On a quiet weeknight among the stately manors of Great Falls, ten men sat around a table in the basement of a private home last November playing high stakes poker. Suddenly, masked and heavily armed SWAT team officers from the Fairfax County Police Department burst through the door, pointed their assault rifles at the players and ordered them to put their hands on the table. The players complied. Their cash was seized, including a reported $150,000 from the game’s host, and eight of the ten players were charged with the Class 3 misdemeanor of illegal gambling, punishable by a maximum fine of $500. The minimum buy-in for the game was $20,000, with re-buys allowed if you lost your first twenty grand.
This was not your everyday cash game with the neighbors. The buy-in was twice what it costs to enter the World Series of Poker’s main event in Las Vegas (though the Great Falls players did not have to pay the whole $20,000 up front). Two established poker pros were at the Great Falls table and another was hosting the game, taking a roughly 1.5 percent cut from the buy-ins to pay for two dealers and two assistants to make coffee runs or give massages to the players. “Taking a cut” is what elevates a poker game, in the minds of the Fairfax police, into a criminal enterprise. But the host has not been charged and the search warrant used to raid the house remains sealed. The host declined to comment.
One regular at the game said he glanced out the French doors in the basement, and “I saw these helmets bobbing up and down” in the darkened backyard. The shadowy figures yelled that they were Fairfax County police with a search warrant, then opened the door and about eight officers in black marched in. “They were all yelling, ‘Does anybody have a weapon?’ and ‘please don’t move'” at the seated players, the player said. “One pointed his assault rifle at me and said, ‘Hands up.’ And I can’t believe this is happening.”
There were no guns at the table, and no resistance, the player said. “They could’ve sent a retired detective with a clipboard and gotten the same result,” he added. He requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize the case against him or his professional career.
Raids by Fairfax police on private poker games are not new — a similar game in Great Falls was raided in 2005. But in 2006, a SWAT team was called in to arrest a single suspect accused of betting on football games, and Officer Deval Bullock accidentally shot and killed optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi Jr. After that, the Fairfax police said they would use their tactical teams more judiciously. Still, the Fairfax police have continued to be unapologetic in their aggressive enforcement of gambling laws, as seen by their willingness to bet and lose large amounts of money to take down sports bookies. They will even make the effort to place an informant in a poker game and they are still willing to wield their heavy artillery to take down a roomful of unarmed poker players.
Fairfax police said they could not discuss the Great Falls case since it is still under investigation. “In general though,” police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said, “detectives have seen that some of the organized card games, even in private homes, may involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. At times, we’ve seen illegal activity involved in these games. Additionally, at times, illegal weapons are present. With these large amounts of cash involved, the risks are high. We’ve worked cases where there have been armed robberies.”
After they got over the shock of staring down the barrels of high-powered semi-automatic assault rifles, then being interrogated and charged with a crime, the players and dealers all shared a similar goal: to wriggle out of getting a conviction, even a misdemeanor, on their records. Their lawyers were ready to go to trial in Fairfax General District Court last Thursday, and to challenge whether the Virginia gambling law’s definition of “games of chance” covers poker. In 2013, the Supreme Court considered and then declined to rule on whether poker qualified as a game of skill, and the Great Falls case appeared ripe to make legal history.
But the Fairfax prosecutors, with what the lawyers said was the police detectives’ blessing, cut them a deal: stay clean for six months and the gambling charge would be dismissed, and eligible to be expunged from their record. And for those who had cash seized from them — one player had more than $20,000, the regular player said — the police agreed to return 60 percent of the money, and keep 40 percent. Though the police use of civil forfeiture is being revised in federal courts, in Virginia state courts the local police agency may keep 100 percent of what they seize. And what the Fairfax police organized crime and narcotics section, which investigates gambling, will do with their seizure proceeds, they will not say.
The defendants decided to take their deals and keep their mouths shut. Only one player spoke for the record, though his account of events was verified by others involved in the case.
The Great Falls game itself is not a big secret. It has been running regularly for several years now, and big name pros such as Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari have played there. Players are given $20,000 in chips, though much of that is on credit, the regular player said, and at the end of the night those who lose write checks to make up for what they owe, rather than carry big cash to the game. The only games played are no limit Texas Hold Em and pot limit Omaha.
An informant apparently assisted the police with their investigation, the regular player and lawyers said. A new player joined the game the week before the raid, the regular player said, and it was clear to the poker vets that “he didn’t know what he was doing” while playing Omaha, a nine-card version of
stud hold ’em poker. Then, he left after only playing for two hours — highly unusual for anyone who sits down in the middle of a serious poker group like this one.
The following week, the new guy was back. And after the SWAT team made its entrance, followed by the detectives from the organized crime section, the new guy was the first person taken out of the room to be interviewed, the regular said. Then, the man was not charged.
The rest of the players, including the host and the two dealers, were given numbers and interviewed individually, the player said. He said two detectives asked him about the game and then one said, “Did you know that this game is illegal?” The player said he told the police, “to me, it’s a bunch of consenting adults playing cards in somebody’s basement.”
But Virginia law defines “illegal gambling” as any wager of money made for a chance to win a prize or stake based on any contest “the outcome of which is uncertain or a matter of chance.” Virginia law does allow private “games of chance” if there is “no operator” involved, but anyone who operates a game with “gross revenue of $2,000 or more in any single day” is in violation. The player said the host of the Great Falls game only took a cut of the money to pay the dealers and player assistants.
The regular player said the police told him, “The reason we’re here is there are Asian gangs targeting these games,” and it’s certainly true that some private gambling events in Fairfax County have been robbed by nefarious elements. The player said he wanted to respond, “So you robbed us first,” but he did not.
One of the players was not charged because he was waiting for a seat. As he was walking out, the regular said that player was told by Detective David Baucom that he was not charged “because you hadn’t bought in.”
Baucom was also the detective who had been making football bets with Culosi in 2005 and early 2006, and then made the request for a SWAT team to help him serve a search warrant and arrest Culosi, though the optometrist had no criminal record and no known weapons. Culosi walked out to Baucom’s vehicle in his socks, handed Baucom his winnings, and Baucom signaled for his SWAT backup. Bullock pulled up, climbed out of his SUV and said the door banged him on his left side, causing him to involuntarily pull the trigger and shoot Culosi once in the chest. The killing cost Fairfax taxpayers $2 million to pay a settlement of the Culosi family’s wrongful death suit.
Meanwhile, then-Chief David M. Rohrer in 2007 issued a detailed report of the Culosi incident, including the decision by Baucom and his superiors to involve a SWAT team. “Our administrative investigation identified gaps in decision-making guidelines,” Rohrer wrote. “We are modifying our policies so the use of any higher- or high-risk tactics is not ‘automatic,’ but rather must be warranted and reasonable based on articulated criteria and a risk assessment in each case.”
Caldwell, the police spokeswoman, said this week that “based on our training and experience with these high stakes gambling cases, we analyze information in advance, and, very carefully. At times, the SWAT is deployed based on information we’ve gleaned. Obviously, this is a case-by-case basis; it is not ‘routine.’”
“It’s crazy,” said the regular, looking back on the night of the raid. “They had this ‘shock and awe’ with all of these guys, with their rifles up and wearing ski masks.” He noted that the Justice Department recently revamped its guidelines for civil forfeiture cases, following reports by The Post about abuses of the seizure process by police around the country, including Fairfax. But in Virginia, the seizure law remains the same, and agencies may keep what they seize, after going through a court process.