Eagles squawked and Elks bellowed yesterday after Montgomery County vice squad detectives swept through six fraternal organizations Wednesday night and hauled away what they said were 10 illegal gambling machines.
Somewhat more decorously than Elliot Ness and his brash Untouchables, a dozen vice squad detectives and uniformed officers simultaneously descended on six fraternal lodges in the county around 8:30 p.m., startling upstanding burghers of fellowship at three Elks Clubs, a nestful of Eagles, an American Legion Hall and a gaggle of foreign wars vets passing what up until then had been a normal Wednesday night of scotch and sodality.
The police, who did not need search warrants because they said they were entering the lodges to check liquor licenses, confiscated five draw poker machines, one high-low poker machine and four slot machines, none of which were set up to disgorge money. The machines, some of which took several officers to carry away, were loaded into police vans and paddy wagons, and impounded in Rockville.
Mere possession of slot machines in Maryland is punishable by up to one year in jail and $1,000 fine. Last October Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs issued a ruling that redefined "slot machine" to include machines that didn't pay the lucky players off with the customary upheaval of change.
Montgomery County police, prompted by the ruling, and by a tip, closed in on machines in the fraternal lodges after a brief investigation. "As soon as we found out about the machines we took 'em," said Lt. James Elkins, director of the county police department's Special Investigations Division. "It's to let people know that if they're engaged in illegal activity, they'll have to pay the price."
The raids mystified some clubbers and left others indignant. "It's just ridiculous," huffed David Stevens, manager of the 300-member American Legion of Rockville where police lugged away two gambling machines. "The American Legion does not have any gambling. All the machines are video machines. They've been there three years. We've had police officers that played them. We don't try to hide them. [County executive Charles] Gilchrist is a member of this post. The people are very respectable."
"We were really surprised," said Buddy Smith, a trustee of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, a brotherhood of some 300 bankers, businessmen, drywallers and various workers who put on dances for charity and prepare Christmas baskets for the needy. Police lugged off one slot machine that the lodge had had for three years. "No money came out of the machine," Smith said. "It wasn't gambling. It was for amusement only. We have state senators coming down here all the time. Gilchrist was an honorary member."
Police have filed no charges yet, and the investigation has not been completed. But police spokesman Nancy Moses said that people who played the machine at the various clubs "would receive some form of credit for points scored and then would be able to cash it in for money with some members of the club."
American Legion Hall manager Stevens said, "I've given turkeys and gift certificates away for so many points," but emphasized that money never changed hands.
"They asked us for a payout sheet," said Smith from the Eagle's Eyrie, No. 3230 on Washington Avenue in Rockville. "I said we couldn't afford to have one." The Eagle's slot machine had stood beside two pinball machines, the juke box, and a game of Space Invaders. The shriek of demolished space ships sounded in the background. "The machines were just for fun," Smith said. "Some one's playing Space Invaders now."