Fairfax County police spend big bucks in hopes of big breaks in betting cases
It's football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. Yes, that stomach-churning time of year when people illegally wager money on such crucial issues as whether the Houston Texans can beat the Redskins by three points, or whether the two teams can combine to score more than 44.5 points.
It's a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent -- and lost -- more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates.
But neither the ringleader nor another man who handled bets out of the Eden Center mall in Falls Church received any jail time. Both agreed to repay the money they'd won from Fairfax police, in $200 or $250 monthly payments, which will take each man roughly 40 years. The money spent by the police had originally been seized from a bookie in a related investigation.
Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. In Fairfax, the police rarely publicize their arrests, and the details of their investigations are little known outside the small corps of detectives in the money laundering unit. Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation.
"What a waste," said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. "The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes."
Not a victimless crime
Fairfax's most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi -- and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him.
Still, the police continue to pursue sports gamblers. Why?
"It's nowhere near a victimless crime," said Sgt. James Cox, who heads the money laundering unit. "And it's always the wrong people who get hurt."
Cox said sports bettors have been found "betting their kids' college money away. Losing their family's houses over it. You've got crimes of violence."
In Fairfax's biggest sports gambling case, the long-running operation overseen by Raj Bansal and his sons, Cox said Bansal took over a mortgage on a house lost by one of his bettors, then got the Fairfax sheriff's office to evict the bettor's family. Many bookies, including one connected to a Fairfax case in 2007, have ties to organized crime.
The process of actually making bets has gone high-tech, but it doesn't necessarily make the investigations any tougher, Cox said. Many local bookies now use Web sites run by offshore companies, which keep track of the bettors and their wagers but don't handle the actual money.
That's still done by the bookies, who collect their winnings on Tuesday and make payouts on Wednesday, Cox said. He had no estimate of how widespread sports gambling is locally, but "every year we hear about more."