Burned building may have been site of illegal gambling

Published 9:59 am Saturday, May 26, 2018

A tenant of the building located at 210 N. Main St. in downtown Franklin, which burned to the ground last Thursday, may have been operating an illegal online gambling operation inside the storefront.

The building, located adjacent to AJ Southern Insurance and on the opposite side of Third Avenue from Insercorp and Personal Touch In-Home Care Inc., had officially been licensed to operate as Trinkettes & Treasures, a used furniture store. According to Brenda Rickman, the city’s commissioner of revenue, this was the only use for which the building had been granted a business license.

However, on May 18, one day after the fire, Anita Hall, owner of AJ Southern, posted publicly on Facebook that her boyfriend, Jason Russell Harrell, had been operating what she described as an “internet cafe” out of the Trinkettes & Treasures building for the past three weeks. The post claims that she and Harrell were both inside the building when the fire occurred and that Harrell and a customer tried to put the fire out.

On Thursday, Capt. Tim Dunn, spokesman for the Franklin Fire Department confirmed that on April 19, Clyde P. Bailey, who is the only official lease holder as far as city records are concerned, had submitted a new zoning clearance application to Franklin’s Department of Community Development for an additional new business use at 210 N. Main St. This application specified that the new use would be an “internet sweepstakes cafe,” and included a site plan, a floor plan layout and a signed statement from the building’s owner, Carlton Cutchin, granting permission for the new use.

On May 7, that application was approved and a permit from the Department of Community Development was issued, contingent upon a request from Bailey for an inspection of the premises by the Department of Community Development before opening the new business to the public. This, plus a new business license from the city’s Commissioner of Revenue, would have been needed before the internet sweepstakes cafe could officially declare itself open for business.

Rickman, however, said that the City of Franklin did not have a business license category for an internet cafe and therefore she could not and would not have issued one. Rickman also said she was unaware of any application from Community Development to change the use of that building, and confirmed that no such application had ever reached her desk, nor had Bailey ever made contact to discuss his plans for the building.

“That [internet cafe] would have thrown up a red flag to us because we’ve already got issues with the vape and play places,” Rickman said. “I don’t know how I could have issued a business license.”

She explained that some businesses attempt to skirt Virginia’s prohibitions on gambling by operating as “vape shops,” and issuing customers points they can use to play electronic games of chance inside the store when they buy vaping supplies.

“You have to buy the vape stuff and then you can play the machines. I think they’re all illegal,” Rickman said.

Dunn said that the application to Franklin’s Community Development office for the internet sweepstakes cafe makes no mention of Harrell or Hall, only Bailey and Cutchin, and that Cutchin is spelled as “Cutchins” with an s on the end. By press time it was unclear what, if any, legal sub-lease agreement Harrell had with Bailey and/or Cutchin.

Dunn also said that at the time of the fire, the City had no information indicating that the new business was already open. However, Tim Bradshaw, owner of Insercorp, said he saw people frequenting the storefront during the past few weeks, often late at night or early into the morning.

“A couple weeks before the fire, all the furniture got moved out and it turned into one of those internet casinos, and also a vape shop,” Bradshaw said. “There were people out there until like 3 to 4 a.m. during the week. I had been told the computers were set up so that you could only use the video poker machines. I don’t believe these types of businesses are good for our community.”

Bradshaw clarified that while he had never set foot in the building since it was transformed for this new purpose, he could see the machines and activity clearly through the storefront’s windows.

Jennifer Roberts of Personal Touch In-Home Care Inc., which is housed in the same building as Insercorp, said that she had been inside the building since the internet sweepstakes cafe had opened. She described the interior as containing around 60 computers, other standalone gambling machines and two “fish tables,” which she said were large tables that can seat eight to 10 people at a time, who all gamble online at once. Some of the types of games being played, she said, were online slot machines and other casino-type games. She said she also observed cash being exchanged, to include payouts in cash.

Pay-to-play games of skill may be legal in Virginia, however, pay-to-play games of chance are illegal, according to Lt. Tommy Potter of the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office. That department had  raided a vape shop in Carrollton last November on suspicions of illegal gambling activities occurring inside.

Games of skill, he said, are where a player’s knowledge of the game has some influence on its outcome, such as in online poker where a player must build a hand of cards and can discard certain cards. Video slot machines, on the other hand, would be games of chance as a player’s knowledge has no impact on its outcome.

