All Bets Are Off in Brooklyn as DA, Cops Bust Borough's Illegal Gambling
NEW YORK CITY — When NYPD cops bust an illegal gambling operation, odds are they do it in Brooklyn.
Vice squads and local precinct police have shuttered at least 46 illicit betting dens in the borough in the last year-and-a-half — more than any other part of the city during that time, according to a DNAinfo New York survey of court records.
The takedowns include a numbers operation run out of a 72-year-old woman's Williamsburg apartment, an underground craps game where gun-toting players got extra cash by selling wares to an upstairs pawn shop in Bed-Stuy, and illicit card games on a residential block in Sunset Park, records show.
The cases involved stakeouts, confidential informants and the seizure of tens of thousands in cash.
Christopher Blank, the chief of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes' organized crime bureau, said the higher rate of busts in the borough doesn't mean Brooklyn has a larger gambling problem. Local law enforcement has simply made cracking down on the problem a priority, he explained.
Cops in Brooklyn respond to community complaints about underground parlors, while Hynes has invested heavily in thwarting organized crime's control of betting rings, Blank said.
"It's not because there is more gambling in Brooklyn than any other borough," said Blank, whose team undertakes yearlong probes into mob-controlled Internet betting sites. "The logical answer is that over the years we have been more sensitive to the impact of illegal gambling on the quality of life in the community."
Community complaints about illegal card games prompted the 72nd Precinct to investigate a Sunset Park property in summer 2011. The target was the Chinese American San San Club, a small community center in the basement of a building on a residential block of 47th Street.
Over the course of the summer, undercover officers were buzzed into the club, where they observed players huddled around eight tables playing the Chinese card game Mahjong and placing money bets in buckets, according to a police report.
Two club workers brought drinks and food to players, while another watched video from security cameras, the police report said.
Following three separate days of stings, police raided the club on Sept. 1, arresting four people and seizing $1,570, records show.
After an illegal gambling takedown, the city Law Department sues the owner of the property for housing a public nuisance. The city filed 46 civil complaints against Brooklyn properties between Jan. 1, 2012, and July 2013.
The court actions aim to shut down a property and levy thousands of dollars in penalties. Generally, the property owner reaches a settlement, paying a fine and agreeing not to allow any illicit operation on the premises.
In February 2012 the city filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court against Yan Cheung Chan and Choi Nog Lam, the owners of the building that houses the San San club. As part of a settlement, the landlords agreed to not house any gambling operations anymore.
Last week a DNAinfo New York reporter went to the club and observed four men playing cards in the rear. In the front of the club stood an unoccupied table with a green felt top and a deck of cards.
A club member who only gave his name as Mr. Chen said through an interpreter that the card games did not involve cash.
"It's just for fun, not for money, nothing illegal," he said. "It's just for old Chinese men and they like to play games just for fun."
While illegal betting in the city has declined in recent years, law enforcement agencies said they continue to crack down on the shadowy pastime because it leads to violence and fuels other corrupt enterprises.
"The money that's generated goes into a black market economy and it's funding other criminal activity," Blank said.
Even minor illicit lottery rings can lead to gunpoint robberies, arson and mob violence, authorities said. Just last month, a 37-year-old man reportedly bled to death after being stabbed in a fight outside a Sunset Park home linked to an illegal gambling den.
Dangerous dice-slingers also gathered in a Bedford-Stuyvesant basement in March 2012, records show. During four separate visits that month, a confidential informant working with police witnessed a trifecta of criminal conduct at 1688 St. Mark's Ave., including craps, guns and pot, according to a civil complaint.
Players carrying firearms and smoking marijuana let it ride at tables as two operators raked house wins into a box and carried it to the building's second floor, the complaint said.
On March 2, the informant observed one player give a watch to an operator, who sold it for cash to an unlicensed pawn shop on the ground floor, the complaint noted. Two weeks later, the informant watched more of the same action, but this time a bettor got quick cash by selling a laptop in the pawn shop.
In April 2012, the city Law Department sued to shut down the unassuming building. The two-story property has since been sold and the new owner is currently renovating it.
Tiffany Nelson, an employee who works at an printing shop adjacent to the property, said last week that she never noticed anything unusual about the pawn shop but saw customers coming and going throughout the day.
"It said, 'Pawn Shop,'" Nelson said of the store's name. "They are not going to say, 'Illegal Gambling Going on Here Inc.'"
But the stakes aren't always as high as that underground craps casino.
The majority of the police busts in Brooklyn focused on numbers-running operations in bodegas and mom-and-pop shops, according to court records.
Numbers games involve customers placing small wagers and receiving a set of three digits on a slip. Bettors win when their digits match the numbers generated by an outcome or drawing not controlled by the game's operators. Sometimes the published state lottery numbers are used as the winning numbers. Other times horse races determine the winning numbers.
Numbers operations date back to the early 1900s. They remain popular because they offer a higher rate of return than the state lottery — and winnings aren't taxed, law enforcement sources said.
A crime syndicate generally operates the game out of a series of storefronts, with a bookkeeper accepting $5 wagers. Each betting location could rake in $7,000 to $10,000 a week in revenue, according sources. Generally, the business housing the operation gets a $1,500 cut for providing space.
Norma Caban, 72, was arrested for running numbers in her Williamsburg apartment on Aug. 13, 2011, according to a police report. Cops recovered nearly $700, gambling slips and a notebook annotating bets.
In January 2012, the city sued her relative Miguel Caban, 49, who owned the apartment.
Miguel Caban said last week that Norma doesn't live in the apartment anymore. He added that he settled with the city, agreeing not to house any gamblers in the home for a year.
"It was nothing. It was stupid numbers," he said of his relative's arrest. "I don't know why they waste their time with something so small."
Miguel Caban said he has spent $50 to $60 a week for the last 30 years playing the state's legal lottery. He said about 18 years ago, he got lucky and won $10,000. Overall, he estimates he's down $80,000.
"[The state] should give me back all the money I lost in the lottery. They take all my money," he said. "You should write a story about that."