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Alligator

Internet cafe raided over potential violation of recent state gambling law

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Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 2:15 am

Gainesville Police raided a local Internet cafe Tuesday after an investigation showed it could have been operating in violation of a recently passed Florida law.

At about 1:30 p.m., detectives gathered inside Gators Hot Spot Sweepstakes, located at 2109 NW 13th St.

Two hours later, they loaded more than 50 computers into the bed of a pickup truck to investigate for a possible violation of Florida Statute 849, which recently banned paying to play games for cash prizes at establishments such as Internet cafes.

After several weeks of investigation, detectives gathered enough information to bring a case before a judge, who then issued a search warrant, said GPD Lt. Will Halvosa.

Officers didn’t make any arrests Tuesday, Halvosa said. However, the business owners could face two felony charges — keeping a gambling house and playing prohibited lottery — as well as charges of playing games by chance and operating illegal slot machines, both misdemeanors.

About a week before the warrant was served, manager Stacey Westbrook, 24, explained to the Alligator how the business operated. Patrons would pay for Internet access, which came with free entries to play games installed on the business’ computers, similar to how the cafe operated before the law.

The key differences post-statute, Westbrook said, were that each game revealed how much money a player would win on the next turn and that the winnings were predetermined by the game’s programming, thus taking the chance factor out of the games.

“You’re gonna get what you’re gonna get,” she said, comparing it to the popular McDonald’s lottery game, where restaurant patrons pull tabs off menu items and collect the pieces to win prizes.

The games also don’t involve skill. To play another turn, patrons just click a button on the bottom corner of the screen.

But, “people love it,” Westbrook said.

As she explained the games, patrons sat with their faces bathed in a bluish glow, clicking to play the next round, buying more Internet access or switching games.

“It’s just a mindless gesture,” said 52-year-old Donna Libby, playing Aqua Splash, one of the newest and most popular games.

Libby said much of the excitement accompanying the game came from the gambling aspect when she didn’t know how much she would win. However, she said, she still enjoys playing — that it’s something to do on a slow afternoon.

Just before the detectives came out with stacks of confiscated computers Tuesday, Libby drove up, cellphone in hand. She predicted many of the cafe’s regular patrons will do what they did in the hiatus between the law going into effect and the opening of Gators Hot Spot: catch a bus south to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino.

She was one of many who drove cars, rode bikes and walked up to the business hoping to use computers on the day of the raid. They gathered in the parking lot with their windows down, yelling back and forth to decipher the story and phoning their friends to share the news.

Roger Scott, 48, had ridden his bike to the cafe, prepared to redeem his access card which had $10 left over from his last visit.

But Lt. Halvosa said police won’t deal with patrons’ outstanding credit.

“It’s something they’ll have to handle with the business,” he said.

Aside from losing some money, Scott agreed with many other regulars that the cafe was an outlet away from home.

“It was something to keep you out of trouble,” he said. “People got to have somewhere to go.”

A version of this story ran on page 1 on 9/18/2013 under the headline "Internet cafe on 13th raided"

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