Some poker players netted in a police raid of a popular South Baltimore gambling club complained bitterly yesterday about state and local laws that outlaw betting on a wildly popular card game, and railed against what they called "overzealous" law enforcement officials.
Illustrating the confusion over gambling laws, police and prosecutors bickered last night over whether and how to proceed with charges against 80 people who were caught up in the raid at the Owl's Nest on Wednesday.
Baltimore police rarely pursue charges involving illegal poker, and the city state's attorney's office questioned whether police had followed proper procedures in issuing citations to players rather than making arrests.
At one point last night, Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, said she expected the charges against all 80 players to be dropped. About an hour later, after police challenged that interpretation, she said prosecutors would spend more time reviewing the law next week.
The confusion within law enforcement was shared by those who participated in the poker tournament. They said yesterday that they thought the event at the club was legal because organizers said proceeds would go to charities, a common misinterpretation of local law, which prohibits poker regardless of whether it is played to raise funds for charity.
"I never envisioned something like that happening," said Frank Pizzuti, 42, of Baltimore, who brought his father to the tournament. "You haven't lived until you've been cited by vice with your 77-year-old dad."
Players said paid ads in The Sun reinforced their belief that the tournament was legal. Players said they showed the ads to police in hopes of being excused but were cited for illegal gambling.
"We didn't go looking for this," said Michael Ruyter, 37, of Crofton, one of the 80 people cited at the event. "The tournament was advertised in the newspaper. We shouldn't get any [citation]."
City police have called the raid the largest in decades, perhaps since 72 people were busted in 1932 in a Prohibition-era raid in Highlandtown. They declined yesterday to release the names of the people cited at the Owl's Nest. The investigation of the club is continuing, they said, and 15 other people, including the organizers of the event, could be charged.
"Those names will be used strictly for investigative purposes," said Sgt. Craig Gentile, who organized the raid.
Owl's Nest owners Joseph A. Cary, 50, of Pasadena and Gerald C. Dickens, 65, of Bowie could not be reached for comment yesterday. State and city officials said they are investigating the men for possible zoning and permitting infractions.
The club, at 1800 Worcester St., just south of Camden Yards, had 12 illegal amusement devices, Gentile said. The machines belonged to Cary and had not been registered with the city, as is required by law, he said.
Cary owes the city $2,592 for failing to get the proper permits, said Mary Uhl, a supervisor with the city's Department of Business License and Miscellaneous Tax. The fine will continue to grow until Cary pays, Uhl said.
An official with the city's zoning board confirmed yesterday that Dickens and Cary had received a variance in July so that they could use surrounding parking lots for patrons but said they had failed to get the proper permit for amusement devices.
David C. Tanner, executive director of the city Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, said that even if the two men had obtained a permit for the devices, they would have been limited to five.
"They testified that they were a philanthropic group that had meetings there to decide who to give the money to," said Tanner, who provided The Sun with copies of letters from Associated Black Charities and the American Cancer Society saying they had received money from the Owl's Nest.
Tanner said the club also provided a letter from the Order of Owls' "supreme secretary" as proof that it had registered as a nonprofit organization with the Internal Revenue Service. An IRS spokeswoman was unable to confirm the club's status.
The Baltimore club also violated state liquor laws by serving alcohol without a license, police said.
In recent months, some city bars and restaurants have misinterpreted a local law that permits some types of gambling for charitable purposes. The types of games permitted vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but only raffles, bingo, carnivals and paddle wheels are allowed in the city.
Still, some bar and club owners thought the law included poker, and when the Texas Hold-em poker craze spread to Baltimore, a number of bars and restaurants started conducting tournaments.
Confusion over the law persists. Those who attended the poker tournament Wednesday night said they were under the impression that because some of the proceeds would go to charities, it was legal. At the start of the tournament, someone announced that money collected at a past tournament had been donated to a local fire department, players said.
Crofton resident Ruyter said that when he told his friends about the tournament, they wondered whether it was legal. He said he told them it must be because of the newspaper ads.
Pizzuti expressed anger at The Sun for running the ads last month, four in all.
Alonza Williams, a spokesman for The Sun, said the newspaper does not accept ads that could induce readers to break federal, state or local laws. He said that if the newspaper receives information that illegal activity is associated with an ad, "we investigate immediately."
Williams said the newspaper received no such information about the ads for the tournaments at the Owl's Nest. The Sun's policy regarding ads for poker tournaments will be reviewed, he said.