For most of his life, William (Gene) Sorrows ran crooked carnival games all over America, he says, making $50,000 a year during 15 years of skulduggery as a carnival worker, called a "carny."
In Atlanta, he bilked a colonel out of $2,700 in a numbers game in which there were actually no winning numbers. In West Virginia, he persuaded a coal miner to spend $800 while trying to toss rings onto blocks that were too large for the rings to slip over.
Then one day, Sorrow recalls, a wife of one of his victims returned to a carnival site, hysterical and with two babies in her arm. She left the children at his booth, Sorrows says, claiming that her husband had lost a week's pay to Sorrow and she now had no money to feed them.
"The other carnies laughed about it, told me I ought to keep 'em because we might be able to sell 'em for 10 bucks," Sorrows said. "I began to look at what I was doing, look at the people around me. They looked like dirt."
So for the last two years Sorrows, a self-proclaimed born-again man of principle, has been barnstorming around the country claiming that carnivals are stealing countless millions from the public through rigged games while law enforcement officials stand by -- through their own ignorance or because they've been bribed.
Two weeks ago, while visiting here, Sorrows got lost driving around the city and stumbled across the Reithoffer Carnival playing on a vacant, city-owned lot in impoverished Shaw. He went to a D.C. policeman he knew and outlined the rigged games he thought could be found there. The police dispatched undercover agents.
"The games we found were played just like he said; we were able to watch them steal," said detective Dennis Tiede of the investigative services branch.
As a result of Sorrows' tip, police staged one of their most successful raids in years last weekend. Some 100 officers swept through the Retithoffer midway, seizing alleged rigged games, $113,000 in cash, about 40 ounces of apparent gold bullion, illegal weapons and boxes full of carnival records.
They arrested five operators four of whom pleaded not guilty to gambling and firearms charges in D.C. Superior Court Friday. The fifth skipped bond. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Games seized included one in which stuffed cats allegedly were loaded with counterweights so they couldn't be knocked off a counter if struck by a rubber ball and another in which a customer pitching a ball on a string to knock over a pin could not possibly do so unless the operator wanted him to. "We could have taken more if we wanted to," said one police official.
Police and federal prosecutors have been poring over the seized documents this week. Sorrows insists that links between some carnivals and organized crime are commonplace. "Nobody can tell how much money is coming in; it's a perfect place to launder money," Sorrows says. He claims to have worked ith Mafia lieutenants and have paid off scores of law enforcement officials, from chiefs of police to judges -- none in Washington.
A spokesman for the carnival industry, William T. Collins, says Sorrows is "a damn liar" and "crazy, too" in making these allegations. "What's he after, notoriety?" Collins asked.
Collins is a retired carnival owner, president emeritus of the carnival trade association, and the industry's lobbyist in Washington. "I know every carnival owner in the United States; they all run a pretty fair carnival," he said. "They return between 30 and 35 cents in merchandise for every dollar take in."
Collins said there might be "a few bad apples in every barrel," but that the industry works to eliminate them. "I know Ricky Reithoffer [who ran the carnival raided two weeks ago], I know his parents, he's a pretty good kid. I don't think he would run rigged games," Collins said.
Of Sorrows, he added: "He's been going around telling police about an operation he doesn't know what he's talking about. He's bringing up things in the business that happened 50 years ago. You don't see no more rigged wheels, do you?"
Dozens of stop-and-go carnivals come to the vacant lots, church yards and suburban shopping center parking lots of the Washington area each year. Many, like the one raided two weeks ago at 9th and L streets NW, are brought to town by charitable organizations trying to raise money.
Throughout the nation, such carnivals are a $50 billion a year business, Sorrows says, but efforts to police such operations are fragmented, lax and low priority. "It doesn't seem to catch people's attention much," one FBI official conceded.
So Sorrows, a slightly paunchy 32-year-old with stringy hair and a pixie grin, had launched his one-man crusade. He was born in Georgia, but raised on the midway, and now, having sold most of what he owns to pay for his travels, he criss-crosses the country trying to straighten out the carnival world.
"I started out running a straight game, and my uncle cleaned me out in a rigged game every year, just to teach me," Sorrows says. "There used to be a code among carnival thieves: You don't play to women, men with pregnant women and people who are afflicted. Now there's no code. I've seen eight-year-old girls break down and cry after they've been taken. I've seen people lose their food stamps at the games."
In trying to shut down the alleged operations, Sorrows gives seminars to law enforcement officials, demonstrating rigged games with a few he carries around in a battered brown briefcase. He says he is too well known to show up on a midway. Police confirm that Sorrows' life has been threatened, but he refuses to accept police protection and relocation of himself and his family.
Sorrows claims he is not trying to destroy the carnival industry, only to eliminate the majority he feels are corrupt. "I want to see what the carnival industry is founded for -- good, clean, inexpensive family entertainment," he says.
What Sorrows wants is a Congressional investigation of the carnival industry, with an emphasis on unraveling alleged links to organized crime. But he says no one in Congress will listen.
Another expert recognized by law enforcement, Tom Heffernan, an investigator for the Sacramento, Clif. district attorney's office, sympathizes with Sorrows.
"His problem is that he's so desperate to get it done fast," Heffernan said. "That's not going to happen. When you mention carnival to anyone, whether in law enforcement or not, they think of two things -- dime in a dish, and those long haired creeps running the rides. You've got to overcome that, and by the time you do, the carnival is gone someplace else."
Sorrows said he vividly remembers some of the bad things he did, and that is what propels his crusade.
"I beat a soldier in Tennessee -- he was packing about $7,000 because he was between moves -- and I had him going at $800 a shot," Sorrows recalled. "His wife passed out. When she was dragged away she had urinated on herself. "I'm not proud of what I once was; I'm proud of what I am now."