Fairfax County police spend big bucks in hopes of big breaks in betting cases

By Tom Jackman
Sunday, September 19, 2010; C01

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."

The money laundering squad has investigated about 60 sports gambling cases since it was founded in 2004, and another 15 dating to the late 1990s, said Capt. Erin Schaible, head of the Fairfax police's organized crime and narcotics section. Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said.

Asked for an accounting of the cases, police provided a list of 18 defendants dating back to 1999. Of those, four were sent to federal court and received prison sentences -- including Bansal and his two sons. The other was Fairfax Station business owner Dwight Day, whose lawyer said he was a drug user and a losing bettor, not a bookie. Cox said Day took bets for an organized crime bookmaker from Philadelphia.

Of the other 14, only one served jail time (three months for a misdemeanor). One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts. Schaible said such funds are recycled "back into investigating cases. It's helping us resolve these and fight further crime."

A lot on the table

One such recycling was the case of Man Kit Yau, a 61-year-old Chinese national living in Las Vegas. Bettors placed wagers through a Web site called abetsports.com, and Yau had a network of "sub-bookies" in Fairfax who collected from and paid Yau's customers, as well as their own, Cox said.

"He, in turn, sent his money to China," Cox said. "We tried to get it. It's hard to get to China."

At some point, Fairfax police arrested one of Yau's sub-bookies and seized a large amount of cash. Cox declined to say how much, saying that it would expose cooperating witnesses. But that's when the recycling began, or "using bad guys' money to get more bad guys," as Cox put it.

Police began using informants to make bets with Yau, and also maintained the local sports book to keep the investigation from collapsing, Cox said. "Collections" were shipped to Yau in Las Vegas by money orders, Cox said, and Yau sometimes sent back winnings. Cox said the police also had to pay the Web site's weekly fees of $50 per player.

In the end, Fairfax police sent Yau $125,000 more than he sent back.

"I was just sort of astounded," Yau's attorney, Kenneth Robinson of the District, said during Yau's sentencing, "that the county actually spent the $125,000 that they lost betting on this."

Cox said the police weren't doing the betting, but the county did absorb the loss. Schaible acknowledged the money could have been saved and used for other purposes, but "part of our directive is to utilize assets to further investigation. So it's a very legitimate and upfront cost to us. . . . For us, it's not a profit-loss thing. It helps further the next investigation."

Yau was ordered to repay the $125,000 at $250 a month.

Another defendant in the same investigation was bookie Thuyen Chi Oo, who operated out of the Eden Center. Cox said Oo was a sub-bookie of Yau's. At his sentencing hearing, he was ordered to repay $100,000, which one prosecutor said was "generous" in light of how much Oo actually cost Fairfax police in bets and costs. Oo was ordered to make restitution of $200 per month.

Schaible declined to say how much money police lost to Oo, saying it would jeopardize the informant. Fairfax Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Gromosaik and Oo's lawyer Mike Weatherbee also declined to provide a dollar amount. Two sources familiar with the case said the amount was close to $180,000.

"That was an extreme case," Cox said of the Yau investigation. "But you had to let that case run its course. What we seized in that case overcame everything. We locked up 10 or 11 people and seized lots of money," though he would not say how much.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company