Major Illegal Gambling Operation Busted in Santa Ana

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Just before dawn more than 3 dozen officers and undercover detectives raided a retail shop (aka Smoke Shop) at a strip mall on 1st Street just east of the 5 freeway. This is one of at least 30 illegal operations in the city that detectives say prey on those with gambling, drug and sex addictions.

I was invited to be a part of the raid, the only radio reporter to do so…and from a close, but safe, distance I was able to see the team enter the ‘Smoke Shop’ without incident. It was unbelievable the number of people glued to various animated betting games at 5 o’clock in the morning; most had been there all night. After everyone was searched, handcuffed and escorted out, I could walk in and see the operation for myself.

I was immediately hit with a wall of cigarette smoke and it smelled of sweat and body odor. The lobby area had glass cases filled with drug pipes and other paraphernalia. There were cases of soda stacked up against the front wall and boxes of incense for sale behind the counter. There was a glass cabinet tall and long enough to act as a barrier between the lobby and the gaming area. There was also a security guard at the entrance with a portable metal detection wand. There was no central air, instead a single industrial strength floor fan at one side of the open room. It’s a retail space at the end of a normal-looking strip mall, that happens to include a few restaurants, a dry cleaner and convenience store.

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Vice detectives told me this was a major bust. They were expecting a lot of people but not the 45 who were arrested. When we pulled up on the scene there were plenty more outside in the parking lot – it’s not known if they were waiting to get in or merely loitering.

Police are aware of these illegal operations and try their best to shut them down, but operators see it as low risk, high reward. When one is busted, another pops up somewhere else. Detectives told me there are about 30 of these illegal gambling operations in the city that bring in a combined total of more than a quarter million dollars per month.

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Commander Jose Gonzales told me it’s not as much about the illegal gaming as it is the type of people it attracts. Gonzales says the pop-up sites bring in gang members, drug dealers and prostitutes. He says it’s typically residential or business neighbors who tip off police.

Back inside detectives are gathering evidence. They’re accessing cash boxes from the games – some have keys and others are accessed with a crowbar and hammer. Inside every game I noticed cash boxes filled with different denominations.

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Every person detained will be questioned and subject to a warrant check. In some cases, those in custody could also be charged with state and federal crimes.

Photos: Steve Gregory

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