A new hand was dealt and Christopher Banther clutched the cards.
He was sizing up his growing pile of poker chips in a tournament game of Texas Hold ’Em. He expected to watch some sports on one of three flatscreen TVs, eat some Chinese food catered to the Brainerd Road office and maybe win a TV as a prize at the end of the tournament.
“The police came in, telling everyone to ‘Freeze. This is a raid. Get your hands in the air,’” said Banther, who was one of about 23 people in a poker game at 9:30 p.m. March 21 in an office suite on Brainerd Road.
Police seized the chips, playing cards and asked for IDs before issuing misdemeanor citations to everyone. No one was arrested that night, but Banther, 36, and the others face charges of gambling and possession of a gambling device.
“We were just playing Texas Hold ’Em,” Banther said.
Chattanooga Police Sgt. Jerri Weary said the arrests resulted from intelligence the vice unit gathered and acted upon.
“Any arrest obviously reduces crime in our city and a crime reduction means safer streets and safer communities,” she wrote in an email.
A department news release issued in March shortly after the bust stated police seized $3,810 in cash, three flatscreen TVs and a camera surveillance system as part of a search warrant. Police also confiscated a large amount of gambling paraphernalia, including chips, cards and player log sheets.
There was no mention of drugs or stolen goods seized in the police report.
“The money seized was not large but the value of devices and paraphernalia was and this is a major blow in breaking up extensive operations,” Weary wrote in an email.
Most of the gambling arrests that Chattanooga police make are associated with gambling machines, Weary said, but there were no machines at this bust.
In 2010, there were a total of 21 gambling-related arrests by Chattanooga Police Department. Including the bust at 5916 Brainerd Road, there have been a total of 23 such arrests this year.
John Cavett, a Chattanooga criminal defense attorney, said gambling is a low level misdemeanor — a class C offense.
“Gambling to me is unique crime. It’s one of these crimes, like speeding, where a whole lot of people violate it,” he said. “Everybody who bet money on the NCAA basketball tournament was probably gambling. ... It might be a little harder to prosecute a gambling case because gambling on a low level is so widespread.”
Cavett, who is not representing any of the defendants in this case and rarely sees gambling cases in court, said it’s possible there was something else going on in this case that is not apparent in the arrest reports.
Sources close to the investigation said a former tenant and a current tenant in the same office building were threatened and felt intimidated working at their offices in the evenings by some of the players. They complained to police but did not want to file formal reports. Police were able to use gambling charges to make arrests, the source said.
A woman working at the office building Friday said she was unaware of the poker games until police made the arrests.
This week, the defendants reported to Hamilton County Jail to be booked, then were immediately released. They are scheduled to appear for a May 24 court date before General Sessions Court Judge Ronald Durby.
According to a couple of the participants, the game was part of a six-week tournament in which the winner would win a 50-inch Sony flatscreen TV. Players initially anted up about $40 for food, drinks and to put money in the prize pool, the players said.
The games were played with chips, not money, Banther said.
Police received information that there was heavy foot traffic going in and out of the building, Weary said.
“It’s important to break up gambling operations so as to reduce gambling offenses and related crimes and to drive out and keep out the criminal underworld associated with vice offenses,” Weary said. “Generally speaking, all of the vice offenses or ‘crimes of immorality’ run together in some way or another.”
After the arrests, the police department issued mugshots and names of all the participants, which is standard procedure for the department.
“It was kind of embarrassing that they paraded us on the news, like we were the underground kingpins of Chattanooga, like they confiscated drugs and we were arrested,” Banther said. “No one was arrested. There weres no drugs. No liquor. No stolen merchandise.”
At casinos, Banther said he has watched poker games run up to $100,000.
“It’s not like that here. It’s little-bitty home games. We’re not trying to break any laws. This is something our politicians need to address. This is something we do for fun. We like to play cards. There’s a lot of us around here,” he said.
While Banther said he knows the police are just doing their job by enforcing the law, he wishes they would concentrate on other crimes.
“I think the cops should focus on all the bad things going on in Chattanooga, like gangs,” he said. “We’re just playing some game, and they come in like Marines.”