To clarify, poker would only be legal if only those who are playing in the game are the ones making money, said an undercover operative who worked on the gambling bust in Isle of Wight County with the Meherrin Task Force. That group is comprised of law enforcement officers with the city of Emporia, Southampton County, Isle of Wight County and the Virginia State Police. Further, if the house or establishment hosting the game is profiting, then it would still be considered illegal gambling.

“You have people coming in here spending their entire paycheck because they’re addicted to gambling. They [the gambling operators] are taking advantage of these people,” the operative said. “It’s my understanding that almost every shopping center in Franklin has one [gambling establishment.] It blows my mind, but there’s certain jurisdictions where they’re not addressed.

“They’re not reporting income, there’s health and safety issues, it is not a victimless crime.”

The operative described one establishment as having 50 computers plugged into one outlet via power strips with no working air conditioning.

“There’s a lot of issues that could become hazardous because there’s not a lot of checks and balances,” the operative said.

Virginia Code 18.2-328 states that the operator of an illegal gambling enterprise, activity or operation shall be guilty of a class 6 felony. It further states that any such operator who engages in an illegal gambling operation, which (i) has been or remains in substantially continuous operation for a period in excess of 30 days or (ii) has gross revenue of $2,000 or more in any single day shall be fined not more than $20,000 and imprisoned not less than one year nor more than 10 years.

Virginia Code 18.2-329 adds that if the owner, lessee, tenant, occupant or other person in control of any place or conveyance knows or reasonably should know that it is being used for illegal gambling and permits such gambling to continue without having notified a law enforcement officer, he or she shall be guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor. Those who aid, abet or assist in the operation of an illegal gambling operation are likewise guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.

The only exceptions to Virginia’s prohibitions on gambling include games of chance conducted in private residences; bingo games, raffles and duck races conducted by certain organizations; any lottery conducted by the Commonwealth of Virginia; and horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering as licensed.

Roberts also expressed curiosity as to whether the electrical needs of the various computers and machines contributed to the fire, which the Fire Department suspects to have been electrical in origin. Dunn explained that the Fire Department does not have the resources to conduct a complete investigation of the fire’s cause, and so they have turned the matter over to the insurer of the building.

The Fire Department was called to the scene at 2:22 p.m. last Thursday. Dunn said that firefighters observed a lot of smoke, but said that the building was not completely engulfed in flames at the time they arrived. What likely caused the fire to spread so rapidly, he said, was what he termed a “backdraft” or “smoke explosion.” This, he explained, is when oxygen is rapidly introduced to a fire that is hot but not yet producing open flames, only smoke. When the oxygen hits the fire, a fireball-like explosion results.

“I’m not sure exactly what may have caused that other than us opening the front doors to fight the fire,” he said.

Dunn confirmed that firefighters did not find any flammable liquids or other accelerants that may have caused the fire to spread prematurely. He said the popping sound that several witnesses reported hearing may have been wood cracking or the arcing of the building’s electrical system, since the fire began in a mechanical room.

It took several hours and more than 10 fire departments responding to the scene before the fire was extinguished, and even then, flames reappeared around 3 a.m. on Friday, May 18. Dunn said the second callout was the result of some hot embers being trapped beneath the rubble after the Fire Department had knocked in some of the remaining brick walls to ensure the structure did not collapse onto pedestrians. The secondary fire was extinguished within two hours of the Franklin Fire Department being called.

The Tidewater News’ investigation of this matter also revealed that Harrell is no stranger to being accused of crimes. He was arrested last weekend by the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office on charges of taking money to perform a construction job and then not doing so in the agreed time, and operating as a contractor without a license.

He had also been charged last August for construction fraud in the county on the same issue, but with a different person on May 26. The Virginia Courts website also shows a similar charge in Isle of Wight County concerning an incident on June 28. In both cases, the final disposition was nolle prosequi, or the suit was abandoned by the prosecution. He is out on a $2,500 secured bond.

Efforts to reach Harrell, Hall and Cutchin for comments were unsuccessful and the City of Franklin Department of Community Development also did not respond by press time.

Bailey denied that the building was ever used for anything other than a furniture store, and also denied having any knowledge of plans to turn the facility into an internet cafe.

He added that he was out of town at the time of the fire.

Capt. Tim Whitt, spokesman for the Franklin Police Department, confirmed on Thursday that no investigation into possible illegal gambling at the Trinkettes & Treasures site had begun prior to the fire, nor was one in progress.