SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. - NewsChannel 5 Investigates went undercover to investigate gambling in one Middle Tennessee community, and it has now forced the local district attorney to do an about-face.
That exclusive investigation discovered that the law was letting one man get away with operating video gambling machines in the Bedford County area, while literally crushing his competition.
But luck finally ran out for the machine's operators.
Last week, Shelbyville police fanned out across town, seizing dozens of machines from local convenience stores and confiscating thousands of dollars in cash. The raids came just three weeks after NewsChannel 5 caught up with District Attorney Chuck Crawford, who had insisted there wasn't a problem.
"Gambling seems to be wide open in your district with his machines," NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted.
Crawford answered, "I don't think so."
But police got clearance to move in after the DA's tone suddenly changed.
"I just know what he told us, and he told us that they were illegal and to go get them," said Shelbyville Police Chief Austin Swing.
For more than a year, NewsChannel 5's hidden cameras had discovered virtual electronic casinos -- with video poker and slot machines of all sorts -- being run with the DA's blessing.
At one store, a $5 bet hit the big jackpot, resulting in a $102 payout.
Another store where we found gambling in full view was right across the street from the police department. Yet, when we returned, the store's operator didn't seem too worried.
"Have you ever been told that this is illegal gambling?" we asked, getting a shrug from the operator.
Swing admits police didn't know what to do.
"To me, they're all illegal and that's what the law says, but then it seem to come down to who did you ask," Swing explained.
In fact, last fall, the DA got court orders to destroy other gambling machines that had been seized in raids eight years ago -- at the same time he entered into an agreed order returning so-called "Free Spin" or "Free Draw" machines owned by Keith Heflin.
Heflin is a wealthy Shelbyville businessman who travels the world with a former director of the DA's drug task force -- one of the agencies responsible for investigating gambling in the district.
The current task force director, Timothy Lane, counts Heflin among his Facebook friends.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates told DA Chuck Crawford, "You returned his machines to him, while destroying other people's machines."
"I returned the machines that there was still some dispute about whether or not they were gambling devices," Crawford said.
But the problem is that the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled more than seven years ago that Heflin's machines -- the same kind that the DA returned -- were indeed illegal gambling devices. The court specifically rejected Heflin's claim that people weren't paying to gamble, that they were really just buying the sports cards that his machines dispensed.
The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision.
But the DA's agreed order declared that Heflin's "collectible card dispensing system" does not meet the criteria of the state Supreme Court decision that outlawed video gambling in Tennessee.
"What you've got is a criminal offense going on in that county and the district attorney has blessed it because he thinks that it is a legal activity, which I suggest it is not," said Nashville attorney David Raybin, who helped write Tennessee's criminal code.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates told Crawford, "I've got a decision from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals that says that they are illegal gambling devices."
"Well," the DA answered, "if that is the case, maybe we ought to go pick them up."
Some of the machines just seized by police appear to match serial numbers of the devices that the DA had put back on the streets. Officers also confiscated the cheap phone cards that the machines now dispense -- cards that patrons had simply left behind after gambling.
"I'll remember your name Mr. Williams because I won't be talking to you anymore today or any other day," Crawford said emphatically. The DA had failed to return numerous calls to his office.
Still, Crawford refused to say why, for years, his office had ignored the higher court ruling, leaving the gambling laws in his district non-existent when it came to one man and his machines.
"Are you essentially giving one man the license to gamble in your district, sir?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
The DA walked away without answering, pulling the courthouse door to slam it behind him.
Heflin and his lawyer refused to go on camera to answer our questions. But late last week, they filed a lawsuit against the DA, asking a judge to order Crawford to stick with their original agreement. The judge is expected to rule later this week.
As for that seven-year-old ruling, Heflin claims that people are buying phone cards that have some real value.
But we discovered $400 of his phone cards that had been left behind in just one store. Heflin claims his games are just like McDonald's Monopoly games, although it's not clear that anyone has left $400 of Cokes just laying on the counter after getting their Monopoly pieces.
In addition, Heflin's phone cards provide 30 minutes of service for $5. Yet, one of the stores busted last week advertised that it sold other cards that offered 1,000 minutes for just $10.
Nashville authorities have also prosecuted people in Nashville for gambling with Heflin's machines.
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