Documents obtained by The Record show that the St. Augustine Police Department is currently pursuing gambling charges against several people for operating internet cafes, also known as adult gaming facilities.
According to documents and interviews with SAPD officers, the police department has forwarded charges of keeping a gambling house and offering an illegal lottery against nine people to the State Attorney’s Office. Some of the businesses named in the documents are currently closed.
Internet cafes have been a source of controversy for years in Florida. The term “internet cafe” is often used for adult gaming establishments where people can play games to win prizes, including money. Lawmakers have grappled with regulating the businesses, and some have been shut down over the years.
A recent court decision could lead to prosecution of more internet cafe cases.
Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal upheld a decision that “pre-reveal” games, called Version 67, are illegal slot machines because they involve chance and an outcome that the user can’t affect and can’t predict, according to a News Service of Florida article. Also, people can win money by playing them.
The court “described Version 67 as (a) ‘profitable game that depicts traditional slot machine symbols, such as reels; it takes $1 to $20 bills; and the amount of return to the player varies by the amount of money played,” according to the article. They also provide a preview to let users know the outcome of each game, but the outcomes are randomly generated by the machine by chance.
Also, “While it is true that the user is advised of the outcome of the game at hand ahead of time through the preview feature, the user cannot predict that outcome until it is randomly generated and then displayed by the machine. Nor can the user predict the outcome of Game 2 while playing Game 1,” the court found.
The court recently declined to rehear the case. But it could still be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
‘This is nuts’
The news of the charges pending against local internet cafe owners was a surprise to some named in documents when contacted by The Record this month, including Fred Woodrick. He received authorization to open his business from the city of St. Augustine, he said. He sold his business in June and says he was not aware of possible charges.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Woodrick said. “That’s all I know. This is nuts.”
Some have criticized the city for allowing internet cafes to open and operate in the first place, saying they attract crime and are essentially illegal gambling establishments. Others say the businesses are legal.
St. Johns County government stopped issuing business permits for internet cafes, but the city treats the cafes like any other business that asks for authorization to operate. City Attorney Isabelle Lopez said in a previous interview that the city doesn’t look into whether an operation would be legal when deciding to issue a permit.
With several of the facilities now operating within city limits, City Manager John Regan said this week the city is looking into ways to regulate the cafes.
“We really do not want to see the proliferation of internet cafes,” he said. “Frankly, we’d like to see a reduction.”
For several months, the St. Augustine Police Department has been investigating the establishments, according to Assistant Police Chief Anthony Cuthbert.
The State Attorney’s Office — which will decide whether to pursue the cases presented by SAPD — was still investigating the city’s allegations as of Friday, according Bryan Shorstein, spokesman for the office.
The police department has forwarded charges of keeping a gambling house and offering an illegal lottery against the following businesses and individuals (some of the businesses have since closed):
• Woodrick, 60, of Deland; Lucky Shamrocks Game Room at 3149 N. Ponce de Leon Blvd. in St. Augustine.
• Michael Wood, 52, of Cocoa; Aunti Up’s Internet Café at 1690 U.S. 1 South.
• Robert Weber, 31, of Neptune Beach; Hips Internet Center at 1092 S. Ponce de Leon Blvd.
• Philip Smith, 35, of St. Johns County; Smitty’s at 74 Masters Drive in St. Augustine.
• Ashish Mehta, 54, of St. Johns County; Blue Mermaid at 69 South Dixie Highway in St. Augustine.
• Sandra Helton, 52, of Putnam County; Winners Sweepstakes at 2303 N. Ponce de Leon Blvd.
• Thomas Douros, 48, of Miami Gardens; Big Deal Buys at 100 Center Creek Road in St. Augustine.
• Deepak Bajaj, 43, of Warner Robins, Georgia; Twin City at 3501 N. Ponce de Leon Blvd. in St. Augustine.
• Arturo de Castroverde, 63, of St. Augustine; Rosy’s Too at 804 Anastasia Blvd. in St. Augustine.
Messages left by The Record seeking comment from many of the owners were not returned as of Friday; Bajaj answered the phone but declined to comment. Mehta said he sold his internet cafe business before the city’s investigation began, and he doesn’t know why the police are pursuing charges. (Detective Michal Ochkie said records showed he still owned the business at the time of the investigation.)
Smith believes that his game room is legal, his attorney Kelly Mathis said.
Mathis said there are many misunderstandings and misapplications of gambling laws when it comes to game rooms.
“It’s a legal issue of where exactly is the line between a legal game room that is allowed under Florida law versus illegal gambling,” Mathis said. “(Smith is) kind of caught in the crosshairs of that legal debate. We do not believe that he’s guilty of gambling. He’s been very open. Law enforcement has been in his location many times. They’ve investigated. Now all if the sudden they claim it’s illegal.”
He added that state law “isn’t as simple as looking and saying it looks like it’s gambling so it must be gambling.”
(Mathis, a Jacksonville attorney who represented the Allied Veterans of the World internet cafes and once faced a criminal conviction that was later overturned, had his law license reinstated by the Florida Supreme Court in 2017.)
In the meantime, the case that recently went before the Florida Supreme Court still leaves room for some confusion.
“That case does answer a lot of questions,” 7th Judicial Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza said. “It basically says, (for) those [Version 67] machines, it’s OK to prosecute.”
But it’s unclear what kind of machines local internet cafes are using.
Candidates weigh in
The internet cafe issue has also made it to local elections.
A candidate for Seat Five on the St. Augustine Commission candidate, Chris Ellis says he supports the city instituting a ban on internet cafes.
According to City Attorney Lopez, the city has the ability to institute zoning regulations for internet cafes, which are not separately defined in City Code. She added that there is a risk of litigation with any new land development restriction.
Ellis said he’s also concerned about internet cafes having a negative impact on property values and sparking an increase in crime. While there have been some crimes associated with some cafes, there hasn’t been a spike in crime related to internet cafes, according to Cuthbert.
But Ellis puts the blame for the proliferation of the cafes within city limits at the feet of the city’s five commissioners. “No one on the city commission has been willing to enforce state law,” Ellis said. “That changes if I am elected.”
Incumbent Seat Five Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline said the city has been attentive to the issue, but the legal issues are not simple. She has been in contact with law enforcement and other city officials about people’s concerns, she said.
“I don’t want the illegal (activity) going on in the city, period,” Sikes-Kline said. “So if there is a portion of these establishments that is legal, let them occur. I understand there are some people that enjoy the games that are played within the establishments.”