8 of 10 stores involved in Bibb gambling raid reach deal to reopen

A woman walked into the Shell station at 1585 Forest Hill Road one night this summer with $100 in her pocket.

She sat down at a gambling machine and played for a little less than a half hour.

She put $80 into the machine and walked out with $150 in cash winnings.

The woman, an undercover GBI agent assigned to a special commercial gambling unit since July 2013, testified Monday that she went to the store on two other occasions and each time was paid winnings in cash.

While Georgia law allows patrons to receive store credit up to $5 for gambling winnings, cash payouts are illegal, she said.

Ten convenience stores were shuttered Nov. 5 as part of Bibb County’s largest-ever commercial gambling raid. Prosecutors also filed a civil complaint seeking the forfeiture of funds from 77 bank accounts, nine vehicles plus other property related to alleged violations of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Soon after the raid, a judge granted a motion from prosecutors seeking a court-appointed lawyer to manage the assets and property, including the stores, while the civil case is pending.

It was announced during a Monday hearing in Bibb County Superior Court that eight of the stores have entered into a consent agreement that will allow them to reopen under special conditions. Among the conditions: gambling machines must be removed and all activities would be supervised by a court-appointed attorney tasked with keeping the stores’ finances at the status quo pending possible future forfeiture.

The eight stores are: Reliance Food Mart, 3609 Pio Nono Ave.; LuLu’s Lottery Store, 3253 Mercer University Drive; Reliance Food Mart, 3590 Napier Ave.; Food Mart, 4381 Mercer University Drive; Quick Serve, 584 Emery Highway; Sunoco, 2440 Shurling Drive; and Quick Serve, 2260 Shurling Drive.

A ninth store, Bateman & Wade Grocery, 2283 Clayton St., won’t reopen due to continued investigation, said Michael Lambros, a special prosecutor hired to handle the case.

Although eight of the stores are cleared for reopening, Lambros said some may never reopen because they were “fronts” for gambling and not legitimate businesses.

Monday’s hearing was spurred by arguments made by the alleged owners of the Shell station at 1585 Forest Hill Road, a 10th store shuttered in the raid.

Pannaben and Raxit Patel maintain they aren’t affiliated with six people arrested in the case or any criminal activity, said their attorney, Brian Jarrard.

Jarrard argued that Pannaben Patel was improperly listed in the forfeiture complaint. Her husband, Raxit, is not listed.

Lambros called both Patels to the witness stand Monday, but Pannaben Patel didn’t testify. She isn’t a fluent English-speaker and an interpreter would have been needed.

Raxit Patel confirmed under questioning that he and Pannaben Patel are married, but he responded to all other questions with, “I invoke my right to remain silent.”

Lambros and District Attorney David Cooke said both Patels could be potential subjects of the related criminal investigation.

Krunal Patel, 38, Harpreet Kaur, 40, Shuken Patel, 29, and Navpreet Kaur, 39, have been charged with violating Georgia’s RICO Act. Vinod J. Patel, 46, and Hardeep Kaur, 67, are charged with commercial gambling.

Judge Edgar W. Ennis Jr. ruled the business will remain closed pending an agreement about reopening, but due to a lack of evidence of her collusion with those arrested, Pannaben Patel will no longer be among those subject to forfeiture.

$1.3 million in betsIn his argument to the judge, Lambros alleged customers at the Forest Hill Road Shell station placed $1.3 million in bets between January and October 2014.

In that time, $800,000 was paid out from the nine machines.

The remaining $500,000 was split 50-50 between the store and the owner of the machines, he said.

It’s disputed whether the $800,000 was paid in store credit — good for merchandise, lottery tickets or gasoline — or if it was paid in cash. If the winnings were paid in store credit, the store should have paid a 6 percent “use tax” on the items, Lambros said.

Margie Bittick, a regional supervisor with the Georgia Department of Revenue, testified the store didn’t pay a “use” tax between January and September 2014.

When goods are purchased for resale, they’re bought without a store paying a sales tax because the tax will be paid when the goods are purchased by a customer. If the goods aren’t sold, but are given away as prizes, a use tax equal to a county’s sales tax must be paid to the state, she said.

Michael Parham, the Georgia Lottery Commission’s director of operations for its Coin Operated Amusement Machine Division, testified that stores must submit monthly reports including revenue figures.

Prosecutors presented the store’s reports.

One of them, from October this year, shows customers gambled $168,775 that month and the store took in $36,995 after paying out winnings.The store’s total revenue for the month was $126,592.

By law, the amount gambled at a store can’t be more than 50 percent of its revenue, Parham said.

The undercover GBI agent testified that each time she finished gambling at the Forest Hill Road store she went to the cashier to cash out.On one occasion, the cashier paid her from underneath the counter. Two other times, the cashier paid her from the cash register, she said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.