RAYMONDVILLE — A new Willacy County task force has raided two Sebastian eight-liner arcades, arresting nine employees and seizing $45,000 in cash.
The task force raided the Travieso Game Room, 13088 FM 506 and the Sizzling 777,200 West Main St. at about 7:10 p.m. Saturday, Sheriff Larry Spence said yesterday.
Arrested at the Travieso Game Room were Marcela Caballero, 46, of San Benito; Michelle Hernandez, 27, of San Benito; Jose Ramon Moreno, 42, of San Benito; Miguel Angel Aguirre, 23, of Rio Grande City; and Laura Morales, 27, of Rio Grande City.
At the Sizzling 777, authorities arrested Eduardo Garcia, 44, of Port Isabel; Jesus Pedraza, 31, of Harlingen; Amy Gomez, 34, of Raymondville; and Vanessa Salazar, 20, of Raymondville.
An undercover operation found the game rooms were illegally paying out cash prizes.
A judge set bail ranging from $3,000 to $30,000 on the employees charged with crimes ranging from felonies to misdemeanors, including gambling promotion, keeping gambling place, possession of gambling devices, engaging in organized crime and money laundering.
Gomez and Salazar also face felony charges of tampering with evidence.
Authorities seized $45,000 in cash and 230 machines, Spence said.
The U.S. Border Patrol also detained nine undocumented immigrants in the raids.
Lyford Police Chief Andres Maldonado said he believed undocumented immigrants detained in the raid of the Travieso Game Room were players.
Authorities targeted Sebastian after about 10 eight-liner arcades opened there in about the last two years, Spence said.
“We want to start in Sebastian because that’s where the problem is,” he said.
For months, Stanley Gonzales and other residents complained about the game rooms opening in the small, rural community, drawing players from across the region.
“I’m grateful,” Gonzales, a retired college instructor, said about the raids. “It’s a start.”
The raids marked the first on the county’s game rooms since May, when authorities raided a Lyford eight-liner arcade.
The task force might launch more raids, Spence said.
“For some time, we’ve been getting complaints,” Spence said. “If we keep getting complaints, this will continue.”
A warning to all
Spence warned property owners against renting their buildings to eight-liner businesses.
“If someone is leasing property to these people, we might start seizing property,” Spence said.
Spence said authorities worked about three weeks to plan the raids.
District Attorney Annette Hinojosa suggested local law enforcement agencies, many short-staffed, team up to launch the new Willacy County Special Crimes Task Force, Spence said.
The task force is made up of the sheriff’s department, the Raymondville and Lyford police departments and the district attorney’s office.
“We didn’t have the manpower individually so she suggested working together as a team,” Spence said.
How it happened
Spence said the agencies entered the two game rooms at about 7:10 p.m.
“We secured the security guards, took their weapons and everyone went in,” he said.
Spence said the raids sent customers of the community’s other game rooms into the streets while residents looked on.
“It turned into the biggest traffic jam you ever saw in downtown Sebastian,” he said. “It was almost like a parade. It was bumper to bumper traffic. It took 45 minuets to get that cleared up.”
The raids came about three weeks after county commissioners ordered a 30-day moratorium on the issuance of game room building permits in the county’s unincorporated areas.
The moratorium gives the county 30 days “to address issues related to public safety and public hazards,” commissioners said after meeting in closed session with Hinojosa.
For years, Spence has called on commissioners to approve an ordinance regulating eight-liner arcades in the county’s unincorporated areas.
How we got here
Last July, commissioners held a town hall meeting in which Gonzales called on commissioners to consider approving an ordinance based on a law the state Legislature drafted specifically for Willacy and Harris counties in 2014.
The law would allow the county to cite illegal game room owners and their employees with fines of up to $10,000 per violation.
It would also require distances between game rooms, neighborhoods, schools and churches; prohibit tinted windows and require signs clearly identifying the businesses as game rooms.
In 2014, Harris County commissioners unanimously approved the law known as House Bill 2123.
But before an audience with ties to game rooms, Willacy County’s previous commission scrapped the law that then-County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. tried to turn into a county ordinance.
Three months after commissioners scrapped the bill, a game room opened in Raymondville Plaza.
Soon, eight-liner arcades began popping up across Raymondville.
In response, Raymondville city commissioners approved a tough ordinance pushing most game rooms out of town.
That’s when eight-liner arcades began popping up in Sebastian.
The Travieso Game Room and the Sizzling 777
Nine employee arrests
Charges include gambling promotion, keeping gambling place, possession of gambling devises, engaging in organized crime, money laundering
Willacy County Special Crimes Task Force
The Raymondville Police Department
The Lyford Police Departments
The district attorney’s office