain said.
Arrest warrants were issued for four people; three were in custody by Friday night.
Butler, who will retire at the end of the year, has long worked to shut down video gaming operations, which the legislature first banned in 2006. After numerous challenges from the industry, the Supreme Court upheld the ban in 2012, but sweepstakes operations have continued to pop up, though no longer in flashy storefronts with neon signs.
“We’ve been doing this for years, and we’ll continue to do it,” Butler said. “It’s not something we do because we enjoy it. We do it because it’s against the law.”
Deputies searching a house at 2330 George Owen Road and the false storefront on Cumberland Road seized what is believed to be the first “fish games” found in North Carolina. The multiplayer electronic game is capable of raking in thousands of dollars daily.
The machine, known as the Ocean King 2 Ocean Monster features a collection of sea creatures that gamblers attempt to catch to earn money. Players pay a set amount per chance to “shoot” the video creatures.
“We don’t think that anyone has ever gotten one of these machines before,” Swain said, as four other deputies lugged the table-sized machine out of a house. “It’s a first in the state.”
The George Owen house, which is less than a block from Cumberland United Methodist Church, contained more than a dozen machines and an ATM bolted to the floor.
“It really is a nice setup for gaming,” Swain said. “It’s a quiet location off a major road, where a lot of people can come and go. They had an ATM here so people didn’t have to leave.”
Butler said a suspect who fled from officers left a trail of $20 bills scattered across the floor.
“They were just spread out there,” the sheriff said.
Deputies estimated the site may have pulled in $40,000 to $60,000 per week.
“Look at where this is, right in the middle of a community,” Butler said. “Right next to a church, for crying out loud. They don’t care about that. All they care about is the money. There is so much money involved.”
Other locations raided in Cumberland County were 108 Old Gate Road, 1876 Spiralwood Drive and 3206 University Drive in Hope Mills. A home in Raleigh also was searched.
Gyoung Lok Lee, who lives at the Spiralwood Drive house, is accused of leading the organization in Cumberland County with links to other gambling operations in Flushing, New York; Irving, Texas; and Los Angeles, the Sheriff’s Office said.
“Today’s operation is the first action being taken to shut down this criminal enterprise, and additional investigative operations will continue,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Lee is charged with continuing criminal enterprise, two counts of operating five or more video poker machines and felony conspiracy.
Others charged are:
Jay Hugh Pridgen of the 3200 block of University Ave. in Fayetteville, continuing criminal enterprise, two counts of operating five or more video poker machines and felony conspiracy.
Allen Larson of the 5900 block of Lakeway Drive in Fayetteville, operating five or more video poker machines and felony conspiracy.
A warrant is issued for Eric Murillo of the 3200 block of University Avenue in Fayetteville. He will be charged with operating five or more video poker machines and felony conspiracy.