Police raid folds poker game

80 are charged with illegal gambling at private club near Camden Yards


The e-mail ad promised local poker aficionados the chance to win a $12,000 purse and a trip to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut to play for even bigger money.

But Wednesday night, city police swarmed a refurbished warehouse in South Baltimore, shut the game down and charged 80 players with illegal gambling. Authorities seized $25,655 in cash, 16,020 poker chips, 141 decks of cards, dozens of parts for illegal gambling machines and boxes of illegal booze.

A vice sergeant said the raid was the largest in the city in decades, perhaps since 72 people were busted in 1932 during a Prohibition-era raid in Highlandtown.

The owner of the warehouse said she thought the club operators were running a legal business helping to raise money for charity.

"I think they are legitimate people," said Gilda Johnson. "I think it's a misunderstanding."

Poker is all the rage - celebrities play on television, and teenagers have clubs at school - but the raid on the Owl's Nest serves as a harsh reminder that despite its popularity and its weekly presence in living rooms, taverns and fire halls, playing poker for money remains against the law here.

Police said 15 other people - including the club's operators, Gerald C. Dickens, 65, of Bowie and Joseph A. Cary, 50, of Pasadena - could face criminal charges as the investigation continues into the private club in the warehouse off Russell Street in an industrial park south of Camden Yards.

In Baltimore, as in the rest of the state, most forms of gambling, including poker, are illegal, and at least one poker expert bemoaned that yesterday after he was told of the raid.

"It's just a shame that here we have an activity that is possibly America's favorite pastime, a game that perhaps more people have played than any other game or sport, and the government can say it's illegal," said Robert Williamson III, a professional poker player and a commentator on television shows such as Poker Royale and The Ultimate Poker Challenge.

The Texas Hold-em game - which was being played at the Owl's Nest - is highly popular. Millions of Americans tune in to televised tournaments with multimillion-dollar purses and poker players with movie-star-size egos.

Marylanders have been swept up in the craze. In July, Anne Arundel County accountant Steve Dannenmann came in second in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, pocketing $4.25 million.

An Internet site lists 68 pages of postings advertising poker games in Maryland - some small, others with large stakes and catered food - complete with e-mail addresses for sponsors.

In recent months, some bars and restaurants in Baltimore have exploited a section of state law that allows certain forms of gambling - raffles, bingo, carnival games and paddle wheels - if a permit is obtained from police and the games are used to raise money for charity.

Bar and restaurant owners caught hosting illegal poker nights have said they were confused and that they figured they could have poker tournaments if they had gambling permits.

The city liquor board sent out a letter of explanation and warning to more than 1,400 licensees this year. At least two bars and restaurants that were found to be in violation of the law in recent months have been cited and fined, said the chief liquor inspector, Samuel T. Daniels Jr.

Daniels said the number of poker nights has fallen but that he suspects many of them are being played at underground clubs such as the one at the Owl's Nest. Because the club didn't have a liquor license, Daniels said, his inspectors didn't visit the site.

"When there is money to be made, I'm convinced someone is doing it," Daniels said.

Police said they executed a search warrant at the Owl's Nest, in the 1800 block of Worcester St., after receiving complaints.

"This was a planned and well-orchestrated raid," said Sgt. Craig Gentile, a vice detective who led the raid. "Everyone that was there cooperated."

Gentile said no money was taken from tournament participants, only from the "bank," and that the illegal alcohol seized was turned over to the comptroller's office. Other city and state agencies are looking into the poker club's business practices, he said, and other charges could follow.

A list of players cited by police was not immediately available yesterday. Most will appear in court in December or January, Gentile said, and could receive a year in jail or a $1,200 fine.

A licensed Sig Sauer 9 mm handgun was seized from a retired police officer, not from the city, who was at the club, Gentile said

The club's operators could be charged with multiple counts of gambling and liquor violations, he said, and two waitresses at the casino could be charged with liquor violations. Nine poker dealers were also swept up in the raid and could face criminal charges.

The men police identified as the club's operators, Dickens and Cary, could not be reached for comment last night.

The Owl's Nest, just south of M&T Bank Stadium, is the last building on a dark and secluded dead-end street.

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