SANFORD, Fla. – Five months after 49 Allied Veterans of the World Internet cafes were raided and dozens of people were arrested on charges of illegal gambling, racketeering and fraud, the former leader of the group accepted a plea agreement offered by state prosecutors.
Johnny Duncan, the former national commander of the organization, pleaded no contest to four counts of maintaining an illegal lottery and one count of money laundering, each of which are third-degree felonies.
Duncan, 66, of Boiling Springs, S.C., will be sentenced to probation at a future date, according to defense attorney Curtis Fallgatter.
Another top official, John Hessong, reached a similar arrangement with prosecutors.
Duncan's 65-year-old wife, Linda, Moses Ramos, and Chassidy Jones Dabbs agreed to be placed in pretrial diversion programs, a probation-like arrangement that will result in charges against them being dropped if they stay out of trouble.
Fallgatter said that was the best way to go considering Duncan has his health and family to consider.
"A 66-year-old man who's trying to save his life with a liver transplant, and as you heard, state is willing to drop cases against all three family members," said Fallgatter. "He did what's best for his family, took no contest."
The group's most prominent leader, Jerry Bass (pictured, right), was also in the Seminole County Courthouse on Wednesday, but was still pondering whether to enter a plea. He was given until Aug. 23 to reach his decision.
Bass' attorney, Chuck Hobbs, said they were working on an arrangement that would not include jail time.
"I never set out to defraud or hurt anybody," Bass said Wednesday. "We found a way to raise funds in a way that the state told us was legal. And we did it to make things better for veterans, which has always been our priority. I have a hard time pleading guilty to something I am not guilty of."
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Hobbs asked the judge for another week to consider a plea deal because Bass still contends he did nothing wrong.
"One of the things they're looking at is whether to offer prison or jail time, so that's obviously an incentive in case for a man like Mr. Bass, who's 64 years old, worked hard, pillar of community," said Hobbs. "So clearly he wouldn't be looking at any time, but the problem is that he feels this case is a hit to his reputation because he's maintained that his entire goal of this operation was to provide benefits for veterans. And with that in mind, he will never be able to get back what was already taken from him when he was taken to jail."
One thing many of the suspects in Bass' position are doing is questioning whether the state's whole case against them is legitimate and some even question the politics that have surrounded these now illegal gambling rooms since this whole issue started earlier this year.
"As a person, I always found it interesting that the legislature made these Internet cafes illegal, after these men were already arrested," said Hobbs. "So you have to ask yourself when there's so many political figures that worked with these men."
Those who do not enter pleas or get diversion could face years in prison time if convicted at trial of racketeering, money laundering and other charges.
Among the key defendants not entering a plea: Kelly Mathis, the Jacksonville attorney who advised Allied Veterans their Internet video games were not illegal gambling.
Mathis' attorney, Mitch Stone, said his client committed no crime and is preparing to go to trial Sept. 16 along with several of the others.
There was no immediate word on whether the president and vice president of Jacksonville's Fraternal Order of Police -- sworn Jacksonville Sheriff's Office deputies Nelson Cuba and Robbie Freitas -- were considering accepting deals to avoid going to trial.
The Office of Statewide Prosecution claimed that Allied Veterans, a nonprofit that provided charity to veterans, was a front for illegal gambling that was carried out in 49 storefront Internet cafes in Florida.
Prosecutors said the organization took in $300 million, but gave just 2 percent of that to veterans charities.