KINGS MOUNTAIN – Illegal gambling isn’t difficult to find in Lincoln County, it’s learning when to stop that’s the hard part. On U.S. 27 and 127, there are several gas stations with “Cherry Master” gamingslot machines, which for a one, five, or ten dollar bill gives gamblers the chance to spin the slots in the hopes of hitting it big.

Signs on the machines indicate store merchandise is awarded to winning gamblers at Leach’s Shell Mart and Caney Creek B.P. on U.S. 27.

Two machines are also on hand at 27 Express B.P., but the sign says “no cash” will be awarded for tickets.

At D.J. Food Mart on U.S. 127 cash is exchanging hands, and not in dark back rooms. Red tickets, stamped “for entertainment or redemption only” are awarded in 100-point increments, which are then in turn worth $5 each at the front counter.

Offering cash pay-outs is a felony in Kentucky, though one gambler there claimed to have played them for the last six years.

Sitting in D.J.’s among a row of eight flashing machines, a man in a leather jacket and a rugged face gave instructions.

Hit the red button to make a bet, the green one to start the slots turning and hope for a row of cherries. Cash out your tickets when you have more than 100 points. Then take them right there to that girl at the counter, and she gives you five bucks for each one, he said.

He was down $130 from the day before, but laughed it off. In his pocket was a wad of red tickets. He later cashed out at $70, and headed back to the same machine.

“Gambling money ain’t got no home, you ever heard that?” he asks. “You can win big, but you can lose big, too. You just got to use your head,” he said.

A multitude of charges

According to Capt. Brad Bates of the Kentucky State Police, possession of such machines can land owners a multitude of charges ranging from thousands in fines and a year in jail for a misdemeanor to a felony sentence of 1-5 years. It is also illegal to play the machines, he said.

Owners of a building could be charged with permitting gambling, a class A misdemeanor, should they even have machines on the premises said Lincoln County Attorney John Hackley. But should they knowingly profit in some fashion from them, they could be charged with the felony of promoting gambling in the first degree.

A misdemeanor charge would be handed down should the police have no evidence of money being paid out for winning machines. Police often have to go undercover and witness a cash pay-out to press felony charges.

The machines are legal only if players are awarded free games for points, and only then up to 30 games, said State Police Major Jeff Hancock. Hancock has directed, monitored and reviewed gambling investigations with the state police.

“A lot of guys don’t realize it’s illegal. They see a lot of these other machines, and they say, ‘Well, it must be OK ’cause everybody else is doing it.'” But the gambling and quarter pushing machines are illegal even if they award store merchandise.

However, if the police do bust an operation “they come right back,” said Hancock. “I think they make a lot of money off of it. I had one guy tell me ‘that’s how I pay my rent every month.'”

But one man’s rent is another man’s electric bill. Police busts are commonly the result of a complaint from a family member, Hancock said, after their spouse loses a paycheck to video slot machines.

“What is happening is you have people out here who get their paycheck and go out and spend it in these quarter machines or other gambling devices that pay out,” said Hancock. “A lot of people waste a lot of money they should be using at home or on their kids.”

One ex-gambler quit after he and his wife got behind on their bills. “I quit, and my wife quit,” said David Johnson of Kings Mountain. “We got ourselves straightened out,” but other gambling addicts are not so lucky.

Losing $200 to $300 a day

People are losing $200 to $300 a day in his community, said Johnson. But addicts who can’t pay bills can’t stop betting.

“They’re in their own little world. They don’t acknowledge anything around them,” said Johnson. He is now worried gamblers desperate for money will turn to crime to support their habit. He is also worried about the effects of a community-wide gambling addictionthat is tough to kick he said.

It’s not that police aren’t doing anything about illegal gaming, but sometimes there are just bigger fish to fry said officials.

Electronic games of chance are busted frequently, said Capt. Bates, but “it just depends on them and where they are located, and the county attorney’s interest in prosecuting them, and when police receive complaints …”

Lincoln County Sheriff Shelby Lakes said, “It is far from the top of the list,” in the number of complaints, somewhere around cockfighting. He said he can’t remember having ever received a complaint about cockfighting.

Lakes added that just having a machine isn’t necessarily illegal, should it award free games. “As far as being able to prove that illegal activity is going on, that’s a different thing,” Lakes said. Money would have to exchange hands, and catching that in the act is time consuming for a department already tight on manpower.

Bates said it’s not like gambling’s unimportant, “but everything is important to somebody.” And a mother whose son is using methamphetamine thinks her child is a higher prerogative for officials than a mother who’s son loses a few hundred at the slots.

Hackley said he was very interested in prosecuting gambling offenders, but few people have complained since the last case came to light.

“We’re not reluctant in processing these,” he added. “We have in the past, back in 1998, 1999, prosecuted people for this,” but not often since.

Several people have complained about the machines, but without filing a formal complaint because they don’t want their names used, said Hackley.

So the situation is becoming a legal stalemate. Police don’t have the resources for sting operations, members of the community are unwilling to put their names with a formal charge, and in the space between, gambling purveyors are gleaning a profit from a very illegal game in a very public place.