Some of those who came to play at Hot Spot Sweepstakes in Towson on Wednesday afternoon walked away disappointed. Some seemed stunned.
Finding the door locked, they peeked into the tinted storefront window to see a dark room and tables and chairs, but none of the computer terminals where some spent hours a week playing a slots game for cash prizes.
The game room with 100 computer terminals had been shut down and cleared of all machines earlier in the day by Baltimore County police officers, who hit the location on Goucher Boulevard in Towson and nine other places in the county in a sweep culminating an investigation that began late last year. No one was arrested Wednesday, and police said they'll decide whether to press charges after the investigation is completed.
With the support of the U.S. attorney and Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations, police "took action against all Internet cafes that we knew of where illegal gambling was taking place," spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. She confirmed that computer terminals were included in evidence taken out of all 10 businesses in an operation that involved 90 to 100 officers starting Wednesday morning.
She said game room operators still have the right to be open to serve refreshments or conduct whatever business is permitted under their trader's licenses.
Hot Spot did put out free snacks and soft drinks for players, but the business there and at the other locations revolved around the computer terminals. The operators have said they've been legally selling Internet time and giving away free points for a "sweepstakes" game that played just like a slot machine on the computer screen.
Authorities in Baltimore City and now in the county say otherwise.
In a statement released Wednesday, county Police Chief Jim Johnson said the investigation "established that the businesses were using electronic gaming devices in an illegal manner. Detectives were able to use computer terminals to play electronic games and receive a monetary payout for points accumulated during the games."
Under Maryland law, only slots that are part of the state casino program and bingo game machines in selected locations can be played for cash prizes.
The county crackdown at locations in the Towson, Woodlawn, White Marsh, Essex and North Point areas comes about a month after city police sent letters to game rooms telling them the operations are illegal and had to be shut down by Sept. 30. City police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police have checked to make sure the machines were not being played, but they had not seized the computer terminals at several locations in the city.
The city police acted after Baltimore's Law Department issued an opinion that the games are illegal under a state law adopted this year. The measure refined the definition of a slot machine to include equipment that "delivers a game through the Internet or offers Internet or other services."
The city's lawyers dismissed the sweepstakes game room operators' argument, saying that the money being paid was "for the opportunity to play the sweepstakes game, not to access the Internet; the offer of Internet time is merely a subterfuge to evade the law."
Some of those who showed up to play Wednesday afternoon said they did not understand why the business, which had been open since last year, would suddenly be closed. Some said they saw this coming after the game rooms in the city were shut down. None of those who spoke to a reporter agreed to give their full names.
Terry Land, who owns Hot Spot Sweepstakes, said he just paid $50,000 to cover the county amusement device license fee for six months for all 100 machines.
"We paid them, and now they come raiding us," Land said. "We'll see them in court."