Monday, December 18, 2017
Public safety

Complaints spin out of Pinellas Internet cafe cases

PALM HARBOR — The Pinellas sheriff's narcotics division, already under attack for improper tactics in marijuana cases, is now facing criticism in another high-profile case: Internet cafes that authorities say were fronts for gambling.

Pinellas Sheriff's deputies have been accused in court papers of making "factual misrepresentations" to obtain a search warrant for the Palm Harbor Internet Cafe. In one instance, deputies are accused of writing a gambling expert's findings about the cafe — before the expert actually visited it.

Some of the deputies being criticized also have been involved in a series of controversial marijuana arrests, which have led to several internal investigations and reassignments. In some of the grow house cases, deputies were accused of using questionable tactics to obtain search warrants.

Although Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has acknowledged missteps in the marijuana cases, he staunchly defends the office's investigation into Internet cafes.

"These gambling cases are totally different," Gualtieri said.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has targeted Internet cafes since 2009, raiding and closing three cafes last summer and one earlier this year. The investigation into two cases, Palm Harbor Internet Cafe and Talk-N-Surf in Dunedin, has not yielded criminal charges. Charges have been filed against operators of the other two cafes, Reel Fun in Palm Harbor, and Southern Play Arcade near Largo.

The cafes sold Internet time or phone cards to customers who could play casino-style games on computers. The spinning images resembled slot machines, and players won cash.

The cafe owners and their attorneys say this is legal under Florida law, but Gualtieri said he has no doubt "these things are gambling machines."

Defense attorney Adam Regar argued in a motion filed on behalf of Palm Harbor cafe owner Megan Crisante that deputies made "factual misrepresentations" in the affidavit they presented to a judge to get a search warrant.

For example, Regar wrote, deputies made false claims by saying the cafe offered only one service for sale and did not promote it prominently. The deputies said customers going inside the cafe would be overwhelmed by ads to "play sweepstakes and win cash."

That's an important argument because Florida companies are allowed to offer sweepstakes to promote products, like the popular Monopoly game and prizes at McDonald's restaurants. The cafes say they are offering the sweepstakes to promote their phone cards or Internet time, and that it's not flat-out gambling.

Regar says the sheriff's own records disprove the claim that the cafe was only selling a single product.

The motion points to an investigative report written by Detective Jason Bahret, who wrote that he went to the cafe and noted signs in the window mentioning "pre-paid phones," "chargers," "unlimited talk," "full cellular accessories," and "Prepaid Long Distance Phone Cards." He also mentions signs inside promoting a telephone service called "Tel-Connect," which he says "appeared to be professionally made and clearly were placed in clear view for patrons to observe."

These observations appeared in an early draft of an affidavit, but not in the final version that was presented to the judge to get the warrant, the motion says. Regar says in court papers that the only explanation for leaving out this information is that it would have made it harder to get approval for a search warrant, an approach he calls "unlawful."

The changes were ordered by a narcotics sergeant, Jim Wentz, Regar said. The final version was signed by Bahret and his partner, Detective Paul Giovannoni.

The final affidavit also contained a summary of a gambling expert's findings about what went on in the Palm Harbor cafe. Regar discovered a sheriff's document that showed the summary was written before the expert visited the cafe.

Gualtieri, however, said there was nothing improper about the timing.

By the time the summary was created, he said, detectives had visited the cafe and it was understood that if the expert had concluded gambling was not occurring, the summary would either be dropped or rewritten to reflect actual findings.

Giovannoni was one of two lead detectives on indoor marijuana-growing cases stemming from camera surveillance of a Largo hydroponics supply store. He recently made news after donning a Progress Energy Florida uniform "as a ruse" to get close to an alleged grow house — a tactic the sheriff later called appalling.

The other lead grow house detective was Michael Sciarrino. Both Sciarrino and Giovannoni are now on administrative leave and prosecutors have dropped charges against some of the marijuana growers the two detectives arrested.

