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Game room bust; gambling charged

The county is looking at businesses similar to Spanky's, which also is accused of serving alcohol without a license.

STEVE THOMPSON
Published January 16, 2004

PORT RICHEY - As a Pasco County Sheriff's Office truck waited in front of Spanky's Gameroom on U.S. 19 Thursday morning, undercover vice detectives in black masks loaded game machine after game machine into it.

Before they were done, detectives confiscated about 60 of what the Sheriff's Office said were essentially slot machines, along with thousands of dollars in cash.

The business' owner, its manager and one of its servers were arrested, all on charges of keeping a gambling house and "possession of a coin-operated device," according to a Sheriff's Office report.

In late December, deputies had told the owner, Jerry Wayne Cowart, 47, that the business was illegal, sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said. The business has been open since November, Doll said.

"He said in his opinion he thought it was (legal)," Doll said. So they started an undercover investigation.

According to Doll, the games inside were "games of chance," similar to slot machines.

"You pay a membership fee to come in and, much like in Las Vegas, as long as you play the games, you can drink for free," he said.

Though alcohol was served, Doll said, the business had no liquor license.

A special agent from the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco was at the scene investigating.

As vice and narcotics detectives milled about the scene Thursday, customers and job seekers came by disappointed.

"I guess now's a bad time to fill out an application," said 27-year-old Terry Owens when he showed up. He had been hoping to apply to be a server. "They had an ad in the paper," he said.

Sandra Myers, 35, got word of the bust and came by to check on her friend who worked there. Myers said she also had been a customer.

"If you win anything, they never give you cash," she said. "It's always like a gift card."

She said she wasn't sure if it was legal, but the management was friendly and the games were fun.

"We kept thinking, "How could that possibly be legal?"' she said. She had quit playing before Thursday, she said, but not before spending a couple of thousand dollars.

"In the beginning I didn't see it as gambling because you didn't win cash," she said.

Myers' friend, Virginia Elaine Elswick, 20, a server at Spanky's, was one of those arrested. Also arrested was the business' manager, Thomas Wayne Lagard, 30.

Cowart and Lagard, both of 5800 Madison St. in New Port Richey, and Elswick of Taft Drive in Port Richey, were being held in the county jail Thursday evening on $10,000 bail each.

Doll said the Sheriff's Office is taking a close look at similar businesses within the county.

"There are certain ways to be in compliance with state law," he said. "Gambling ships are one way. Seminole gambling facilities are another. This is not one of those ways."

- Steve Thompson covers crime in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is sthompson@sptimes.com

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