SPRING HILL — Last week, Hernando sheriff's detectives walked through the mirrored doors of the Win City sweepstakes cafe and delivered one last warning: Your video games violate gambling laws and you risk arrest by continuing to operate them.
That warning, authorities say, went unheeded.
"The owner said do whatever you have to do, and yesterday the Sheriff's Office did what it had to do," Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said Thursday.
On Wednesday, vice detectives raided the cafe at 5130 Commercial Way, arrested 56-year-old Carlos J. Cruz Alverio and hauled off a truck full of computers and other equipment. Cruz Alverio was charged with one count of operating a gambling house and 37 counts of owning gambling devices.
The raid is the latest skirmish in a war against what authorities say are still illegal gambling operations, despite cafe operators' efforts to skirt the law.
"These gaming systems are a prohibited slot machine/device if it is used to display images of games of chance and is part of a scheme involving any payment or donation of money or its equivalent and awarding anything of value," Cruz Alverio's arrest affidavit states.
Cruz Alverio, who could not be reached for comment, told detectives his gaming system is not gambling, based on his understanding of the law.
In the typical sweepstakes cafe, patrons purchase Internet time, play slot machine-like games on computers to accumulate points and redeem winnings in the form of cash or merchandise. In April, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law expanding the definition of illegal gambling machines to include that kind of operation.
After that, the Hernando Sheriff's Office conducted investigations that resulted in the closure of three businesses, including Win City, that were in operation before the state law was passed. Each time, owners closed voluntarily after speaking with detectives. No arrests were made.
According to state records, Cruz Alverio filed as the registered agent of Win City Spring LLC on Sept. 17. The business reopened on Sept. 23 and closed the same day after deputies visited and said the games were still illegal, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney said.
The business reopened Oct. 21 after making what the Sheriff's Office called minor changes to the games and business documents. Detectives consulted with Simpson and visited on Oct. 23 with the warning.
The following day, Jacksonville attorney Chris Wickersham Jr., who represents Cruz Alverio, sent a letter to Simpson explaining why the new state law does not apply to Win City's operation.
Patrons tell the operator how many entries into the game they want to purchase and are given a receipt stating exactly how much cash they will win if they decide to continue. They are required to sign a form before they play.
"They're buying a known result," Wickersham said in an interview Thursday. "That fundamentally makes it different than anything that's come previously. It's really no different than paying to play a video game or watching a movie."
Revealing the results ahead of time does not make the operation legal, Simpson said.
"The problem is the mechanism they're using," Simpson said. "It still operates like a slot machine. That's why people are going there in droves."
Cruz Alverio was released from the Hernando County Detention Center early Thursday after posting $19,250 bail, records show. Wickersham said he was looking for a place to live before he got arrested.
Win City's doors remained locked. The phone number on the door is no longer in service.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.