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    Both sides raise the stakes in gambling boat feud

    Tarpon Springs police are investigating a complaint that could involve false imprisonment, and a lawsuit has been filed in federal court.

    By COLLINS CONNER and JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


    An escalating dispute between the people who own the SunCruz Casinos gambling boats in Port Richey and Tarpon Springs and the people who operate the boats has generated a criminal complaint to the Tarpon Springs Police Department and led to the filing of a federal lawsuit last week.

    The dispute began soon after SunCruz, which owns a dozen gambling boats along Florida's coast, was sold by Gus Boulis. The gambling boats in Port Richey and in Citrus County were leased from SunCruz and operated by Paradise of Port Richey, a partnership between Boulis and Pasco residents Molly and Alex Kolikithas.

    When the new owners of SunCruz took over in September, they demanded more money from Paradise and threatened to yank their boats, said Paradise attorney Larry Crow, who is also the Republican state representative from Palm Harbor.

    "We figured, "You want the boats, we'll give them to you,' " Crow said.

    Paradise moved the boats to Tarpon Springs, shut down the Citrus operation and leased a new boat for the lucrative Port Richey business.

    Crow said SunCruz employees went to Tarpon Springs in the middle of the night, intimidated a security guard and took possession of the boats.

    The guard, Martin McDermott of Hudson, said he was held on the boat against his will for four hours on New Year's Day. While he was guarding the boat, he said, about eight men came aboard, searched his pockets and took his cell phone for a while. One man shadowed his every move, he said.

    "I was waiting to see if I'd get beat up," said McDermott, 48, who has worked for Paradise for three years.

    He eventually left unharmed. Tarpon Springs police detectives are investigating the matter as a potential case of false imprisonment, said police Capt. Ron Holt. He wouldn't release details because the investigation is ongoing.

    The men repeatedly asked McDermott where the machines were, he said. By then, Paradise had moved its property off the boats, Crow said.

    "We took food, liquor, counting equipment for coins," Crow said. "We took the gaming tables and slot machines that we owned."

    According to Crow, Paradise holds title to that equipment.

    Not according to SunCruz.

    In a federal lawsuit filed Friday, SunCruz accused Boulis and the Kolikithases of swiping its slot machines, damaging its boats and appropriating the company's logo. SunCruz is asking a federal judge to block the Kolikithases and Boulis from using company assets to operate their business.

    Adam Kidan, chairman of SunCruz Casinos LLC, said he and his partners purchased those assets from Boulis. The company wanted to buy the assets of Paradise too, but that deal fell through, he said.

    Chief among those assets are the riverfront dock, an office and a nearby parking lot for the hundreds of gamblers who flock to the riverfront daily.

    Crow said the Port Richey business was the second-most-profitable boat in the SunCruz fleet. Kidan called that an overstatement.

    Still, he said, his company is negotiating to obtain Joshua's Landing, a marina on the Pithlachascotee River in Port Richey, so it can dock a gambling boat there to compete with the Paradise boat. The property, just yards away from the Paradise dock, is owned by Ron Barnett, who did not respond to a telephone message from the Times.

    In some aspects, the Pasco dispute mirrors what is happening in Jacksonville, where SunCruz parked a gambling boat just yards from a boat belonging to another of Boulis' former business partners.

    DeWayne Williams, president of La Cruise Casino in Jacksonville, and Boulis operated a South Carolina gambling boat.

    But when Boulis sold SunCruz, Williams said, he stopped getting his share of the partnership profits. He filed suit against the new owners of SunCruz, saying they brought the South Carolina boat to Jacksonville and parked it a stone's throw from his boat.

    Kidan said he hopes the problems with Williams and with Paradise of Port Richey are the only glitches in his company's move to improve and expand SunCruz.

    "It will probably get worse before it gets better," he said. "However, it will get better." He and his partners intend to change the track record of the gambling-cruise business in Florida, he said.

    One of SunCruz's new owners is the government affairs counselor for a Washington law firm; another headed the White House outreach program for President Ronald Reagan, Kidan said.

    "I'm a Republican," he said. "In 1984, I was chairman of Youth for Reagan-Bush. In 1988, I was chairman of the Young Professionals for Bush for the entire country.

    "You're dealing with some pretty reputable people. The last thing we want to do is run things the wrong way."

    - Staff writer Katherine Gazella contributed to this report.

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