Originally created 02/17/99

Video poker thefts net $500,000



ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Not everyone in South Carolina has been losing when they approach video gambling machines.

Police in Chester and Union counties and in Gaston County, N.C., have charged six people with breaking into video gambling machines across the state and stealing more than $500,000.

They allegedly operated in teams with copies of master keys so they could empty machines while their partners distracted clerks, police said Monday.

The men averaged about two stores a night for about a year, bringing in $15,000 to $18,000 per week, police said.

"I can tell you they've been living pretty well," Rock Hill Detective Keith Dugan said. "They're wearing Nikes and nice jewelry."

The men started robbing cigarette, soda and candy machines about three years ago but switched to video gambling machines when they realized they could get far more money, police said.

"With all the machines, the cash flow ... would be unlimited," said Chester County sheriff's Lt. Robby Bensonof.

The ring has operated as far away as Myrtle Beach and Charleston, police said.

The men have nearly 1,000 keys to gambling machines that they bought from a Gaston County, N.C., locksmith for $200 to $500 per key, police said. Authorities also are investigating the locksmith, Detective Dugan said.

"These kids told me they are pretty much unstoppable because they have so many keys and so much money to bail each other out," he said.

Rock Hill police identified four of the suspects on a Feb. 2 tape from Scott's Food Store.

The men entered the store separately around midnight and posed as video gambling players. The tape showed them distracting the clerk by chatting with him and cashing in vouchers, police said.

"They were just very pleasant and joked around a lot," Detective Dugan said.

But while two of them talked with the clerk, they used hand signals -- such as raising their arms over their head -- to tell their accomplices when the clerk was looking away.

The partners would then unlock the machines, take out stacks of $10 and $20 bills, and signal back. They emptied the five machines at Scott's of $1,669 in about 20 minutes, police said.

Terry Lynn Jones, 29, of Dallas, N.C.; and Rodney Maurice Cobb, 28, Randall Eugene Ramsey, 31, and Thomas L. Walker, 26, all of Gastonia, N.C., were charged with grand larceny and tampering with a video poker machine.

Chester County authorities charged Mr. Jones, Travis Dean Evans, 19, and Jada Bridges Whitesides, 23, both of Dallas, N.C., with tampering with a video poker machine, petty larceny and possession of burglary tools. Police said the men allegedly took $318 from five machines at a Quick C convenience store.

Union County authorities Tuesday charged Mr. Evans with stealing $237 from a Mini-Mart after an investigator identified him on the Chester surveillance tape.

Operators should replace their locks, Detective Dugan said. "All of these machines are very similarly made and they're all on the same key system," he said.