SWANSEA — ONLINE
SLED agents are investigating ownership of more than 750 video poker machines seized in an old warehouse in southern Lexington County.
The more than 750 machines were discovered early Monday morning by Swansea police and Lexington County firefighters after they responded to a report of a possible fire at the warehouse, said Thom Berry, a spokesman for the State Law Enforcement Division.
The police and firefighters never saw smoke or flames, but they did notice water running from the building, Berry said. After calling the town water department, they learned water service had been disconnected.
The police found an unlocked side door and went inside, Berry said. Once the Swansea authorities saw the rows of poker machines, they called SLED.
Swansea Magistrate Scott Whittle declared the machines were illegal. Now, the owners of the machines have 15 days to contest Whittle’s decision. If they do not challenge the ruling, the machines will be destroyed, said Adam Whitsett, an attorney in the S.C. Attorney General’s Office who prosecutes video poker cases.
Video poker was outlawed in South Carolina in 2000. In 2012, the gambling industry tried to sneak it back into the state by calling the games “sweepstakes” and arguing they were offering people who were buying internet time the chance to win prizes.
Attorney General Alan Wilson and SLED Chief Mark Keel said the sweepstakes games were illegal, and the S.C. General Assembly changed state law earlier this year to clarify that sweepstakes are illegal.
Tuesday’s Swansea raid was an example of how people continue to try to operate video poker machines in South Carolina. One machine can earn thousands of dollars in a week, and law enforcement officials have said the big profits make the risk worthwhile for operators.
“It just shows it’s a never-ending battle right now,” Whitsett said.
As of Tuesday evening, no one had been charged for possessing the machines. Agents were continuing to investigate the case, including determining the machines’ owners and where they had planned to operate them.
The machines were being stored in a former garment manufacturing building. The plant has been closed since the 1960s, but its space had been rented out for storage for several years, Berry said
Most recently, a business license for the building had been issued in June to Swansea Bond Storage for the building’s address, an undercover SLED agent said.
The property ownership is listed as GLR LLC and C.H. Chen, according to records at the Lexington County register of deeds.
GLR was a real estate holding company owned by Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, real estate agent Richard Brady and Larry Pyle, who owns a Columbia jewelry and coin shop. Chen bought a third interest in the property in 2006, county deeds office records show.
Watts said he and Brady sold their interest in the building in the spring to Pyle. Efforts to reach Pyle and Chen, who was not part of the original partnership, were unsuccessful.
“The building was in such bad shape, we didn’t want the liability on it,” Watts said.
Watts said he did not know about the video poker machines or SLED’s raid until a reporter called. Watts said the previous tenant left and the building was empty just before he sold his interest.
The plant is at the end of South Brecon Avenue, off U.S. 321, where one man lives nearby in a tent and another man lives in an RV.
Chuck McTheeney, who lives in the RV and owns a collision repair garage across the street from the old plant, said he had heard the building recently had been rented out for storage but he didn’t know who was using it.
He had noticed for several weeks that white delivery trucks were pulling up after dark.
“I never saw a person,” McTheeney said. “They were careful about that. Now, I know why.”
Whoever rented the building had built a plywood wall on the loading dock so no one could see what was being taken into the building.
Inside, hundreds of machines were lined side by side in two large, open areas. Some were in various stages of disrepair with notes taped to the front on what needed to be fixed.
For example, one machine had a blue Post-it note on the front saying the bill acceptor had been updated so that $5 bought 100 credits.
Others appeared to be newly built cabinets in need of the electronic components. Boxes of components such as computer chips and video monitors were stacked on the floor.
Some machines had license and tax stamps from other states, including Florida, Alabama and Texas.
In several cases, SLED agents peeled off “sweepstakes” labels to find old Pot-O-Gold name plates. Pot-O-Gold was the original video poker machine in South Carolina, Whitsett said.
There also were a few classic slot machines with levers on the side.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.