Sciarrino also has been criticized for his investigation of Reel Fun, a Palm Harbor internet cafe. Attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos said Sciarrino contacted his client directly, even after Theophilopoulos had stepped in to represent him. He said police should know they can't speak to suspects who have said they want to be represented by an attorney.

"In criminal law, that is the most basic of the basic tenets, you do not talk to a defendant who is represented, period," Theophilopoulos said.

Gualtieri said he didn't know about this allegation, and said he didn't have enough information to know if something improper occurred.

Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. Staff Writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

Comments
Authorities searching for missing Homestead boy, 13

Authorities searching for missing Homestead boy, 13

A Florida Missing Child Alert has been issued for a 13-year-old Homestead boy.According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, John Noble-Sinclair was last seen Sunday in the area of 300 block of Southwest 4th Avenue.He is described as a white...
Updated: 14 minutes ago

Search continues for suspect in fatal Clearwater drive-shooting

CLEARWATER — Police continue to search for the suspect after a woman was killed Sunday night in a drive-by shooting.Authorities said the shooting occurred around 8:15 p.m. in the 1500 block of Scranton Avenue.An unidentified 30-year-old woman was kil...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Wesley Chapel woman, 28, dies after crashing motorcycle

LUTZ — A 28-year-old motorcyclist died Sunday after she crashed near Lutz Lake Fern Road and Apian Way, Hillsborough deputies reported.Erica Kristen Rodriguez of Wesley Chapel was riding a Kawasaki motorcycle with a small group of motorcyclists eastb...
Updated: 12 hours ago

Woman, 24, hit by Land Rover, in critical condition

LARGO — A 24-year-old woman is in critical condition after she was struck by a vehicle Saturday night, police said.Khadijah Wood was walking through the parking lot of the Sandy Lane Apartment Homes on Belcher Road about 7:30 p.m.At the same time, Ju...
Published: 12/17/17
Murder suspect is on the run after fatally shooting a father, cops say

Murder suspect is on the run after fatally shooting a father, cops say

A first-degree murder suspect remains at large almost a week after the fatal shooting of a Winter Haven father.The Polk County Sheriff’s Office says Johnny Ray Owsley’s murder of 35-year-old Adam Thrower, called "Cook" by friends, involved Owsley’s e...
Published: 12/17/17

Two die in head-on crash on Gunn Highway in Odessa

ODESSA — Hillsborough County deputies are investigating a head-on crash on Gunn Highway that killed two and sent a child to the hospital Saturday afternoon.About 12: 45 p.m., Terry Lee Bronschidle, 70, of Tampa was driving his Chevy Traverse south on...
Published: 12/16/17
Firefighters injured after early-morning blaze at Tampa strip mall

Firefighters injured after early-morning blaze at Tampa strip mall

TAMPA — Three firefighters were injured early Saturday morning while battling a fire at a strip mall on W Waters Avenue, according to Tampa Fire Rescue.Firefighters said the blaze started around 2:45 p.m. in the attic of L.A. Nail Supply, located at ...
Published: 12/16/17
Pinellas sheriff’s investigator fired, could face criminal charges for involvement in child custody battle

Pinellas sheriff’s investigator fired, could face criminal charges for involvement in child custody battle

LARGO — A Pinellas sheriff’s child protective investigator has been fired and could face criminal charges after an investigation found she made a child custody recommendation to a judge as a favor to a friend.Jayne Johnson, who has worked for the She...
Published: 12/15/17
Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, shot dog, hid in swamp

Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, shot dog, hid in swamp

DOVER — Two Plant City men who ran from deputies and shot a dog were captured after a brief pursuit Thursday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.They ditched a stolen car, ran away on foot, crossed through several yards and then tr...
Published: 12/15/17

Tampa bicyclist, 52, dies after being rear-ended by vehicle; no charges

TAMPA — A 52-year-old man riding a bicycle was killed early Friday when he was struck from behind by a car in Seminole Heights, according to Tampa police.The incident took place at about 12:15 a.m. Wayne Kersh, 52, was riding his bicycle in the eastb...
Published: 12/15/17