MUSKEGON, MI – A woman convicted of operating illegal casinos at Internet cafés she owned says the state got it wrong – that she was offering no-risk sweepstakes to lure in customers.
Susan Zitka, 54, of Muskegon was convicted of six felonies, along with her husband Bruce Zitka. The convictions – three for operating illegal casinos and three for using a computer to commit a felony – were handed down by a jury last week in Ingham County Circuit Court.
The Zitkas owned three Internet cafes in Muskegon County, opening Lucky Mouse in Fruitport Township in 2012, Fast Lane in Egelston Township in 2013 and Landing Strip in Norton Shores in 2014.
Susan Zitka said the locations were chosen to serve residents who didn’t have reliable Internet service. The “sweepstakes” – through the Internet site “sweepstopia.com” – were a way to draw customers in, she said.
The cafes offered computers with Internet service that customers paid $20 per hour to use, she said. Customers would use the computers to pay bills, do homework and even research genealogy, she said.
They also could choose to play Sweepstopia games that had pre-set sweepstakes prizes of up to $4,000 and for which customers didn’t pay anything, she said. Those winning more than $600 were given tax forms to fill out, Zitka said.
She said she researched online sweepstakes games before landing on Sweepstopia, and her company paid tens of thousands of dollars to offer them to customers.
The games were designed to appear to be casino games that people could play, but they also could just hit a button for an “instant reveal” of their prize, Zitka said. Unlike gambling, the customers paid no money and the games had pre-determined outcomes, Zitka claimed. She said it was not unlike sweepstakes offered at such places as McDonalds restaurants.
“Everything was above board,” she said, adding that she had called the state to make sure they were not violating any laws.
In 2015, the city of Norton Shores brought civil action against Susan Zitka and Chuck Alstrom, identified as a co-owner, seeking to shut down the Landing Strip. That suit was dismissed with an order by Muskegon County Circuit Judge William Marietti that the owners don’t offer any illegal gambling, take down “win big money” advertising signs, and that they agreed to testify in cases involving illegal gambling at Internet cafes, court records show.
Following that dismissal, the Michigan Gaming Control Board launched an investigation into the cafés that resulted in criminal charges against the Zitkas brought in 2016 by the Michigan Attorney General in Ingham County.
During the investigation, the state froze the Zitkas’ personal and business bank accounts, placed a lien on their home and even seized their automobile, Susan Zitka said. That made it difficult for the Zitkas to launch a defense, she said. Their problems were compounded when the judge refused to allow eight of the Zitkas’ witnesses to testify, she said.
“Our life is a mess. For three years we have been dealing with this with no money,” she said. “You can’t fight. You can’t live. You can’t survive.”
The Zitkas – Bruce Zitka is a long-time former Orchard View school board member – will be sentenced June 12 by Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. Each of the six felonies is punishable by up to 10 years in prison; sentences generally are served concurrently.
At sentencing, the Zitkas also will forfeit their home – purchased long before the cafes were opened — and bank accounts, Susan Zitka said. Such forfeitures are typical in plea deals and that’s why they didn’t offer up a plea, she said.
“For three years, we have not understood why they came after us so hard,” she said. “The only thing that makes sense is they wanted to take all of our money, our home, everything.”
The Zitkas plan to appeal their convictions.