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 Armed robbery on rise around poker parlors

Published Friday, February 12, 1999

By JONATHAN DUBE, Staff Writer, Oharlotte Observer

FORT MILL, S.C. -- Video poker parlors have become a hot spot not only for gamblers, but for armed robbers. Just in the past three weeks, robbers have struck York County video poker parlors five times. A recent statewide study found a correlation between crime and video poker.

The number of robberies in York County rose 22 percent after a ban on the games was lifted in 1996, an increase police attribute partly to the return of the poker malls.

``Here in York County it's just out of control,'' said Rock HillLt. Mark Bollinger, who heads the department's robbery investigation unit. ``The amount of crimes that are related to video poker is unbelievable.''

In fact, many of the parlors in Fort Mill near the N.C. border now have security guards. The guard at Stateline 51 in Fort Mill responded Wednesday night when a man with a semiautomatic handgun and a mask tried to rob the poker mall. The guard shot and killed the robber.

But even having a security guard isn't surefire protection against robberies. In November 1997, two men robbing Treasures poker parlor in Columbia shot a security guard six times and killed him. Before fleeing, the pair took money from a cash box. The men were convicted in December. Wednesday's incident was the second in two months in which someone was shot during a video poker mall robbery in York County. On Dec. 18, a man with a pistol entered Oasis Video Games on U.S. 21 in Fort Mill around 2:45 a.m. and forced two clerks to give him money.

The suspect then left Oasis, but another employee, Kevin Evans, 33, of Rock Hill, started to chase him. The suspect shot Evans once, and the bullet passed through Evans' arm and hit his ribs. The suspect fled through the woods. Evans wasn't seriously injured.

``As long as this business stays unregulated and the criminals think there's money there, more people are going to end up dead,'' York County Coroner Doug McKown said. ``We need to regulate this business if it's going to stay legal. Because right now, it's really bad.''

Gov. Jim Hodges is drawing up a proposal for video poker regulations and is expected to present it to the General Assembly in the next few weeks.

Spokeswoman Nina Brook said he is concerned about poker-related crime and intends for his regulations to help combat the problem. Police say poker parlors are a tempting target because robbers believe there's a lot of cash on hand. Officials won't say how much cash the malls keep handy, but point out that many of them make regular bank deposits.

``You've got so much money and so many people,'' said the manager at Carousel Video Games on Carowinds Boulevard, who declined to give his name. A study by the Justice Fellowship, a nonprofit Christian ministry, released last year found a correlation between crime in South Carolina and video poker: The more poker machines a county had, the higher the crime rate. Police say that many video poker players commit robberies or burglaries as a way to get money to feed their habit. With video poker parlors lining Carowinds Boulevard and S.C. 51 near the N.C. line, Fort Mill is one of the busiest video gaming cities in the state.

Gamblers spent $59.5 million playing video poker in Fort Mill during the< first half of 1998, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue's latest report. Fort Mill has 644 machines in 120 locations. After a two-year ban, video poker was reinstated in York County in November 1996. Robberies in the county increased from 166 to 213 between 1996 and 1997, a 22 percent increase.