Alabama authorities seize machines from bingo hall

Published 7:21 pm Thursday, March 19, 2009

WHITE HALL — An electronic sign in front of the White Hall gambling center flashed “Hot Slots” in bold red letters Thursday as state police seized games suspected of being illegal slot machines.

Officers staged a pre-dawn raid on the rural gambling center and spent the rest of the day hauling out machines. Todd Stacy, Gov. Bob Riley’s press secretary, said officers were seizing about 200 machines and a large amount of cash.

An attorney for the charity that operates the gambling center said the games are electronic bingo machines that are legal under an amendment to Alabama’s constitution that covers the town of White Hall.

“The raid is unconstitutional,” said Collins Pettaway of Selma, attorney for Cornerstone Community Outreach, a local charity headed by the mayor’s wife.

David Barber, director of the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling, organized the raid on the White Hall Resort and Entertainment Center using officers from the Alabama Department of Public Safety and Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board — two agencies under the governor’s control.

Barber said he suspects all 950 machines in the center are illegal slot machines, but state police were seizing only a representative sample to take to a court for an official determination. The games were made by several different manufacturers and supplied by Freedom Trail Ventures.

No charges were filed, and it was uncertain when or if the gambling center would reopen.

“They are trying to shut it down without a court hearing,” Pettaway said.

The tan building, about the size of four high school gymnasiums, sits alongside U.S. 80 about 20 miles west of Montgomery. It is the largest employer in the town of 1,020, with more than 100 workers.

Barber, the former district attorney in Jefferson County, said state police carrying a search warrant raided the gambling hall around 5 a.m. Thursday after undercover agents played the games and suspected they were illegal. Two trucks then backed up to the front door, and state police spent the rest of the day slowly removing equipment.

State troopers blocked the center’s parking lot and turned away a steady stream of customers.

Diane Simmons, 65, said the gambling hall was a nice pastime for area residents.

“They don’t have alcohol. It’s an enjoyable place for the elderly. They are always ready to come here,” she said before heading home to Selma.

Employees also got turned away, with some complaining that Thursday was payday and they needed their checks.

“My lights are about to get cut off,” said Willie Ann Dudley of White Hall, a supervisor in the center’s vault.

She said that closing the gambling center will worsen unemployment in rural Lowndes County, where 17 percent of workers are jobless.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a Lowndes County community activist, said the townspeople like the gambling center because it provides badly needed jobs.

“Is it moral to put people out of work at a time like this?” she asked.

Riley formed the Task Force on Illegal Gambling in January to crack down on what he said were machines advertised as electronic bingo but operating like slot machines.

The White Hall raid was the task force’s second. On March 3, officers seized more than 100 machines from clubs and businesses in Mobile County.