Thursday, May 24, 2012

Eight-liner case turned on technology, video

Waco – As the case against Raed Alzreiqi progressed, the prosecution showed item after item of evidence on a large screen.

Video of the gambling parlor operator unspooled before jurors' eyes as undercover detectives of the Waco police pointed out his actions and those of his “attendants” with the red, squiggly dot of a laser pen.

The officers appeared at the points on the tape mentioned in the droning series of questions and answers, pointed to the items of evidence they obtained such as money they were paid when their keno numbers or slot machine spins came up winners, and identified the items in evidence bags they logged into the property room.

They said of the currency inside the little transparent bags, “I recognize my handwriting,” when asked how they knew it was the evidence they deposited therein on any certain day.

In each case, Assistant DA Chris Bullagian would ask them, “At any point, did the he offer you to pick out any of the stuffed animals?” The answer in every case was, “No.”

The point is that the violation of the Texas Penal Code under examination makes the distinction that a gambling device or any scheme involving games of skill or chance are perfectly legal – unless money changes hands when one “wins.”

At that point, the offense involved becomes a Class C misdemeanor for the player and a Class A misdemeanor offense for the one who is operating the game, neither of which are punishable by time in prison. The maximum penalty is either 6 months in the county lockup, or a year in confinement and fines of $2,000 and $4,000 respectively.

If a winner is rewarded with a prize of a decorative pewter platter or a fuzzy stuffed rabbit, it's perfectly legal unless the “gift” is more than 10 times the worth of the original wager.

In the testimony elicited from the women who ran the “General Mart” at 1808 W. Waco Dr. during the months between late December 2009 and the day the police served the search warrant in August of 2011, no one recalled a gambler selecting any of the loud, flashy, tawdry merchandise that has lain so many years in the glass display cases of the gambling parlor.

The marginality of the neighborhood and the commercial property itself is accentuated by the obvious squalor and general filth made so obvious by the unpitying glare of the video cameras and digital still photographs snapped at the time.

The people sitting around in little swivel chairs before the shabbily constructed electronic slot machines don't look like they were having all that good a time at their wagers – at least not at the moment when their freedom was up in the air. None of them were arrested.

There is little glamor to be obtained in a place like 1808 W. Waco Dr. Gamblers are treated to free soft drinks and bags of chips and other snacks as they play.

There are the pictures of such items as two pharmacy bottles of Hydrocodone pain pills, a subcompact semi-auto pistol in a drawer, and the stacks and stacks of spiral-bound notebooks chronicling the amount paid “IN” on each machine, and the equally laconic amounts penned in backslanted feminine handwriting, the amounts paid “OUT” on any given day.

Notes were kept on the liberality of the pay-outs of the machines, noting that machine number so and so of the total of 13 shabbily constructed computer monitors housed in flat black painted cabinets made of particle board, was doing “awesome!” - or the occasional missive, “Not worth Sh_t!” when the figure is preceded by a minus sign. That means the establishment paid out more to winners than the machine took in.

Perhaps the moment that crystallized the presentation of evidence and testimony came when a detective identified a Western Union credit slip for an international wire transfer of money to foreign shores. The document showed that Mr. Alzreiqi sent $500 out of the country, tax free.

The faces of the jurors, all of whom wore the casual costumes of hard-working men and women, seemed to turn to stone when they saw that bit of evidence, a cash register tape blown up to many times its actual size, depicted on the big screen in the dimminished lighting of the courtroom.

Therein lies the evidence that could send Mr. Alzreiqi to the insitutional division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Had no money changed hands on winning and losing wagers, he would have been involved in a perfectly legal pursuit. Similarly, had the estabishment been operated by, or by the agent of, a non-profit fraternal, religious or civic organization, gambling for money
would have been no violation of the law.

In fact, they were chosen for their ability to remember the faces of others among the ranks of the steady players. Only they were paid in cash. Persons unknown to them were paid in “gift certificates,” a wager that gave them little incentive to keep coming back.

When consulted about the nature of the organized crime statute under which Mr. Alzreiqi was prosecuted, Section 71.02 of the Texas Penal Code, his defense counsel said with a grim smile, “My problem with all this is that out of all the people involved in all this, he (Mr. Alzrieqi) is the only one who is being prosecuted.”

The jurors were charged to make two findings on two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity. Did the defendant engage in illegal gambling activity in a combination with two or more others?

Their answer to both questions was - yes.

As he awaited the verdict, Mr. Alzreiqi, a slightly built man with an olive complexion and pronounced Eurasian features, asked defense counsel Doug Henager if he could leave for awhile.

Mr. Henager patiently explained that he was free to go, but that if the jurors sent a note out to the judge asking a question, or if they suddenly returned with a verdict, he would have to be available. He was told not to go too far away. The time was 4 p.m.

And so, the kingpin of the “combination” spent his last few minutes of freedom for the foreseeable future sitting utterly alone on a bench in the third-floor rotunda of McLennan County's rococo 19th century palace of justice. The felony offense is punishable by not more than 10 years imprisonment or less than two, a $10,000 fine, and/or both.

Asked if one could make a snapshot of him, he replied with a polite smile, “I am thinking I do not like this very much.” The jury returned their verdict at 4:30, within 15 minutes after taking a restroom break and reassembling in the jury deliberation room.

The prosecutor had earlier estimated each machine had a net yield after expenses of about $24,000 per month - for a gross of more than a half million dollars per year in positive, untaxed cash flow.  

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