DUNEDIN — John Hornberger, 45, was reading a newspaper at the Hot Spots Cyber Cafe on Wednesday afternoon as his girlfriend played a computer game.
Suddenly, he heard a noise. Then police broke through the door with a battering ram.
"You know what I said when that happened?" Hornberger asked. " 'Uh oh. This doesn't look good.' "
About 15 Pinellas County deputies in bulletproof vests swarmed in and surrounded about a dozen patrons, Hornberger said. The elderly women in the room looked frightened.
The raid at the strip mall gaming room was one of three in North Pinellas County on Wednesday after an eight-month investigation. Narcotics division deputies netted three arrests, more than 100 computers and $14,000 in cash.
The three men arrested were each charged with one felony count of maintaining a gambling establishment and multiple misdemeanor counts of possessing a coin-operated device.
The men are:
• Zbigniew Skwara, 50, of Tarpon Springs, the owner of the Cyber Pal Cafe on U.S. Highway 19 N in Palm Harbor. He faces 21 charges.
•James Michael Hill, 29, of Davenport, regional manager of the Hot Spot Cyber Center on Bayshore Boulevard in Dunedin. He faces 61 charges.
•Steven George Duke, 52, of Largo, manager of Mike's Internet Cafe on Seminole Blvd. in Largo. He faces 56 charges.
Each business was in operation for at least six months, according to arrest reports. Detectives also seized 139 computers and more than $14,000.
Hornberger said he never played the gaming machines but they were "just like a computer game." The most customers could win was $2,500.
Customers could buy telephone cards or Internet service time which, after being converted into points, could be used to play Vegas-style computer games, according to law officials.
One dollar bought 100 points to play about a dozen bingo, keno or slot games. Points won were then redeemed for cash.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Skwara said he doesn't understand why he was shut down.
"We don't even have a coin-operated machine," he said. "Nobody lost money."
Skwara said he hopes the charges are dropped but doesn't know if the Cyber Pal Cafe will reopen.
Sarah Worcester, an employee at Just Bargains next to the Hot Spot Cyber Center, said she never played but she regularly ate dinner there. Elderly women sometimes sat outside, waiting for a free chair.
Her customers complained and asked if the business was operating legally, Worcester said. The business opened in November after a church moved out.
Worcester said many people won hundreds of dollars. But even more lost — and kept coming back.
She sat outside Thursday afternoon, telling everyone the gaming room was closed. Cars slowed and stopped as the drivers peered in. One elderly woman pulled the door's handle before going back to her car.
Jackie Alexander can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.