Several business owners charged with operating illegal gaming machines in Havelock are blaming the city for issuing them licenses to operate the games in the first place.
“It wasn’t fair,” said Miteshkumar Vinodbhai Mistry, owner of the U.S. Mini Mart, where two Internet gaming machines were seized during Oct. 17 raids on several city businesses.
Mistry said had he known the machine was illegal, he would have taken it out. Instead, he was one of eight people to be issued a criminal summons in the case that police said in a news release was part of an 11-month investigation.
Mistry faces one count of operating or possessing a slot machine. He and the others are due in court on Dec. 19.
His business was one of several raided on Oct. 17 in which more than 300 pieces of evidence were collected.
“If they would have given us a warning, we would have took it out,” Mistry said. “They just came in and said you have illegal machines in the store and took the money and the machines with them.”
He later received a phone call and went to the Havelock Police Department to pick up his court summons.
Mistry said he paid $1,000 in license fees, $500 each for his two machines, to the city on June 28. At that point, police would have already been six months into its investigation into the gaming machines, according to its timeline in its Oct. 17 press release, yet the city continued to issue licenses for additional machines.
Gajendrabhai Patel, owner of Food Fare, said through an interpreter that he had paid $1,500 in fees to the city, including $500 for one machine on Oct. 13, just four days before police showed up at his West Main Street business with a search warrant. He is charged with one count of operating or possessing a slot machine.
Patel said through his interpreter that he would not have operated the machines if he had not paid a license for them or if he had known they were illegal.
“If he would have known they were coming, he would have left the machines inside and put a sign up that said out of order,” interpreter Pete Naik said.
Patel said through Naik that the machines were rarely used.
“It was not frequently, just once in a blue moon,” he said.
Attorney Marc Chesnutt represents Gloria Bergman, who, as owner of Jean’s Place at 330 East Main St., is charged with one count of operating or possessing a slot machine and one count of allowing gambling in a public house.
Though he doesn’t represent Patel, Chesnutt said that Patel paid a $500 license fee to the city just four days before the search warrants were executed shows unfairness on the part of Havelock.
“They took a $500 licensing fee on Oct. 13, which is four days before they went in there and raided his place,” Chesnutt said. “Judge Nobles signed a search warrant on Oct. 17. Four days after they took his money, the offense was committed. They took the money on Oct. 13. They said it was an offense on Oct. 17.”
Chesnutt questioned how the city could take money and issue licenses if police thought the machines were illegal.
“I wouldn’t have thought that the city would have taken the money if they thought they were getting fees for something that was illegal,” Chesnutt said. “They got the money and four days later they raided them.”
As for Bergman, Chesnutt said that had she known the machine she was operating was illegal, she would have corrected the issue.
“I know she’s law abiding,” Chesnutt said. “She runs her business in a law-abiding way, so if she had had the opportunity she would have attempted to avoid any prosecution. She would never attempt to violate the law intentionally.”
Havelock collected $32,500 in gaming license fees in the last fiscal year, according to the city.
Havelock Police Chief G. Wayne Cyrus said he is reserving any statement until the court dates on Dec. 19.
“I’m holding true to what I’ve said all along: The charges were brought based on the evidence that we found during the investigation and we’re not going to comment any further on it,” Cyrus said.
City Attorney Troy Smith said District Attorney Scott Thomas brought the charges, and that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
“Everybody who has been anywhere close to the sweepstakes business knows that that critical piece in that litigation was the only thing that was holding everybody off, and once that litigation was resolved, they knew they were illegal,” he said.
Also charged in the case were:
-- Benjamin Edwards, of Greenville, who faces 21 counts of operating or possessing a slot machine and two charges of possessing an electronic sweepstakes machine.
-- Greg Muse, of New Bern, who faces 15 charges of manufacturing or selling slot machines for renting his machines to other locations and one charge of possessing a slot machine.
-- Ninad Narendrakumar Patel, who is charged with operating or possessing a slot machine at Super Expressway.
-- William Rhodes, who faces two charges of manufacturing or selling slot machines for renting or leasing his machines to Friends Billiards and Pub.
-- John Miriani, who is facing one charge of operating or possessing a slot machine and one charge of allowing gambling at a public house, Friends Billiards and Pub.