Just a year ago, it looked as though Joseph Webb's number was up.
Police had raided his charity bingo game in Northeast Washington and Webb, 33, who also calls himself "God's Poet," was facing illegal gambling charges that carried a sentence of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
But tonight, all that will be mostly forgotten -- though there's still the matter of $4,100 the city won't return even though the charges were dropped -- as Webb holds the first big-time legal bingo game licensed under the District's new gambling law.
Although religious groups and others have run small bingo games in the city since last spring, Webb is planning for more than 1,000 players to show up at the D.C. Armory for the 7 1/2-hour bingo blitz that is scheduled to have 57 games, with about $15,000 in prizes, including two jackpot games with prizes of $5,000 and $2,000.
"People will travel hundreds of miles to go to a good bingo game," Webb said in an interview this week, noting that some of the 600 tickets sold or distributed in advance went to persons from as far away as Cleveland and New York. "We are going to have a bingo party," said Webb.
About 125 of those advance tickets, Webb said, are free to players who were on hand last summer when the police raided the unauthorized game staged by "God's Poet, Inc.," Webb's fledgling tax-exempt charity organization located on Harvard Street in northwest Washington.
Until the bingo raid, he said, his group had raised and distributed about $5,000 in emergency loans to people in distress. "They're interest-free loans, but very seldom do people pay back," Webb said. He said he hopes to make about $15,000 profit for his group through tonight's event.
Webb, who also works as an administrator for the D.C. public schools, complained bitterly last year that dozens of illegal bingo games were operating in the city but that his was the only operation raided.
Police said they had received complaints about the existence of Webb's game but not others. A detective this week said the gambling squad had warned Webb before the raid to cease operating. "He's a nice guy. I just wish he had waited until it was legal," the detective said.
The charges against Webb were dropped when two detectives scheduled to testify failed to show up in court. But the city last August told him it was keeping the $4,100 because it was seized at an illegal gambling site. Webb is still trying to get his money back.
"It sure would help this week," he said. Expenses for the legal game tonight have included $3,500 to rent the Armory, $2.75 for each table and 50 cents for each chair, $8 an hour for each of eight security guards.
The bingo license cost $200 while bonding and insurance cost $1,300, Webb said. Webb's license is one of nine classes of bingo licenses set up by the city -- each with its own restrictions on prizes, participants and frequency.
"The city is missing a bet by putting so many obstacles in the way," said Webb, a self-described bingo fanatic who says he travels to area games and plays as many as 90 to 100 cards at a time. He said the city limits prizes in most cases to no more than $5,000, half what is allowed in most Maryland games.
"We could do some things in this city, raise a million a month with bingo games, but the preachers still control the city." The reference was to the fact that churches have often run bingo games here.
Webb wistfully spoke of a recent bingo game in Cherokee, N.C., where he said participants from around the country each paid $500 a piece to vie for prizes totaling more than $1 million.
Webb said tonight's game pales by comparison.
"This minimum is enough for the novice player," Webb said. "But for the hard-core player, and there are thousands of them here, it is not enough."