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State renews casino boat war

The attorney general hopes to use a Daytona Beach SunCruz boat as a test case in ending "cruises to nowhere." Pasco boats may also face a fight.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth has asked a court to force SunCruz Casinos to end gambling on its "cruises to nowhere."

Casino gambling is illegal in Florida, but gambling boats sail into international waters before they allow patrons to bet. It is a $500-million-a-year industry in the state.

In a complaint filed in Volusia Circuit Court this week, Butterworth asked Judge Joseph Will to force SunCruz to get rid of the slot machines, blackjack and roulette tables on a 150-foot boat that docks in Ponce Inlet.

If successful, Butterworth might go to other courts to try to shut down the 17 other ships that ferry gamblers from Florida docks out three miles into international waters.

Among his targets could be Paradise of Port Richey, the Pasco company that runs SunCruz's gulf coast operations. Two Paradise boats sail from the Pithlachascotee River in Pasco County, and another docks in the Cross Florida Barge Canal in Citrus.

Paradise has tangled with the state before. The Department of Environmental Protection has long held that the SunCruz boats illegally dredge and fill the Pithlachascotee River by churning up sand with their propellers. They launch boats from the river's mouth in west Pasco into the gulf.

"Attorney General Butterworth is trying to keep casinos out of Florida," said Marty Moore, deputy general counsel with the Attorney General's Office.

A similar attempt by Butterworth's office to sink cruise ship gambling in 1997 was unsuccessful.

Then, a judge ruled against the state, and eventually the case was dropped because the boat that state officials went after went out of business.

But Florida gained new ammunition when the U.S. Supreme Court in January allowed South Carolina to continue to shut down "cruises to nowhere."

State officials didn't say why they chose the Ponce Inlet ship as a test case.

SunCruz officials said they believe the state will lose again.

"Butterworth may think these are different waters to sail on, but this is nothing new," said Stan Driscoll, general manager of SunCruz's Daytona Beach office. "We believe he is in error."

The SunCruz III, which features 232 slot machines and 12 blackjack, dice and roulette tables, sails twice a day from its Ponce Inlet spot.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet last year voted to bar the state from allowing gambling ships to dock at state facilities in future leases. That wouldn't apply to the SunCruz III until its lease is up in 2003, though. The Cabinet's ruling is being challenged in court.

_ Times staff writer Beth Glenn contributed to this report.