The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Illegal Gaming Task Force served more than a dozen search warrants Thursday in five Florida counties, including Duval, targeting Internet cafes owned by Pete Miller, of Neptune Beach, and Ivan Vega, of Lake Mary.
Seven Internet cafes in Jacksonville were raided -- the most of any county in the state -- Pete's Retreat locations on Blanding Boulevard, Normandy Boulevard, 103rd Street, North Main Street, Beach Boulevard, along with Gold Mine on Lem Turner Road and Winners Sweepstakes on Mayport Road.
These are businesses that opened up after a statewide crackdown last spring of 49 Allied Veterans of the World locations across the state. A total of 57 people were arrested on racketeering, gambling and money laundering charges. The Jacksonville lawyer prosecutors called the mastermind of the scheme -- Kelly Mathis -- was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.
"I was a little shocked that these guys weren't even trying to pretend," said statewide prosecutor Nick Cox on Thursday. "Pete Miller... said in an article, 'We're doing this for profit.'"
DOCUMENT: Internet cafe search warrant locations
Dozens of other people arrested have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, some cases are still pending -- including those against Jacksonville police officers Nelson Cuba and Robert Freitas.
Later last year, the Legislature passed a law making the video gaming going on at Internet cafes illegal.
The Gold Mine on Lem Turner Road near Edgewood Avenue on the Northside is just one of the businesses where state law enforcement agents seized evidence and closed it Thursday.
Robin Rukab, who owns a business on Timuquana Road that is now closed, said Thursday, "We're operating within the law." She said Miller and others would want to respond to the FDLE sometime soon.
"I've often said that the way the state has identified what they consider is illegal, I don't know that any type of sweepstakes can be run in the state of Florida without it being considered illegal," criminal defense attorney Mitch Stone said. "From law enforcement's perspective, to determine if it's illegal gambling, there would have to be an analysis of the software to determine what the software is doing."
However, investigators said the warrants represent a continuing crackdown on the operators of illegal gambling centers around Florida known as Internet cafes. Along with Thursday's operation, Vega was also arrested on a warrant from an earlier investigation conducted by State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee.
Vega was charged with keeping a gambling house, manufacture, sale, possession of coin operated devices, lottery, and plays at games of chance.
"These warrants are a key step in investigating organizations claiming to be 'Internet cafes' but actually conducting illegal gaming," Attorney General Pam Bondi said. "My Office of Statewide Prosecution will continue to collaborate with law enforcement on these cases."
Search warrants were executed in Duval, Columbia, Marion, Brevard and Lake counties. During the execution of warrants, Gaming Task Force investigators seized computers, cash related to the illegal activity, banking records and employee rosters, according to FDLE.
"These warrants will likely lead to the arrests of key figures within these organizations for racketeering and money laundering," said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey. "This is a warning to other so-called Internet cafe operators. If you operate outside the law, you are a target."
Members of the Illegal Gaming Task Force include FDLE Agents, Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson and the Office of Statewide Prosecution.
"This Task Force is sending a message to Internet cafe operators who operate outside of the law. We are going to continue to enforce the laws of the state and you will be held accountable," said Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger.
"This is a statewide issue that demands a strong, unified law enforcement response. And that's exactly what this task force is delivering," said Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson. "Businesses in Florida have been given ample warnings that Internet cafes are illegal. The take-away from today's actions is that we're simply not going to put up with businesses that continue to defy the laws of this state."
In addition to warrants served by the Illegal Gaming Task Force, local law enforcement agencies served additional warrants in their jurisdictions Thursday, including Lake and Brevard County sheriff's offices and Rockledge, Palm Bay and West Melbourne police departments, and in Monroe County by State Attorney Catherine Vogel.
State Attorneys Brad King, Phil Archer and Meggs are assisting in the investigations along with the Columbia and Marion County sheriff's offices. The Brevard County Sheriff's Office arrested five Internet cafe site managers as part of the operation.