An illegal gambling device at a Northeast Pennsylvania convenience store in Hazelton was connected to a clerk’s murder on Dec. 12, 2020. Video poker devices, classified as slot machines, are only legal in PA casinos.
Meanwhile, how many illegal gambling devices are in play beyond PA casinos’ walls is impossible to track.
But those machines now clearly outnumber legal machines.
Regulated casino slot and video poker machines number 24,000. Truck stop video gaming terminals, or VGTs account for another 240 machines.
Peter Shelly of the casino industry group Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling (PAIG) said, “Illegal gambling is getting out of hand, and we are seeing the results around the state: more crime.”
“The shooting in Hazleton was horrific and the (Luzerne County) District Attorney made it very clear that the defendant robbed that store because of that illegal machine. He had played the illegal machine and knew they kept cash behind the counter.”
The murder happened when legal casino machines were shut down
Ironically, the murder happened the same day casinos and their licensed poker machines and slots were ordered closed for a second time by the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jafet Rodriguez had routinely played video poker at Clark’s Market on West Broad Street. Apparently, he would “lose and then win thousands of dollars,” including the day he allegedly murdered Ashokkumar Patel.
In an emotional quavering voice, the former Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie J. Salavantis briefly mentioned the poker machine during a press conference – at the 4:16 mark of this Fox56 tape – a month after the shooting as she announced a felony murder charge against Rodriguez.
By the time of her Jan. 12 press conference, Rodriguez was already in custody on unrelated drug charges. He’d previously been federally convicted on charges of smuggling exotic parrots worth $10,000 from Canada to Vermont.
The suspect knew where illegal video poker money was kept
Salavantis, a three-time DA who has since resigned to run for a judgeship, added Rodriguez knew where the money was kept as a result of his video poker play at the store.
As he lay dying, Patel crawled from a closet where he was executed to his cell phone and called 911. But he was unable to speak, according to the DA.
Besides murdering the clerk in cold blood with shots to the head and throat, Rodriguez is charged with taking $14,000 from behind the store’s counter.
Store owner Neal Craig could not be reached for comment. Current Luzerne DA Samuel Sanguedolce, his predecessor, Salavantis, and the Hazelton Police did not respond to requests for comment about the illegal gambling device.
‘People’s AG’ stays mum on the illegal gambling device issue
Also failing to respond to requests for comment was PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro‘s office. Shapiro refers to himself as “the people’s AG.” The Democrat recently admitted to Philadelphia Magazine he is positioning himself to run for governor.
PlayPennsylvania reported last June that Shapiro’s office had stopped enforcement efforts against unlicensed gambling devices known as “skills games.”
His office said at the time:
“The question of whether ‘skill games’ are legal is currently pending before the Commonwealth Court and OAG is representing State Police and the Department of Revenue in that litigation. While we continue to maintain that “skill games” are illegal, as an agency, we have elected not to actively seize machines until the Commonwealth Court provides guidance on the issue.”
The court resolution remains for the future, and a divided legislature has taken no actions.
A murky gray area
At issue is the status of a device made by the PA-based Pace-O-Matic company, or POM, trademarked as a “Pennsylvania Skill” machine.
One court ruling found the machines require an element of skill and thus are not subject to existing laws governing slots. Another court ruled otherwise, creating a gray area.
Compounding enforcement problems, other device makers are selling machines they also refer to as skills machines.
Enforcement has been slow, spotty, and sporadic. County district attorneys, not the AG’s office, are leading crackdowns during the law enforcement vacuum created by Shapiro’s stance.
Illegal gambling machines are numerous in PA
The chief law enforcement officer of a suburban Philadelphia county made an extraordinary claim during a recent interview with PlayPennsylvania. Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a suburban area bordering Philadelphia, contains “more than 20,000 illegal gaming devices,” he said.
By contrast, legal slots and video machines in all PA casinos combined number just 24,000 at full operation. But for much of the past year, casinos were shut down or running at limited capacity. That meant only about 15,000 to 18,000 casino slot devices were in use when casinos were open.
So by Stollsteimer’s count, illegal machines in just his one county outnumbered the aggregate number of legal machines operating during the pandemic in 12 casinos throughout the entire state of PA.
“That’s exactly right,” said Stollsteimer.
It’s impossible to extrapolate the statewide number of unlicensed devices from one county’s experience. However, the number of illegal machines is likely staggering.
PA has more than 12.8 million people in 67 counties. They range from Philadelphia with 1.5 million residents to Cameron County with just more than 5,000 people.
Lack of clarity from courts, lack of legislative leadership
Stollsteimer said he agrees with Berks County DA John Adams that Harrisburg’s legislative leadership’s failure is to blame.
“Their complacency on acting on this issue is a disservice to businesses and to the revenue source which could help the commonwealth. Limbo is causing a monumental problem. To sweep this aside is not doing their duty… It is time for the Legislature to act, not to kick the can down the road.”
Stollsteimer said the failure to make clear what is illegal and what is not had allowed the explosion of unlicensed machines “in convenience stores, pizza parlors, and laundromats throughout the Commonwealth.”
Delaware County seized gambling machines recently
The Delco DA spelled out his take in a recent press release announcing the seizure of 13 gambling machines from mini-markets at gas stations in the municipalities of Clifton Heights and East Lansdowne:
“Due to inaction in Harrisburg, these devices are currently unregulated, with no oversight to determine if the machines are operating fairly and no prohibition on minors playing the games. As District Attorney, I am committed to supporting law enforcement in its effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the harms associated with illegal gambling.”
His statement stressed that legal machines are “heavily regulated.” Casino machines have minimum payout requirements and controls preventing underage gambling.
On the other hand, Stollsteimer said the state has never authorized games of skill. “And there are no consumer protections that are in place for other types of gaming devices.”
He additionally stressed lost casino and lottery revenue in an interview with PlayPennsylvania. His office is currently investigating 32 cases.
And yet machines continue to operate across the street
Earlier this week, I visited the mini-mart locations where the machines had been located. It was easy to see the footprint the devices once occupied.
Near the busted Sunoco mini-mart in Clifton Heights, I crossed Baltimore Pike and ducked into a bar/restaurant on a hunch.
Against one wall, plugged in and ready for play, sat three Pennsylvania Skills machines.
Stollsteimer chuckled when I told him. But he did not say if his office was pursuing cases against that brand. He added only that his office is “enforcing the law as it exists.”
April 9 update: PA Skills machine spokesman Mike Barley did not initially respond to a request for comment. He did, however, provide comments after the story was published.
“We are working with lawmakers to regulate and add an additional tax to skill games. These legal games are having a tremendous impact on supporting bars, restaurants, fraternal clubs, like VFWs and American Legions, and other small businesses that were especially hurt during the pandemic.”
He also argued that skill games have not lowered the revenues of the lottery or casinos.
Casino group renews call for enforcement of illegal gambling
Shelly said PAIG, which includes 10 casino companies, hopes for more enforcement. “And start pulling more illegal slot machines out of these stores, bars, and gas stations.”
“The industry continues urging lawmakers to clarify state law and outlaw so-called skills games. Looking ahead, the industry will continue to oppose efforts to expand gaming in the state. PA’s casinos have invested billions in this state, employ more than 20,000 Pennsylvanians, and generate more than $1.5 billion in annual gaming taxes. Putting slot machines, either VGTs or so-called skills games on every street corner will not create any new jobs and will drain gaming tax revenues that the casinos are now providing.”