Game rooms major headache for Odessa

·4 min read

Oct. 11—The Odessa Police Department arrested, and/or issued citations to more than 159 game room owners and customers, during the past year, according to police records.

The vast majority of arrests were drug-related, making illegal cash payments or operating a gambling business without a license.

"The problem we've had is we'll close one of these places down, but by the end of the week they're open again and operating under a new owner," Police Chief Michael Gerke said.

Gerke and other city officials are hoping new measures the Odessa City Council is expected to adopt on Tuesday will make it more difficult for game room operators to stay in business and discourage others from setting up shop in the city.

Under one proposed amendment to the city ordinance, game rooms will be prohibited from being located within 1,000 feet of another gaming establishment, church, educational institution, healthcare facilities public building or the boundary line of a residential zoning district, Planning Director Randy Brinlee said.

A location exemption will be granted to any gaming operations that can offer proof that the business has operated at the same site, and under the same name and ownership prior to Dec. 1, 2021, Brinlee said.

Under the amended ordinance, if a game room is closed and tries to reopen under a new, or different owner, that will be considered a new business and subject to the new ordinance rules.

Gerke said that amendment will close a legal loophole that several game room operators have exploited to keep operating. Oftentimes, police will shut down one of these businesses for running an illegal operation and they will just place the business under a spouse or other family member name and reopen a few days later, Gerke said.

There are currently 23 licensed game rooms officially operating in Odessa, according to police records. But during the past 10 days at least 2 similar businesses have erected signs indicating that they plan to open soon.

Of the 23 game rooms currently operating in the city, two have by far had the most legal troubles.

All American Game Room, 2927 E. Hw, 80 SRN where 46 arrests have been made and 11 citations issued form Aug. 1, 2020 to Aug. 10, 2021.

Owner Thomas Herring could not be reached for comment by phone. An OA reporter was refused entrance to the establishment recently.

From Aug. 2020 to 2021 Herring or his employees have been issued 2 citations for illegally operating gambling machines that had not been inspected or registered by the State of Texas. There were also 24 arrests for possession of drug paraphernalia, including 6 cases which the business itself received citations.

In addition to drug paraphernalia, 30 felony offense arrests were made for possession of such drugs as meth, cocaine and marijuana.

LAI Game Room, 2626 Kermit Highway, which is owned by LAI Nguyen, has been cited for not having a license for a video game found in the establishment, multiple device violations, multiple instances for failure to have an occupational tax sticker and multiple instances where minors were allowed inside the business.

Lucky Game Room, 1023 S. Grant Ave., which is owned by Mary Leyba, has received citations for not having a gaming device license, failure to apply for a game license, a device violation, failure to display business license and not having a video license present.

Most of the remaining businesses have also been a hub for numerous arrests and citations for drug possession which resulted in felony charges, operating gambling machines that have not been approved by the state, numerous assaults and overdoses, arrests of fugitives inside the premises and people drinking alcohol inside game rooms, Gerke said. These gambling facilities legally cannot sell, or allow consumption of alcoholic beverages on the premises, Gerke said.

Gerke and Mayor Javier Joven recently noted that some of the gambling establishments offer cash payouts to customers — which is illegal and can lead to federal tax charges against business owners and customers who participate.

Gerke said the goal of the updated ordinance is to make sure these gambling operations are running legitimate businesses.

"If they follow the law, they'll be fine," Gerke said. "If they don't follow the law, they're going to have problems."

Brinlee said the city's current ordinances are outdated and don't adequately address game rooms, which are a relatively new kind of businesses operating in communities in Odessa.

Under the amended ordinance new game rooms will only be able to open in areas already zoned light industrial and heavy industrial districts, Brinlee said. The businesses will also be required to have 30 paved parking spaces plus one space for every one hundred square feet of floor area over 2,000 square feet.

Game room hours of operation would be also limited to 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday, Brinlee said.

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