A man described in court as the head of a family-operated gambling enterprise that is estimated to have grossed more that $2 million a year was sentenced yesterday to five years in prison.

Benjamin T. Thornton, 54, of 4321 Ranger Ave., Oxon Hill, was led away to prison from a federal courtroom here as his 22-year-old daughter, Shelia, wailed loudly in the audience.

The daughter herself faces a four-month jail term for taking part in the same gambling operation. Thornaton's 44-year-old brother, John, of 3044 Stanton Rd., SE, has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for his role in the same gambling ring.

Another brother, Charles J. (Boo) Thornton, also of the Stanton Road address, has been charged in the same gambling ring but has not yet come to trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph McSorley of the major crimes division described Benjamin Thornton as a man who has "enjoyed a very high position in organized criminal endeavors for years" in the city, and who has two previous felony convictions. McSorley also said Thornton had been rearrested after another gambling raid and detained for a while after yet another while he was out on bond in the current case.

In addition, McSorley said Thornton's house is estimated to be worth $85,000, and that it and various new cars he has purchased in past years are titled under other names in an apparent attempt to avoid tax payments.

Benjamin Thornton currently is under indictment in a federal income tax evasion case pending in Baltimore.

Thornton's attorney, William Borders, said that although his client was "not a stranger to this courthouse," the judge should look "at the community and the violation" and not impose a stiff sentence.

"He's not a violent man," Borders said of his client. He also said Thornton would have pleaded guilty and not have gone to trial if the government had agreed to drop charges against his daughter.

The convictions of Shelia and John Thornton were their first. Shelia Thornton was described by the government as a "key office assistant, and John Thornton was described by the prosecutors as a major figure in the same operation.