According to William S. Horne, the state police raid that netted 160 slot machines from 24 veterans posts and fraternal lodges and two yacht clubs was like a page from a popular war novel fraught with symbolism.
"It rained when they raided, and the sun came out when they left," said Horne, who heads the Eastern Shore delegation to the Maryland General Assembly and, as an attorney, represents two of the raided lodges.
Ninety troopers swooped down at high noon Friday, Sept. 28, on the private clubs in five Eastern Shore counties. They were armed with search-and-seizure warrants based on an undercover investigation they said showed that the number of machines had doubled in three years.
Police seized records and an undisclosed amount of coins in addition to the one-armed bandits -- and created one big ruckus in what locals call "the land of pleasant living."
"Who started this thing?" asked Claudette Rutter, the dining room hostess at the toney Tidewater Inn. "I can't believe it. Good grief. They don't have anything better to do? It's just the dumbest thing."
From Somerset County to Queen Anne's County, similar cries of outrage have erupted from residents and politicians alike east of the Chesapeake Bay. Many view the raids as a direct assault by an almost alien state government on the way of life that has for years included a clandestine tradition of slot machine gambling.
Prior to the raids, two judges, saying their own club memberships created a conflict of interest, refused to sign warrants for the state police. "I'm sure my brothers at that post, if they had any illegal gambling devices, would not appreciate my participation" in the case, said Circuit Judge Clayton C. Carter, who belongs to two Queen Anne's County veterans groups.
Since the raids, chief prosecutors in two counties have said they will not try any cases arising from what Caroline County State's Attorney Starke M. Evans sarcastically refers to as "The Great Slot Machine Raids."
Evans likened the state police action to "the smash-and-grab raids" conducted by federal authorities during Prohibition. "They would pour all the booze out and leave, and nobody was ever prosecuted," he said. "Central police bother me. They're dealing with these service organizations as if there was criminal intent all the way."
Queen Anne's State's Attorney J. Donald Braden was also "angry and upset" by the raids. "If the state police prevail, a lot of these organizations are gonna close up," he said. "It's kind of sad."
The two prosecutors assert that the slots were operating legally under a section of the Maryland code that permits cash prizes from "any gaming device" operated by "any bona fide fraternal, civic, war veterans, religious or charitable organization or corporation" in 16 counties.
The organizations say the slot machine revenues go to charity, including destitute families, local hospitals and the Little League. The state authorities are sifting through records to learn if this is so, but they say that, regardless, the machines are "contraband" under another section of the law that appears to outlaw slots specifically.
The raids stemmed from a state police investigation that began six months ago, according to officials. A prior probe in 1981 had resulted in a report that 80 slot machines existed in the five counties, but no action was taken at the time. When the recent probe disclosed what authorities regarded as an alarming increase in the number of machines, they decided to act.
(On Aug. 23, in an unrelated action, police in Salisbury, in Wicomico County, raided two clubs and seized 18 slot machines. Last week, a Veterans of Foreign Wars post received probation before judgment and was fined $200 by a county judge. That the profits might be used for charity "is not a reason not to enforce the law," the Associated Press reported the judge as saying.)
In executing its raids, the state police worked with the office of the Maryland special prosecutor, who can try cases if local prosecutors refuse.
For some of the locals, there is a touch of hypocrisy in the state's sweep, and maybe a little greed. "I can't understand it," said Ronald (Romeo) Insley, one of a half-dozen people watching an American League playoff game the other night at the American Legion Post 91 on the Choptank River in Cambridge. "The state's in the biggest gambling business in the world, good God, with the lottery they have. I don't understand what the big kick is against slot machines."
(Martin Puncke, executive director of the Maryland Lottery Commission, said the state's revenue-raising games fare worst in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. Slots "don't help us," he said.)
Post 91 Commander Hal Klein, who runs the blood bank at the Dorchester County Hospital, said that on the day of the raid, three state troopers "came and got me from work. I will say this, they were very, very polite. I didn't hold anything back." Klein said he does not know the take from the Legion post's six slot machines.
For now, he says, the men who frequent his post as their major source of entertainment will have to be content with Friday night bingo and other special fund-raising events -- such as an upcoming appearance by Danny and the Juniors, a 1950s rock 'n' roll group.
"We would like to get the slots back," Klein said with a shrug. "The Eastern Shore is a little bit different from every place else."
For the working people of the Eastern Shore, the fraternal organizations act like the neighborhood taverns found in metropolitan areas, luring them with 50-cent beers, 75-cent mixed drinks -- and slots.
Nancy Wagoner said her Centreville tavern closed because of competition from the clubs that offered slots. "You don't go into a club on the Western Shore and find slots," she said. "I mean the Eastern Shore has to catch up with the rest of the world."
Slot machines were legal in four Southern Maryland counties on the Western Shore only from 1949 to 1968, when they were outlawed by the state legislature. Some suggest it was then that the slots started cropping up on the Eastern Shore.
Following a 1982 state appellate court ruling upholding other forms of gambling by service clubs in Western Maryland, the General Assembly decided earlier this year to restudy the issue of slots.
In the months since, the House Judiciary Committee has held public hearings and work sessions, but Horne, the Talbot County delegate who sits on the committee, is pessimistic about a legislative solution. "There are 24 subdivisions in the state," he said. "It's quite convoluted."
As the lawyer for two Easton Elks lodges that had a total of 17 slot machines seized, Horne says there is nothing to do but wait to see whether any prosecutions result from the raids. It is possible, he said, that the state will do nothing, leaving the clubs in the position to file a costly civil suit seeking the return of the slot machines.
Meanwhile, Special Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli is attempting to smooth the waters by meeting with state's attorneys Braden and Evans.
But it is unlikely he will change their minds. Evans, who used to play the slots as a member of the Easton Elks, said he moved to the Eastern Shore from his native Montgomery County to find "peace and quiet." He said he has found both -- "except on a few occasions when the state police come in and raid for slot machines."