Every summer since 1924 the volunteer firemen in Warrenton have put on a wingding of a carnival to raise money for their company. And as far back as anyone can remember, a few dice games and a roulette wheels were as much a part of the fair as cotton candy and a Ferris wheel.
Then along comes a new police chief to this rustic town of 5,000 in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He tells the firemen that the games are illegal in Virginia under laws prohibiting gambling. Sorry, fellas, no dice.
So when the Warrenton firemen held their annual carnival last weekend they had candy apples, a merry-go-round and raffles. But the Beat the Dealer dice throw and Spin the Wheel roulette game were shut down, leaving the firemen and a good many townsfolk hopping mad about the police chief's decision, which one citizen likened to give a speeding ticket for driving 41 miles an hour in a 40-mile-an-hour zone.
"I don't say they're illegal games. I call them questionable," says volunteer fire chief Sam Tarr, who insists there is a difference between gambling for personal gain and gambling to help a good cause.
To this, beleaguered police chief John Zelaska replies: "If it had been anybody (else) gambing, we would have stopped it. Nobody can give anybody else permission to break the law."
The trouble in Warrenton started May 21 when the town manager sent a letter to the firemen informing them that gambling games would not be allowed at this year's carnival.
The letter was based on a decision by Zelaska to enforce a longstanding but previously ignored Virginia statute that says gambling for case is a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison.
Zelaska, who arrived in Warrenton last July after a 21-year career in the Fairfax County police department, said he was simply trying to do his job, even if it meant stepping on a few toes. "I was hired to direct a professional police department," he says. "You can't allow breaking of the law and still have a professional police department."
The fireman, however, don't see it that way. Tarr, a fireman for 22 years and the chief for the past seven, said he knows of no complaints about the games, which he views as an innocent way to benefit the community. And men in the 35-member company say they prefer raising money for new equipment and other expenses through the carnival, instead of going door-to-door asking for contributions.
Tarr said the carnival normally nets about $18,000, with about $6,000 collected from the gambling tables. Profits from the carnival and other fund-raisers covered 90 percent of the department's $35,000 annual operating budget last year, and Tarr said a greater burden would fall on taxpapers' shoulders if the volunteers didn't raise money on their own.
While a few firemen conceded that Zelaska was just doing his job when he banned "cash for cash" gambling at the carnival, they were angry because they thought the police chief didn't give them enough notice so they could rig up some new games as substitutes. However, they did set up two extra booths for Instant Bingo, which state law allows for charitable purposes.
The stew over the Warrenton carnival not only pitted the fire and police departments against each other, but also created controversy on the town council. Several members rallied behind Zelaska, but Mayor J. Willard Lineweaver reportedly said he was "dismayed" about the gambling ban.
By the time the three-day carnival started last Thursday, the mayor wasn't talking to reporters anymore. Former police chief H. B. Jones, who is still on the Warrenton police force, wasn't talking either, especially when asked why the gambling law was never enforced before.
Despite a persistent drizzle last Saturday, the fairgrounds behind the modern brick firehouse on Rte. 29 were crowded with people who came from as far as Richmond and Charlottesville to line up for hot dogs and a whirl on the Ferris wheel. Toddlers clutched stufed animals won at a ring toss game and the muddy ground around the popular Instant Bingo booths was littered with losing ticket stubs.
The only signs that something was different this year were a few empty booths and the deserted Beat the Dealer table, where a modified crap game was played in past years. In a jab at Zelaska, the firemen pinned up a hand-lettered poster that read, "This booth closed by order (of) Warrenton Chief of Police."
Standing nearby, Bill Gough of Buckingham, Va., said, "If they open up the crap table, they'd sure get my business." Like several other visitors Saturday, Gough contended that gambling goes on at carnivals all over rural Virginia, with apparently few towns paying attention to the law.
"Technically, by law, it is "illegal," said Click Smith of Powhatan, Va., whose son is a fireman in Warrenton. "But the public doesn't look at it the same way as if it's in a back room somewhere. This is for a charitable purpose. It helps the public, not just one person."
Some of the old-timers at last weekend's fair grumbled about Zelaska's decision, and suggested sending the police chief back to Fairfax County. "If he had to enforce tha law, why couldn't he wait until after the carnival before doing his act?" asked Larissa Williams, 55, who has lived in Warrenton all her life.
Comments like Williams' were particularly hard to take for members of the police force, who said they got the cold shoulder as they patrolled the carnival.
"They're treating him grossly unfair," said one officer who asked not to be named and who described his boss as "very progressive and trying to professionalize the place."
Later, as he sat in police headquarters to explain his feelings about the new ruling: "If you get somebody shooting craps down here (at headquarters), we're expected to enforce the law. But down there (at the carnival) they think they can blatantly do it."
In the end, this year's carnival grossed $39,000, but Tarr said he won't know the profits until mid-July when the bills come in. He said the intake was down $3,500 from last year, when it also rained.
While a lot of animosity was voiced, the most conciliatory words, at least on the record, were from the two main characters in the dispute.
Said police chief Zelaska: "They derive a lot of money from the carnival each year, money for a worthwhile cause. I guess I'm the bad guy now."
And fire chief Tarr, admitting that he would have liked things to stay as they were, said he didn't think Zelaska was wrong to enforce the law. "We understand he has a job to do," he said.