Seized slot machines symptom of larger problem, authorities say

The recent seizure of dozens of illegal slot machines, at what appears to be an otherwise legitimate business, highlights the seedier underside of California’s billion-dollar gambling industry, according to authorities.

More than 80 illegal Japanese slot machines were seized at Ace Casino Rentals, in the 100 block of Starlite Street, in South San Francisco last month, following a three-month investigation, according to the Division of Gambling Control in the state Department of Justice. A court date has been set for next month in San Mateo County Superior Court, where Ace Casino operators Larry and Connie Hegre are expected to face charges of illegal possession of slot machines, authorities said.

“Slot machines are illegal in California,” said Marty Horan, special agent in charge with the state Division of Gambling Control. California law requires slot owners to register with the state and limits them to doing business with Indian casinos or in states where gambling is legal, Horan said.

Connie Hegre referred all questions to her attorney, who didn’t return a call for comment. Ace Casino, like other casino rental companies, offers to rent everything from blackjack and baccarat tables, to roulette and card dealers for parties. The company has been operating 25 years in the Bay Area and uses “‘play money,’ no real money and chips,” according to its Web site.

A similar-sized bust out of San Francisco occurred a couple of years ago when investigators encountered a vendor trying to hawk an illegal slot machine at a Cow Palace gun show, said Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the state attorney general. Authorities tracked the man back to Palmdale, where they were able to seize about 80 slots, Barankin said.

Even larger seizures of slots have occurred in Sacramento, San Joaquin and Amador counties, but the largest,by far, was 1,500 machines in Los Angeles County in December, Barankin said.

While legal gambling — largely run by Indian tribes — raked in an about $5 billion in 2004 in California, estimating the size of the state’s illegal gambling problem has so far proved impossible to get a handle on. That is largely because those who sell and run illegal slot machines, basement card rooms and private casinos, do all they can to operate in the dark, Barankin said.

Since the Division of Gambling Control began operating in 2000, seizures have held steady, with the agency tallying at least one major bust of 100 to 300 machines each year, Barankin said. “These are machines that are not destined for legal use in Indian casinos, Las Vegas or Reno,” he said. “A lot of times they’re sold for personal entertainment in private homes or used to set up shadow, illegal gambling operations.”

ecarpenter@examiner.comartsbooksLocal

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